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The life of this, Christ’s family

13 April 2017

William Jacob looks at the Church’s history as a kind of biography

Christianity: The biography: Two thousand years of the global Church

Ian J. Shaw

IVP £12.99


Church Times Bookshop £11.70


CATHOLIC Christians have traditionally personified the Church as their Holy Mother, but I don’t think that anyone before has thought of writing Holy Mother Church’s biography.

Dr Ian Shaw, having taught and written about the history of Christianity for more than 20 years, is well aware of the aversion of students and Christians in general to learning about church history, and the current intolerance and suspicion of the old in much of church life.

He points out that Christians today are making history, and that understanding and preparing for the future of the Church requires opening the book of the past. He also reminds us that the command to remember is very strong in the biblical tradition. Biblical history does not airbrush out mistakes and ugly episodes, and sees salvation being accomplished through historical events.

He therefore envisages the biography of Christianity as the Christian family history. Christianity’s infancy and early years are seen, as in any infancy, as highly formative for developing patterns of behaviour and ideas; the medieval period is identified as a time of youthful promise, but also uncertainty and conflict. Early adulthood is a time of firmly establishing patterns and identities, and of questioning, and is identified with the early modern period from c.1500 to c.1650; full adulthood is marked by consolidation, but also crisis and change, characterised by the modern period from c.1650 to the 20th century; and, finally, old age and decline, but also the vigorous growth of children and grandchildren, which he sees as the present post-modern era.

Shaw is to be congratulated on producing an immensely accessible account of the global development of Christianity, which sets matters of faith and theology in their historical contexts. It should help people to understand why Christian theology and doctrine have developed as they have, and why they are still important for us.

As in all really good introductions, there are penetrating insights for the scholar, as well as for the beginner. He reminds us that God’s intervention in revealing himself to his ancient people the Jews, and in the incarnation, happens at the junction of three continents, Asia, Africa and Europe, a crossroads of great trunk routes reaching deep into each continent for trade, people, and ideas.

This sets the scene for understanding Christianity as, from its earliest days, a global faith as the good news was gossiped by traders, travellers, and troops into the furthest parts of these continents, crossing cultural boundaries and changing people’s lives.

Inevitably, there are a few judgements that one might disagree with, and I am not sure that the biographical analogy entirely works, perhaps because I hope I am not part of the Church “creeping into old age”. This is, however, an immense achievement of breadth of scope, clarity of focus, and fair-mindedness. It should have a starred place on every ordination-training reading list, and, being very reasonably priced, it can be recommended to anyone wishing to find out more about the Christian faith, and for use in church study groups.


The Ven. William Jacob is a former Archdeacon of Charing Cross.

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