Bruce, F.F. The Spreading Flame: The Rise and Progress of Christianity from its First Beginnings to the Conversion of the English. 1958. Reprint. Paternoster Press, 1981.
I have read a handful of books by F.F. Bruce (New Testament History, Acts commentaries), this book was equally good. Also, generally speaking, I appreciate Bruce’s straightforward style of writing.
This book traces the growth of the Church from its inception until the 8th century. During this historical survey Bruce time and time again clearly depicts the context for each of the episodes he visits, e.g., the correlation between the Roman peace of Augustus’ reign and Paul’s words in Galatians 4:4, “when the fullness of time came, God sent forth his Son” illustrates how the world was both politically and religiously primed for the advent of the gospel (p. 24); the interlocutory Church Orthodox through its Ecumenical Councils vis-à-vis internal heretical pressures (Chapters 25-26, 31-33; particularly Chapter 33, titled Defining the Faith, which discusses the dialogue on the nature and persons of the Trinity between the Orthodox and heretical groups, i.e., Marcionism, the Monarchian schools, Docetism, Sabellianism, etc.).
Bruce’s subject matter is separated into three parts, which, I believe, in Bruce’s estimation could be called “The Good, The Bad, and The Slightly Better”: Part I covers the Good of the “The Dawn of Christianity” until the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 1-70); Part II covers the Bad of the “The Growing Day” that rose out of Jerusalem’s destruction at the advent and reign of Constantine (AD 70-313); and Part III covers the Slightly Better rising of the “Light in the West” with the English conversion (AD 313-800). In each of these three volumes, Bruce is at his strongest when giving simple descriptions that create a context for understanding the spreading flame of Church History.
In this historical retrospect, descriptions of Christian evangelism and Church growth were particularly compelling, i.e., without being sinfully detached or unemotional Bruce aptly avoids sensationalism in his retelling of Christianity’s growth and the positive, liberating, and meaningful change it brought to pagan cultures, e.g., Christian mercy-ministries (pp. 189-190) and Christianization that was cataclysmic for the revision of existent law-code (p. 401). While reading this book I was reminded of David Bentley Hart’s thesis in Atheist Delusions, a book “chiefly about the early church” and the revolutionary reality of the “triumph of Christianity.” Similarly, Bruce’s historical rendering of Church History as the metaphorical “Spreading Flame” plots out in an episodic fashion that same Christian triumph, albeit without the more provocative stylism of contemporary scholars, e.g., Hart, Peter Leithart’s Deep Comedy, and Robert Louis Wilken’s The Spirit of Early Christian Thought. Compared to said contemporary authors Bruce feels dry and dusty.
As an aside: I would never go to Bruce to resolve a theology question, however, if I am simply trying to understand what the Biblical text says or what actually did occur historically, then he is on the top of my list. Bruce is great for explanation, but Bruce is lousy for implication/application. Also, I know folks have actively debated whether it is best and/or accurate to consider Bruce a “liberal conservative” or a “conservative liberal”, but I have to admit that I think that entire debate is tragically flawed. Unfortunately, when the debate is framed like that, it turns the debate into an argument between “kinds” rather than “types”. To me that is criminal; Bruce is (in my humble opinion) intrinsically conservative when it comes to the discipline of Biblical Criticism. Why do I say that? Because Bruce first and foremost considered the New Testament documents to be historical, and the historicity of the New Testament and its message is exactly the rub between Biblical conservatives and liberals. The “Postscript” to this book is rather self-revealing of Bruce: he states, “For Part I the main source-book is the New Testament. An evaluation of the historical quality of its contents may be found in my inquiry Are the New Testament Documents Reliable? (first published in 1943).” Bruce continues with the expected scholarly posturing, briefly mentioning the value of Josephus’ writings and Roman historian Tacitus, but I would love to read contemporary scholars who could echo Bruce on that first point.
Moving on, a repeated theme in the book is Bruce’s contention that “Christianity was organized for catastrophe” (p. 288). Bruce notes:
The story of the Christian Church of the first three centuries is largely a commentary on this [Christ’s promise of triumph to those who persevere]. In the fiercest of tribulations Christianity proved its capacity for survival, and not for mere survival but for actual victory. And the victory was won by spiritual weapons alone. . . . We review the history of Christianity up to the year 313 with no sense of shame, but with a sense that here is something to evoke gratitude and inspire courage. The qualities that triumphed then are the qualities which still transmute disaster into victory (p. 289).
By this bold and epigrammatic statement Bruce points to the fact that Christianity in its beginnings is characterized by the fact that Jesus himself did not mince words regarding the looming opposition the disciples would be faced with. The disciples, however, had been given the promise of triumph, thus, after the complete reversal-and-inversion of the thought-to-be-disaster that was the Cross, all subsequent disasters and even death itself had been debilitated and turned upside down and inside out.
This is a helpful hermeneutic for any Christian Historian who is faced with trying to trace the Spiritual growth of the Invisible Church while at the same time giving proper merit to the growth of the Visible Church. Bruce quotes Dean Inge favorable: “The real history of Christianity is the history of a great spiritual tradition. The only true apostolical succession is the lives of the saints” (161). Thus, during his presentation of Church History post- AD 313, Bruce laments much of history of the Visible Church, nearly chalking some episodes up as none other than secular history. Interestingly, I think Bruce’s personality comes through the clearest at these subtle points where his opinion pokes through his straightforward style, e.g., “Where church leaders were able to exercise political as well as spiritual authority, they did not enjoy any marked immunity from the universally corrupting tendency of power—a tendency which presents an even more displeasing spectacle in Christians than it does in other people, because it clashes so with the first principles of Christianity” (293).
Yet, Bruce is no simpleton. He properly understood that it was impossible (and just plain wrong) to attempt to talk about the Invisible Church without referent to the Visible Church. He says, “But the difficulty of the would-be historian is this: it is relatively easy to trace the fortunes of a visible institution, whereas the course of a great spiritual tradition is much more elusive. And yet, the two are so closely interwoven that it is impossible to treat of the one without constant reference to the other” (p. 161). This made me thing of how there are always two types of network topologies: there are physical topologies (physical/literal telecommunication cable runs, connecting circuits from Point A to Point B) and there are virtual topologies (diagrams the logical/virtual flow of data across/through the interconnections of a physical topology).
After gritting his teeth in Part II, while reflecting on the post-Constantine imperial decline and its co-occurrence with barbarian invasions, Bruce highlights how a Church “organized for catastrophe” once again thrived. The Church took the “handicaps of that kind . . . in its stride, showing once again that it was organized for catastrophe and never revealed its true qualities better than in times of general disaster” (p. 417).
I find Bruce to be helpful. Church History is a messy affair, but this book was a good reminder that Christians should be cautious not to collapse the token of the Visible Church into the Invisible Church or vice-versa, e.g., Bruce says, “but the genuine spirit of Christ is sometimes to be found in unlikely quarters. That, after all, is what we might expect when we consider that Christ Himself was regarded as scarcely orthodox either in belief or in practice by the leaders of His own religious community” (p. 417). A good reminder, indeed.