In the Year of Our Lord: Reflections on Twenty Centuries of Church History, by Sinclair B. Ferguson. Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2018. Hardcover $18.00; digital $9.00. 229 pages. [Reviewed by Prof. Douglas Kuiper.]
This book “is not a history of the church” (4), but a “panorama” (7) of her history. Taking the church’s history one century at a time (twenty centuries, twenty chapters), Ferguson relates the two or three most significant church-historical events or persons in that century. For instance, the second century was characterized by persecution from without and false teaching from within. The sack of Rome, the Pelagian controversy, and the spread of the gospel to Ireland by St. Patrick marked the fifth century. The fourteenth century was marked by the life and work of John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.
The significant persons or events of each century comprise the middle, and largest, section of the chapters. Ferguson begins each chapter with a lengthy quote (up to two pages) from a writing of a church father of that century, and concludes each chapter with a hymn written in that century.
For several reasons I recommend the book to all who enjoy reading church history. First, this book is an easy read: averaging ten pages in length, each chapter can be read in a short time, and a young teenager could understand most of it. Second, this book teaches. It teaches that history is under the direction of Christ, seated at God’s right hand (see the title). It teaches that God is sovereign in defending and preserving His church. It introduces the reader, briefly and simply, to the theological issues regarding sovereign grace. Sovereign grace, and the tendency to deny it, is the issue that the church faced throughout her history. It was the issue in the Pelagian controversy (53), and at the time of Gottschalk (102); it was the issue that Anselm clarified (121-123), and the issue at the time of the Reformation (168-69). The book also teaches that the church must remember her past history so as to learn from it (108-9, and other places).
In most instances I appreciated that Ferguson included the persons/events that he did, to the exclusion of others. Not that the “others” were unworthy of mention; but one must be selective. Only in the last four chapters, in the years 1600-1999, did the panoramic view of church history become very narrow, for Ferguson focused heavily on the Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians. In Ferguson’s defense, he warned the reader of this ahead of time (7), and explained that this reflects his own background.
Fact is, every survey of church history, regardless of how detailed it is, covers the same material when treating the first sixteen centuries. The church’s history during these centuries is what it is: the church developed and declined until God brought about the great Reformation. Since then, her history has been very diverse. Historically, Protestant Christianity has divided into four main streams: Baptist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed. Each stream has its branches and subdivisions. And, Christianity is now global, on every continent and in most nations. No one survey of church history can do justice to the last four hundred years in which our Lord has gathered, defended, and preserved His church. From that viewpoint, Ferguson’s book should not be faulted.
Even these last four chapters were educational. Their omission of what is of greater interest to me (Dutch Reformed church history) stimulates me to find yet another book to fill that gap.