(Updated) Which Church History Survey Should I Read? (UPDATED)

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.

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  1. Care to elaborate just a smidge on why Olson doesn’t make the cut? Too far out of the box? But then what of Tillich? I don’t know, I found Olson at least very legible, unlike a great many other historians (your #3 above)..

    • We were forewarned as students before reading Olsen regarding some of the things you mentioned in your review. Maybe I’m less sensitive, but I thought any attempts he might have made to vindicate himself were more subtle than you suggest. I do jive with the critique about discerning the hand of providence in the history of the church. In fact, I think that’s a failed enterprise from get-go.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    Thank you for your thoughts on this matter. Having read a number of church history surveys for various classes I agree with your estimation of their value.

    That being said, I was wondering if you had any thoughts on Jaroslav Pelikan’s multi-volume work on the history of Christian thought? On the surface, he seems to be the most qualified historian of recent vintage to attempt such an overview.

      • Definitely Jaroslav Pelikan…. While you have to weed through his biases and presuppositions, his writing style is readable and clear. Personally, I like to read and compare several authors. Haven’t read Latourette, though that is the one Asbury used.

        I have read portions of The History of Dogma by Harnack. That one is dated and liberal but there are some really good insights into Roman Catholic dogma there.

        For instance, the doctrine that Jesus was born supernaturally rather than in the normal and natural way children are born….. I found that interesting.

        Anyway… my 2 cents…..


  3. I have used Gonzalez as a student and as a teacher both in post grad and church-based “lay” courses. I find myself going back to Gonzalez often for facts and chronology. I have also enjoyed Needham’s 2,000 Years of Christ’s Power a lot becasue of the lasrge amount of primary material he includes.

  4. I concur with Matthew’s recommendation of Needham–I just wish the good doctor would hurry up and write volumes 4 and 5! Gonzalex is also very useful and readable. Latourette is excellent but dense as already mentioned.

    For a one-volume survey I very much like Williston Walker, aside from the theological liberalism that mars some of the discussion of the early centuries of the church.

    The multivolume series that Baker Pub started was very promising and the existing volumes are quite good. Too bad they couldn’t see their way to finishing it.

    I like Shelley’s book, enough to have made it the basis for the current church history survey I’m teaching at my church, but I assign the pertinent chapter for reading ahead of my discussion and have usually branched off into other pertinent material to which Shelley gives relatively short shrift. For example, in the class last week on the 18th century revivals I gave the class a lot more on Frelinghuysen, the Tennents, and Edwards while letting Shelley’s discussion on Wesley serve for his part in the story. I found I also had to clue the class in on the Stuart Restoration and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 in order for them to understand the religious currents in Great Britain leading up to the evangelical revival there–Shelley made no mention of these things at all.

  5. A few years back, one of my elders (Dr. Tom) recommended Paul Zahn’s 2000 Years of Amazing Grace: The Story and Meaning of the Christian Faith, and I liked it a lot. As the title suggests (“Story and Meaning”), it seems to be aiming at both social and HT, and I thought it did a good job (although possibly at too popular a level for this crowd). It begins by setting forth a theological definition of what Christianity is, and then traces through history the ups and downs of how well the Church adhered to its roots.

  6. Great review of Olson… and very true that he’s working to vindicate himself a lot.

    Though Olson’s more recent “Mosaic of Christian Belief” is more of a systematics survey, I think he was less defensive and he actually does a pretty good systematic survey of heresies — or violations of what he deems dogmas. His chapter on providence wasn’t very fair toward Calvinist-Augustinians, but overall I felt it was a very irenic, helpful book for the “interested layperson or pastor looking for a refresher.”

    I actually tried using it with some of my college students this past year. I felt Paul Little’s ‘Know What You Believe’ was a bit too basic and I didn’t necessarily like his eschatology. I’m looking into the condensed version of Millard Erickson’s systematic textbook and Bruce Milne’s Know the Truth.

  7. I’ve used Bruce Shelley’s _Church History in Plain Language_, now in its third edition. It works pretty well for my undergraduates here at Geneva College. It’s eminently readable, and (as far as I can tell) reasonably accurate in its reportage. But I do have to supplement it with plenty of primary source material; and I have to lecture far beyond its boundaries sometimes.

    Now I am thinking of dividing the course (a one-semester whiz-bang survey of 200 years) into two courses, the first up till ca 1500, pre-Reformation, and the second from ca 1500 to the present. I’m thinking of using Everett Ferguson’s two-volume survey to organize the course. What are your thoughts on Ferguson?

  8. Any comments on McGrath’s “Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought”?

  9. Do you have an opinion of Diarmaid MacCulloch’s volumes on the Reformation and his recent History of Christianity?

    • I was disappointed with DM’s history of the Reformation. I was hopeful it could replace the text I’ve been using (which is still quite good) but DM seemed to be more interested in his own story and struggles with his sexual identity relative to the church than with the Reformation. DM is quite gifted and capable but that volume wasn’t his finest moment.

    • My general advice is that Alister is a good place to begin research, relative to secondary lit, but not where you want to stop your research. I’ve learned a great deal from Alister but I’ve also come to disagree with some of his judgments and methods, e.g., his history of the doctrine of justification (on which so many of the NPP and FV folks seem to rely so heavily). I prefer the histories of doctrine that I listed in the post.

  10. Are there any more narrow surveys you can recommend, then? i.e., a survey just of the Reformation, or the Patristic period, etc.

  11. What’s your take on these books one recently recommended to me and the other recently read: Jaroslav Pelikan’s “The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine” and “A History of Christianity” by Diarmaid MacCulloch?

  12. I always liked A.C. Zenos’s one volume blitzkrieg, Compendium of Church History (1921).
    Now quite dated of course, but for what he covered, his liberalism did not seem to infect his treatment of the subject. It would be an interesting project for someone to dust that off and rework and update it.

  13. Thank you for a great post. Hagglund and Shelley seem like a good place to start for me.

  14. One reason why I recommend The Story of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez is because it is quite engaging. People leave this work wanting to read more Church History.

    One other warning about reading Church History is that it almost always tends to be somewhat hagiographic. People tend to do extensive research and write on subjects that they think are valuable. The publishing business also reinforces this trend. It is much easier to sell books which argue that Theologian X was far more important than is commonly thought than to argue the converse.

  15. In my opinion, N.R. Needham’s multi-volume (three with a fourth in the works) ‘2000 Years Of Christ’s Power’ ( Grace Publications Trust)is a very good survey that introduces the student to many of the primary sources at the end of every section.The only bad thing about it is that it is available only in paperback.

  16. I have found Gonzalez and Shelley both to be very readable surveys of Church History.

    Dr. Clark, could you elaborate further about Schaff’s History? Schaff wrote quite a lot–I’d like to know where you feel he may have missed something and why you think he may not have gotten it quite right. As I read Schaff I’d like to be aware of your findings.

    • I read it almost 30 years ago. Church History, like any other discipline, has a century of further study since Schaff. It was a monumental achievement but it’s very much a creature of its time. He read history through a Hegelian lens.

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