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Why Read Sketches from Church History?

Category Book Reviews
Date April 30, 2010

The subtitle of this book is, ‘An illustrated account of 20 centuries of Christ’s power’ – an ambitious effort for a 250-page paperback.1 Its author, S. M. Houghton, gallops through the history of the New Testament Church from its beginning at Christ’s death and resurrection all the way up to the 1900s. The pace in the early chapters is very rapid, covering the first 700 years in a mere 30 pages, but devoting much more space to the key people and doctrines which came to the forefront at the time of the sixteenth-century Reformation and afterwards.

In general terms, most people agree that it is a good thing to have some historical awareness – it is obvious that everything in the present day has come somehow from our past. Being familiar with how things have worked out over time in the Church is especially useful, so that we may have a proper perspective both on our faith (what we believe) and our practice (how we behave). So why is this particular book recommended?

For one thing, Sketches from Church History is worth reading because it has such a broad scope, not only in time but in geography. It covers events in Rome, North Africa, Britain, Germany, France, America, India, the New Hebrides – and more! You do not need to be an expert in Church history in order to pick up this book – rather, it is intended to give you a general overview. You can then follow up what you find out here by reading other more detailed books on whatever time or place, or person or doctrine, you found interesting.

But it is also a book which could be very inspiring to read. You will be struck by how fierce the persecutions have been. The earliest Christians were very cruelly treated. The Waldenses were also harshly persecuted in the Middle Ages. Again the Reformers had to struggle against tremendous opposition as they encouraged obedience to the Word of God. You will see too how bravely they continued to speak and act faithfully – how their lives were organised around a sense that God was worth obeying, even if the costs to themselves were huge. These costs might involve loss of status in society, or being put on trial in courts of law, or even being tortured and killed. It makes us wonder whether our religion is made of the same stuff – whether we are prepared to resist ridicule, harassment, and even worse sorts of persecution in the pursuit of loyalty to the Lord. It should also lead us to admire the way that the Lord strengthened these people to follow him, even when the difficulties were often so astonishing.

There were of course other, more peaceful times when the Church’s position in society was stronger. Then, as S. M. Houghton illustrates, Christians took the opportunity to be helpful to others round about them. Some carried out social reforms, for example – like William Wilberforce and the Earl of Shaftesbury in the 1800s. Others brought the gospel of Christ to people who had never heard it before – like John G. Paton in the New Hebrides, Henry Martyn in India and Persia, and David Brainerd in North America. This is a book which provides you with countless examples of obedience to Christ, whether in doing for him or suffering for him.

Another reason for recommending this book is how well the writer understood the doctrines which were at stake at the various turning-points of the Church’s history. One of the interesting things about Church history is how doctrines come to be better understood over time, as different parts of scriptural truth are attacked or debated or clarified. In very brief outline, S. M. Houghton covers the heroic Athanasius, who defended the doctrine of how Christ can be both God and man in one person (around the year 325); John Wycliffe, who maintained the truth that the bread and wine are not literally changed into the body and blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (in the 1300s), and of course Martin Luther and the other Reformers, who rediscovered the central importance of justification by faith alone (in the 1500s). In the Scottish situation, the Covenanting period (the 1600s) and the Disruption of 1843 are also briefly covered. S. M. Houghton’s biblical stance on all the doctrinal discussions means that this book can be read with confidence.

Finally, this book is worth reading because of the perspective it takes on providence. By offering us Church history as ‘an account of Christ’s power’, this book reminds us that things do not just happen in the world – in society, or in the Church. It was God who sent out the apostles to make disciples of heathen nations; it was God who allowed persecutors to harass Christians; it was God who equipped pastors and people to withstand persecution; it was God who gave theologians insight into the truths that the Scriptures teach; it was God who converted the sinners who listened as the truths of the Scriptures were proclaimed. Christ assured his Church at the outset, ‘Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world,’ and this book provides us with material to understand how this can be true, in everything that the Church has ever experienced, both in the good times and the bad – a principle which applies right down to the present day.

Rebecca Frawley has written a Student Workbook,2 to go with Sketches from Church History.<br.

Notes

    • Sketches From Church History

      Sketches from Church History

      An Illustrated Account of 20 Centuries of Christ's Power

      by  S. M. Houghton


      price $23.00 $20.70
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      Description

      The subtitle of this book is, ‘An illustrated account of 20 centuries of Christ’s power’ – an ambitious effort for a 250-page paperback.1 Its author, S. M. Houghton, gallops through the history of the New Testament Church from its beginning at Christ’s death and resurrection all the way up to the 1900s. The pace in […]

    • Sketches From Church History
      price $17.00 $15.30

      Description

      The subtitle of this book is, ‘An illustrated account of 20 centuries of Christ’s power’ – an ambitious effort for a 250-page paperback.1 Its author, S. M. Houghton, gallops through the history of the New Testament Church from its beginning at Christ’s death and resurrection all the way up to the 1900s. The pace in […]

Taken with permission from the April 2010 Young People’s Magazine issued by the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

www.fpchurch.org.uk

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