All of Christian History in 6 Hours

LUKE TIMOTHY JOHNSON of Emory University has rendered a service to the church with his Teaching Company audio course: Great World Religions: Christianity. But he has had to be “cruel to be kind.”

A master translator

The truly great teachers anticipate the questions of their students. Then they answer them in a way that hits home. That is, they have the knack not only of drawing up answers from their well of specialist knowledge but working that wondrous translation from their guild’s specialist language to a public language. And, even more important, not just any public language, but a language that their students understand—intellectually, intuitively, emotionally.

This feat of intellectual, cultural, human translation is sadly beyond many university professors—as any who have sat through certain courses will attest. Thus when we find a master teacher adept at this miraculous feat of translation, we should indeed, as the Teaching Company does, distribute the fruits of their labor widely and preserve them for posterity. This is the vision of the Teaching Company’s “Great Courses” series.

Luke Timothy Johnson is, in the sense I've described, a master translator. Though playing “guess what the professor is thinking” is a hazardous sport, I’ll take the guess: It seems to me that Johnson, as he prepared and taught “Great World Religions: Christianity,” has kept a particular audience in his mind’s eye. This audience seems, if I reconstruct the clues correctly, to consist of non-Christians and nominal Christians who just can’t get beyond certain ugly facts about Christianity (folks likely to have a bumper sticker that reads: “I'm for the separation of church and hate"). They have grown up in a Western world shaped, yes, by the power of the Gospel, but also and often more visibly by the many cultural, political, and ecclesiastical mistakes of a church that is far from perfect.

Whether this reconstruction of Johnson’s intent is true or not, the clues that have led me to guess at it have also shaped this review, as will become evident.

Helpful handles

To begin with the positive—and there is much here to be positive about—Johnson handles well the extreme compression of the format (twelve 30-minute lectures), providing some illuminating typologies and crystalline explanations. A few examples:

• He contextualizes Christianity well with other world religions. For example, he argues persuasively that Christianity, unlike other world religions, is not law-focused. Unlike Judaism earlier and Islam later, this faith was not (or at least, not for more than a few decades) the glue of an ethnically unified society, but rather in its first centuries a marginalized, relatively powerless group inside an empire run by “foreigners.” The result of this sociological fact, Johnson argues, is that beyond the obvious moral center (Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount), Christianity has struggled to provide clear rules for engagement with culture, and even rules for social morality.

• He lays out five critical transformations the church underwent in its first centuries of expansion: geographical, sociological, linguistic, cultural, and demographic.

• He explains concisely how “dualism” in various forms mounted the biggest and most dangerous challenge in 2nd- and early 3rd-century Christianity, and how the church responded.

• He shows clearly the second challenge of that age: the move to introduce new, subjective sources of authority to supplement the testimony of the apostles.

• He traces the three chief sources of authority that developed in reaction to those challenges: Scripture, Bishops, and Creed. And he shows how all three gained their authority and how they came together to create Christianity’s binding doctrines in the early ecumenical councils.

There is much more here of a luminous, clarifying nature. For example, Johnson shows how, after Constantine launched the faith from persecuted minority status to culture-shaping power broker, Christianity “expanded to fill the public space” with elaborate architecture, Roman-esque bureaucracy, and stunning art and music. And how, by the same token, Christianity began to take a custodial role in larger society, recognizing certain public responsibilities as it endowed charities and defined the very passage of time through the festivals and saints’ days of the liturgical year.

Johnson is also sure-footed near the end of the story, as he takes us through the three events that disestablished Christianity (that is, disengaged it from public power): the French, American, and Russian revolutions, and gives a helpful typology of how the Enlightenment critical tradition—and the “modernity” it created—elicited very different responses from each of the traditional Christian confessions.

All of this he does in much more powerful, direct, concrete language than the abstract shorthand I am using to summarize it.

Conflict trumps coherence

On the negative side: Whether Johnson intended this or not, his course might have a certain appeal to bright outsiders or fringe fellow—travelers struggling with the “big questions” about a fragmented, wheat—and—tares Christianity and its poor record on many fronts. But I am not sure this presentation says enough about the real strengths of Christianity—at least, once this world religion has crossed the Constantinian Rubicon from marginalized sect to culture-shaping power—to be helpful to that audience (or, more seriously, to leave any audience with a balanced, well-rounded sense of the faith).

There is about this course the whiff of the liberal historian of yesteryear who surveyed church history only to show where the church has betrayed the “kernel of the Gospel"—which, upon close examination, turns out to be a flaccid, ill—defined religion of love. A modern example of this tired approach, pioneered by the nineteenth-century historian Adolf Harnack, is Robert Farrar Capon’s tellingly titled The Astonished Heart: Reclaiming the Good News from the Lost-And-Found of Church History. This approach is of course (and I am not accusing Johnson of this entirely, just as a tendency) one-sided, as it fails to show that even in the midst of great error and heartbreaking conflict, Jesus has continued to build his church, against which the gates of hell will not stand.

To state this more positively: One does sense that Johnson, as a believer who has taken his dedication to the faith so seriously that he has become a church historian (and perhaps more impressively, in a previous life, a Benedictine monk), trains this harsh light on the faith because he believes the truth of the Gospel and does not wish to see it obscured or diminished by the many errors of the human institutions that have attempted to live that truth in the world. And in the end, this “wounded lover” approach does make this tape series strong broth for strong Christians. But it is not introductory milk for baby Christians, nor (a fortiori) an appropriate introduction for those whose prejudices against the church are already strongly formed in some of the directions Johnson explores.

It is not that the negatives Johnson describes are not truly part of the speckled history of the institutional church. Sadly, they are. Rather, though he begins well, hinting (he cannot do much more in this format) at the great power and resilience of the resurrection experience that catapulted the church to every land and tongue, he does not sustain this sense of the underlying spiritual power and intellectual coherence of Christianity. These themes become—especially in the course’s last third—swallowed up in the negative point about tension and struggle.

Where the course may indeed be very helpful—because the things that it says are true!—is in deepening the understanding of Christians who lean to glib triumphalism. The mistakes of the past that Johnson portrays so concisely must indeed be reckoned with. We must understand that, as Christians, we belong to a body of human believers who are saved—but not yet perfected. There ain’t no perfect church. If we identify any particular confession or ecclesiastical body as God’s Own Way of Doing Things, we will end up defending some very peculiar behavior indeed. And this, for American believers especially, can be a valuable lesson.

For a nuanced presentation that is less heir to this problem, I recommend Johnson’s more extended Teaching Company course: “Early Christianity: The Experience of the Divine.” This course has the added merit of remaining in Johnson’s area of scholarly specialty: New Testament and Christian origins. And all of the strong points I list above apply here even more strongly.

For a later period, I also recommend Brad Gregory’s “History of Christianity in the Reformation Era.” Gregory’s course, in particular, is a sterling example of how church history can be done in a mode that is both critical and affirming. He deals with one of the most divisive and violent periods of Christian history, the Reformation era, yet gives a strong sense of why so many people found this faith worth fighting and dying for. We hear much more of the voice of those involved. (I intend to review, on this site, both of the courses just mentioned. These and other courses are available at the Teaching Company’s site,

The bottom line:

Mature Christians who are not shaken by the organizing principle of the course—the paradox that Christianity has always taught a message of peace and unity and has always become entangled with conflict and division—will find much meat here. They will be challenged in a positive way as they listen to the last one-third of the course, where Johnson lays out the major areas of tension and conflict in the church’s history: the split between the three major confessions, the wrangles of Christianity and politics, the tensions of Christianity and culture, and the struggle of modern Christianity to answer the critical challenge of the Enlightenment and make its way in a secularizing society. For this audience, the course is a worthy choice. CH

By Chris Armstrong

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue #82 in 2004]

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