Thursday, May 15, 2014

Book review of Everett Ferguson's Church History, Volume One.

Church History, Volume One: From Christ to Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context, by Everett Ferguson, published by Zondervan, 2005.

This book is written by the very learned Everett Ferguson who has done plenty of work in Early Church History and for whom I have a lot of respect. It is offered as a textbook for college level or seminary students undertaking courses in Church History, and is complemented by a second volume that covers Reformation History to the Present. Although this book covers the period up until the start of the fourteenth century, I used the book to teach a course covering only the first thousand years, so I am primarily focused on that portion of the text. Also I used a kindle version of the text, and cannot comment on the physical book.

The organisation of topics, chapters, and material is relatively straightforward, and thankfully well-labelled so the text is relatively easy to navigate. Ferguson treats the united church up until around the 5th century before beginning to deal with the Eastern (Orthodox) church in separate chapters from the Western (Roman) church. He also takes time to stop and integrate non-church history essential to understanding developments, such as political transitions.

Overall I found the text to be well-written, informative, and a solid textbook. However I did feel it had several shortcomings. It makes a brief nod to Christianity outside the Roman/Mediterranean context, at several points, but this is always brief and lacking in substance. To teach effectively, and quite briefly myself, about the Church of the East, or the Oriental Orthodox communion, I had to leave this book aside and go further afield. Several sections felt overly brief, or under-contextualised, which when comparing the size of this book to the second volume of the series is a disappointment. Particularly once one enters the early middle ages more and more historical and political context is required for the reader to understand what is going on. While Ferguson does provide some insights into these developments, the choice to highlight certain figures, for example in the Byzantine chapters, is hampered by this lack of context for those figures.

I was also underwhelmed by the referencing. For a textbook and secondary source, I was often left wondering where some information came from. Despite both a bibliography, and “For Further Study” sections at the end of each chapter, many things felt unsupported, or unable to be followed up. The general bibliography appears far too brief for a book of this magnitude. The section on the 4th century was, for me, too brief, but this may simply be my own bias in this field. I was disappointed at the continued use of Arianism as a term, both in this chapter and in treatment of the Germanic migrations.

Despite this drawbacks, the task of condensing 1300 years of ecclesiastical history is no small one, and overall Ferguson has managed marvellously to cover a broad terrain, summarise and express complicated political and theological matters briefly, and produce a textbook that will serve students ably. Depending on the scope and time of the course taught, I would certainly include it on a reading list, and utilise it as a main text in some instances.

The book would certainly be useful for interested lay persons and church members looking to get a better handle on church history as well. Though that is not its primary audience, it would suit those who are readers or have some historical interest. I would not recommend it as a first text for someone who was not generally much of a reader or was entirely unfamiliar with reading history.

All in all, a fine effort, though I think it has room for improvement in a number of areas.

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