The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity, Edited by Edward A. Engelbrecht and Laura L. Lane. St. Louis: Concordia, 2011. 1,048 pages.
Rev. Edward Engelbrecht serves as General Editor of this book and Senior Editor for Bible Resources at Concordia Publishing House. Laura Lane serves as associate editor. The following wrote the seven sections of the book: Part I – Prof. Walter Oetting, former Professor of Church History at Concordia Seminary (St. Louis, MO); Part II – Dr. Marianka Fousek, independent historian and former professor at Miami (Ohio) University; Part III – Dr. Carl Volz, former Professor of Church History at Luther Seminary (St. Paul, MN) and editor of Dialog: A Journal of Theology; Part IV – Dr. Karl Dannenfeldt, former Professor of History at Arizona State University and American editor of Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte; Part V – Dr. Robert Clouse, professor emeritus of history at Indiana State University; Part VI – Dr. Roy Suelflow, former professor of church history at Concordia Seminary and associate editor of the Concordia Historical Institute Quarterly; Part VII – Dr. K. Detlev Schulz, associate professor and chairman of pastoral ministry and mission at Concordia Theological Seminary (Ft. Wayne, IN), PhD supervisor in the missiology program, and dean of the graduate school.
When a seminarian begins building his pastoral library, he quickly realizes the need to have each of the four historical disciplines well-represented before he enters the ministry. He purchases dependable lexicons and commentaries for his study of Scripture, useful resources for evangelism and counseling and other practical areas of ministry, and a solid dogmatics set.
One discipline, however, often remains neglected in the library-building process. What kind of church history texts will he include? Of course, he’ll purchase the Book of Concord and perhaps some volumes of Luther’s Works, but what about the rest of church history? After all, the history of the Christian church did not start with the Lutheran Reformation or the history of WELS.
So what general history of the Christian church should he buy? The last church history published in our circles was a 1917 Kirchengeschichte by Prof. J.P. Koehler, which long ago went out-of-print and remains only accessible to those who read German. Unfortunately most other general church history texts have some fatal flaw in either their presuppositions regarding Christ and his Word (e.g. historical-criticism) or in their presuppositions regarding God’s activity in human history. If historians do not see history as “His story”, they really can’t tell “His story.”
From 1964 to 1980, Concordia Publishing House attempted to meet this need with their “Church in History” series, six books written by six Protestant historians. Unfortunately, the individual books were deemed too short and too general for use as textbooks. In 2011, Concordia brought together the individual books into a single, revised and supplemented text entitled The Church from Age to Age: A History from Galilee to Global Christianity. So does The Church from Age to Age meet the need for a solid, general history of the Christian church? If it does, is it worthy of a place on a pastor’s shelf?
The writers make it clear right away that this church history has a generally high-view of Christ and Holy Scripture. This reviewer found it refreshing to read about “God’s unique intervention into history for the salvation of man” and then have events of the New Testament described as historical fact (4-5ff.).
Following a brief explanation of Christ and the apostolic years of the Christian church, the text continues telling the “story” of Christian church history using an easy-to-follow blend of topics and chronology. The book itself is divided into seven eras of the Christian church with each section written by a different historian. At times, that becomes obvious.
Part I – “The Early Church from the Apostles to AD 250” and Part II – “The Church in a Changing World: Events and Trends from 250 to 600” were both very well done. These initial sections explained terms and groups in a very readable manner for clergy, laypeople, and students alike. I appreciated the ample use of primary sources and the constant reminder that there really is “nothing new under the sun”.
The first time that the reader notices that different historians wrote different sections is in Part III entitled “The Church of the Middle Ages: Growth and Change from 600 to 1400”. You get the impression that this was one of the older works that was simply adapted. There is much less recent scholarship than Parts I and II (cf. footnotes), and the style does not flow as well.
Part IV – “The Church of the Renaissance and Reformation: Decline and Reform from 1300 to 1600” seems to be nearly as dated as the previous, yet it comes across as more timeless. Surprisingly, for a historical description of the Reformation, there are very few references to the American Edition of Luther’s Works. The reader will also be hard-pressed to find any of the modern Luther scholarship that began to blossom around the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth in 1983. For example, Martin Brecht’s three-volume, comprehensive Luther biography, written between 1985 and 1993, never even gets a footnote, although it is listed in the bibliography.
Part V – “The Church in the Age of Orthodoxy and the Enlightenment: Consolidation and Challenge from 1600 to 1800” has much that was good, but the historian’s non-Lutheran leanings tend to show in his positive views of Pietism (579-582), Methodism (584ff.), and early efforts towards ecumenism (591). Surprisingly in the discussion of Lutheran orthodoxy, there is no mention of Martin Chemnitz.
Part VI – “Christian Churches in Modern Times: Changes from 1800 to the First World War” is generally solid in its historical efforts. However this reviewer was disappointed by what seemed to be a heavy emphasis on the development of historical-criticism (Chapter 42), while only finding a paragraph on the development of Lutheranism in America (75). The latter history ends with Henry Melchior Muhlenberg in the 1740s, while never actually getting to Walther or the expansion of Lutheranism in America in the 19th century.
The final section on “The Spread of Global Christianity: Mission and Message from the World War Era to the Present” is written by an author who specializes in missiology. With that said, this section seemed more missiology than history, even as the author told the history of global Christianity from the 1940s to the present. Likely due to the fact that this section is closest to the present day, the author made some unusual choices for events mentioned (e.g. the Haggard sex scandal on pg. 839 or the Florida pastor threatening to burn the Qu’ran on pg. 866). He also inserts comments that seem out of context (e.g. 850, 863, 865) or questionable in their interpretation (e.g. 817, 857, etc.).
It should be noted that the appendices and bibliography will be particularly helpful for anyone interested in further study in any area of church history. Although the maps throughout the text seem dated, the various charts and lists are also quite helpful.
So does this book meet the need for a conservative, general history of the Christian church? Yes and no. From the very beginning, The Church from Age to Age takes a generally conservative view of Scripture and church history, a viewpoint that is quite rare among modern historical theology texts. At times, however, the book comes across like a movie with an ensemble cast of A-list stars, but no one performance stands out. That was the impression I got in reading The Church from Age to Age. At times, the historical work does shine (e.g. Parts I & II, etc.), but often some of the dated material or questionable emphases come across as mediocre. In the end, this history starts off with promise to set itself apart from other general church histories out there, but only shows that promise occasionally throughout the book.
Is this general history text worthy of a place on your shelf? In spite of its inconsistencies, The Church from Age to Age is arguably the best option out there right now if you want to have a general church history text. You really can’t argue with its conservative stand on the New Testament as historical fact, nor its generally conservative view of Christian church history. The $32.99 price is also quite reasonable for a text like this. While the reader should be aware of its inconsistencies, this book is worth a look.