Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity

By Jonathan Hill
Grand Rapids : Zondervan (2007). 560 Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Greg Harris
19.1 (Spring 2008) : 125-126

The Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity covers a broad scope, tracing Christianity from Acts up to the modern times. It is very readable and contains much valuable content about historical matters that ultimately affected Christianity in different ways, whether good or bad. For instance chapter eleven, “Reason to Revival,” contains subheadings of “The Dawn of Modernity” (312-14), “Enlightenment in North America” (319-20), and “The Great Awakening” (328-34). Very good historical information helps explain what was happening in the world at large as well as trends in how people perceived what was truth. Also a section deals with some Christian developments in Africa (275-83), which often seems to be overlooked in many other books about the history of Christianity.

However, some elements within the book should be read with the understanding that they are at odds with the TMS doctrinal statement. Many things contrary to sound doctrine are included. For instance, the book definitely has a European flavor to it, with the vast majority of contributors coming from England (538). Not that this in and of itself makes it bad, but they do write from this vantage point. When tracing the development of the church, they are writing about “The New Israel” (32). But even beyond that, they include such people as Mother Teresa, and after noting some controversy about her standard Roman Catholic views forbidding contraception, they make this assessment of her: “The fact that such arguments tended to coalesce around the figure of Mother Teresa is perhaps testament not so much to any especially controversial character of her work or personality as to her remarkable prominence as the most visible and famous representative of Christian ‘good work’ in the modern world” (475; emphasis in the original). A lumping together of any and everything calling itself Christian characterizes the book, so the reader has to know this when reading it. In other words, the definition of “Christian” is quite broad.

Sadly, beyond this there is more. Though Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity is a history book and not a theology book per se, nonetheless it is a history book shaped by the theology that it brings to the text. Tragically, one single word emerges that should make one read the entire work as a Berean Christian. In proposing that the relevance for Christ’s death was in line with historic Judaism, Hill writes, “Certain key passages of scriptures were now understood as prophecies about Jesus (even passages not previously regarded as prophecies at all). Psalm 22, which Jesus apparently quoted at the moment of his death, was seen as a prophecy of his death and the circumstances around it” (32; emphasis added). Both Matt 27:46 and Mark 15:34 state that “Jesus cried out with a loud voice” in reference to Psalm 22. If Hill is correct, readers should, first, write in the word “apparently” into the two verses in their Bibles, and second, strike through the words “cried out” and replace them with the word “quoted.” If one so greatly misses the significance of what was transpiring at Christ’s death or casts “Indeed has God said?” questions about the accuracy of the biblical account, especially an account so vital to true Christianity, how can he hope to present an accurate portrayal of what is truly Christian? Thus, everything in the book has to be read very circumspectly, hoping that the author is “apparently” quoting the truth in other matters related to the church which Jesus Christ Himself founded and purchased with His own blood.