A Summary of Christian History does indeed sum up Christian history. We should not, however, be misled by the name of the book. Though it is a summary, it is not short. Historians cannot even summarize two thousand years in a few pages. Thankfully, Baker and Landers managed to fit their summary into less than five hundred pages. They also succeeded in making a highly enjoyable book.
The first centuries of Christianity with their heresies, divisions, fights, successes, and failures receive good coverage in the first six chapters. They give attention not only to the growth of the church but also to the battles that the church faced. The church experienced much persecution in those early years and also struggled for moral and doctrinal purity. The authors take pains to remind us of these things.
Later, the book turns toward the time in which Christianity began to be accepted and embraced by many. It is during this time that Constantine came to power and nominally embraced Christianity.
Constantine did not divorce himself from the religious support of the pagan devotees; he retained the title of chief priest in their system and became one of their deities after his death in 337…. Thinking that baptism washed away sins, he delayed receiving this rite until he was at the point of death. (p. 25)
While it may have appeared to have been a blessing, the authors show us that Constantine’s move actually led to many problems later. It is in this period that the foundations for Roman Catholicism were laid by church leaders with an affinity for political power and by political leaders meddling in church business. Chapter three deals with this especially as it presents the struggles for purity in the church. Here the authors show us the struggles against legalism and Gnosticism as well as the struggle to retain a pure Christology. We also read of the impact of Donatism, Novatianism, and Montanism on the church during this period. It is also during this period that the Roman bishop apparently began to bring to himself so much power.
The authors then delve into the growth and spread of Roman Catholicism, the Middle Ages, and all of the “glory” of the Roman Catholic system. The authors are clearly not favorable toward Roman Catholicism and show that they understand the dangers inherent in the system as well as the changes that led to Roman Catholicism being what it is today. They seem to have taken their history seriously while also truly applying Biblical theology to their findings.
The fullness of time had come. Reform was in the minds of many and on the lips of a few. A pioneer was required to inaugurate a successful revolt against the Roman Catholic system. Luther was that pioneer. Zwingli and Calvin were not far behind. (p. 207)
After this, much of the book is devoted to the Reformation and its relationship to the political, ecclesiastical, and theological situation at the time. The Reformation being such an important part of church history, the authors give us as much information as a summary can possibly provide, touching on Reformation doctrines, practices, struggles, political impact, and more. The book includes attention to the Dutch Reformation, the English Reformation, Calvin and Geneva, as well as Luther.
It is especially gratifying to see the attention that was given to post-Reformation history, even up to the present era. The book addresses Christianity on the European continent and Great Britain as well as the U.S. and Canada. Following that, the book offers good coverage of the worldwide missionary movement and global Christianity.
It is obvious throughout the book that the authors are writing from a Protestant background. The title of chapters six and seven, “Roman Catholic Foundations” and “Roman Catholic Expansion” demonstrate their view that the Roman Catholic Church does not begin with Jesus and the apostles, but grew into what it is today as a result of changes through time. (The divisions of chapter four are very helpful in that they reveal the changes of that time in the nature of faith, the church, ecclesiastical authority, worship, etc.)
The authors are also sensitive about, and sympathetic toward, the Anabaptists and Magisterial Reformers as they wrestled with Roman Catholicism and sought to break free from it. It is at this point that the book shines most brightly. Many times students read church history as though there was no church other than the Roman Catholic church until the Reformation. Others (specifically Landmark Baptists) seek to find Baptist churches in every age. Both viewpoints are inaccurate, it seems. Baker and Landers recognize that and aim for something that is more true to history: something in between. Obviously, a certain amount of this derives from the interpretation of the historical facts, but this middle ground approach seems to be correct.
This book does a good job of summing up Christian history. It is easy to read, informative, and very helpful. Though some might not appreciate the fact that the authors favor the Reformers and even some of the radicals, they deal fairly with them all. History will never be free from our interpretation of events, but there is much to commend in an interpretation that is not so Baptistic that it refuses to recognize others as having true churches. It is also a plus that the authors recognize both the truth and the errors of the Reformers. Balance is essential, and Baker and Landers have done a good job of attaining a balanced presentation of church history. I can certainly recommend this book.
Jason Skipper is 38 years old and trusted Jesus at age 13. He lives with his wife and two adopted children near Amite, LA, where he serves as pastor of Wilmer Missionary Baptist Church.