what to read in the early and medieval church

A pastor asked me what he could read for a basic understanding of historical theology.  Out of all the great books out there, here is what I recommended.  I don’t claim that this is an exhaustive list, but it will give someone a solid foundation in the important theologians and the history of doctrine.  I will give my Early and Medieval Church list now and the Reformation and Modern Church tomorrow.

Are there any books that have helped you that you would like to add? I apologize for the formatting issue–my Word document didn’t mesh well with WordPress, and I fixed what was fixable without retyping the entire thing.

1. General survey

Olson, Roger E.  The Story of Christian Theology. Downers Grove:  InterVarsity, 1999.

McGrath, Alistair.  Historical Theology. Wiley-Blackwell, 1998.

John Hannah.  Our Legacy:  The History of Christian Doctrine. NavPress, 2001.

2. Early Church

a. Survey

Chadwick, Henry.  The Early Church. New York:  Penguin Books, 1967; revised 1993.

Frend, W.H. C.  The Rise of Christianity.  Philadelphia:  Fortress Press, 1984.

Quasten, Johannes.  Patrology. 4 volumes.  Westminster, M.D.:  Christian Classics, 1986.

Brown, Peter.  Augustine of Hippo. Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1969.

Hanson, R. P. C.  The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God:  the Arian Controversy, 318-81. Edinburgh:  T. & T. Clark, 1988.

b. Primary Sources

Stevenson, J.  Creeds, Councils, and Controversies. London:  SPCK, second edition, 1989.

_____.  The New Eusebius. London:  SPCK, second edition, 1987.

Augustine.  The Confessions.  Trans. Maria Boulding.  Hyde Park, N.Y.:  New City Press, 1997.

Anti-Pelagian Writings of Augustine.  Selections from Philip Schaff, ed.  Nicene and

Post-Nicene Fathers, first series, vol. 5:  Anti-Pelagian Writings (Edinburgh:  T.

& T. Clark; Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans, reprinted 1991).

3. Medieval Church

a. Survey

Copleston, Frederick C.  A History of Medieval Philosophy.  New York:  Harper & Row, 1972; repr. Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.

Ozment, Steven.  The Age of Reform:  1250-1550. New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1980.

Southern, R. W.  Saint Anselm:  A Portrait in a Landscape. New York:  Cambridge University Press, 1990.

Weisheipl, James A.  Friar Thomas D’Aquino.  Garden City, New York:  Doubleday & Company, 1974.

b. Primary Sources

Pegis, Anton C., ed.  Introduction to St. Thomas Aquinas.  New York:  Random House, 1945.

Erasmus, The Praise of Folly.  New York:  Penguin, 1971.






11 responses to “what to read in the early and medieval church”

  1. Jonathan Shelley

    I think Olson’s book is an excellent introduction to the early church, but he starts to get spotty in the Middle Ages and falls apart in the Reformation (he treats Calvin in 5 pages, and reduces him to merely rehashing everything Zwingli said.) I think Justo Gonzalez’s History of Thought is more thorough and accurate.

    I also think Allan’s Philosophy for Understanding Theology is a must read.

    I would also recommend an abridged version of City of God. Augustine continues to blow my mind. Western theology is simply unintelligible apart from Augustine.

    Also, Kreeft’s A Summa of the Summa is probably the best introduction to Thomas Aquinas’s theological method, which is essential for understanding later Catholic thought. Pegis is phenomenal, but Kreeft is more readable. Arvin Vos’ Aquinas, Calvin, and Contemporary Protestant Thought is simply amazing. It clears up a lot of the common misconceptions of Aquinas and shows how indebted the Protestant movement actually is to him.

  2. Justin

    For general survey, what do you think of Bruce Shelley’s “Church History in Plain Language”?

    And for the development of doctrine in the early church, what of “Early Christian Doctrines” by J. N. D. Kelly?

    For a primary source, what of Athanasius’s “On the Incarnation”?

    I picked up Brown’s biography on Augustine a year ago now, and the bits of it I have read have been richly rewarding.

  3. I had to read Justo Gonzalez’s two-volume, The Story of Christianity in college, and I still recommend it to people as a good general survey. It’s getting older now (’84, I think?), but it’s very readable and well laid-out.

    More recently, I really enjoyed Everett Ferguson’s recent survey, Church History, but it only covers up to the period just before the Reformation. I’m not sure when volume 2 is supposed to come out.

  4. Louis

    John Woodbridge had us use the “Eerdmans’ Handbook to the History of Christianity” by Tim Dowley for his intro to Church History class. I still refer to it often. As an overview it is still quite good. For primary documents we used “Documents of the Christian Church” by Henry Bettenson. On the history of doctrine I like “Early Christian Doctrines” by J.N.D. Kelly.

    A more recent work that I really enjoyed is “Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction” by Bryan M. Litfin (2007, Brazos Press). Limited in its scope but a great read. The council of Nicea took on a whole new meaning after I read this:

    “Let’s not overlook what a dramatic turn of events this council represents. Many of the bishops had been maimed in the Great Persecution. One of them could not use his hands because red-hot irons had destroyed the nerves. Others had had their eyes dug out or their arms cut off. ‘In short, the Council looked like an assembled army of martyrs.’ remarked one ancient historian. And now here they were–dining at a lavish banquet with the emperor himself!” (176-77)

  5. mike

    Thanks for these good suggestions. As I said, it’s hard to know where to cut off a list like this. As for Shelley’s book, that is always the first book I recommend to laypeople, but I omitted it from this list because it was for a pastor with a Th.M. But it’s so good that even he would enjoy reading it.

    Sidenote: “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” was originally going to be “Christian Worldview in Plain Language,” a sequel to Shelley’s book with Thomas Nelson. They envisioned an entire “Plain Language” series. Don’t know whatever happened to that.

  6. Jonathan Shelley

    Boy, it feels good to read such high praise for “Shelley’s book.” I can live vicariously through that.

    I spent a good part of last night thinking about which primary texts from the Middle Ages I would consider necessary reading, and it is hard. There is so much good material: Anselm, Bernard, Gregory, Leo, Duns Scotus, Bonaventure, as well as the influence of Wyclif, Hus, and Occam in setting the stage for the Reformation. It saddens me that so few pastors and even theologians have studied these important men. There is even something to be said for the writings of some of the lesser known Schoolmen and the mystics: the Victorites, Richard Rolle, Julian of Norwich, Catherine, Meister Eckhart, The Cloud of Unknowing, and even the significance of Pseudo-Dionysius. So much good stuff, so little time….

    Mike, I blame you for my deep and abiding love of Medieval theology.

    What do you think of Leith’s Creeds and Confessions as a survey of the development of Christian thought and denominationalism? I also think Alister McGrath’s Christian Theology: A Reader is a wonderful resource for understanding the development of the major loci of theology and the distinctive flair of major Christian thinkers – sort of like historical theology from a systematic perspective.

  7. mikewittmer


    I think it’s best that a pastor get the basics before attempting Scotus. Good stuff, but not the easiest thing to wade throught! Leith is good, though most of what he has can be found online for free by now, and McGrath’s reader would be a great choice. Blackwell Press is just so expensive!

  8. Jonathan Shelley

    Getting the basics – I think that’s where McGrath’s reader comes in. He does a great job of pulling out the highlights, breaking them down into manageable chucks, and making them applicable. I don’t think anyone is ever really ready for Scotus. I think the same is true of Bonaventure – his philosophy is so different from the modern/post-modern Western mindset that it is hard to grasp him until after you have mastered a Dionysian cosmology. And that’s what makes this so hard – there is so much great stuff, how and where do you draw a line? Is the Rule of St Benedict required reading? I don’t know, but it sure is good. What about Augustine’s anti-Manichean writings? So much good stuff in there, but that’s a lot of reading. The same is true for Iraneaus’ Against Heresies and Tertullian’s writings. And Didymus the Blind, the Cappadocean Fathers (I wouldn’t even understand what Neal Plantinga was talking about in his Threeness/Oneness article if it weren’t for Gregory of Nyssa), and the list just goes on and on. Shoot, now I better head over to http://www.ccel.org and check out some of these titles we’ve been discussing.

    As far as Blackwell being so expensive, that’s why God gave us libraries! Or Abebooks. Or really cool seminary profs who loan out books to whiney, clingy former students.

    Thanks for posting this list and indulging us in this conversation. Reading through these bibliographies (both the lists and the books on the lists) is just a lot of fun. I enjoy the different perspectives on what to read.

  9. […] Mike Wittmer provided a list of suggested books to read on church history. He broke his suggestions into two categories: The Early and Medieval Church […]

  10. Tim Smith

    Thanks for posting the lists Mike… and the subtle encouragement to read historical theology. Looks like plenty of good material some of which I’ve read, some of which I’ve wanted to read, and some new things to me.

  11. […] A pastor asked me what he could read for a basic understanding of historical theology.  Out of all the great books out there, here is what I recommended.  I don't claim that this is an exhaustive list, but it will give someone a solid foundation in the important theologians and the history of doctrine.  I will give my Early and Medieval Church list now and the Reformation and Modern Church tomorrow. Are there any books that have helped you that y … Read More […]

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