I get this question frequently but the question usually rests on a premise I don’t share and so I don’t give the answer that most of my correspondents are expecting.
The question usually assumes that there are a few good surveys of church history and that I’ll know which one to recommend. The difficulty is that I don’t read or use surveys of church history (or haven’t for a very long time). I don’t read them for a few reasons:
1) Scholars only know what they know. For better or worse the way the academy works is that scholars begin their careers by focusing on a very limited question. So their real expertise is limited to a fairly small circle. Their knowledge of the institutional history and history of theology (to the degree one combines these two) is generally less the farther away from that core circle one moves. Why are things this way? Two reasons: 1) The modern explosion of knowledge and publication and 2) the specialized nature of the modern academy. Over time a scholar can accumulate a grasp of the broader picture and many of us teach survey courses, which usually become the basis for the survey texts that get published.
Most historians of the Christian church and tradition either focus on institutional (or social) history or on the history of ideas (historical theology). Very few are able to write in both fields with the same dexterity. So, when someone asks for a “church history” I wonder, “do they want a social/institutional history or a history of theology?”
For our Intro to HT we use Bengt Hagglund’s History of Theology. It’s older but it’s compact and generally fair. I also like Paul Tillich’s History of Christian Thought. Both are a little dated but I’ve not seen a more modern survey of historical theology that I could recommend in their place. I do like Justo Gonzalez two-volume The Story of Christianity also. I don’t recommend Roger Olson’s The Story of Christian Theology. All such surveys, however, should be read with the understanding that no one is an expert in every era of the history of theology. Surveys should be supplemented with specialized studies in particular periods and questions. The biggest weakness of such surveys is that they necessarily reduce the theologians surveyed to de-contextualized talking heads. Thus, Irenaeus pops up and talks for a bit and then Augustine pops up, and then Anselm pops up, like Kukla, Fran, and Ollie program.
Surveys of church history from a social or institutional perspective seem to me to be much more problematic. Just as the intellectual historian is tempted or forced to strip away the social/institutional context to tell a diachronic story so the social historian may have little training or interest in the history of ideas. Further, since my work has tended to focus on the history of ideas (I try to tell a “rich” or “thick” story by locating the ideas in their original social context) it seems to me more possible to tell that story. The idea of telling an adequate story of the social (where and when it happened) and institutional (what form did the event take?) history of the church seems overwhelming. To do it properly one should account for so many factors that the idea of a survey becomes hard to imagine.
With that caveat, the standard modern church (institutional) history is Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (vol 1) and vol 2. Some readers have recommended Bruce Shelley’s one-volume, Church History in Plain Language.
Most of the volumes listed probably have something to commend them but remember that these writers only know what they know. For everything else they are likely depending on someone else’s work.
2) I did my survey reading a long time ago. I read most of Schaff’s History of the Christian Church. I’ve been building upon or modifying that basic story ever since. In some ways, however, I’m not sure I was well served by learning a 19th-century, mildly Hegelian story of the church. Schaff was an amazing scholar. His knowledge of the history (and theology) of the church was remarkable but a good bit of what I learned from Schaff was either wrong or misleading or out of date when I learned it.
3) Most of the surveys I’ve seen are boring. Here I think of Latourette. I got a few pages into it and nearly went into a coma and I like history! Perhaps I should try again but I have a natural aversion to death or near death experiences. More seriously, my research mainly asks me to answer “this question” and “that question.” Over the years I’ve answered enough of them satisfactorily to piece together what I hope is a coherent story of Patristic, Medieval, and Reformation church history but I’m acutely conscious of what I don’t know and need to learn.
Someone should probably read all these surveys to see which are superior. In the words of the old commercial, “I’m not gonna try it. You try it.”
Here is an updated list:
- Bainton, Roland. H. Christianity. repr. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
- Ferguson, Everett. Church History: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013.
- Godfrey, W. Robert, Survey of Church History (Ligonier)
- González, Justo L. The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. 1st ed. The Story of Christianity, 2 vol. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1984.
- Hastings, Adrian. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999.
- MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. 1st American ed. New York: Viking, 2010.
- Needham, Nicholas R. 2000 Years of Christ’s Power. Newly rev. Fearn, Ross-shire: Christian Focus, 2016.
- Walker, Williston. A History of the Christian Church. 4th ed. New York: Scribner, 1985.