Book Review: “The Penguin History of the Church, Part 1: The Early Church” by Henry Chadwick (1993)

The Early Church by Henry Chadwick may rest in pleasant company in the Religious History section of the library, but very few other books can claim as its author an historian as capable or proven as Henry Chadwick. In this brief book review, we will examine Sir Henry Chadwick’s approach to the immense task of recounting a detailed history of the Early Church, from its simple yet Apostolic roots in Jerusalem to the split of the massive and complex churches of the East and West: we will focus on Chadwick’s effectiveness as a theologian, as well as the process and content of his book.

Henry Chadwick, an English theologian of world renown and “Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire”,[1] would never have been mistaken for a man who simply dabbled in the study of Church history—this study, for him, encapsulated the focus and desires of his entire life. Not only had he mastered Patristic Greek, but he had also translated a number of Church Fathers’ works, such as those of Origen and Augustine. He gave his life to theology and theological education, becoming the first man in four hundred years to head a school at both Oxford (Dean of Christ Church, 1969-1979) and Cambridge (Master of Peterhouse, 1987-1993).[2] Needless to say, Pelican Publishing’s choice for who should author Volume 1 of their series on the Early Church came easily. Few religious history books are as effective as Henry’s The Early Church. His position as an Anglican also prepared him for this challenge of compiling an unbiased history of the Church, for Anglicanism represents “a middle ground, or via media, between Reformed Protestantism and Roman Catholicism,”[3] neither of which crave to acknowledge the roots of the other. Plus, from his Ecumenical viewpoint, he successfully wades through the surviving records of the Early Church to distinguish between fiction and non-, for much of recorded history is incomplete, pieces intentionally preserved or ignored by the “winners”.[4]

Chadwick has laid out his book thematically, embedded in a much looser chronological structure. In each chapter, he has chosen specific men or controversies or events around which to develop his themes. In Chapter 7, for example, Chadwick discusses the roller-coaster Christians experienced during the second and third centuries due to the succession of tolerant and intolerant Emperors, moving through the libellus-issues and persecutions of Decius (249-251)[5] all the way up to the early reign and tolerance of Constantine (306-337).[6] Analyzing the effects of this persecution against and sudden freedom for Christians, Chadwick remarks on the long-term results such camaraderie between Church and State eventually had, both with internal schism and external compromise. While being a master of theology, Chadwick expects a certain amount of familiarity with the topic from his reader, and so one might find it convenient to carry with this book some supplemental reading.[7]

As with any work of history, Chadwick has chosen throughout his book certain characters to emphasize and other, otherwise important characters to barely mention by name. For instance, in Chapter ten Chadwick lays out a short yet vivid account of the reign of Julian and his “pagan revival”[8], followed by a much longer account of Pope Damasus,[9] a character barely mentioned in other history books.[10] Reasons for this emphasis might include the fact that, in his ascension to the office, Pope Damasus received great criticism from Christians and non-Christians alike for his ambition and worldliness, even going so far as to accuse him or murder. Chadwick, on the other hand, finds great virtue in the effects of Damasus’ reign (such as his fusion of “old Roman civic and imperial pride with Christianity”’[11]) and attempts, after 1650 years of apparent misunderstanding, to set the record straight. Chadwick does well in detailing the lives of other important men like the Church Fathers, such as Origen[12] and even the Apostle Paul.[13]

While Henry Chadwick’s recount of the Early Church can grow heavy at times, his book has certainly accomplished the goal of offering a clear, unbiased approach to this often-misunderstood and misinterpreted era. Not only an authority on the ancient languages, peoples, customs and doctrines of the times, Chadwick can also claim vast understanding of the worship and art of the Early Church.[14] And even from the chosen cover-art for the revised edition of his book (that of furrowed brows and accusing fingers of Paul and the Greeks), we get an inkling of the tempestuousness of these years of emergent Christianity recorded on its pages. How distorted the Good News of Christ eventually became in the hands of the powerful! Praise be to God that history did not end in AD 600, and Chadwick’s history book is just the first of many on that library shelf.

[1] Retrieved on April27, 2010 from[2] Retrieved on April29, 2010 from 

[3] Retrieved on April27, 2010 from

[4] Diemer, Dr. Carl (2010). Liberty University Online. CHHI 520, Video Lesson 18.

[5] Chadwick, 118

[6] Ibid., 122-124

[7] Justo L. Gonzalez The Story of Christianity: Volume 1 (1984) offers a simpler, more interesting view of Church History; it may also be helpful for the reader to have access to the internet while reading Chadwick.

[8] Chadwick, 154

[9] Chadwick, 160-164. Chadwick mentions Damasus on a total of thirteen pages throughout his book.

[10] Gonzalez, 202

[11] Chadwick, 162

[12] Ibid., 107

[13] Ibid., 13, 18-19

[14] Ibid., Chapter 18

© 2010 E.T.

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