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The Must-Read Documents in Church History

Who are the most important figures in the last seven centuries of church history? What are their most significant writings? Which documents are most representative of this time period? How should seminary students be introduced to the church history timeline, with its dizzying array of movements and opinions?

These are a few of the questions that I asked myself more than five years ago when I first taught a course that surveys the specific period from the Reformation to the present day. I wanted to expose students first-hand to the primary sources, the writings from these important figures themselves.

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When it came time to choose textbooks for that first course, I was shocked to discover that there was only one anthology of primary sources available covering this time period in the history of the church. And that book, though it includes many good readings, is too brief (and selective), and it does not include the late medieval period leading up to the 16th century. Needless to say, I spent an inordinate amount of time collecting resources from a number of different books and websites for students to read.

After a little internet research, I discovered that many Christian colleges and seminaries offer (and require) a course that covers this exact time period, usually the “second half” of a year-long survey. So, I was inspired to try my hand at creating a list of readings in historical theology—and ultimately one of the Church history books—appropriate for this course.

The result is The Reformation to the Modern Church: A Reader in Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014). It is a primary-source reader with excerpts covering from the late medieval period up through the early 21st century, roughly the last 700 years. 

About the book

Within the 113 selections, a wide range of authors is represented, some of whom you may have read and others you may never have heard of. They include writers as varied as Pope Boniface VIII, Erasmus, Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Janneken van Munstdorp, Ignatius of Loyola, Jacob Arminius, Jonathan Edwards, G. E. Lessing, William Carey, Friedrich Schleiermacher, John Henry Newman, Karl Barth, Karl Rahner, David Bentley Hart, and many others.

The reading selections have been distributed into nine chapters, each of which begins with an introduction to the period and some of its controversies and then closes with suggestions for further secondary-source reading.

Each selection is also preceded by a brief introduction to set the immediate context, as well as a few footnotes of explanation along the way within each reading. I also composed brief biographical sketches of the most significant figures. All of these aids are intended to help contextualize the writings.

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The focus of the collection is more on theology than on social history, though social concerns are not ignored. The goal of the book is to acquaint students (and anyone interested in church history) with the most influential figures and documents of this period in the Western church. It is meant to accompany an instructor’s lectures or secondary-source textbooks, but, with my editorial introductions, it may also function on its own as a survey of the time period.

Engaging with primary sources is an indispensable component of learning history. My intention is to introduce students to the key figures, doctrines, and controversies of the modern era, and there is no better way to do this than for students to be exposed to the key documents themselves. Ideally, students will become fascinated with some of the excerpts and be inspired to read further in those documents and authors.

So who are the most influential theologians of the last seven centuries? Which ones are the need-to-read documents? After you get the book and find out, let me know if you think I got the list right!

Here is a review of the book, which, after a peculiar aside on what constitutes a primary source, is quite complimentary.

And here is a link to my Amazon author page so you can purchase the book and begin learning more church history.

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Austin Graduate School of Theology is an Austin theological seminary offering B.A. and M.A. ministry degrees, and Austin Grad is accredited by the same agency that accredits Abilene Christian University, Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas A&M University, Texas State University, The University of Texas, and others. Austin Grad is affiliated with the Church of Christ, and is one of the top Christian colleges in Texas and among the top seminaries in Texas. Austin Grad promotes faith seeking understanding and is committed to providing a high quality education for those who desire to be equipped to expand the Kingdom of God.

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