In the Preface of his new book, A History of Christianity: An Introductory Survey, Joe Early discusses the challenges to writing Christian history. In the excerpt below he addresses the challenge of making God’s activities known within the “pure” history of the church:
Writing a history of Christianity proved to be more difficult than I had expected. While the research, writing, and proofing were certainly challenging from a believer’s perspective, other issues beyond academics were equally difficult. Throughout Christian history there have been incidents and even entire eras where church leaders appeared to place personal objectives over what God has depicted in Scripture.
To achieve his goals, man often construed Christianity to fit his own purpose. These are the eras when man has attempted to make God in his own image. During these times Christian leaders attempted to make the church organization more powerful than the gospel. As a historian I am often asked where God was during these times. After twenty years of rumination, I believe the answer is that God was present all the time calling man and the church back to the Bible.
The other part of my challenge is to make sure God’s activities in the lives of men are visible. This is difficult because if one studies the pure history of the church it is possible to become cynical. After all, it’s hard to see the hand of God in the Inquisition. The problem for most observers is the way we look at any history. We look at facts and dates and fail to take the long view.
As we view the history of the church over 2,000 years, we can see bad things happen when man ignores or minimizes the Scriptures and instead relies on power, tradition, and the government. Many church leaders acted purely in their own selfish interests, but others believed they were doing what was necessary and best for the church. For them the ends justified the means. If the means are not biblically based, however, the ends can never be justified. Invariably, the brightest times in the history of the church are those when man allowed himself to be led by the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit.
When one takes the long view of history, it is easier to see that, regardless of what was going on in the organized church, there have always been those who seek to find God’s will for the church. As a Christian and a historian, I hope the readers of this book will be able to see the bright light of the gospel shining throughout the lives of heroic Christians no matter how dark the times may be. After all, in the end we are promised that the light of the gospel will obliterate the darkness. One of man’s problems with interpreting history is his understanding of time. We want God to work on our timetable. It is clear, however, that in the history of the church God has his own concept of time that is not dependent on man.
Often man’s view of church history may appear to be just a progression of evolutionary activities. When one looks closely, the light of God’s ultimate will for man has always been espoused by men of faith and conviction in every era. Sometimes they are hard to find, but they are always present, seeking and serving God. So when you are reading this text and things appear to be grim, remember, in a few pages or chapters God will bring someone along who will bring the church back in line.
Download a sample chapter here.
About the Author
Joe Early, Jr. is Associate Professor of Religion in the School of Theology at Campbellsville University. He holds a degree from Cumberland College (B.S.), Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (M. Div.), and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary (Ph.D.).