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Getting started in church history

November 2005 | by Phil Arthur

I cannot think of a single Christian who would not benefit from acquiring a working knowledge of church history. This is, first and foremost, because God has been at work in this world ever since the events recorded in the final chapter of Acts 28. Our time is always well spent if we make a serious attempt to acquaint ourselves with some of the great things God has done.

Secondly, we are not the first generation of Christians and we have much to learn, both positively and negatively, from the example of fellow believers. There are stirring examples of men and women who served God in their generation with courage and persistence — stories that will warm the heart and quicken the pulse of any serious Christian.

It also has to be said that there are glaring examples of the damage that can be done when good men embrace error or fall into sin.

Thirdly, the modern Christian scene is complex and it can be enormously helpful to have some understanding of the reasons why Evangelicalism has developed as it has.

Twin-track approach

But where should we begin? For a start, the task can seem daunting. There is so much history to study. Academic historians usually specialise. It is not unusual to hear them excuse their ignorance about a particular area of history by saying, ‘It’s not my period!’

Trying to get a grasp of all God has done in twenty centuries? Feel overwhelmed? If you answer ‘yes’ let me recommend a twin-track approach. The first track is to obtain a good general history and the second is to get hold of some stimulating biographies.

The value of a general history is that it gives a broad-brush treatment and will introduce the reader to the big issues — combining the benefits of being comprehensive on one hand and compact on the other.

Two examples of this type are worth noting. The first is

Sketches from Church Historyby S. M. Houghton (Banner of Truth). It is an excellent appetiser, giving a brief introduction to many thrilling episodes of God’s working down the years but leaving the reader wanting more.

The second is a series of three volumes called

Two thousand years of Christ’s powerby Nick Needham (Grace Publications). Dr Needham originally intended to produce four volumes in all, but the series has grown and at least five volumes may be necessary.

For the non-specialist

Being much longer, this series is more thorough than Houghton’s single book, but it has been written with the non-specialist in mind and its author has performed a marvel of condensation in a readable and entertaining style.

Volume One covers the age of the Early Church Fathers and introduces the reader to the characters and controversies of that era. Volume Two examines the Middle Ages and does much to correct the view (absorbed by many Evangelicals) that this was essentially a sterile period in the story of the church.

Volume Three is a helpful survey of the Reformation. I studied this period while a student at Cambridge and I am often saddened to find that modern Evangelicals have only a dim grasp of the issues at stake during the great spiritual conflicts of the sixteenth century.

I am thrilled that this volume is now available to give Christians a working knowledge of an era that did so much to shape the modern world.

Good biographies

Good biographies have their own fascination. We often find it easier to identify with an individual than with a movement. The struggles and triumphs of a single -fellow-Christian can speak to the heart in a special way.

The available material is extensive and growing. Evangelical Press, for instance, has published highly readable biographies by authors such as Brian Edwards, Jim Cromarty, Faith Cook and Tim Shenton.

I would like to pick out three works in particular. The first is

God’s Outlawby Brian Edwards (Evangelical Press) — an outstanding example of what might be termed ‘entry level’ biography. It introduces the reader to William Tyndale, a Gloucestershire man who died as a martyr in 1536. He was exiled from his native land because he was consumed with longing to provide his fellow countrymen with an accurate translation of the Word of God.

Edwards has caught the atmosphere of early Tudor England superbly in a single modestly priced volume. The reader will be amazed at what God achieved through the life of a lonely scholar — and be left in no doubt as to why the Reformation was necessary.

Edwards makes the sixteenth century come alive in this book and goes a long way to helping us understand why that century is so relevant to modern Evangelicals.

Whitefield and Lloyd-Jones

My second choice is a more substantial piece of work — two hefty volumes by Arnold Dallimore on the life of George Whitefield, the eighteenth century Evangelist (Banner of Truth). Some might be put off these books by their sheer size, but I promise you, I found them real page-turners.

I thrilled to learn the way that God was at work during the Evangelical Awakening in Britain and North America during the middle decades of the eighteenth century. A big book is read page by page, chapter by chapter just like a small one! And it is no chore to tackle a substantial volume when every page unearths new triumphs of the gospel or new lessons for the church today.

In the same way, I would also heartily recommend Iain Murray’s two volume biography of Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (Banner of Truth). Iain Murray has written several other historical studies, including a delightful life of Jonathan Edwards, but I specially appreciate his life of Lloyd-Jones.

It is more than just a fascinating life of one of the most remarkable figures in twentieth century Britain; it is also a most helpful survey of the whole evangelical scene as it developed in Britain before and after the Second World War. This book helped me understand the evangelical world that I knew when I first became a Christian.

New venture

Before I close, I ought to mention one new venture that promises to help British Christians appreciate their heritage — and will also be a real help to any believer who feels that even a modest-sized book is too much to take on.

This is the new series of

Travel Guidesproduced by Day One. These small volumes are reminiscent of the Dorling Kindersley Town Guides and also the famous Wainwright guides to the Lakeland Fells. Published in a soft-back format, they fit happily in a glove compartment, pocket or handbag.

They combine a brief but stimulating biography with a guide to places where there is still some association with the person concerned. With their help you can discover where John Knox is buried, where Spurgeon was baptised and where Thomas Cranmer was burned at the stake.

New

Travel Guidesare being added to this series each year. Like any series, this one is a little patchy, and while all are worth having, the volumes on Spurgeon, Lloyd-Jones and the martyrs who died during the reign of Mary Tudor are particular highlights.

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Historical