Here is an attempt to tell in brief compass the history of Christianity. Christianity is usually called a religion. As a religion it has had a wider geographic spread and is more deeply rooted among more peoples than any other religion in the history of mankind. Both that spread and that rootage have been mounting in the past 150 years and especially in the present century. The history of Christianity, therefore, must be of concern to all who are interested in the record of man and particularly to all who seek to understand the contemporary human scene.
This book is deliberately called a history of Christianity rather than a history of the Church or Church history. These are the usual designations of accounts of the course of the Christian faith. They are focused on the ecclesiastical institutions which are called churches, or, collectively, the Church. Normally they include the story of the development of these institutions, of their reciprocal relations, of the movements associated with these institutions, of the forms of worship which have arisen in them, and of the intellectual formulations of the Christian faith. Both the original records and the studies of these records are prodigious. They have engaged the attention of thousands of scholars and continue to do so. Most of the resulting books and articles are confined to special aspects of the story. Others attempt to cover the story as a whole. Such approaches are legitimate and many of the works which have come out of them are notable and useful.
Here is a different approach. While seeking to utilize much of the vast output in what is generally called Church history, it addresses itself to the story from a more inclusive perspective. It is based upon the conviction that, if the Christian faith is true, the story must have basic significance for the entire course of life and especially of human life on this planet. The significance cannot be confined to this planet. It must embrace the universe, both the small fragments of it known to men and everything thus far beyond the range of human knowledge. It must take into account not only all the history of mankind in its multiform manifestations — political, religious, economic, aesthetic, social, and intellectual — but what to human beings, with their limited outlook and endowments, is the staggering and unimaginably vast cosmos in which they are set.
Such an attempt seems preposterous. How can any man, short-lived as all his race are, hope to compass even such information as is available to men? At most he can know only what has occurred on this planet, and the seventy or eighty years allotted to him are too brief to acquire and digest all that his fellows have accumulated across the centuries and are continuing to amass. He certainly cannot penetrate more than the merest fraction of what has happened and is happening outside the speck of matter he inhabits, a speck that is one of several other fragments moving around one of the several billion suns of a galaxy which is in turn merely one of billions of other galaxies, each with its millions or billions of suns. Moreover, man is dimly aware that his instruments can at best disclose only limited features of what he calls the physical aspects of the cosmos. Beyond these physical aspects and untouched by his instruments is what he regards as the world of the spirit, which impinges upon him in every moment of his life.
Preposterous though the undertaking may be, across the centuries daring souls have essayed it. A few of their efforts have commanded respect. Augustine’s City of God is one particularly famous. As we are to note in Chapter I, many of the writings embraced in the Christian Scriptures are cognizant of the issues and have an outlook which encompasses all time and the entire cosmos. However, most of the attempts at such a comprehensive survey of the record of mankind from a Christian perspective have been viewed by scholars as naïve and quite untenable. Even some Christians have declared that "salvation history" — the record of God’s redemptive dealings with men — cannot be rightly embraced in "world history," including the course of all human activity in its manifold expressions.
Daring though it undoubtedly is, here is an effort to suggest in wide scope what such a history should be. It is offered with an acute awareness of its inescapable limitations. It begins with the Christian view of the cosmos and of the course of life, par- ticularly human life, on this planet. It then goes on to sketch the background, so far as we now know it, of that life before the coming of Him from Whom Christianity takes its name. Next is a brief account of the earthly career of Him from Whom Christianity is historically sprung and of the distinctive features which must be borne in mind as we seek to give the story of Christianity. The major portion of the book will cover the main outlines of that story as the author conceives them.
The story will take account of what is generally included in Church history. But it will repeatedly seek to call attention to the wider setting of that history. The book embodies a profound conviction that the distinction between "salvation history" and "world history" is in contradiction to the central core of the Gospel — the "Good News" — from which Christianity has sprung and which is the source of its continuing vitality. The author recognizes, as will be obvious, that throughout history God has been seeking to save man, and that His effort has centered and been climaxed in "salvation history," as it is sometimes called. But he believes that God has been active in all history, and in ways not inconsistent with "salvation history," properly understood.
To this story the author brings a study of history pursued over a long life. In the course of his career he has sought through teaching and writing to acquaint himself with what are usually adjudged by scholars to be all phases and all eras of "world history." He has specialized on some aspects of it, notably that of East Asia. But both by interest and from professional duty he has ranged over the rest of pre-history and history. He has written extensively on the history of Christianity and has here taken advantage of what he has sought to put down in two multivolume and several single-volume works. Yet this is not a mere summary of these works. It is in some ways a fresh approach which has emerged from more than a half-century of research, writing, and meditation.
The author is frankly a Christian. No historian writes with pure objectivity. If he professes to do so he is dishonest or self-deceived. The author has not come easily by his Christian faith. He was reared as a Christian and in his youth made a conscious Christian commitment. Yet he has had to face the questions with which from the beginning that faith has been challenged and in addition has had to wrestle, often agonizingly, with questions which are peculiar to his day and are posed by the natural sciences, psychology, and the threats to the continued existence of the race. Originally trained in the natural sciences, he has endeavored to keep abreast of the major findings in some of them, chiefly geology and astronomy. He has spent most of his years in a great university where many of the questions which confront a Christian are brought to acute focus. He has also participated actively in much of life outside a university and has been immersed in some of the most potent currents of his day. He has tried to face honestly the facts of the history he seeks to narrate and not to dodge any of the challenges which they present to those who, like himself, dare to call themselves Christian. This book is not an apologetic — an attempt to defend Christianity and to persuade his readers of the truth of what underlies that religion. It is, rather, an effort to put in brief compass the course of that religion, directing attention to the challenges it has met, the failures of many of its most loyal adherents to live up to "the high calling of God in Christ Jesus," as the New Testament calls it, and some of the achievements in seeking to make that calling a reality.
As the author is acutely aware, much that is germane to the story, from the Christian perspective, is not accessible to the historian. For example, the records with which the historian has to deal do not penetrate, except by faith, into that life to which, so the Christian believes, existence on this planet is but a prelude. The historian cannot even know some of the most significant features of the portion of the story which he seeks to narrate. Untold millions of Christians have left no continuing written traces of themselves or their work. Yet, as any one who has lived long in a particular community will gladly testify, what the New Testament calls "the fruits of the Spirit" have been vividly manifest in countless lives which have been rendered radiant and selfless by their Christian faith. The contributions of Christianity to some of the movements that are prominent in the narratives compiled by historians are not always easily detected and, when seen, are not readily given their proportionate credit. Yet these inescapable limitations must not be allowed to discourage the historian from entering upon the task here essayed. He must be cognizant of the limitations — even though at times only dimly — and not profess to more knowledge than is accessible to him. But because, as a believer, he is profoundly convinced of the central importance to all mankind of the record of Christianity, he must embark on what can at best be an incomplete and imperfect summary and interpretation of the history of the faith which has gripped him and on which he has sought to build his life.