McGuckin, John Anthony. The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017.
Justo González, the author of well-known textbooks on church history, writes this about McGuckin’s book: “An excellent overview of the first ten centuries of Christian history. Unsurpassed in its thoroughness, clarity, and organization. This belongs in the library of anyone interested in the history of Christianity.” González’s praise rings true.
John Anthony McGuckin has written one of the most interesting and detailed church history texts that I have ever read.
McGuckin designed The Path of Christianity to be a textbook (xvii). And it is the fruit of more than thirty years of teaching (xviii). In short, it is a book that McGuckin thought through for more than thirty years. McGuckin’s thoughtfulness and care are evident on every page.
Many books today are the result of a few years of effort. Some of these books are good, to be sure. But they are often vapid—they disappear from the public’s interest almost immediately after they appear.
And while the destiny of McGuckin’s textbook is up in the air, his work is one that ought to be consulted for the next decade.
With that said, I do not think The Path of Christianity is a perfect book. But it is a sturdy and learned contribution to the field of Early Christian Studies.
McGuckin has divided the book into two parts. The first part chronicles the history of the church in a roughly chronological fashion. The second part treats a variety of topical issues. At the end of every chapter, McGuckin provides short, relevant readings from early Christian writers to introduce readers to their actual words.
Part one contains twelve chapters:
- The Fertile Second Century
- Blood in the Arena
- Coming of Age
- The Gospel on the Throne
- Reconciling the Word
- Remaking Society
- A Church of the Nations
- The Rise of the Ecumenical Counciliar System in the Fifth and Sixth Centuries
- The Emergence of Christian Byzantium in the Sixth to Ninth Centuries
- The Flourishing of Medieval Rome in the Seventh to Tenth Centuries
- The Formation of Christian Liturgy
- The Great Parting of Ways
The highlights of these chapters include chapter 1, in which McGuckin details the earliest period of Christian history. Chapter 7 also highlights the international scope of the Christianity in ways that are often overlooked elsewhere.
Part two also contains twelve chapters:
- The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church
- The Church and War
- The Development of Christian Hymnography
- Ways of Prayer in the Early Church
- Women in Ancient Christianity
- Healing and Philanthropy in Early Christianity
- The Excercise of Authority in the Church
- Christians and Magic
- The Church and Wealth
- Church and Slavery in an Age of Oppression
- Attitudes to Sexuality in the Early Church
- A Brief Account of Ancient Christian Art
Of all the chapters, Chapter 13 (#1 above) was the most disappointing. McGuckin subscribes to (and appears to make early Christians subscribe to) a kind of relativism. He sees the text as part of the community of faith. Thus, readers should be “sensitive to the community of meanings that constitute the ‘community meaning'” (767).
This particular hermeneutic allows McGuckin (along with the idea that Christians share a consonant kerygmatic purpose), I suspect, to be comfortable accepting the theology of early Christian authors who do not accurately interpret the biblical text. McGuckin explains, “This commits ‘ecclesial’ interpreters, of course, to a large body of biblical interpretation that may not be particularly ‘accurate’ but that remains good insofar as it proved its utility in building up the faith of the community and entering into the heart of the community” (769).
He further laments, “Some [early biblical interpretation], frankly, is historically inept and based on symbolic rhetorical elaborations of the texts, not serious contextual analysis. But not to discard it signifies that the ecclesial mind is not enslaved to a historical-critical methodology, since symbolic forms of truth telling can be equally revelatory of deeper mysteries, especially if they speak to deep-seated patterns of Christian thinking across the ages” (769n9).
In fact, I agree that some early biblical interpretation does not read the Bible contextually and is not accurate. But I don’t feel compelled to receive such writing as authoritative. I also remain unpersuaded that non-contextual or symbolic readings of Scripture can reveal “deeper mysteries” than a contextual reading of the Scripture.
As a Protestant who subscribes to Sola Scriptura, McGuckin’s view of history and the ressourcement of Christian theology is unacceptable. And I am not sure that early Christian writers would agree with McGuckin on the matter!
But I digress.
Besides these two parts, McGuckin provides a short overview of the seven ecumenical councils, lists of popes, patriarchs, and emperors, a prelude, an epilogue, and indices. The book comes to a whopping 1,207 pages + xix pages of introductory material.
Despite my critique above, McGuckin’s book has much to commend. Here are a couple features of McGuckin’s work that commend its excellence.
1. A Dedication to His Sources
Upon reading McGuckin, I knew that he had read the early Christian material that he spoke on. In other words, he has read this voluminous amount of literature, including early Christian historians (e.g., Sozoman). The familiarity with his source allows him to write with confidence and to give insight into his subject matter beyond what readers normally discover. Part of this is because his book is the result of a lifetime of reading and of teaching.
Interestingly, one can discern that McGuckin shares an affinity with Origen. According to McGuckin, Origen understands people to have been pre-existing spiritual beings that surrounded God (246). But people fell from their contemplation of God in various ways. So people spend their lives in the flesh trying to ascend back to God (246–47).
While in many ways helpful, McGuckin’s reading of Origen might be based on biased texts of Origen and a misunderstanding his theology as John Behr details in his new edition of On First Principles.
2. Samples of Key Texts
Each chapter provides readings of key texts (noted above). This is so important. It gives life to the chapters and words to the otherwise mysterious figures of the past. In short, I deeply appreciated this feature of McGuckin’s work, and readers will benefit from this feature.
Sometimes in reading a book, it is easy to remember the areas with which we disagree. In this review, I’ve noted areas that I find to be problems in McGuckin’s work. But these problems do not detract from the overall quality of the book to the extent that readers should not buy The Path of Christianity. The opposite is true.
McGuckin’s work is excellent and should be consulted in classrooms. The Path of Christianity is one of the best Church History tomes that I have encountered. This doesn’t mean it is perfect or that I agree with everything in it. Instead, it’s a skilled work of a master historian who despite his mastery requires a critical reading of his work. Like any good work.
Should you buy it? If you have any interest in the first thousand years of Church History, buy it. If you have any interest in reading someone who has mastered the sources, buy it.
Disclosure: Parasource Marketing & Distribution provided me the book for review without an obligation to give it a positive review.
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