Book Review: The Early Church by W.H.C. Frend

I love the SCM classics series of books. From this series of books, I’ve read two of Bonhoeffer’s (The Cost of Discipleship and Letters & Papers From Prison) and Moltmann’s The Crucified God. The scope of this book is more historical as the title implies. The subtitle of the book is “from the beginnings to 461” and this is the time period on which Frend focuses.

The definition of “early church” is a slippery one. When I tend to use it, I mean the period of the apostles, largely chronicled in the book of Acts. Frend uses the term more loosely, simply describing a period that is much earlier than that in which we presently live. He works chronologically, beginning with the historical and cultural background into which the church was born.

He only spends one chapter on the period I regard as the “early church” choosing to spend more of his time on the later patristic period. I read a couple of other books last year that would make a very good accompaniment to this work: Lost Christianities by Bart Ehrman and Heresy by Alister McGrath. Both of these works cover the ideas that sprung out of various communities around the Mediterranean as ways of understanding the nature and person of Jesus, but which were largely consigned to the bin labelled “heresies” – and Frend looks at some of these debates as well.

Frend writes from a fairly neutral perspective. For example, there can be a tendency amongst catholic apologists, to make claims for Rome being one of the earliest centres of christianity and for the primacy of Peter as a figure in church history. Frend gives due weight to the evidence that supports this, but maintains a scepticism about the testimony of some influential people, especially Irenaeus of Lyons.

That said, he doesn’t really give an account of the origins of catholicism. In the first part of the book, he sticks to talking about “christians” but about half way through he suddenly introduces “catholics” but without stating how the latter emerged out of the former, which in my view is quite an important time between the early church and the medieval period. That said, he does go onto to give an account of catholicism’s rise to power in through the 4th and 5th centuries.

As the book is only about 240 pages long, yet covering around 420 years, it is inevitable that the work is concise. This is both a strength and a weakness. It’s a strength, because it allows the reader to get a good grip on the big picture and to see how various people and events interrelate in the grand scheme of things. It’s a weakness because it means that some issues are dealt with all too briefly. Each chapter ends with a list of further reading, so Frend is aware that some readers may wish to follow up with some more extensive study. If any serious criticism can be made, it is that there is an undue weight given to the events and people of the 4th century, as this takes up nearly half of the book, with relatively little on what I would regard as the “early” church of the 1st century. However, this may be due to relative amount of evidence available.

Much of the history of the church is a history of debates and disagreements. Some of these are over quite nuanced theology that seem, to me at least, far more trouble than they were worth. That is, there seemed to be a greater insistence on being “right” than there was over being loving and gracious towards one another. These arguments are given some space, but only enough for a brief overview. But if you just let your eyes skim over a paragraph without really taking it in, you will quickly get lost, not least in the multitude of names.

One thing that went through my mind as I was reading was on how the book focused largely on a relatively small number of influential or well-known figures and I was left wondering “what about the ordinary person who went about their daily business, living a christian life but not having it as their full time occupation?” The lack of such detail must, of course, be related to the lack of sources, though Frend does address this somewhat in his final chapter.

It is a very interesting read and serves as a great introduction and overview of the history of the church, though I would dispute the use of the term “early”. For anyone interested in this, or interested in how modern Trinitarian thinking developed, then I’d highly recommend it.

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