Telling the Larger "Church History" Story

Review of Christopher Catherwood. Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books
[a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers], 2007. 224 pp., with index. $12.99 (paperback).

Telling the Larger “Church History” Story

Reviewed by Louis Midgley

To a large degree, history is
autobiography—or perhaps one should say that it is the prolegomena to one’s
biography. In any case, our view of who we are, both as individuals and as a
community of faith, depends in large measure on what we understand our history
to be.

L. González 1

One might wish for a neutral account of the
[Christian] story, but there really can be no such thing

  Roger E. Olson 2

It is likely that when Latter-day Saints encounter the
words church
, they will immediately think of the story of Joseph Smith’s
initial encounters with divine beings, the recovery of the Book of Mormon, the
restoration of priesthood keys, the hounding of the fledgling Church of Christ
by Gentiles, the eventual migration of the Saints to a new desert home, and so
forth. But such words also have a much broader meaning. This phenomenon can be
illustrated by the expression Latter-day Saints, which by
contrast calls attention to the biblical story of the covenant people of God
and their failure to keep the commandments, followed by the incarnation of the
Messiah, or Christ, whose deeds set in place a new covenant community of Saints
(or “holy ones”). Despite waves of intense persecution, this
community spread through missionary endeavors in lands surrounding the Mediterranean
Sea, but it soon fell into apostasy. One turning point came when Constantine
gained control of the mighty Roman Empire, built a New Rome (Constantinople),
and made Christianity the official servant/consort of this subsequent bloody
imperial Roman regime.


The word church is ambiguous. It now often
identifies a “house” that believers visit to worship God as well as
an extended “household,” or assembly, of believers. But this word has
several other meanings. For example, one can ask what the Roman Catholic Church
officially teaches on some issue. In such instances, the word church identifies not an assembly of believers but the governing officials of an
institution such as a denomination or movement. Understood as both an
institution and a community of believers, the Christian church has a history of
its own particular faith community. There is simply no generic Christianity, but
only “Christianities”—each faction having a story. These
stories are primarily accounts of internecine squabbles both within a larger
movement or denomination and with powerful, meddling government officials.
There is a sense in which such partisan factions also share a much larger “church
history,” 3 which is unavoidably also the story of contention over the grounds and content
of Christian faith. Each story has a place in a still larger story. Historians
often focus attention on disputes over forms of church government, salvation,
worship styles, the end times, authority, gifts of the Spirit, rituals, divine
attributes, and so forth. In this sense, church history is a tale of competing
opinions about virtually every topic even peripherally connected to the faith
among those who choose to self-identify as Christians.


The word history is also ambiguous. Some
have conjectured that the word historia was borrowed from the
Greek medical vocabulary, where it identified the symptoms and suffering (pathos)
of a disease and then applied to the sickness and decline of the body politic.
Be that as it may, the word has come to refer to what actually happened in the
past, and also, by extension, to the texts 4 that happened to have been recorded and then somehow preserved. These writings
were interpretations of what was believed to have happened (or what their
authors wished others to believe had happened). The writers were selective in
what they recorded and often highly partisan. More often, however, when we use
the word history,
what we have in mind are not the textual sources themselves but the stories
told later by historians about some portion of the past. These add
interpretations to interpretations. The narrator/storyteller provides the
emplotment 5 for the tale being told by selecting, in addition to the textual sources, the
explanations or interpretations of the textual sources. The historian likewise
chooses what to omit or lightly pass over, further shading the tale being told.

The questions I wish to address in this essay include
whether a neutral story of Christian faith has been or even can be
fashioned—one that somehow rises above, transcends, and encompasses all
actual or possible factional disputations that constitute the vast, spoiled,
complicated, and now mostly lost history of Christianity. Or are we faced,
short of God providing his full version of the story, with competing and even
incommensurate church histories, each essentially autobiographical (that is,
rooted in experiences and events that constitute what Gonz‡lez describes as our
own history, which is a kind of “prolegomena to one’s own biography”)?
And what can we Latter-day Saints learn from the efforts of other Christians to
tell their particular stories?

Catherwood’s Calvinist “Crash Course” . . .

I have chosen to address these and related questions by
examining a book entitled Church History: A Crash Course for the Curious, 6 which is a highly autobiographical tale of competing and quarreling communities
of Christian faith told by Christopher Catherwood (b. 1955), 7 an English historian who “has written or edited more than twenty-five
books” (back cover). Several of his books are either collections of
sermons or reflections on the theology of his Calvinist/Anglican maternal
grandfather, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899–1981). Many of Catherwood’s
other publications focus on the interplay of politics and religion—that
is, both between and within Christian and Muslim communities—in the Balkans
and the Middle East.8 His venture into what he calls “church history” is a brief sketch,
from a Reformed (that is, strictly Calvinist) perspective, of the variety and complexity
of Christian faith. He is not shy about revealing his Calvinist confessional
biases and how these provide the plot for the story he tells.

. . . Based on Secondary Sources

In 1998 Catherwood confessed that Crash Course is “not a book for academic specialists” since it is “based on
what historians call secondary sources.” He seems to think that this
poses no problem since his intended audience is the “ordinary,
intelligent, non-specialist reader who wants a general overview of what has
happened in Church History.”9 His version of “church history” is thus a popularized account that
does not seek to advance the scholarship on the history of Christianity. In
telling an abbreviated social/political story of Christian faith, he avoids
probing the more difficult, recondite story of Christian theological
speculation and providing a detailed intellectual history of Christianity. If
one wants a simple, straightforward account from one whose confessional biases
are clearly set out, then the book achieves its stated objective.

The Plot behind the Story

Catherwood did not fashion the emplotment he employs. In a
simple, naive way he proclaims a traditional, creedal, Augustinian, Protestant,
and strictly Reformed history of Christian faith. There is nothing subtle or
complex about the story he tells. This is, from my perspective, actually a
virtue. Since no one can command even a very tiny portion of the primary
textual materials that just happen to have been preserved, his reliance on
(perhaps both dated and inferior) secondary sources is not, in and of itself, a
fatal flaw.

As a staunch “Bible Calvinist,” Catherwood finds
at the heart of the Reformation “the key Protestant distinctive, sola scriptura,
or ‘Scripture alone’ ”
(p. 19). No attempt is made to hide what is entailed in slogans like sola scriptura.
He shows how this notion tends to order the way he pictures the events constituting
the gradual apostasy from the presumed original regula fidei of
Christian faith. This eventually leads to the efforts of the magisterial
Protestant reformers to set things right again. He does not avoid mentioning
the contests, competition, and quarrels that constitute the story of Protestant
faith communities. The root cause of the contention and controversy that
constitute the core of much Christian church history is explained in his
emplotment as a failure to draw only on the Bible, and hence a willingness to
rely on various sorts of merely human traditions. His Protestant ideology also
explains why “church history,” as he understands that label, began
only “after the unique revelation of Scripture came to an end” (p.

“Scripture alone”
(pp. 19, 33) 10 is the controlling rule because it alone provides
access to “core doctrines” (p. 31) of “genuine Christians”
(p. 18).11 He thus refers to “the core doctrines of
Christian faith upon which all God’s redeemed children inevitably agree with
one another” (p. 31). “There are,” he also maintains, “key things upon
which all Bible-believing Christians do and have always agreed and united”
(p. 19, emphasis in original). These “key things” that “genuine
Christians” necessarily hold in common include “a belief in absolute
truth” (p. 21), “final truth” (p. 22), or, following Francis
Schaeffer’s tautology, “true truth” (p. 20).12

There are, however,
different and competing Christian faith traditions, each of which claims in
different ways to be grounded on truths, to possess “true truth,” or
to embody in some sense an “absolute truth.” Those within Orthodoxy 13 and the Roman Catholic Church, in addition to the
different brands of Protestantism, can claim to “believe” in truth.
Each of these competing versions of Christian faith holds that the truth is to
be found in large measure in their own faith tradition. In addition, believing
that there must be truth is not the same as possessing such a thing, especially
given the fact that both the grounds and content of Christian faith are
profoundly historical and hence open to the vicissitudes of history. Even or
especially the dogma that only the Bible contains the final, sufficient,
infallible, divine, special revelation, which Catherwood claims is the “key”
Protestant distinctive, is not itself self-evident. It has, instead, a complex,
jaded, contested, problematic history. Which, if any, faith tradition embodies
or possesses a “final truth”?

Spectacles and the Reformed Lens

What exactly are the “core beliefs” set out in
the Bible? Whatever their content, they must be clearly identified, especially
if Catherwood’s schema is to be coherent. According to Catherwood, “throughout
[church] history there have been brave Christians who have
attempted to
work out the core doctrines, or beliefs
, that all Christians can and
should hold.” 14 Apparently those core doctrines are not set forth emphatically in the canon of
scripture, perhaps because the Bible is mostly stories. Instead the core
beliefs must be “worked out” subsequently by quarreling theologians
and powerful churchmen struggling to fashion creeds or dogmatic or systematic
theology. One of these “brave Christians” was St. Augustine of Hippo
(354–430), who “was regarded in the Middle Ages as the greatest of
all the Fathers of the Church, and because of the way in which Calvin
rediscovered so much of his thought—on predestination, for
instance—[Augustine] is given due reverence among Protestants today as
well, especially those of Reformed persuasion” (p. 51, compare pp. 115,
134). In Catherwood’s Calvinist scenario, the magisterial Protestant
Reformers—especially John Calvin (1509–1564) but also Huldreich
Zwingli (1484–1531) and Martin Luther (1483–1546)—with the
help, of course, of many other “brave Christians,” somehow managed to
rediscover what Augustine had previously worked out before the church underwent
a dismal decline into serious apostasy. Eventually, when elements of Augustine’s
theology were rediscovered, the church was reformed—that is, the
Protestant Reformation took place.

Readers of Church History are told that “honest
historian Catherwood informs us straightaway that he views the Christian story
through the lenses of Protestant, Reformed, evangelical, baptistic, free-church
spectacles. His telling of the tale, journalistic in style while
scholarly in substance, then proves the point” (back cover, emphasis
added). This endorsement for Church History was provided by J.
I. Packer, a prominent Calvinist theologian.15 Packer is quoted or mentioned five times in Church History (see pp. 113, 163,
167, 197, 213). Another Reformed endorsee, the Reverend John MacArthur, who is
fulsome in his praise for Church History, is quoted or mentioned six times by
Catherwood (see pp. 18, 115, 142, 145, 184, 187).

These endorsements indicate that Catherwood has not obscured
the Reformed emplotment of the tale he tells. This may, of course, have helped
to yield ebullient blurbs from his conservative Calvinist colleagues. I do not,
however, object to the mutual admiration seemingly behind these endorsements,
especially because it is all transparent and aboveboard. Neither Catherwood nor
those who endorse his work are trying to hide their confessional commitments.
What is significant is that the somewhat symbiotic relationship between the
author of Church
and prominent Reformed theologians demonstrates that
Catherwood’s opinions fit snugly within an essentially contemporary Calvinist
story of the Christian past. Rarely does he even hint that there are
alternative ways of telling the story of Christian faith.16 Precisely because Church History is a “crash course” (and hence
not grounded in original sources), as well as “journalistic in style,”
from my perspective the tale that is told—and the way that it is
told—is interesting and instructive.

In his endeavor to tell the story of Christian church
history, Catherwood also shows the way in which confessional commitments,
formal and informal background assumptions, and presuppositions play a crucial
and even controlling role in the way a contested story is told. Since the
author provides the plot, his endeavor illuminates what is entailed in a
Reformed understanding of the Christian past. Without, of course, wishing to do
so, Catherwood has fashioned a history of the Christian past that reveals why
there are competing and contrasting ways in which the story is told. Thus it is
also possible to identify the assumptions underlying alternative accounts of
the Christian past.

It is fruitful to consider alternative understandings of
what Catherwood calls “church history.” That the author must tell
these competing stories from either inside or outside a particular circle of
faith, or from some form of unfaith, accounts for the numerous incommensurable
alternative understandings of the Christian past that have been and can be
written, each based on the same events and same sources. Merely complaining, as
he often does, about what he calls “a postmodern world, in which the whole
concept of truth is denied, with all the repercussions that so negative a
worldview has for us” (p. 206), does not address the crucial issue of
which, if any, of the radically different versions of the same story is true.

Being “Scrupulously Fair”?

Regarding Catherwood’s insistence on core beliefs grounded
in the Bible alone, there is an important corollary that should be of special
interest to Latter-day Saints: “I trust,” he opines, “that we
would agree, as evangelicals, whatever our denomination, that God does not
reveal to us new things not contained in the Bible
” (p. 18,
emphasis added). Put another way, the heavens were permanently closed with the
death of the original apostles since only the Bible contains divine special
revelation. If Catherwood is correct about the Reformed stance on this matter,
and I believe he is, then Protestant/evangelical accounts of the history of
Christianity will also have a different emplotment of the story being told than
would either a Roman Catholic or a Latter-day Saint account.17

It is presumably from the Bible alone that Catherwood
attempts to sort and assess all the subsequent quarrels, contests, differences,
and disagreements that turn up in the jaded history of Christianity, including
especially those within and between the various faith communities or religious
movements spawned by the Protestant Reformation. It is also from his Calvinist
perspective that he identifies what he considers the flaws in Roman Catholicism
and Orthodoxy. He is aware of and a bit annoyed by the existence of those who
reject or resist a strictly Calvinist way of understanding Christian faith. He
is especially annoyed by the variety of Christian faiths found in the United
States, as well as the partisan political orientation of American evangelicals.
He holds that “our political prejudices are man-made, however strongly we
believe in them, and I am always careful,” he claims, “to try to weed
out such opinions from my analysis of the past” (p. 22). This is rubbish;
his version of church history is larded with observations about partisan
politics. For example, he complains about “crass American right-wing
cultural imperialism,” 18 and he does not disguise his loathing of the “conservative” political
ideology common among American evangelicals.19

Protestant Ecclesiastical Anarchy and the Balkanization of
Communities of Faith

When faced with the ecclesiastical anarchy that has
characterized Protestantism from the beginning, Catherwood grants that genuine
Bible-believing Christians have disagreed on many matters, “including
issues such as baptism, church government, the continuation of the gift of
tongues, or whatever other issues divide us. But as Christocentric Bible believers
there are,” he insists, “certain core truths, such as the
atonement, resurrection, and evangelism, upon which all of us as
do believe exactly the same thing” (pp. 19–20,
emphasis added). He thus employs the usual Protestant ploy of distinguishing “indifferent
matters” ( p. 111), or “inessential matters” (p. 121) and “secondary
issues” (p. 112),20 from essential “core beliefs.” Protestants disagree on such matters
as worship styles,21 the place and type of music in devotions,22 the mode or meaning of baptism,23 the continuance or cessation of so-called sign gifts such as speaking in
tongues as an indication of the presence of the Holy Spirit,24 whether there will be an actual second coming or whether this is merely a sort
of symbolic talk,25 the details of creation and hence also especially the controversy over Darwin
(pp. 187–89), whether there should be an established (or state authorized
and financed) denomination or “church” (pp. 42–44), what
constitutes the “church” and how it is to be governed (pp. 43, 149),
and so forth.

Other than the elusive “core truths,” Catherwood
allows a very wide variety of contending opinions within what he considers the
authentic Christian church. A host of differences and disagreements can be
found at the very beginning of its history, and “even in Paul’s lifetime
there were genuine differences among believing Christians” (p. 31). “Even
at the very dawn of the church itself, Christians were disagreeing with one
another, and we have been doing so vigorously ever since” (p. 30).
Christians “have disagreed among themselves even in Bible times—we
are no different from the first disciples of Jesus.” 26

How are such “secondary issues” that generated
differences of opinion even in the apostolic age and much contention since that
time distinguished from essential “core beliefs” that presumably have
never been in dispute? Catherwood does not turn directly to the Bible for an
answer to this question. Instead, he indicates that “throughout history
there have been brave Christians who have attempted to work out the core
doctrines or beliefs that all Christians can and should hold.”27 The Bible is seen as the sole source from which churchmen and theologians must “work
out” the essential elements of Christian faith. And yet he also insists
that there are “things that all Christians agreed upon—whatever
differences they had on other issues,” 28 though “Christians today diverge enormously on these issues.” 29 All of this is self-serving, circular, and vague. In addition, if there had not
been profound differences over core beliefs, why would a Reformation have taken

In his effort to identify the crucial core beliefs,30 Catherwood tends to read back into the earliest segment of Christian history his
own Calvinist version of Protestant ideology. For example, in striving to
locate a core belief, he claims that, “until AD 312, the Church consists of those individual Christian
believers who have faith in Jesus Christ as their personal Saviour and Lord.” 31 Elsewhere he objects to “reading back” current notions into the past
(p. 71), though he also grants that he cannot avoid making this mistake: “One
of the major problems we have unearthed regularly in this book is anachronism,
reading the present back into the past. The other is to reinterpret the past
according to our own views.” Catherwood warns the readers of Crash Course,
“You must always bear in mind that I too can be guilty of just that
myself—and so can you, the reader.” 32

According to Catherwood, Protestant Christianity has always
been fractured into competing factions. The story he tells is necessarily one
of sects, factions, or movements even within denominations that, when they are
not in open warfare, manifest a thinly veiled rivalry, especially between
contending theologians and/or competing churchmen. Often in the past these
struggles also heavily involved princes and other worldly powers. A Protestant
account of Christian church history must also address the host of internecine
conflicts generated by the Protestant Reformation and its aftermath. Much of
Catherwood’s church history is thus an effort to sort out some of these
conflicts and differences based on his understanding of what the Bible alone
seems to say about core doctrines and secondary issues. In addition, from
outside of strictly conservative Protestant circles, there are, of course,
radically different versions of Christian faith and its richly checkered
history, each vying for hegemony.

The Principal Contenders for Hegemony

The idea that the message articulated by evangelicals is
identical to what is found in the Bible “is of course a Protestant point
of view. Catholics reading this,” Catherwood admits, “will not agree,
since they see a direct continuity from the early church right through to the
present day fulfilled only in the doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic
Church.” 33 This is an important insight into the competing accounts of the Christian past.
In his book The
Story of Christian Theology
, Roger Olson asks, “How did the
Great Church in the West become the Roman Catholic Church?” 34 Olson, who writes from a Protestant but not Calvinist perspective, is aware
that there are alternative ways of telling the story of Christian faith. At
least from one crucial perspective, asking when the Roman Catholic Church
emerged “is an improper question.” Why?

According to the Roman Catholic account of the history of
Christian theology, the Great Church catholic and orthodox lived on from the
apostles to today in the West and all bishops that remained in fellowship with
the bishop of Rome have constituted its hierarchy. There was no break, as it
were, of the Roman Catholic Church from something else. In this way of seeing
and telling the story, the Eastern bishops broke away from the Great Church
gradually throughout the centuries after Augustine and officially in 1054.
Similarly, in this view all Protestant denominations are not true churches of
Jesus Christ at all but religious sects that need to return to the mother
church of Rome.35

From an Orthodox perspective, those who follow the bishop
of Rome should repent and be reunited with the original apostolic faith from
which they have strayed. Put another way, it was the Roman Catholic Church that
drifted away from the original Orthodox universal church. And from an Orthodox
and also Roman Catholic perspective, Protestantism is a rather new deficient
religious movement. From a Protestant perspective, however, the Reformation is
understood as a return to the essentials of the original apostolic faith. With
these basic alternatives in mind, we can begin to identify a Latter-day Saint
perspective, and we can also see exactly why this faith is cast in a negative
light even by those observers who are noted for their civility and gentility.

In the chapter entitled “The
Western Church Becomes Roman Catholic,” which is not the first but the
eighteenth of thirty-five chapters of Olson’s fine book, he points out that

Protestants generally
interpret the story of Christian theology as a gradual demise of true,
apostolic Christianity during the time of Cyprian and then Constantine and
afterward. This decline was continuous with the rise of the penitential system,
the authority of the great Christian patriarchs of the Roman Empire, and the
loss of the gospel of free grace by faith alone and the priesthood of all
believers. Only from a Protestant perspective, in other words, does the story
of theology include an episode of “the rise of Roman Catholicism.” 36

From a Protestant Perspective: Sign
Gifts and Cessationist Ideology

The so-called sign gifts have become a very divisive issue
among conservative Protestants. This has made “writing on this
issue . . . a theological minefield.” Why? “Few things
still divide evangelicals more.” The most “miraculous sign gifts of
the early church” included especially “speaking in tongues or using
special heaven-sent language” (p. 199). The first Protestant revival of
these “gifts” in America was on Azusa Street in Los Angeles,
California, in 1906, though something like it was known, according to Catherwood,
in some sectarian circles in Britain for centuries. The Azusa Street event
started what is commonly called the Pentecostal movement or family of “churches,”
the best known being the Assemblies of God (pp. 199–200). “Today, in
the twenty-first century,” according to Catherwood, “an enormous
percentage of evangelicals would also call themselves Pentecostal or if they
are in ordinary denominations, charismatics” (p. 199).37

“What makes Pentecostalism controversial is its
theology that speaking in miraculous languages is a sign from God that a baptism of the
Holy Spirit
, a special anointing from God subsequent to conversion,
has taken place” (p. 200, emphasis in original). Why is this an issue for
Catherwood? The reason seems to be that his hero, John Calvin, was “firmly
cessationist” (p. 200)—that is, Calvin insisted that all the
spiritual gifts mentioned in the New Testament were intended solely for the
primitive church and ceased with the passing of the apostles. But the
charismatic movement has infiltrated the Southern Baptist Convention and other
denominations now also very much attracted to Reformed theology (see pp.
200–201). Can this controversy be resolved by relegating questions
concerning the gifts of the Holy Spirit to the category of secondary issues,
about which it is presumably proper to disagree, sometimes in florid language
and even with strange circular arguments? (see pp. 124–25 for an amusing
description of such quarrels). A modest willingness to tolerate sign gifts does
not seem to qualify or compromise Catherwood’s dictum that genuine evangelicals
all agree that “God does not reveal to us new things not contained in the
Bible” (p. 18).38

Partisan Polemics and “Objectivity”

In 1998 Catherwood assured his readers that he was “certainly
keen to be as objective as possible” (p. 19). What might compromise his
objectivity? His five-point Calvinism (aka TULIP) 39 provides the interpretive dogmatic backbone for his “church history.”
Could this commitment compromise his objectivity? “It is hard,” he
admits, “for someone of Reformed belief to write objectively about John
Calvin, for to many of us he is the towering genius of the Reformation”
(p. 113). But there are additional qualifications to his neutrality.

In 2007 he confessed that “in the original [1998]
version of this book it was necessary, being produced by a secular publisher
[Hodder & Stoughton], to be more neutral than I am in this new
edition” (p. 202, emphasis added). With Crossway (a.k.a. Good News
Publishers), which makes available a wide selection of primarily Reformed
literature, appearing “neutral” would have been a mistake. But in
1998 it was useful for Catherwood to blur his largely Calvinist biases. It
appears that “objectivity” and “neutrality,” however these
concepts are understood, can be bent to fit circumstances. In 1998 he included
in Crash
somewhat favorable remarks about individuals and events that
he deplores. The justification he provides is that both his intended audience
and publisher required the appearance of neutrality. But in 2007, with a
publisher fond of five-point Calvinism, he removed from the revised edition of
his book, for example, praise for Mother Teresa (1910–1997) and also some
faintly favorable remarks about Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–45), a Lutheran
pastor whose opposition to Adolf Hitler made him a martyr (see p. 202).40 One reason he gave for dropping favorable comments about Bonhoeffer is that “before
the war . . . he had already become well established as a
liberal theologian.” 41 If there were cultural Protestants (or “liberals”) among the Lutheran
clergy in Germany during the Hitler regime, they tended somewhat to associate
with the so-called German-Christian movement that saw National Socialism as
providential. But Bonhoeffer was anything but German-Christian.42

Catherwood is also annoyed by Bonhoeffer’s complaint about
the “cheap grace” then being offered by Lutheran pastors, a concept
he set out in a book entitled The Cost of Discipleship in 1937,43 and by his later enigmatic appeal for a “religionless Christianity.” 44 In both instances, Bonhoeffer was calling for genuine faithfulness—that
is, a faith no longer cloaked in the trappings and traditions of addled, rancid
religiosity. In addition, one must keep in mind that until the end of World War
II, in the German language “religion” was often contrasted with
either faith (Glaube) or revelation (Offenbarung), and
hence was seen by one not at all pious, Karl Marx (1818–1883), and later
by an entirely pious one, Karl Barth (1886–1968), as at least a skillfully
administered narcotic.

Though he boasts of desiring to be as objective as
possible, Catherwood doubts that “a present-day scholar can ever be truly ‘scientific’
or ‘objective.’ ”
The reason he offers is that “an author’s preconceived ideas make an enormous
impact on how he sees things, even if he tries to deceive himself that he is
being completely unbiased and open-minded.” 45 While rightly skeptical of a thick version of the myth of detached,
disinterested, balanced, neutral, objective historians and their scientific
history, he retains a thin version of this myth. This is typical of those in
thrall to the myth of objective history or objective historians. Hence he
grants that what he calls “complete objectivity of interpretation is, as
many historians and others are coming to realise, rather difficult to achieve.” 46 In addition, and for reasons he does not specify, he also claims that “in
our own time objectivity is all the more difficult, if not to say impossible,
to achieve.” 47 The
problem is not, however, merely the difficulty of achieving “complete
objectivity,” but the very idea of objective history (and objective
historians).48 It is not that objectivity is a worthy ideal that is difficult to achieve; it
is an essentially flawed, incoherent notion, though it serves as a powerful
polemical weapon against presumed adversaries and for one’s own ideological

“By Biblical Standards”

In 1998 in the first edition of Crash
, Catherwood claimed, “I am writing this book as
objectively as possible, attempting to be scrupulously fair to everyone in the
process, whether or not I agree with them privately.” 49 In 1998 Catherwood did not mention the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day
Saints, and hence there was no commentary on Joseph Smith and the Book of
Mormon. But in his 2007 book he informs his readers that “Joseph Smith was
the founder of Mormonism, the first of the unusual religious views to be
invented in North America” (p. 165). He then adds that “strictly
speaking the movement is called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints
though since it invented nonexistent golden tablets purportedly from God, the
actual resemblance to genuine Christianity is fairly nonexistent” (p.
165). The reason Catherwood gives for this opinion is, “as
Lawrence Foster has put it, the Book of Mormon, the basis of the religion, ‘is
a highly complex work of the religious imagination’ ” (p. 165).50 He adds that

Smith himself was murdered, and after various wanderings the
Mormons ended up in Utah, especially Salt Lake City, which they dominate to
this day. While Mormons tend to be moral and clean-cut, their theology,
including their notorious acceptance of polygamy (technically abandoned in 1890
but still practiced by some), shows clearly that they are a false religion by biblical
. By now they have moved well beyond their Utah base, with
at least five million adherents worldwide. (p. 165, emphasis added)

The faith of the Saints, according to Catherwood, is “by
biblical standards” a “false religion.” He unfortunately
neglects to set out these standards. Instead, he argues by bald assertion. This
is typical of virtually every claim made in Church History. In addition, the
heavy lifting in his church history is done by the adjective biblical in one of its various polemical iterations. He claims that only the Bible is
the “final revelation” and hence the ultimate authority on divine
things. It follows that he is confident that his fellow evangelicals agree with
him that there can be no divine special revelations outside the Bible.
Protestants who complain about the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary, and hence
also about what appears to be a steady increase in what amounts to “Mariolatry,”
some of which is officially approved or encouraged, might take a closer look at
their own underlying “bibliolatry.” Signs of this can perhaps be seen
in Catherwood’s appeal to “biblical standards” (p. 165) to dismiss
Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon.

But Catherwood also makes reference to “the biblical
view” (p. 49), “biblical theology” (pp. 53, 210), “a
biblical theology” (p. 54),51 a “realistic biblical view of humanity” (p. 193), “biblical
doctrine” (pp. 88, 96, 143), “biblical doctrines” (p. 216), a “biblical
option” (p. 196), “biblical standards” (p. 165), a “biblical
answer” (p. 145), “the biblical mandate” (p. 197), “biblical
Christianity” (pp. 140, 197), a “biblical concept” (p. 97), “biblical
form” (p. 97), “biblical freedom” (p. 120), “biblical
grounds” (p. 122), “biblical stress” (p. 134), “a biblical
balance” (p. 147), “biblical tradition” (p. 153), a “biblical
basis” (p. 163), a “biblical lifestyle” (p. 209), “biblical
truth” (p. 105), “the biblical truth” (p. 125), and “biblical
truths” (p. 163), with the need for theologians to “systematize
biblical truth” (p. 114). His readers are also introduced to “Bible-based
evangelicals” (p. 202) and to, of course, “an evangelical, biblical,
theological, and spiritually accurate standpoint” (p. 64). There is also “bible-based
Christianity” (p. 202) and those who follow “the correct biblical
pattern” (p. 151). One can also find references to “Bible-based
Christians” (p. 36) or “Bible Christians” (p. 79), who are
sharply contrasted with whatever is deemed “unbiblical” (p. 181). If
expressions like “biblically speaking” (pp. 80, 142) are included, it
turns out that argument by adjective can be found in at least fifty places in Church History.
In virtually no instance is there a hint of even a proof-text or an allusion to
the text of the Bible. Instead, he insists that access to all but the “core
beliefs” that theologians or churchmen—those “brave Christians”—have
“worked out” cannot be found by merely consulting the Bible. This can
be seen in his waffling over the controversial “sign gifts” that
Pentecostals (and charismatics) have made popular despite the cessationist
ideology reaching back to near the end of the apostolic age.

In 2010, while trying to identify and situate contemporary
evangelicalism, Catherwood claimed that his Calvinist brand of “evangelical
faith goes right back to the beginning of the church itself, a theme” that
he has, he points out, “followed elsewhere, in [his] Church
History: A Crash Course for the Curious
. Evangelicalism in this
sense is not new at all: it was what the Christians at the time of the Bible
thought, what the early church taught, and what the reformers of the sixteenth
century also believed.” 52 This simply must be the case since the magisterial Reformers insisted on the “Bible
only” as they appropriated much of Augustine’s theology. But this leaves a
gaping hole in church history.

Catherwood admits that the Reformation, which he thinks
influenced Roman Catholicism favorably, did not sort out all of these matters.
The Reformers themselves were necessarily deeply beholden to princes and kings
who were eager to use the Reformation to preserve their own prerogatives and
privileges in opposition to the Vatican and remnants of the Holy Roman Empire.
Where the Reformation was dominant, it changed some things such as
architectural and worship styles. But unfortunately, Protestants joined Roman
Catholics in slaughtering Anabaptist peasants, whose undertakings threatened
the power of both. Burning heretics was a vice practiced by Catholics and Protestants.53 Such refinements as the legal preservation of freedom of conscience came only
much later, when neither bishops nor kings could hold the reins of churchly or
worldly power. The separation of what we call “church” and “state”
is thus a new wrinkle in “church history” and not the product of the
Protestant Reformation.

How can one account for all the earlier forging of
alliances with or subordination to worldly princes, the veneration of relics
and also Mary, the Inquisitions, the Crusades, monasticism, pilgrimages, the
pomp of the Papacy, and a host of other things that Catherwood seems to abhor?
These sorts of things leave the “church,” until the Protestant
Reformation, in a kind of vacuum or worldly limbo. He is clearly aware of the
problem. He even draws special attention to the fact that, from the perspective
of “the part of the Christian Church from which” he comes—that
is, “the Protestant wing of Christianity”—some may “dislike”
what he has written because Protestants “tend to think that nothing
happened” in “church” history “from the fourth to the
sixteenth centuries.” Instead, they may conclude that “God was
remarkably quiet” for all those years.54 The “church” was either in deep apostasy or had simply vanished. “Such
views imply, in effect, that God abandoned his people who make up his creation,
the Church, for at least twelve hundred years, or for three-fifths of the
entire history of Christianity since Jesus came in the first century.” 55 He insists that Protestants must face the question of whether or not “God
abandoned the Church from the time of Constantine in the fourth century up
until the Reformation . . . , twelve hundred years later.” 56 He seems to believe that God did not entirely abandon the church during those twelve hundred years, despite all those
silly relics that still fascinate the superstitious, the terror of the Roman
and Spanish Inquisitions, the strange and sometimes brutal maneuvers behind the
fashioning of the creeds and confessions, the quirkiness of monasticism, the
power and wealth of religious orders, the borrowing of half-understood
categories from pagan philosophy in an effort to patch together theological
systems, the obsession with pilgrimages to supposed “holy” sites, the
cynical brutality of papal power politics, the endless meddling of
ecclesiastical authorities in worldly regimes, the kings and princes declaring
the faith of their subjects by fiat, 57 and the corruption of ecclesiastical authorities, to say nothing of the
strikingly worldly show that leaves especially Europe and Britain littered with
magnificent religious art and monumental “church” architecture. I
actually agree with Catherwood that God did not entirely abandon his children
even during their most intense spells of apostasy.

A Personal Witness

These days older Latter-day Saints with disposable incomes
sometimes avail themselves of tours, during which they are led around various
places in Europe to gaze at its wondrous art and architecture, much of which is
in various ways Christian. The venturesome might even visit Rome, and also the
New Rome established by Constantine at what is now Istanbul, and even the third
Rome in Moscow, 58 as well as various historic centers of protest against these older
Christianities. Be that as it may, it is difficult for the Saints to go on
holiday in various places in Britain, Europe, or the Near East without
encountering a surfeit of antique “church history.” I have a way of
seeing all of this, and much more, as part of the story of my own faith, and I
believe that our Latter-day Saint scriptures provide a warrant for doing so.

Much of the Old Testament, especially Kings and Chronicles,
but elsewhere as well, contains prophetic warnings about the consequences of
failing to remember and keep the Lord’s commandments. To do so is to incur the
cursing that eventually follows a departure from the terms of the covenant with
God. In addition, the Book of Mormon begins with a story of a tiny colony
fleeing from the spiritual Babylon then found in Jerusalem. Unfortunately,
those people took with them tragic elements that ultimately brought an end to
the covenant people of God cached in that far corner of the Lord’s vineyard.
Hence I believe that despite the tragic loss of covenants and priesthood keys
and the later adoption of confusing ecumenical creeds crafted by councils of
bishops intimidated by mobs,59  God was still at work in various,
essentially invisible ways. It was the fulness of the gospel of Jesus Christ
that was lost, not God’s involvement with and watchcare over his children; nor
would faith, hope, and love entirely disappear among those who were somehow
genuinely touched by the crucial story of the humble deeds of Jesus of Nazareth
on their behalf. The apostasies were often great, but they were not absolute or
complete. I am confident that many often-now unknown and unheralded heroic
individuals, families, and perhaps even communities managed somehow to keep at
least a flicker of the flame alive despite what now seems to have been either
puerile or demonic episodes in the larger story of Christianity—which
story I believe Latter-day Saints must come to share with others who genuinely
self-identify as Christians. Others may not, for various reasons, choose to
accept the founding narratives of the LDS faith, but I believe that the Saints
must understand the danger signs of apostasy as well as strive to discern what
appear to them to be signs of piety and faithfulness wherever they occur. The
Saints find nothing problematic about singing hymns written by Martin Luther,
Isaac Watts, Stuart K. Hines, Francis of Assisi, and, of course, Charles

Latter-day Saint scriptures provide accounts of portentous
turning away from the genuine faith. These accounts are for me prophetic
warnings. Hence I would like to know more about my Christian cousins and their
stories, which I believe are remote, fateful portions of our own larger story.
A holiday in Britain, Europe, or the Near East should begin to make it possible
for the Saints to pry open a bit the door to at least a tiny portion of what
the Saints can and should see as part of the larger history of their own faith.

I am enthralled by even partisan efforts to tell the story
of Christian faith, with all the rich details, including many wonders and
unfortunate betrayals. From my perspective, the besotted Calvinist “crash
course” of what amounts to a bittersweet story of Christianity is
part of the larger story of, first, the confounding of genuine faith in Jesus
Christ and, second, the urgent desire of those who marked its deficiency and
desperately wanted it back again. Much like Catherwood, I am also confident
that elements of faithfulness persisted despite all the more conspicuous and
terrible faults and frailties that come to light. In this I remain, however, a
consumer of the stories told by those whose faith was never stirred or has
lapsed, as well as the stories told by devout Protestants, Orthodox, and Roman
Catholics. These efforts are worthy of our close, critical attention, if not
our entire admiration or credulous acceptance. And this is true despite their
being, even at their very best, partial sketches and also, given their
different confessional groundings, necessarily incommensurate, clashing
stories. Gonz‡les is right—the stories we tell are in an important sense
autobiographical since they are ultimately our stories and hence bear the marks
of our own hopes and yearnings, including especially our faith in God or the
absence of such.

Louis Midgley
(PhD, Brown University) is an emeritus professor of political science at
Brigham Young University.


1.   Justo
L. González, preface to the second English edition of his work A History of
Christian Thought: From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation
(Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 2:6, and found in each of the three

2.   Roger
E. Olson, The
Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1999), 279.

3.   This
is Catherwood’s term, subsequent instances of which will not appear within
quotation marks in this essay despite the term’s ambiguity.

4.   Or
text analogues such as burials and buildings and their accompanying symbolic
and artistic furnishings and other embellishments.

5.   I
borrow the term emplotment from Hayden White, Metahistory:
The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe
Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973). The term refers to a historian’s
assemblage of historical events into a narrative with a plot.

6.   See
Catherwood, Church
History: A Crash Course for the Curious
, 18. This is a major
revision of his Crash Course on Church History (London: Hodder &
Stoughton, 1998), which will be cited and footnoted as Crash Course,
while its 2007 revision will always be cited parenthetically in the text by
page number alone.

7.   Catherwood
holds an MA in modern history from Balliol College, Oxford; an MLitt in modern
history from Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge; and a PhD in Middle Eastern
history from East Anglia.

8.   Catherwood
has been a tutor at Cambridge University’s Institute of Continuing Education,
operated at Madingley Hall, which is a conference center near Cambridge where
he has taught a course for adults based on Church History. He has also been
an instructor at the University of Richmond’s School of Continuing Education,
and he sometimes lectures on politics in the Middle East at the Cambridge-based
INSTEP program (p. 11). This is not, however, a part of Cambridge University,
but an independent program catering to American Semester Abroad students with
lectures on politics and economics.

9.   Catherwood, Crash
, unpaginated preface.

10.   Sola scriptura is one of the five solas that over time came to identify Protestant
distinctives. The other four catchwords include sola gratia (grace
alone), sola
(faith alone), solus Christus (in Christ alone),
and soli
Deo gloria
(glory to God alone).

11.   In Crash Course,
Catherwood refers to “core doctrines or beliefs” (p. 3), “core
belief” (p. 11), “core beliefs” (pp. 28, 30, 31), “core
Christian belief” (p. 17), “core doctrines” (p. 31), and “the
core scriptural teaching” (p. 38).

12.   Francis
Schaeffer (1919–1984) appears to have had a profound influence on
Catherwood. Schaeffer’s influence on conservative Protestantism was primarily
through L’Abri, a Calvinist study center in Switzerland. He is cited or quoted
in Church
seventeen times; only Calvin and Luther receive more attention.

13.   I
capitalize the term Orthodoxy to refer to the Eastern Orthodox religious
tradition, not to theological correctness in general.

14.   Catherwood, Crash
, 3, emphasis added.

15.   J. I.
Packer (b. 1926), who taught theology at Regents College in Vancouver, British
Columbia, is a controversial Calvinist theologian and author of numerous books.

16.   For example,
he mentions that Catholics would disagree with some opinions he has set out
(see p. 55). But their voices are essentially mute since he does not indicate
why they would disagree, how these disagreements would affect the tale he
tells, or how he would respond to their disagreement.

17.   Roman
Catholics restrict divine special revelation, or what they designate “public
revelation,” strictly to the Bible. What is called “private
revelation” is, however, possible only for the encouragement of
individuals. Thus God does not reveal new things not contained in the Bible or
already present in tradition as fleshed out from time to time by the

18.   Catherwood, Crash
, 186.

19.   For some
striking examples of Catherwood’s strong distaste for Evangelicals’ “conservative”
political proclivities, see my review of his book The Evangelicals: What They Believe,
Where They Are, and Their Politics
in FARMS Review 22/2
(2010): 232.

20.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

21.   Catherwood, Evangelicals,

22.   Catherwood, Evangelicals,
55, 57, 153.

23.   Catherwood, Evangelicals,
54, 149.

24.   Catherwood, Crash Course,
19; and Catherwood, Evangelicals, 21, 54, 153–54.

25.   Catherwood, Evangelicals,

26.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

27.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

28.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

29.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

30.   Catherwood, Crash Course,
3; see also pp. 17, 28, 30, 31, 38.

31.   Catherwood, Crash
, 37.

32.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

33.   Catherwood, The
, 93.

34.   Olson, Story of
Christian Theology
, 278.

35.   Olson, Story of
Christian Theology
, 278.

36.   Olson, Story of
Christian Theology
, 278–79.

37.   Estimates place
the number of Pentecostals worldwide at more than 500 million. See David B.
Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, eds., World
Christian Encyclopedia: A Comparative Survey of Churches and Religions in the
Modern World
, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

38.   Roman Catholics
seem to agree since what they call “private revelation” does not add
to the canon of scripture. Instead, modification and expansion of official
dogma take place through an elaboration of “tradition” by the
teaching authority (magisterium).

39.   TULIP is the acronym used to identify five-point Calvinism. Thus T = total depravity,
which presumably flows from the original sin of Adam; U = unconditional
election (or predestination); L = limited atonement (or divine mercy only for
those predestined for salvation by God); I = irresistible grace (the saving
gift is available only to those predestined for salvation); and P =
perseverance of the elect (or eternal security, which is available only for the
predestined elect).

40.   These remarks
should be compared with Catherwood, Crash Course, 161 (for Bonhoeffer)
and 180–81 (for Mother Teresa).

41.   Catherwood, Crash
, 161.

42.   For a solid summary
of Bonhoeffer’s deeds and thoughts, see Peter McEnhill and George Newlands, Fifty Key
Christian Thinkers
(London: Routledge, 2004), 70–80.

43.   See Dietrich
Bonhoeffer, The
Cost of Discipleship
(New York: Macmillan, 1959), 38.

44.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

45.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

46.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

47.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

48.   For a detailed setting
out of the incoherence of most ideological appeals by historians to
objectivity, and its surrogates such as neutrality, detachment, balance, and so
forth, see Peter Novick’s remarkable That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity
Question” and the American Historical Profession
(New York:
Cambridge University Press, 1988). For additional commentary on Novick’s
position, see Louis Midgley, “Knowing Brother Joseph Again,” FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): xlv–lx.

49.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

50.   This remark
appeared in an essay by Lawrence Foster in an anthology entitled Eerdman’s
Handbook of Christianity in America
, ed. Mark Noll et al. (Grand
Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1983), 200. Catherwood, however, does not cite a source
for the language he quotes. Neither edition of his sketches of church history
has citations or a bibliography.

51.   This label
was applied by Catherwood to the post–World War II European theological
movement called “Neo-Orthodoxy.” But evangelicals have mixed opinions
about whether, for example, Karl Barth was in any sense evangelical. See
Gregory G. Bolich, Karl Barth & Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL:
InterVarsity, 1980), especially pp. 57–99.

52.   Catherwood, Evangelicals,

53.   When we remember
that the Roman Inquisition burned Giordano Bruno (1548–1600) at the stake
as a heretic, we should keep in mind that in Geneva the governing council (with
Calvin’s approval) likewise burned Michael Servetus (1511–1553) at the
stake for heresy.

54.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

55.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

56.   Catherwood, Crash Course,

57.   The corrupting
symbiotic relationship between bishop and king or pastor and prince, which has
a long and terrible history, became the order of the day following the dreadful
sectarian warfare in German-speaking lands. Following the Peace of Augsburg
(1555), the subjects of princes or kings were forced to adopt either the
Catholic or the Lutheran faith of the ruler (“Whose realm, his religion”—Cuius regio,
eius religio
). See Crash Course, 107, for Catherwood’s
commentary on this matter.

58.   Soon after the
fall of Constantinople (now Istanbul) to the Ottoman Empire on 29 May 1453,
some Russian Orthodox clerics proclaimed Moscow as the new or third Rome.

59.   Ramsay MacMullen, Voting
About God in Early Church Councils
(New Haven, CT: Yale University
Press, 2006).

60.   Some of my own
favorite hymns were not composed by Latter-day Saints. One is “Brightly
Beams Our Father’s Mercy,” by Philip Paul Bliss, and another is George F.
Root’s “Come to the Savior,” which as “Koutou Katoa Ra” is
sung by the Maori Saints.