Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Walker, A Diamond in the Protestant Rough?

Williston Walker (1860-1922) was the one time Professor of Ecclesiological Studies at Yale at the turn of the last century. His most famous work remains his A History of the Christian Church, (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1918), a work which I have heard nothing but praise (from both Protestants and Catholics alike). Yet in all honesty, I feared Walker's History would surely be plagued by either liberal Protestant church reconstructions1 or possibly a polemical Protestant re-reading of ecclesiastical history,2 and I simply did not want to waste either my time or top dollar on.

With this in mind I put off Walker until perhaps I would run into this work in the used book section. For surely of "moderate" Protestant church histories there is no end.3 Why would I really need another Protestant retelling of church history?4 Well, this weekend I found Walker's work in the used section and today I took a few hours to polish off the beginning of Walker's History, (that of the Church's origins and the early Church). I must say Walker is a pleasant read and is far superior to most Protestant presentations of ecclesiastical history that I have read, if not, the best.

I have always said that a good barometer of a given tabling of Church history by anyone is the handling of the early church in relationship to the transition from the New Testament period to the second century Church. Many are the pitfalls that can quickly expose the commentators presuppositions.5 On the other hand Walker deals with most of the controversial nuances of this early transitional period with studious caution and seems to read the evidence as neutral as possible. 6

So then, if you have never read a balanced treatment of church history from a Protestant perspective (or if you happen to cross Walker in the used section) by all means pick this up and note the difference between a professional and a polemicist.


[1]. Such as that for example of Harnack's or Baur's.

[2]. Such as can be found in every Protestant denominational attempt of a "church history," albeit from their particular skewed viewpoint.

[3]. The few that come to mind but of which I deem "moderate" due to the fact that some bias remains clear in the handling of ecclesiastical history (especially of the formation of the earliest church), Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, (Penguin, 1993); Jaroslav Pelikan, multi-volume The Christian Tradition, (University of Chicago Press); Justo Gonzalez, multi-volume The Story of Christianity, (Harper One), etc.

[4]. Walker was a Congregationalist.

[5]. The Protestant agenda is quickly noticeable, either in the tired out mantra - that the "true" Christian church "fell into darkness" in this transition period only to be rescued by "X" - denominational founder, or in the notion (as in the disciples of Harnack) that the early church was infested by "X" outside philosophy (Hellenization, i.e., Harnack) and thus, "true," "Judaic" Christianity was lost. Not only Protestants are guilty of reading into church history. The transitional period is painted in broad negative strokes by many a (liberal) Catholic scholar, such as in the arrangement given in Richard P. McBrien, The Church: The Evolution of Catholicism, (New York: Harper One, 2008), wherein the rise of the mono-episcopal form in the transition period is seen as a power hungry grab for juridical power and the attempt to centralize the church in an outdated hierarchical system.

[6]. This is not to say that I agree with everything Walker says but he has surprised me with his balanced treatment thus far. One fault that comes to mind is Walker's scant interaction with the secondary literature. However, Walker has proven himself well immersed in the common problems in the field of Patristics as it relates to church history.

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