History of the World Christian Movement, Volume II: Modern Christianity from 1454-1800, Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Orbis Books, 2012) $40.00
Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist changed the academic game of Christian history in 2001 with the publication of History of the World Christian Movement, Vol I. That previous tome reaped several awards and almost unanimous critical praise for its comprehensive look at all facets of Christianity—Latin and Greek, male and female, orthodox and schismatic, from Spain to China, from Scandinavia to Ethiopia. The second volume continues the series with all the vitality and thoroughness of its predecessor – little surprise, as Irvin is President of New York Theological Seminary and Sunquist was recently appointed as Dean of Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of Intercultural Studies. Their scholarship is impeccable.
Volume II begins with the immediate aftermath of Constantinople’s fall to the Ottomans in 1453. It is a tipping point in world history; Latin Christendom, previously preoccupied with a great deal of infighting—politically and theologically—realizes that its sister-state, the Byzantine Empire, is dead at the hands of the Turks. Though Byzantium had long been in decline, its complete disappearance provokes a new and fearful mindset for Rome. The Vatican suddenly is very interested in recent technological developments in seafaring, and the two greatest kingdoms of Christendom—Portugal and newly-birthed Spain—find their navigating experiments for the sake of commerce backed by the Pope. The Age of European Exploration begins with the hope of finding spices, cloth, and the far side of India, but perhaps most importantly—a way to outflank and surround Islam. Ships are equipped with soldiers and missionaries for just such an opportunity as Catholic priests are sent into Islamic territories, looking for Orthodox survivors.
Much to everyone’s surprise—including the reader’s—a vast amount of twists are in store. This history book is not simply about how missionaries “took” Christianity elsewhere during the Age of Exploration while this or that debate raged between the humanists and the Scholastics back in Europe. This book tells of Portuguese missionaries shocked to discover Christians in Ethiopia and India, Orthodox Christianity reviving in Russian exile, and Reformers undermining Catholic doctrine as the Turks march on the Balkans. Even much of this pales in comparison to what probably changed the shape of the world forever—arguably the most powerful nation on the globe destroying its intercontinental navy of 3,500 vessel as China chose isolationism instead of colonialism, allowing Spain, Portugal, and the Netherlands to land, colonize, and evangelize across southeast Asia and Oceana. This book truly looks at the entire scope of Christianity in the massively turbulent years between 1454 and 1800, and thus much of what Westerners have either forgotten or never heard is brought to the fore; from the conquest and “conversion” of the Americas to Francis Xavier landing in Japan, from Martin Luther nailing his theses on the door of Wittenberg to the Babylonian Church’s struggle to survive in Islamic Persia, any and every strand of Christianity is examined and woven together into a tapestry that depicts the Body of Christ at its most volatile, closing right before the shrinking of the world with the Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
All of this may sound like a ton of information, and it is. The book is filled with facts and events, dates and conditions of empires and rebellions, heroes and villains. But this is one of the book’s greatest strengths. Often, laypeople—and at times scholars as well—think that events happen in some sort of vacuum, but that is not the case. World War II did not just break out; factors as diverse as the rise of communism and Imperialism, the collapse of monarchical Europe, the Great Depression, and the economic devastation of World War I all played a part in leading up to Germany’s invasion of Poland. This is the same concept that biblical scholars use when studying texts in their original social and historical contexts, and it is the modus operandi for Irvin and Sunquist; they realize it is their responsibility as historians to give the reader the true context of what is happening in the universal Church. That cannot be done without a great deal of “secular” history as a backdrop.
Thus, Volume II follows the stories of the sultans, tsars, Confucianists, Shoguns, and philosophers just as much as the Jesuits, Inquisitors, Reformers, missionaries, and Popes; a thorough treatment of the Reformation is accompanied by crash courses in Russian history, Sikh theology, and Chinese ancestor worship. It is impossible to fully understand one side without the other as the history of the Christian Church is a part of the larger world history. Irvin and Sunquist masterfully situate the former in the latter. The result is a not a list of events and dates—which is always a danger of history books—but instead a web of interconnected stories that spark, catalyze, and inform each other.
Despite this colossal achievement of context and connection, Volume II is easily understandable. It may be dense with information, but Irvin and Sunquist ultimately write it for the layperson and academic alike. Their prose is clear, their lingo unencumbered by academic jargon and instead of the common passive and plodding narrative of text books, Volume II moves with a life that is refreshing and exciting. The book is not just well-written, it is well-composed. Sentences neither leave the reader in the dark nor put them to sleep; the language of the authors does justice to the tragedies and triumphs of the human beings preserved in these pages.
The History of the World Christian Movement series is a much needed voice in the conversation of contemporary faith, and Vol. II might prove more crucial than either its predecessor or its successor. This history gives us a panorama of the Christian world during centuries of immense political, scientific, theological, and economic shifting as the world around the Church was changing. This tome shows us where those opportunities were missed and where they were grasped. Irvin and Sunquist focus our attention on events, debates, and movements that often parallel the challenges we face in the Church today: how should doctrinal dissonance affect cooperation, what is the dividing line between Christian and non-Christian, what is the proper distance between church and state, how should the Church carry itself in the context of the larger culture? Themes such as these run throughout the book, and the contemporary believer will find the volume full of warning embodied in villains and follies while taking encouragement from the heroes and martyrs. This, coupled with the storytelling that rivals most fiction authors today, makes Irvin and Sunquist’s Volume II well worth the time and energy of a close read.
Reed Metcalf is a writer of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. He and his wife Monica currently live in Pasadena, CA, where Reed is enrolled in Fuller Seminary’s Master of Divinity program.