A World History of Christianity, Adrian Hastings (Editor)

The short version: an excellent and rich resource which fills in the global gaps left by the main stream of Church History writing. It is a lot to tackle because of its size and scope, but should likely be included as foundational for any person (or church) setting up a theological library. This book is a great way to dive into the broader history of Christianity, but it is closer to the 10m platform than it is to easily slipping in at the side of the pool. 

Hastings, Adrian, ed. A World History of Christianity. Grand Rapids/Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1999.

“…the writing of Christian history needs to escape imprisonment within a Europe-centred story in order not only to serve the needs of the many hundreds of millions of Christians who live elsewhere but also to provide an objectively based account of a straightforwardly historical kind of something which has for long been seen in too Eurocentric a way.”

One of the big questions in writing history is whose story are we trying to tell? It is harder to answer than you might think. Hastings book comes from a welcome recognition that the way Church History is often told leaves out “hundreds of millions of Christians.” A World History of Christianity is a legitimate advance in solving that problem.

This is an edited volume with a variety of authors contributing the following chapters:

  • Introduction: Adrian Hastings
  • 1: The Emergence of Christianity: Martin Goodman
  • 2: 150-550: Adrian Hastings
  • 3: The Orthodox Church in Byzantium: Mary Cunningham
  • 4: The Medieval West: Benedicta Ward and G.R. Evans
  • 5: India: R.E. Frykenberg
  • 6: Africa: Kevin Ward
  • 7: Reformation and Counter-Reformation: Andrew Pettegree
  • 8: Eastern Europe Since the Fifteenth Century: Philip Walters
  • 9: Latin America: Adrian Hastings
  • 10: China and It’s Neighbours: R.G. Tiedemann
  • 11: North America: Robert Bruce Mullin
  • 12: Christianity in Western Europe from the Enlightenment: Mary Heimann
  • 13: Australasia and the Pacific: David Hilliard

Dividing things up like this and having a different author for each is a two-sided coin. On the one hand it means that the distinctiveness of each era and area is allowed to stand on its own. No strand of Christianity stands truly isolated but the approach of this book means that a reader gets a much better sense of the distinctiveness of the various corners of the Church. On the other hand, it means that you can feel jostled around a fair bit. After the first four chapters, which are generally driving chronologically forward on the same road toward the 14th century, chapters 5 and 6 transport you geographically (east and south) and temporally (back to the 1st century). These chapters on India and Africa move at quite a different speed. They each cover about 2,000 years while the first four chapters had a much more limited horizon. For readers without a decent sense of world history, it would be difficult to keep everything grounded to an overarching timeline.

I am not a historian so my take is that of an amateur. But I have read a decent amount of Church History and found this book to be very good. The chapters where I had the most to learn were on India, Latin America, and the Eastern Orthodox tradition. I also very much appreciated a fuller picture of the Roman Catholic tradition alongside the more familiar Protestant territory.

There are two other things that I should mention. First, this is a big book. I read it in on Kindle but the print edition is about 600 pages long. With that in mind I would say that the book works well as a reference tool and there is no need to get through from cover to cover in one go. The arrangement in distinct chapters by different authors means that you can pick up just one and it works as a free-standing unit. Plus, there is an excellent “Further Reading…” section at the back if you want to go on to explore any of the material further. The book is now 20 years old and this means newer books are not included, but the contributors are professional historians and have recommended works of lasting value.

Mentioning the status of the contributors leads to the second point: this is a proper history book, written by professionals. You may find your heart being warmed as you watch the story of the church unfold but these authors are not trying to light or even stoke that fire here. Still, I found this to be very readable overall. It is aimed at a general audience, avoiding technical language and the details of historian’s in-house quarrels. The contributors are writing a history of the church in the broadest sense possible. Any group which lays claim to the title of Christian is included here on essentially equal terms. The authors seem mostly sympathetic to the evangelical strain but at least set out writing with the aim of not having a horse in this race.

For myself, one of the main takeaways is the interplay between the ‘broad’ and the ‘narrow’ stories. This book does not pull all of Christian history into one unified narrative. As a collection of contributions by a range of authors, a unified vision of so much history would be very difficult to achieve. You may have noticed that there is no concluding chapter which attempts to tie the strands back together at the end. The closest that this book comes to that is in Hastings’ introduction where he summarizes the history of Christianity as “…a history of change and translation, of the regular reinvention of itself in new languages and regions.”  This seems like a very reasonable statement. Even the issues that come up again and again are tied to things like language and the relationship of Christianity to distinct cultures. I think that there is more that could be said in regard to the bigger story of the Church, but there are plenty of books already doing that and this one was aimed at plugging a particular gap.

As I said at the beginning, one of the big questions with Christian history is: whose story are we going to tell? Plenty of the issues tied to that question remain in Hastings’ book. Is the history of modern African Christianity about the missionaries who came or the Africans who believed? Are we telling the story of individuals or institutions? Can you really tell the history of the Church by focusing mostly on the ideas and doctrines which shaped it? But this book takes a significant step forward by answering the “whose story” question in a way that purposefully includes “hundreds of millions” of Christians who were often left out in other approaches.

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One thought on “A World History of Christianity, Adrian Hastings (Editor)

  1. Pingback: Christianity and Catastrophe in South Sudan, by Jesse A. Zink – Too Small A Thing

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