July 02, 2014

My 5 Favorite Church Historians

Stephen Nichols
My 5 Favorite Church Historians


On this episode we’re going to be looking at my five favorite church historians. The first on my list likely should be on anyone’s list. This is Eusebius. Eusebius is an early church father. His dates are 263-339. He’s credited in many ways as the founder, or the father of church history and that is because of one of his significant works, Ecclesiastical History, or his History of the Church.

If it weren’t for Eusebius there would be many gaps in our understanding of  the early church figures, of the early church debates, and the early church issues. But thanks to this book he gives us wonderful insight. He was living this history as it were, living before Constantine when Christianity was illegal, and Christians were under significant persecution. And then, living through Constantine and the legalization of Christianity, Eusebius gives us a front row seat as a church historian.

The second on my list is the figure we know as “the Bede,” and sometimes he’s called, “the venerable Bede.” Now I think all church historians should be called venerable but that exclusively belongs to Bede. His dates are 672-735. He worked primarily in North East England and at a place called “Saint Paul’s Monastery.” In fact one record says that Saint Paul’s Monastery was the primary learning institution north of Rome—for all of Europe that is, right? Well, Bede wrote many books. Among them is his Ecclesiastical History of the English People. A book published in 731. His remarkable account; and again without it we’d be lost on much of that awareness and knowledge of what was happening in the church in England in those crucial centuries. He wrote other works, and he even right until the time of his death was working on a translation of the Gospel of John into old English. One of the things that Bede gives us is the use of the “AD” for a dating system. Now he did not invent that, but his use of it popularized it. So, Bede made many significant contributions.

The third on our list is a reformer. Now this reformer not only made history, he also chronicled history for us, and this is Beza. Beza was born in 1519, died in 1605; so he lived squarely through the Reformation and carried it on into the next generation. He was Calvin’s understudy. Very significant there in Geneva and at the Academy in Geneva. Wrote many books and among them, two of his books in particular for church history. The first is what we call, Beza’s Icons. These are just delightful little biographical sketches of many of the reformers. Beza knew many of these folks personally, had interacted with them. So again, we’re getting a front row seat on the Reformation. And then Beza also wrote a biography of Calvin. So he was a participant and a chronicler of the Reformation.

Well, fourth on our list is an American. This is Philip Schaff, a nineteenth-century figure. He’s sometimes considered the father of American church history. He founded the American Society of Church History, a scholarly organization that is very viable today and very active. He wrote a number of significant works. Among them Schaff wrote an eight volume history of the church. He also is the editor of the three volume Creeds of Christendom. This is just a standard, classic work—a compilation of the important creeds in Christianity. Schaff also edited The Church Fathers set. So we have an American on the list, Philip Schaff.

And lastly is another American, although this one might surprise you. This is B.B. Warfield. B.B. Warfield’s dates are 1851-1921. Most of his contribution comes in the field of theology. In fact, we know of Warfield for his great contributions to the doctrine of Scripture, the doctrine of inspiration, and the doctrine of inerrancy. But Warfield was also quite a church historian. Wrote many smaller pieces and larger articles on Augustine, on Calvin, even on the Westminster Standards. What Warfield was doing was applying his broad and deep understanding of church history to the challenges in his day. And he brought that great wealth of church history with him as he engaged very significant challenges to orthodox Christianity at the turn of the twentieth century. Warfield shows us that a church historian can bring a usable past in the service of the church.

Well, that’s my list, I hope you have your own list of favorite church historians.