Book Review: John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years

McGuckin, John Anthony. The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2017. 1209 pgs., Hb.; $65.00 Link to IVP

John Anthony McGuckin’s new book is a substantial contribution to the intellectual and social history of the first millennium of Christianity. Intentionally designed for use in a college or seminary classroom, McGuckin provides an excellent overview of major historical movements from the apostolic era through the Great Schism.

The Path of ChristianityOften church histories from evangelical publishers lean towards a western, Protestant form of Christianity and move rapidly from the Augustine to the Reformation (when the church really started). This is not the case for The Path of Christianity for two reasons. First, the book intentionally limits itself to the first millennium of the church. Few church history textbooks limit themselves to this period. Second, McGuckin is an archpriest of the Romanian Orthodox Church and his academic interests are solidly in the pre-Reformation period. He demonstrates an encyclopedic knowledge of Church History, having written twenty-five works of historical theology, including major works on St. Cyril of Alexandria, Gregory of Nazianzus, and St. Symeon as well as a survey of Orthodox Church history (The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Theology, & Spiritual Culture, Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). As a result, McGuckin’s history is richly illustrated with a wide range of voices from both the eastern and western church.

The first twelve chapters of the book survey the first ten centuries of church history, from the end of the first through the eleventh century. Each chapter is well-organized and carefully outlined. The clearly marked sections will assist students as they work through the often lengthy chapters. Following each chapter is a “short reader” with excerpts from key texts from the period covered in the chapter. McGuckin also includes a “for further reading” bibliography organized into sections matching the text in the chapter.

At 144 pages, the first chapter is by far the most comprehensive as it covers the “fertile second century.” McGuckin surveys Jewish Christian groups (Encarites, Nazorenes, Ebionites, Elkesaites), Gnostic writers and Apostolic Fathers along with substantial sections on Montanism, Marcion, the Quarterodecimans, and Irenaeus. The chapter ranges into the third century with a section on the Monarchic movement (up to Hippolytus and Novatian of Rome). What is surprising about the book is the detail McGuckin is able to include. His descriptions of the four Jewish Christian groups are longer than most Church history textbooks (if they include early Jewish Christianity at all). His brief descriptions of each of the Apostolic Fathers are excellent introductions and his thirty pages on the Monarchian movement is more than enough to sort out the complexity of this issue.

As the title “Blood in the Arena” implies, the second chapter survey’s Rome’s response to Christianity from Nero through the Diocletian persecution, with attention to the status of Christianity in the Roman Empire. He has a lengthy discussion of Tertullian’s social theology as a response to imperial oppression. McGuckin includes rival non-Christian groups in this chapter (Mithras, Isis, Cyble and Manichaeism) as well as Christian relations with the Jews. Finally, McGuckin devotes a section of the chapter to the second century apologists (Justin Martyr through Minucius Felix).

The historical section also covers the development of theology as well. For example, the fifth chapter “Reconciling the World” begins with a short overview of Paul’s doctrine of reconciliation and how this doctrine was developed in both eastern and western penitential theology. McGuckin devotes about ten pages to eastern penitential canons including the rarely-discussed Synod of Ancyra in 314 and the influence of the canons of this Synod on the eastern monastic movement. This chapter has a lengthy section on the development of the monastic movement, once again beginning with its intellectual roots in the Hellenistic world and the New Testament. McGuckin includes brief sections on Syrian, Egyptian, and Palestinian monastic orders, taking into account the impact of Islam on these monastic centers. The chapter concludes with a collection of short readings from several monastic canons as well as Augustine’s Letter to a Female Monastic Community.

The second part of the book is a collection of topics of interest to scholars and historians of the first thousand years of the church. These chapters are intended as a social history of ideas and therefore trace an idea through the full thousand year period surveyed in the historical section. The topics in this section are:

  • 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 Exercise of Authority in the Church: Orders and Offices
  • 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

Most of the chapters begin in the world of Hellenism and trace the issue through the biblical material into the early church. Some of these issues concern developments in worship, liturgy and art, but others are social issues (magic, wealth, slavery, sexuality). This volume is worth the price for the second half of the book alone.

For example, in his chapter on Healing and Philanthropy, McGuckin begins with healing in ancient Hellenism before quickly surveying the New Testament and patristic writers. He traces the same history for philanthropy, although the Hellenistic section is longer in this case. These two threads are combined in a short section on philanthropy in the Byzantine liturgy and the Hospital as symbol of the church. He includes short readings on the topic from biblical literature (Wisdom, Sirach, Luke, James and Paul), Gregory of Nazianzus and Pseudo-Basil.

McGuckin’s chapter on the development of Christian hymnody also begins with origin of Greek hymns (perhaps found in the Pauline letters) and compares them to pre-Christian Hellenistic hymns. There is a larger collection of short readings for this chapter in order to illustrate some of the more obscure early Christian hymns. These hymns are often translated by McGuckin and are annotated with comments suggesting poetic allusions. For most readers, this collection of hymns may be a first introduction to the vast number of hymns, songs and sacred poetry from the first millennium of the church.

As the bibliographies make clear, each chapter in this book is worthy of a monograph. In fact, given the length of the chapters and the slightly small font, several chapters could have been published as short stand-alone books. Despite the length of the book, McGuckin distills complex historical problems into a readable chapters and offers the interested reader an excellent list of resources to go much deeper. For students, these chapters are excellent introductions, but also resources for further research and writing.

Conclusion. Because McGuckin’s The Path of Christianity is so detailed, it is an important contribution to the study of church history. It is written in a style which will appear to the general reader as well as a student in a seminary class. But the massive amount of data in the book makes in a valuable reference work as well. It is possible the book is too much for classroom use, especially in a single, general seminary church history class. Nevertheless, the book will serve well as a standard reference for early church history.


NB: Thanks to InterVarsity Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.


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