Established institutions and ideologies often
have evolved out of controversy and conflict…
nothing can solidify a point of view more
effectively than a confrontation with its
opponents. That this is the case with Western
Christian theology is the assumption and
organizing principle of this book.
For reasons of space, and as a kind of primer
and textbook for Christian theology (to get a
much fuller picture consult Jaroslav Pelikan’s
five volume ‘The Christian Tradition’) I have
had to exclude large slices, like much of Post-
Reformation era Eastern Orthodoxy and the
growth of the church in Africa during the
History is a dynamic system of meanings, an
analysis of significant events, persons, ideas,
or social realities of the past that is intended
to provide orientation to our present and
guide our conduct into the future.
History is important for self-understanding…
and as an intellectual adventure. Christian
history has its own distinctive functions. It can
force the tradition-bound Christian to greater
awareness of the complexity of doctrinal
issues… and the evolution of church structures
Knowledge of Christian history also has value
for secularized persons of the twenty-first
century who are not aware of the debt of
Western society to Christian and Jewish values.
Readers today are often amazed to learn of
the varieties of beliefs among early Christians,
the conflicts that gave rise to the early
Christian creeds, the developments of church
hierarchies, etc. Historical knowledge is
essential for meaningful discussion among
Christians of various persuasions (for much
inter-faith discussion) and between Christians
The assumption of this book is that there has
been a development of doctrine and of church
structures throughout history and the main
stimulus for change was conflict…
Christianity took on a distinctive shape in
each major locality to which it spread, and
the resulting differences often erupted in
conflict. (We will investigate how the church,
early on, had to develop criteria by which to
distinguish tolerable teachings from heresy.)
We can expect to find a lively conflict between
opposing groups or individuals. And the history
of Christian theology – like that of all historical
writing – is to a large degree the story of who
- from the Preface and the Introduction
Church history has always fascinated me.
I remember teaching an adult Sunday School
class when little older than a teen. I was
already interested in the connections between
the story of Jesus in the Gospels and the
development of the church as it was recorded
in the book of Acts. And that was just the
I am always on the lookout for good studies
in church history. Almost ten years ago,
Marshall D. Johnson published “The Evolution
of Christianity – Twelve Crises that Shaped
the Church.” Over the last decade or so, I
have referred to this book when encountering
questions about why Christian beliefs came
to be what they are, and how they continue
One of the problems of our time is that
we do not have a strong sense of the
historical development of Christian faith.
We tend to miss the fact that much of
what seems new has antecedents in
the long and varied life of the church.
We need to continue trying to recover
this sense of historical experience
because it helps to explain our present
as well as to anticipate our future.
I grew up in a Christian faith that had
a strong sense of tradition. I moved into
a Christian faith that seems rather caught
up in the present. In that regard, I find
both of these tendencies to be inadequate.
Jaroslav Pelikan would criticize many
modern Christians for their bondage to
either the past or the present, and I
agree with him.
What does the author consider to be
the crises that shaped Christianity?
He creates interesting chapters on
such themes as “From Jesus to the
Apostolic Fathers,” “Orthodoxy and
Heresy,” “Persecution and State
Religion,” “The Crusades,” “The
Reformation” “Pietism and Rationalism,”
“Copernicus, Darwin and Freud,”
In these and other chapters we are
helped to see that the faith has been
in a constant process of evolution.
This is due mainly to the fact that it
is a living, breathing thing. In spite
of the fact we believe that divine
Revelation is essential, human
involvement is always a big part
of it as well.
The author concludes that, after
1,700 years, Christendom has
ended in the West. The resulting
challenge of secularism is both
anxiety-producing and liberating.
Canadian theologian Douglas John
Hall picks up on this. His more
recent books have been guides
for navigating the difficult waters
of this brave but frightening new
Still, there is reason for hope.
Christianity has survived many major
challenges over two millenniums and
there is every reason to think that
it will continue to do so.
Theological conflict, while unfortunate
and destructive, has also had its
salutary effects in the development of
both teaching and practice. We need
to distinguish “the timeless core” of
faith from “normative” (generally held)
Christianity. Always we need to hold
up our current theological pursuits
to the light of what Jesus himself
taught and lived.
And finally – something to remember -
academic theology, while a fascinating
diversion, is a luxury that most living,
practical Christians tend to live without.
Purchase used from Amazon.ca:
Critique of the book by John W. O’Malley
America Magazine April 25th, 2005
Dr. Wayne Holst teaches religion and culture at the University of Calgary and helps to co-ordinates Adult Spiritual Development at St. David’s United Church in that city.
Colleagues List, Vol. IX, No. 27, March 2, 2014