How to Study Christian History on Your Own

I have been remiss! How could I have waited so long to tell you how to study Christian history on your own?

Beginning Your Study of Christian History

You can, of course, study church history without reading Will the Real Heretics Please Stand Up, but I don't recommend you try. Whether you agree with David Bercot's conclusions or not, "the Heretics book," as it's known to those familiar with it will ...

  • give you a passion for Christian history
  • make you believe history can be interesting
  • make you believe you can learn and understand church history
  • help you understand the reason you should study Christian history
  • explain why earliest Christianity should be a primary focus of your history study

You will not regret following my advice to read this book. Bercot is an excellent writer and storyteller, and you will have trouble putting it down. When I ran into the book, I read it through in 24 hours.

That was 1989, and it is the reason this web site exists.

Continuing to Study Church History

This site is a great resource, of course! The "Time Periods" section of the Navbar has an overview of the different time frames in Christian history.

Once you have an overview, exploring my large site will allow you to find little treasures all over the place that will hopefully pique your interest and provide new avenues of study.

However, for more purposeful study, the following 3 sections of this page should give you a running start on how to study Christian history that will allow you to find your own path from here.

Good Overviews

I recommend two overviews of Christian history, one shorter and one rather large.

Just Gonzalez offers a condensed but valuable history of Christianity (see ad at left).

It is essential to read an overview like this if you are going to learn how to study church history. You have to have at least a hazy timeline of the last 2,000 years in your mind, or you won't know where to plug in what you're learning.

Encouragement and Advice

The things you learn don't add up, they multiply.

Memory books will speak of "pegs" that you can hang new information on. For example, if I tell you that the Spanish word for vehicle is vehículo, you are going to have an easier time remembering it than if I tell you that the Swahili word for vehicle is gari.

Or, if I tell you that the Swahili word for friend is rafiki, you will have a much easier time remembering that if you've seen the movie Lion King. You'll even know how to pronounce it already.

It's the same with how to study Christian history or any other subject. The more you learn, the easier it gets to learn because you have more "pegs" to hang your new information on.

Something longer that is worth perusing and having for reference is Philip Schaaf's History of the Christian Church in 8 volumes.

(That link was $59 in early November, and now is $95 from other suppliers on Amazon. CBD keeps it at $99 always. You can buy the individual volumes, too, which are especially inexpensive for Kindle.)

Primary Sources

It is a mistake to study Christian history without reading some primary sources.

I read numerous histories about Martin Luther, some from people I trust a lot. On top of that, everyone agrees on what Martin Luther believes about salvation by faith alone.

After all, it was the primary thing that got him in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church, right?

Then I started reading his writings for myself.

Martin Luther did not get in trouble with the Roman Catholic Church for salvation by faith alone. His battle with them began over money, due to the traffic of indulgences, and ended with a battle over authority.

Further, Martin Luther's salvation by faith alone bears little resemblance to what I was told he believed. Nor did he emphasize it in his writings. He emphasized that righteousness had nothing to do with all the rituals practiced by monks, but he most certainly believed that righteousness marked whether you were a Christian.

For example:

As I have frequently stated, the suffering and work of Christ is to be viewed in two lights: First, as grace bestowed on us, as a blessing conferred, requiring the exercise of faith on our part and our acceptance of the salvation offered. Second, we are to regard it as an example for us to follow; we are to offer up ourselves for our neighbors' benefit and for the honor of God. This offering is the exercise of our love—distributing our works for the benefit of our neighbors. He who does so is a Christian. He becomes one with Christ, and the offering of his body is identical with the offering of Christ's body. (The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. IV, "First Sunday after Epiphany," p. 9; emphasis mine)

Or how about this one:

We find many who pray, fast, establish endowments, do this or that, lead a good life before men, and yet if you should ask them whether they are sure that what they do pleases God, they say, "No"; they do not know, or they doubt. And there are some very learned men, who mislead them, and say that it is not necessary to be sure of this ... Now they have no faith, no good conscience toward God, therefore the works lack their head, and all their life and goodness is nothing. Hence it comes that when I exalt faith and reject such works done without faith, they accuse me of forbidding good works, when in truth I am trying hard to teach real good works of faith. (A Treatise on Good Works)

These are not isolated quotes. These represent the normal approach of Martin Luther, as far as I can find in the numerous sermons I've read by him from various periods in his life, to good works.

I would never have known this had I not read some of his works for myself.

While you do have to invest some time in reading in order to make use of primary sources, you do not have to become a professional historian. Two hours per week in primary sources would make you one of the most informed amateur historians in your area after just one year. Most of us have more time than that invested in other books, or in movies, TV, going out to eat and other recreation.

How to Find Primary Sources

Free (only electronic, of course):

The largest collection of primary source Christian history material that I know of is the Christian Classics Ethereal Library. I paid them $99 for a year's membership so that I could download a number of early Christian source material and some older history books.

For other sources, like Martin Luther's original writings or those of Calvin, George Fox, Venerable Bede, Thomas Kempis, and others, the best thing you can do is Google them. You will have a small enough selection that you can choose from those yourself. Almost everything I've ever looked for has been available on line for free.

And, of course, I've updated select early writings into modern English. That collection's growing.

On Paper (and thus not free):

Primary sources for writings from before Nicea are best found on my recommended books page. You can go directly to Amazon or Christian Book Distributors, but you'll be faced with dozens or hundreds of choices you'll have trouble sorting through. (And if you use that page, you'll get Amazon prices and support this site at the same time!)

For other writings, though, you can simply search the names on Amazon, and you should be able to find almost any writing from church history put into a book by someone.

On paper, they're not free, of course, but many are available on Kindle (see sidebar) at significantly reduced prices.

Lots of Little Bits of Input

I mentioned in a text box above that learning doesn't add up, it multiplies.

That's true. When I was very young, surely no older than 13, I saw an episode of Bewitched where Darren, Elizabeth Montgomery's husband, was cursed by his evil stepmother, a witch, with perfect memory.

Doesn't seem like much of a curse, does it?

As it turned out, he became an insufferable boor. He knew everything!

On the show, people would ask him, "How do you know this?" and he would answer with things like, "I read it on the back of an album cover in a barber shop on October 22, 1969."

Darren became an insufferable boor, but since you're memory probably isn't that perfect, you won't have to worry about that ... as  much.

I pick up little bits of information everywhere. I'm interested in so many things. I devour Discover magazine as soon as it comes in every month. I'm totally fascinated with fitness, health, and diet. Whenever I run across information on anything I'm interested in, I tuck it away. Worse, I don't trust very many sources, so I'm always checking the internet to verify little odds and ends I've heard about.

As a result, my friends think I know everything.  My secretary calls me the smartest man in the world; however, I know from chess, math, and Scrabble competitions—that I've worked hard to prepare for—that I am nowhere near the smartest man in the world. I am, however, one of the most fascinated with life. If my parents taught me anything, it was exuberance.

It is simply astounding how much information you can accumulate here and there.

Don't miss those things. Get Schaff's History of the Christian Church (free as .pdf at ccel.org). Carry it into the bathroom with you; use it to fall asleep at night when you can't, even if that's only once per month; skip one movie or one TV show per week or per month; go through the table of contents and mark the subjects or time periods you're curious about.

Why? What's the Purpose of All This Information?

Have you ever heard the saying, "Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it"?

If you're reading this site, there's a very good chance you're a Christian. If that's so, you believe in an afterlife. You will be in that afterlife much, much, much longer than you will be in this life.

Further, if you're a Christian, then you've wondered who's right about certain subjects. You've wondered how to have better fellowship. You've wondered what Jesus meant by some of the things he demands of us. You've wondered if there's a way to be better prepared for that final day when you stand before the Judge of All, as everyone will (2 Cor. 5:10).

If you haven't wondered about such things, then you're no Christian. Don't fool yourself and arrive there unprepared. (No one has ever warned us to prepare for that day better than William Law in his excellent illustration, Penitens.) Know the Gospel as it is supposed to be preached.

How do I know how the Gospel is supposed to be preached?

Because Jesus said you will know a true prophet by his fruit (Matt. 7:15-20), and for the last 28 years I have been learning who has learned, practiced, and preached the Gospel in such a way that it produces the fruit described in the Gospel, in the apostles' letters, and displayed by the church in the Book of Acts. I have paid attention to the results of each person or group's gospel both in modern times and throughout history.

The result is that I know what works. I know where it is ok to have weaknesses, and I know where it is not ok to have weaknesses. I know where strictness helps people live holy and where it drives them away from Christ. I know where mercy gives hope and freedom and where it is overused and leads to licentiousness.

I know because other people have lived it out and written it down for me ... and for you.

I've paid attention, and I have immensely benefitted.

Now I want you have that as well.

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