Reviewed by Ben Rogers
I know of no book quite like Gerald’s Bray excellent new work entitled The Church: A Theological and Historical Account. It contains a remarkable mix of biblical exposition, church history, historical theology, and pastoral wisdom, which makes it difficult to know precisely where to place The Church on the bookshelves. My copy rests between books on the medieval church due to the author’s outstanding treatment of the era (see chapters 4-5). However, there is no doubt that it belongs somewhere. It is an outstanding introduction to Protestant ecclesiology, and Protestants of various denominational stripes are sure to welcome it warmly.
The Church is not a history of the church, nor is it an apology for a particular type of ecclesiology. Rather, it explains how and why different Christian bodies have come to exist and what they believe the church ought to be and to do. By setting these different traditions in their historical context the author hopes to point Christians to the common elements that underlie our differences and promote mutual understanding and recognition.
Summary and Evaluation
The first two chapters address the biblical data. Chapter 1 discusses the Old Testament origins of the church. He argues that though the church is rooted in the Old Testament, ancient Israel cannot be regarded as the Old Testament church. The church, properly speaking was founded by the risen Christ through his Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Chapter 2 surveys the New Testament church’s development, organization, mission, and doctrine. Undoubtedly, these chapters will prove to be the most controversial of the whole since biblical interpretation necessarily involves making exegetical decisions that others will disagree with. Bray’s treatment, however, is remarkably even-handed and models the very humility he calls for when addressing controversial topics such as church polity and infant baptism. Readers may disagree with the author on certain issues, but they will not find him to be disagreeable.
Chapter 3, “The Persecuted Church,” covers the time between the passing of the Apostles and the Edict of Milan, which legalized Christianity in 313. He examines the Apostles’ legacy, the rise of heresy, the explosive spread of the gospel, Christian persecution in the second and third centuries, the development of the Episcopate, and the evolving doctrine of the church with Cyprian of Carthage as its chief architect. It is a brief but excellent introduction to the post-Apostolic era. Furthermore, his treatment of the Episcopacy and the doctrine of the church were particularly strong. The extended discussion of the Tübingen thesis was distracting and felt somewhat out of place, but it served as a good introduction to debates regarding orthodoxy and heresy nonetheless.
Chapter 4, “The Imperial Church,” tackles roughly the next thousand years of church history. With such expansive parameters it is hard to believe that such a chapter could do anything more than scratch the surface of an entire millennium, but Bray manages to pull it off in just over fifty pages – a remarkable feat in itself! He moves topically and chronologically through a number of critical ecclesiological developments including the relationship between church and state, the rise of the papacy, the development of canon law, schism and heresy, the sacramental system, the expansion of the Medieval church, and the Great Schism between the East and the West. His treatment of canon law, the church expansion, and the Eastern churches are particularly outstanding, and they showcase the author’s depth and breadth as a historian.
Chapter 5, “The Crisis of the Imperial Church,” covers a short, but extremely important span of church history that covers the time between the Fourth Lateran Council and the Protestant Reformation. The chapter chronicles the various crises that threatened the imperial church, which included the rise of universities, financial woes, conflicts with secular rulers, the conciliar movement, and internal disintegration, as well as the surprising revival of the papacy under Pope Eugenius IV. The greatest challenge of all was, of course, the Protestant Reformation. It attacked the unquestioned ecclesiological assumptions of the church in the West for the first time, and produced entirely new definitions of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.” These new definitions are explained in the next chapter, which is appropriately entitled, “What is the Church?”
In chapter 6 the author presents three different answers to the previous question. He divides the post-Reformation church in the West into three camps: the conservative (Catholic) reformers, the pragmatic (magisterial) reformers, and the radical reformers. Interestingly, Bray places the Reformed church in the “radical” camp – a move likely to provoke the ire of those who strongly identify with the Reformed and the Anabaptist traditions. Debates about taxonomy notwithstanding, the question he poses and the answers he provides are tremendously insightful. He shows that the Reformation changed the definition of the church for all parties involved, including Roman Catholics, and created an entirely new kind of church – a Protestant church.
In the seventh and final chapter the author asks “What Should the Church Be?” and provides a survey of how this question has been answered by different denominational groups. This overview highlights the author’s impressive knowledge of different denominations, and I was happily surprised to see him mention the views of new Apostolic groups, Missouri Synod Lutherans, and the Church of Christ in his survey. He concludes the chapter and the work by discussing to possibility of “a way forward” for Protestantism. Bray refuses to “pronounce dogmatically” on how to do so, but he outlines a number of principles that can “serve as a starting point.” Though I wish the author would have been more prescriptive in this section, I appreciate his hesitation. Once again, the author models the humility he commends.
This review would be incomplete without mentioning the appendices at the end of the book. The first lists and briefly describes the “The Ecumenical Councils,” which includes the eight ancient church councils, the ten medieval councils, and the three Post-Reformation councils. The summaries are excellent and the footnotes point the reader to great resources. This appendix is followed by another helpful addition – a “for further reading” section. It contains a short bibliography (one to three entries) of important studies that reflect particular denominational backgrounds and concerns that may be of interest to readers. Both of these appendices are valuable resources in their own right and readers are sure to appreciate these additions.
If you are looking for a statement and defense of a particular kind of ecclesiology, Gerald Bray’s The Church: A Theological and Historical Account is not for you. However, if you are looking for a biblical, historical, and theological account of the church written by a world-class church historian and historical theologian, then you will definitely want to purchase Bray’s new work.
Buy the books
The Church: A Theological and Historical Account