Reading Notes for Church History in Plain Language by Bruce L. Shelley

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language (Rev. ed. by R.L. Hatchett). Thomas Nelson, 2013.

Today, after two thousand years, Christianity is the faith, at least nominally, of one-third of the earth’s population. . . . no other person in recorded history has influenced more people in as many conditions over so long a time as Jesus Christ. The shades and tones of his image seem to shift with the needs of men: the Jewish Messiah of the believing remnant, the Wisdom of the Greek apologist, the Cosmic King of the Imperial Church, the Heavenly Logos of the orthodox councils, the World Ruler of the papal courts, the monastic Model of apostolic poverty, the personal Savior of evangelical revivalists (517, 521).

By far the most accessible “Church History” book I have ever read. Shelley painted with a broad brush, but each chapter contains biographical material over theologians or religious leaders indicative to each of the “ages” of the Church. The final effect is a presentation that never feels thin like a watercolor wash, but rather it is as thick and topographic as Van Gogh. Due to the informative, personal element, this book reads far easier than most historical “surveys” might. I’m a fan of Shelley’s integrated mini-biography pedagogy for presenting Church History: “Why so many personal stories? Again, the answer is communication. Without ignoring ideas, I have tried to wrap thoughts in personalities” (xii). There is a lot of “story” in this Church History, indeed.

Kudos to Shelley for his ability to present each side of a coin: presentation of the “Church”, on the one hand, as society, as well as, on the other hand, the “Church” as individuals.

Church historians often ask, ‘Is the church a movement or an institution?’ These pages will show that I think it is both” (xii).

Where, after all, is true Christianity? In a sacramental institution, or in a self-denying lifestyle?” (215).

Shelley says, “I think it is both.” I believe, however, that sometimes his personal bent towards one way over the other comes through. Certainly a Christian historian can think it is both ways, but that doesn’t not mean the split is 50/50. Truly that would be a challenging wake to surf.

Sometimes I find Shelley’s analysis questionable,  e.g., see page 358, Shelley describes the Protestant Reformation as hi-jacking (“shattering”) traditional Christendom. To be fair, I know Shelley is pointing out the errors of deep-and-wide, contemporary Christian individualism, but (IMHO) it is erroneous to make a one-to-one correlation between the Reformation and Individualism. In effect, this makes one look back with a somewhat critical eye at the Reformation. (It is exactly how my undergrad *Protestant* Church History professor presented the Reformation: with a straight face and no qualifiers he essentially said the Reformation was a big mistake because of the subsequent denominational splintering, etc. Such presentations oversimplify the larger political and philosophical forces at play in the past 500 years.) Personally, I cannot relate to and unceasingly look sideways at Protestants complaining about the Reformation or the effects of the Reformation . . . the fallout and collateral damage of the Reformation are inconsequential compared to the primacy and necessity of the Church to reform when necessary and according to Scripture her witness to the Gospel. (I know this sounds like “the means justify the end”, but we are talking about the Gospel! If the Church has to be temporarily- temporally-divided while we all wait for our RC and EO brothers to get in tune with the Kingdom of Heaven, well, then so be it.)

Moving on, there is a bizarre critique of Pilgrim’s Progress in the section on “The Age of Global Expansion and Relocation 1900–“. Just to clarify, in the Foreword the revised edition’s editor, R.L. Hatchett, said he “added information” to that section, so I am not sure if the Bunyan critique was original-Shelley or sans-Shelley via Hatchett. However, Hatchett does say, “There are minor alterations throughout, but I wished to honor Shelley’s personal imprints upon every page” (ix). Regardless of whether it is Shelley or Hatchett, the following statement poo-pooing Bunyan’s great work makes me frown.

The Christianity that grew most rapidly in North America, and that has been most widely embraced in the Global South, was voluntary. In North America it also emphasized personal, individual conversion. Americans embraced Bunyan, whose Pilgrim’s Progress (1678) both illustrates and proliferates a Christianity that focuses upon the Christian life of the individual. Bunyan does not abandon Puritanism, yet his story has the effect of communicating that Christianity was a matter of an individual conversion and pilgrimage. In the revivals and awakenings that shaped American religion, the emphasis again fell upon conversion of the individual. Sometimes this emphasis is received in the global churches despite their more communal and collective orientation (500).

 I do not believe that Pilgrim’s Progress has that effect, or if it does, it can’t be in a more meaningful way than any other classic book that “focuses upon the Christian life of the individual”, e.g., Augustine’s Confessions, Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, C.S. Lewis’ Surprised by Joy, etc. In any case, as I said earlier, Shelley said “Where, after all, is true Christianity? In a sacramental institution, or in a self-denying lifestyle?” (215). Shelley thought it was in both. Believing that he did a good job writing a church history that accounted for both via historical prose with the inter-weaved mini-biographies. Compared to how enjoyable and informative this book is, personally being tweaked is insignificant.