If you are interested in learning about the history of Christianity from the time of Christ to the 1970s, Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity (640, double-columned pages) is a book I’d recommend to you. It’s a comprehensive, colorful, reliable account of the exciting story of the growth of the church of Jesus Christ. It includes over 450 photographs (many in full color), maps, diagrams, and charts. For me, these extras made reading the book more interesting and enjoyable than if it had just been text.
Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity was written by an international team of 70 contributors from 10 countries. All are professional historians and committed Christians. It is similar in design and format to Eerdmans’ Handbook of the Bible, a popular study guide that also came out in the ’70s.
The eight major sections introduce the history of Christianity, period-by-period, from its earliest days to the late twentieth century. Specially commissioned main chapters by expert historians form the framework in which many shorter sections appear – on people, movements, and subjects of particular interest. The first chapter entitled “Introduction: The Christian Centuries,” was a well-written twelve-page summary of the history of Christianity. I found this chapter to be a great way to begin my detailed journey through history.
Because I love to read stories of real people, I especially enjoyed the several dozen vignettes about great men and women that God raised up to accomplish His purposes through the centuries. The history of the Christian Church can be partially written through these exceptional people. Though I don’t subscribe to the “great man theory” of history, there is some truth to it. (The Great Man theory was a nineteenth-century idea which proposed that history can be largely explained by the impact of “great men,” or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or political skill utilized their power in a way that had a decisive historical impact.)
Impact on me
For me, personally, reading Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity was a wonderful review of what I had studied in seminary. However, in reading it, I discovered that because I now have more life experiences and have done wider reading than 40-plus years ago, this recent study made more sense to me than it did then. It helped to explain lots of things I’ve read about or experienced personally since my seminary days – ideas, movements, and denominations.
When we’re young, we read (no, we scan!) our textbooks, listen to our professors’ lectures, and write the required papers largely to pass our courses so we can get our degree and move out into the work/ministry world. However, when we’re older, we study because we really want to understand. We want to know why things are as they are in the world and in the Church.
Also, we want to understand why WE PERSONALLY believe and act as we do. This study helped me to see how my doctrinal convictions and my ministry philosophy have been influenced by a number of historical movements: New Testament Christianity, the Reformation, pietism, puritanism, American evangelicalism, the modern missionary movement, etc.
Undertaking this study was helpful at this point in my life because I’ve been so busy in direct ministry since seminary that I have not been able to look at the big picture. As the cliché goes, “I couldn’t see the forest for the trees.”
I challenge you to find the time to read this book or a shorter church history book if you haven’t done so. As nineteenth-century church historian Philip Schaff writes, “How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church if we have no thorough knowledge of her history? History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the riches foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.”