As she made my café Americano, the tattooed barista at my favorite morning haunt glanced at the 1,161-page book I’d been toting for several weeks and gave me a wry smile. “You seem to be making some progress,” she said.

The tome in question, Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, suggests that the same may be true of the Christian faith. The companion to a six-part BBC documentary, this ambitious project represents the first attempt in decades by a major Anglophone historian of Christianity—MacCulloch is professor of the History of the Church at Oxford—to craft a one-volume narrative of the faith from its origin to the present. (Indeed, from before its origin, since the Hellenistic and Hebrew antecedents of the faith form the book’s extensive first part.) That MacCulloch accomplished this feat in just three years, and richly documents his account with the most recent scholarship, testifies to his astonishing scholarly abilities; and the engaging narrative and incisive analysis for which he is renowned make this work an essential companion for any student of Christianity.

Over the centuries, historians telling the Christian story have been guided by ecclesial loyalties, theological principles, and the historiographical priorities of their times. The fourth-century historian Eusebius of Caesaria sought to show that the church of the Constantinian era had preserved unchanged the faith received from the apostles. In the sixteenth century, Flacius Illyricus and the Magdeburg Centuriators argued that Protestant reformers had rediscovered the purity of ancient Christianity, obscured during a corrupt, thousand-year “middle age.” And in the twentieth century, Jaroslav Pelikan—following the lead of John Henry Newman and other nineteenth-century theologians—explored Christian doctrine as a telos of human history. In each approach, the ancient Christian past was privileged, the revelatory character of the canonical Scriptures assumed, and the early teachings of Mediterranean Christianity revered.

MacCulloch breaks with these traditions, and in doing so, embraces values that his mentor at Cambridge, Regius Professor Geoffrey Elton, stated emphatically: “If historians are not skeptical, they are nothing.” The account of the Christian past served up in Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years reflects such skepticism. Yet MacCulloch holds no illusion of writing with disinterested impartiality. “This is emphatically a personal view of the sweep of Christian history,” he states in his introduction. Born into the Suffolk rectory of a third-generation Anglican priest, MacCulloch retains happy memories of a childhood suffused with Christian Scriptures and anchored in creedal principles, and today he describes himself as “a candid friend of Christianity.” This book is his attempt to understand “how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions.” He suggests that charitably minded critics may describe his as “an apophatic form of the Christian faith.”

MacCulloch’s self-effacing honesty belies both prodigious learning and a profound insight into the questions being asked by millions of heirs to the Christian faith. Written in a period when the specter of events unfolding without apparent pattern or purpose might incline some to long for a past golden age, this book resists the consolation of definitive answers, offering instead a storehouse of ideas to nourish reflection and cultivate critical thought. It is this storehouse that I explored during my morning coffee breaks this past summer. Doing so took me back to my Cambridge tutorials of years ago, when learned discussion was punctuated with pithy comments, dry humor, and personal honesty. MacCulloch is a genial host, open about his vulnerabilities, content to pull the curtain back and let us see the man behind the text. Again and again his oblique (and often witty) references to today and our twenty-first-century matters make ancient and medieval Christianity seem freshly contemporary.

As a scholar with interests in the early modern and modern periods, I found MacCulloch’s rewriting of the early Christian narrative, with his extensive exploration of pre-Christian antecedents, the most instructive part of his book. Using studies published during the past two decades, and uninhibited by dogmatic assumptions or ecclesial constraints, MacCulloch explores the emergence of structures of authority in diverse regions, considers the historical context of doctrinal debates, and reflects on the evolution of gendered roles in the Christian ecclesial traditions. With remarkable clarity he explains complex doctrinal debates for the nonspecialist, and explores how social and political pressures helped determine which parties prevailed at the early councils. Surveying the interconnected development of devotional, spiritual, and aesthetic expressions of the faith, he remains sensitive to the cultures from which these expressions emerged. From China to Ireland, from Siberia to India and Ethiopia, MacCulloch reminds the North Atlantic reader that since its earliest centuries, Christianity has spanned three continents and diverse civilizations.

With admirable candor MacCulloch addresses Christianity’s encounter with other religions, in particular the checkered ways Christians have responded to Judaism and Islam. The portrait is far from flattering. Readers seeking to understand the animus some Muslims and other peoples of faith currently aim at the West will find essential historical background. MacCulloch analyzes the minority status of Eastern Christianities and weighs in comparison the advantages of becoming the majority faith tradition in Western Europe. Another crucial and timely question—church authority—receives sustained treatment. Whether examining the rise of papal authority in Western Christianity, or the complex, dare I say byzantine, evolution of the Phanar in Constantinople, MacCulloch supplies essential historical context.

Less evident, but no less significant, is the attention he pays to how gender identities and sexual ethics have shifted over time. The roles of women, far from being relegated to afterthoughts in a footnote, form an integral part of the Christian story in MacCulloch’s narrative. (In one tongue-in-cheek aside, observing that the nineteenth century marked a dramatic increase in the active engagement of women in the churches, he notes that “the most assertive woman of them all was the Mother of God”—an allusion to the numerous Marian apparitions of that century.) And to my knowledge, this is the first general history of Christianity to address homosexuality in the tradition from the earliest centuries up to today. MacCulloch calls for a collective examination of conscience on this topic; but the mere inclusion of the subject in such a magisterial book is an important step, opening the door to further discussion and debate.

A reader could easily get lost in the different parts of such a vast book, but MacCulloch has helpfully added parenthetical page references as a guide. As a result, one can either read Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years as a running narrative or dip into it where interest or need directs. Given my own interests, I had hoped perhaps for more guidance in refashioning a master narrative of the early modern and modern period. My other nagging wish was for more sustained attention to Christianity in Latin and South America. But it seems churlish to ask more of such a masterful and tightly written narrative.

In his concluding chapter, MacCulloch offers no soaring rhetoric. Instead, he confronts the reader with the various “culture wars” that have dominated the past fifty years. Vatican II, theologies of liberation, gender and sexual revolutions—all have opened the way to unfamiliar vistas. The perceived threat of advancing secularization has triggered reaction and retrenchment among many church leaders. Yet MacCulloch wonders whether secularism is necessarily an enemy of the Christian faith, or rather an invitation for the faith to remold itself, as it has so often in the past. Against the disorienting recent history of Roman Catholicism, he offers a reassuring reminder: Christians have already passed through a great many bewildering and painful periods, and have emerged with deeper insights into the faith they cherish.

Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is not a text for believers looking for feel-good hagiography and a pat on the back. Yes, this book acknowledges, the followers of Jesus have indeed made some big steps forward—but a happy ending is not yet in sight. Much remains to be done; and it is to his great credit that Diarmaid MacCulloch views the faith he both admires and studies as very much a work in progress.


Related: Brad S. Gregory reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch's The Reformation: A History

Published in the 2010-11-05 issue: 

Kenneth L. Parker is associate professor of historical theology at St. Louis University.

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