Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
The final edition of Needham’s as yet unfinished Church history series, covering from about 1560 to 1740. The structure of the book has changed subtley to reflect the much more diverse nature of the Church in comparison to the earlier volumes.
In this volume, the Lutheran Church is considered in its own chater, followed by the Continental Reformed faith, then two chapters on the Puritans (mostly in England), one on the Scottich Covenanters, two on the enduring Roman Catholic Church, and then the final chapter on the Eastern Orthodox Church.
Given such diversity within the 16th and 17th century post – Reformation Churches, the structure allows the reader to only focus on one tradition at a time, which makes it most helpful to follow.
Much as the last volumes, the writing is excellent and engaging, the biographical portrayals lively, the respective movements considered are all well defined (where possible!), and the source texts at the end of the chapter are, as always, most illuminating. Some particular highlights include:
- The explanation of the origins of the Thirty Years’ War was, at least from a religious point of view, clearly explained. This is personally a conflict that I hadn’t had much prior knowledge of, so I found this particularly useful.
- The discussion of Moise Amyraut was fascinating. He is such an enigmatic character. Indeed, the whole issues of some potentially Amyraldian influences in the Westminster Assembly was interesting to consider and the effects of hypothetical universalism on the final draft of the Westminster Confession of Faith.
- The English civil war was explained in a nuanced light that I appreciated. Too often, the definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is made in such a way that makes the English civil war too simplistic (and, of course, the Puritans are the ‘bad guys’) . Indeed, the whole definition of the term ‘Puritan’ is so nuanced, as Needham shows. He takes the stance that before the civil war, a Puritan was, broadly, an Anglican who sought further reformation of the Church of England. During the civil war and Cromwellian eras, Needham uses the term Puritan to mean those who wished to self – consciously advance Protestant ideals under in a national church context. After this time (the ejections of the Purtians from the national church in 1662), the term ‘Puritan’ is abandoned in favour of ‘Nonconformist’ (or if they left voluntarily before 1662 as ‘Separatist’). I very much welcomed the rigorous methodology in defining such a key term of 17th century English Church history.
- Moreover, the Covenanters of Scotland were given significant space in the book and I personally found their coverage particularly well written. I expected to be ‘bogged down’ in covering the Scottish Church but I was pleasantly surprised!
Needham goes to great lengths never to wholly demean, nor hero – worship, any one particular individual or group/tradition in the Church. In fact, it is a most refreshingly balanced read that gives credit, concessions, and charitable readings where they are dew. Most notable, Needham’s coverage of Cyril Lucaris was particularly excellent.
The only major things I found slighlty disappointing were:
- The continued lack of information regarding textual transmission or textual criticism. Needham openly states he believes it to be beyond the scope of the series, but I did leave me a little disappointed.
- The section on Roman Catholic Gallicanism was a little laborious. This is probably due to my lower interest in the topic as opposed to, say, the Puritan era. The danger with such a broad overview of Church history is those areas of particular traditions that you care little about. This can hardly be helped, but I felt it slightly tedious all the same.
It must be said that I thoroughly enjoyed each and every volume in the series so far, and I eagerly anticipate Volume 5. I will be among the first to order it, I am sure!