Christian History in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic
Jennifer Woodruff Tait
Reviewed by Michelle Van Loon
If you asked people in the adult Sunday School classroom in the Charismatic church we attended at the time to describe the history of the Holy Spirit’s work since the time of Jesus, most of them would have probably said, “The Book of Acts…then a big long gap until the Azusa Street Revival in 1906, the Catholic Charismatic renewal in 1967, and then when the Vineyard movement came on the scene in the 1980’s.” The person leading the discussion that day highlighted how the Spirit had been at work throughout church history in the years between the end of the book of Acts and the Azusa Street Revival. More than a few people in the group seemed genuinely surprised by what they heard.
Too many of us don’t know much about church history. And no matter what stream of the church in which we find ourselves, the lenses through which many view the past two thousand years tend to emphasize the usually-recent and always-heroic efforts of our tradition’s spiritual forebearers to correct and reform the wayward church. Those lenses are like the ones in reading glasses that allow us to see what’s close to us, but blurs everything in the distance. Using those glasses to view two millennia of history allows us only to see what’s within the reach of our own arms. We need the kind of lenses that bring the distant past into focus.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait is offering us a set of lenses that will help us begin to see the past with fresh eyes. Her book, Christian History in Seven Sentences: A Small Introduction to a Vast Topic, orients readers to the scope and sequence of Christian history using the rubric of seven key sentences representing movements or events that marked change, conflict, and growth in the church. These include:
- The Edict of Milan (313)
- The Nicene Creed (325)
- The Rule of St. Benedict (c 530)
- The Excommunication of Patriarch Kerularios by Pope Leo IX (1054)
- Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517)
- The Edinburgh Conference (1910)
- The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965)
The book is part of InterVarsity Press’s academic line, but this is not an arcane, dry textbook. Woodruff Tait introduces readers to the key characters and conflicts that have marked the life of the body of Christ in an accessible and engaging manner.
The sentence she chose to describe The Great Schism between the Eastern and Western Church in 1054 came from Cardinal Humbert, who was among the delegation sent from Rome to deliver a bull, or official papal document, from Pope Leo IX to the patriarch of the church in Constantinople: “We have sensed here both a great good, whence we greatly rejoice in the Lord, and the greatest evil, whence we lament in misery.” The bull excommunicated Patriarch Kerularios and all the congregations scattered associated with his leadership from the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church” whose leadership was seated in Rome. Cardinal Humbert shook the dust from his feet as he exited the building after delivering the bull. Woodruff Tait explains,
“The picture here is just as dramatic as the one – more famous to Westerners – of Martin Luther nailing to the cathedral door the protest that split Western Christendom. And just as the actual story of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation is far more complex than can be expressed in that single moment, so too what came to be known as the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christendom is far more complex than what happened at the altar of Hagia Sophia. The mutual excommunications issued in 1054 – the one proclaimed here, and the one that Kerularios issued to the legates as a result of this event – were only one step on a long journey taking East and West even further apart.”
She introduces readers to the theological issues as well as the political and social landscape of Eastern and Western Europe in the centuries leading up to the split, as well as highlighting the way in which this environment of conflict and division fed into the first round of Crusades by the church in the West to recapture Christian holy sites in Jerusalem from Muslim control just fifty years later.
In 1964 in conjunction with the Second Vatican Council (covered in the book’s final chapter), Pope Paul VI and the Greek patriarch Athenagoras agreed to retract the respective thousand-year-old excommunications. Woodruff Tait observed, “Perhaps healing had begun, but multiple scars remained.” In 1054, Cardinal Humbert and Patriarch Kerularios never would have dreamed that the relationship between Eastern and Western Christian siblings would be imprinted with a thousand years of enmity.
Each chapter of Christian History in Seven Sentences is full of great insight meant to provoke reflection on our current time. Because the book is part of the IVP Academic line, it would make a fine text in a college classroom. But I believe it would also be a great addition to the curriculum offered by some churches. It would need a thoughtful facilitator with some familiarity with theology and Christian history to guide a small group through it as it doesn’t come with the kinds of add-ons that would make it easier for a group of laypeople to use, such as a leader’s guide, discussion questions, or an appendix of key names, theological issues, and dates.
The seven sentences highlighted in this excellent book may have been spoken or written in the past, but readers will find they still shape our experience today. Jennifer Woodruff Tait gives us an excellent set of lenses that help us see how.