by Douglas Jacobsen
Baker Academic, 2015
—Reviewed by Edward L. Smither, dean, College of Intercultural Studies, Columbia International University
Douglas Jacobsen (distinguished professor of church history and theology at Messiah College) has spent a career teaching Global Christian history. He pays that forward in this new book, which offers a concise grasp of the history and current status of the Global Church.
Jacobsen’s stated aim is “to describe the big picture of global Christianity as fairly and accurately as possible” (p. xiii). Following a brief historical survey (chap. 1), Jacobsen approaches his task by discussing the four main traditions within the Global Church—Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, Protestantism, and Pentecostalism (chap. 2). Next, he narrates the story of Christianity geographically, looking at Africa, Latin America, Europe, Asia, and then North America (chaps. 3-7).
There is much to commend about this book. Jacobsen shows himself more than qualified to guide the reader through such vast territory in a concise and readable way. It is obvious that he has been helping students navigate this path for many years. Jacobsen also does excellent historical work with help from the disciplines of sociology and theology.
For example, he ably explains the social and historical backstory to the late twentieth-century Rwandan genocide (pp. 57-60) and helps the reader understand harmony as a value in Asian theology (pp. 174-187). Finally, Jacobsen includes many clear supporting graphs and maps that help the reader grasp key statistics and trends presented in the work.
In addition to these affirmations, I have two constructive critiques. First, from the outset of the work (pp. xv-xviii, 1-16), Jacobsen celebrates the diversity of Global Christianity in the New Testament and Early Church period and even suggests that Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses could fit within the traditions of Christianity.
While diversity of belief and practice ought to be celebrated in Christian history, we mustn’t forget that the Church did not embrace ‘Christianities’ as Walter Bauer and Bart Ehrman have claimed; rather, from a very early point, the Church fought to preserve orthodoxy against aberrant teaching through the rule of faith, creeds, and, of course, through affirming the canonical scriptures. At points, Jacobsen seems to lean in the direction of ‘Christianities’ over diversity within orthodox Christianity.
Second, although I admire Jacobsen’s undertaking to describe Global Christianity through four main traditions (chap. 2), I still came away unconvinced that those categories tell the whole story. The Pentecostal movement makes things especially blurry because (1) Pentecostalism developed out of historic Protestantism and (2) there are Pentecostal movements within the Roman Catholicism. As the book continues, Jacobsen shows the pervasiveness of Pentecostalism and, in a way, dismantles the categories proposed in chapter 2.
However, this is an excellent, readable, and stimulating book for Christian history students. After reviewing it, I’ve decided to adopt it for my History of Global Christianity course and I encourage other professors to do the same.
Irvin, Dale T. and Scott W. Sunquist. 2001, 2013. History of the World Christian Movement, Vols. 1 and 2. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis.
Jenkins, Philip. 2011. The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity. 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Todd M. and Cindy Wu. 2015. Our Global Families: Christians Embracing Common Identity in a Changing World. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
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