Church history for newbies: a book that smooths the path


Good to find a book that can smooth the newbie’s path into the thickets and adventures of church history. This review was first posted a few months ago at www.christianhistory.net:

Can Seminary Students and History Get Along Together?
This book might help reconcile them.
Reviewed by Chris R. Armstrong

Gordon L. Heath, Doing Church History: A User-friendly Introduction to Researching the History of Christianity (Toronto, Ontario: Clements Publishing, 2008)

There are many reasons why professors read books in their field. Among these: to find textbooks for use with their students; to gain arguments, evidence, or illustrations for their lectures; even to enjoy a good book! I picked up Gordon L. Heath’s Doing Church History with all three of these goals in mind.

Heath, assistant professor of Christian history at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, aims this slim (103-page) paperback at seminary students. His brief chapters deal with the commonsense questions that come naturally to seminary students who have often never darkened the door of an undergraduate history course. “Why Bother?” “What about God as a Cause?” “What about Objectivity?”

Along the way, Heath provides a primer of the historical field’s ins, outs, and necessary disciplines.

Do I have to learn history?
There is only one boring course at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry: History of Magic. Do you see the cultural bias we seminary professors of history have to put up with? (Don’t weep for us. Just send money.) Discerning this cultural resistance, Heath launches his introduction with the required apologia: No, church history is not as bad as death and taxes, though it is just as inevitable—at least, in most seminary curricula. No, it is not boring and (merely) technical. No, it is not remote from your ministry concerns. Yes, it brings depth and insight into your ministry in ways not available from any other source.

So far, Heath’s got me in his cheering section. Then he adduces what is surely the best argument for doing history in a seminary setting: the historical nature of Christianity itself. And he caps his argument with a list of practical reasons that parallels closely my own “Top Ten Reasons to Read Christian History.” Beyond my top ten are points about how history “clarifies the nature of discipleship and leadership,” “helps in leadership issues,” reminds us of the “reality of life and death,” and provides a mine of “rich devotional and liturgical material.”

Pastors, practice, and papers
In no other book on the discipline of church history have I seen such a helpful practical focus aimed at ministerial students and ministers. For example, having established that the discipline is all about uncovering motives and interpreting causes, Heath reminds his readers that “the question of cause will be one that you face in Christian leadership and ministry. Why is the church not growing (or why is it growing)? Why did the pastor get fired? Why did the church split? Who is to blame for the marriage breakdown? Why did the child run away?” The person practiced in historical interpretation will have a leg up in dealing with such questions.

The book’s practical slant shines in the excellent section “Types of Assignments.” Here Heath does the writer’s handbook thing, taking students through the vicissitudes of book reviews, biographical papers, and research papers in a few well-chosen words. For example, he gives this wise advice on thesis-driven research papers:

As much as possible primary sources must be used in the argument, and secondary sources must be included to supply an interpretive or methodological framework as well as necessary background information. In all cases the argument (or thesis) is clearly stated and argued; the rest of the paper makes a case for the thesis by providing evidence and analysis. It also takes to task those scholars who have argued differently.

If my students would take even this single brief passage from Heath’s book to heart, they could save themselves much wasted effort and heartache.

Providence and objectivity
Heath handles two of Christian history’s “elephant-in-the-room” issues deftly, though I don’t always agree with his nuances. These are the questions of providence and objectivity. Can historians show us the finger of God in the past? And can historians come close to showing us “what really happened?”

On the first question, Heath addresses the seminary student eager to make claims about God’s activity in history—and I have met quite a few of these. He reminds this student that at various points in the church’s development, Christian historians have told us with great certainty that Constantine’s conversion was the work of God, that the crusaders’ victories were ordained by God, and that the destruction of the Spanish Armada was a direct divine intervention. He works helpfully through the issues and emerges with appropriately chastened conclusions: “History has a purpose, but the reason(s) and ultimate outcome(s) for historical events remain a mystery.” “Even if we could step outside of our culture long enough to be able to see things more clearly, there is no reason to think that we could know why God did what he did, or know what he is doing in the world.”

As for the question of whether historians can really get us close to the truth about the past, Heath offers what seems to be the universal conservative Christian interpretation (and one with which I basically agree): he deals in turn with the naïve optimism of some 19th-century historians and the radical skepticism of the postmoderns, then concludes that we can have a degree of confidence in the work of historians.

The upshot
Did Heath’s book fulfill my three goals?

Awkward and repetitive language at points, poor copy editing, and the annoying archaic tic of saying “an historian” (no one I’ve ever met talks like this) did blunt my enjoyment, but Heath said so many good things about how to learn and use history in a church setting—my particular passion—that I couldn’t help but like the book.

There is certainly good “borrowable” material in this book for the seminary professor. Apart from several of Heath’s “reasons to read history,” I’ll also steal his use of the Holocaust (more skillful than is often the case) in the section on objectivity.

As for finding a textbook, I feel a book for students about history-writing should itself be well-written, and this one falls short of the mark. But I know of no other brief guide that steers seminary students through the thickets of reading and writing history. For me, the pros outweigh the cons. I will be assigning this book in my survey courses.

Chris R. Armstrong is associate professor of church history at Bethel Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today International/Christian History & Biography magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Christian History & Biography.

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