Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Davidson, A Public Faith: A Book Review

I try and read at least one church history book a year.  Every time I do it always amazes me how different the perspective of a different historian can be.  Ivor Davidson is head of St Andrew's divinty school at the moment although he used to be at Otago in NZ.  Davidson's book is part of an 8 part Monarch History of the Church, so this book covers 312-600AD (actually we get well into the 600s by the end of the book) and so is a nice medium between one volume church histories and a more detailed study on one characer or controversy.  I picked this up in the bargain bin at my local Christian bookstore and have been glad I did.  On the strength of this one I'll be looking out for the others in the series. 

Davidson accomplishes the usual survey of historical theological disputes in 7 of the 14 chapters.  The writing is engaging and Davidson is admirably evenhanded taking care not expose and explain the political influences on the debates and their results but without overstating them.  He is careful to locate each theological dispute in its context.  Davidson's phd is in patristics and this shows up in his affectionate and assured handling of the church fathers.  The emporers, from Constantine onward, are also major characters.  Davidson clearly has his own opinions on the theological subjects and isn't shy of exposing his own bias, but usually only towards the end of chapters and certainly not in a way that suggests it affects his portrayal of the protagonists. 

The other 7 chapters help keep the book really interesting, taking on either broad surveys or more detailed examinations of certain areas.  For example, chapters on Christian ascetics, worship, barbarian Europe and the spread of christianity in England.  Those chapters help the book go into areas that (at least in my limited reading in Church history) tend to get sidelined and certainly kept things interesting.

Given that this is more of a survey of a historical period the book's primary thesis is that the era 312-600 represents the church going public (with emperial support) and that this new public persona for the church was a mixed blessing. I doubt it is a thesis anyone sensible would quibble with but as a deliniation of the ways in which the church's public character both brought opportunities for the gospel and resulted in compromises of the gospel A Public Faith is excellent.

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