Someone asked me the other day for recommendations for reading in Church history. Where to start! I became interested in the history of the Church about 12 years ago, and I continue find out there’s far more out there than I ever expected. As a student in canon law, I have lately been researching the origin and development of the legal tradition of the Church, obtaining my own copies of the Decretum of Gratian (~1150) and the Corpus Iuris Canonici (1234-1500), and I am also reading a biography of Pope Benedict XIV (1740-1758), who is considered one of the greatest canonists of all time. This biography is itself one volume of the 40 volume History of the Popes by Ludwig Pastor—which is just to say, there is a lot of history out there.
The dearth of Church histories in English led Newman to reflect in 1845, “It is melancholy to say it, but the chief, perhaps the only English writer who has any claim to be considered an ecclesiastical historian, is the unbeliever Gibbon.” For someone interested in starting, I don’t know if there is a single volume, or even a single multi-volume work, that I could recommend that would be comprehensive. My own Church history classes used Peter Hitchcock’s History of the Catholic Church as a supplement. Also, The Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), despite being out-of-date, remains an excellent resource due to its breadth and availability. A good place to start reading about any era, would be to read about the Pope at that time, and spread out from there, since there is an article for every single Pope until 1913.
Another good starting point: I once heard a phrase, “The lives of the saints are the history of the Church.” The most comprehensive work in that area would be Butler’s 4-volume Lives of the Saints, which you can find online. You can start with today’s date, your birthday, or some other day and start reading about the saints who entered Paradise on that day.
Besides those huge works, the following are list of books I have read and recommend for a better grasp of the history of the Church.
The New Testament. This is the most important work on the list. The New Testament contains all primary texts concerning the first century of the Church: its founding, its conflicts, its growth. If you haven’t read this, start here. There are a few parts in particular that I recommend.
- The Gospel of Matthew. I recommend this Gospel before the others for a number of reasons: it recapitulates all of salvation history leading up to it (Mt. 1), it is the only Gospel to use the word “Church” (Mt. 16 and 18), it contains most extensive account of the role of Peter (Mt. 16), it indicates the continuity with the Old Testament (Mt. 5-6), and it ends with the mission of the Church as well as an early attestation of the formula for baptism (Mt. 28).
- Acts of the Apostles. This is the first written history of the Church that has come down to us. The book begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome, as it tells the story of the inclusion of the Gentiles within the Church.
- 1 Corinthians. All of St. Paul’s letters are worth reading, but this one covers a variety of important topics about life in the Church: moral issues, penal measures, sacramental discipline, celibacy and marriage, scandal, charisms, leadership roles, and a doctrinal treatise on the resurrection of the body.
- Revelation. Probably written toward the end of the 1st century, we see in the letters (Rev. 2-3) the problems facing the local churches. The rest of the book is more difficult, but it shows how the images from the Old Testament are now used to express the revelation of the New Covenant. Scott Hahn, in The Lamb’s Supper, beautifully shows how the images in this text reflect the liturgical reality of its time. (Also: This book is important for understanding some Protestant movements in the last couple centuries which take their beginnings from a “creative” interpretation of this text.)
From the Death of the Apostles to the Council of Nicaea
- Letters of St. Polycarp (69-155) and St. Ignatius (35-107). Most people are shocked to find out that you can still read the writings of the immediate successors to the Apostles. These letters talk about the threat of martyrdom, exhort unity, and witness to the early organization of the Church.
- Letters of St. Cyprian (200-258). Cyprian was a bishop in North Africa who especially dealt with the problem of readmitting Christians who had committed apostasy. Not every letter is as interesting as the next, but the bear witness many aspects of the third century Church: wide communication among bishops (from Rome to Asia), a fixed liturgical practice (he speaks about adding water to wine), the appearance of the minor orders, and much disciplinary practice.
- Church History of Eusebius. This is the work of history on the ancient Church, connecting the time of the Apostles to the Edict of Milan (313) which made Christianity legal. Eusebius gives complete lists of bishops for Rome, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem, from the time of the Apostles to his own day, and he provides an excellent biography of Origen (185-254), the most important theologian before the Council of Nicaea.
From the Council of Nicaea until the End of Antiquity
- Life of St. Antony by St. Athanasius. One of the most influential biographies of its day, written by an important theologians, responsible for leading many to embrace a more ascetic life.
- Retrieving Nicaea by Khaled Anatolios is an excellent work on the history and theology of the Council of Nicaea (325), one of the most important events in the history of the Church. To understand the doctrine laid out at Nicaea and perfected at Constantinople, I recommend reading the Fathers themselves: De Decretis by St. Athanasius, Letter to Serapion by St. Athanasius, Letter to Ablabius by St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Theological Orations of the St. Gregory Nazianzen.
- The Confessions of St. Augustine (354-430). An excellent autobiography by one of the greatest minds in the history of the Church.
- The Russian Church and the Papacy by Vladimir Soloviev. The title may indicate that this belongs elsewhere on the list, but Soloviev presents here one of my favorite accounts of the Council of Chalcedon (451) and its theological consequences. Highly recommended.
- Philokalia, v. 1. The Philokalia is a 5-volume collection of (mostly) Eastern spiritual writers from the 4th to 15th The first volume ends at the 8th century, and so represents the common patrimony of East and West.
- Disputation with Pyrrhus by St. Maximus the Confessor (~649). This work of St. Maximus brings together the theology of the 5 ecumenical councils up to his time and lays the groundwork for the definitions at the 6th ecumenical council (680-681).
- The Rule of St. Benedict (529). This soon became the most widespread rule of life for monks, giving shape to one of the most important institutions in the Middle Ages. I also recommend the Life of St. Benedict by Pope St. Gregory the Great (590-604). This life is contained within St. Gregory’s Dialogues, a work worth reading its entirety, which consider topics such as relics and the afterlife.
- Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (524). Not an obviously Christian work, but one of the most important works for the thought and imagination of the Christian Middle Ages. This mix of prose and poetry considers questions about God, freewill, providence, and so on.
To cap off the ancient period of Church history, I also recommend An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine by John Henry Newman. Newman draws on many examples throughout the early centuries of the Church to present a coherent theory of the development of doctrine. This text itself, published in 1845, had an important effect on theology and the Church in the century or so that followed.
(Next time: Works on Church history from the Middle Ages to the present day.)