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Ivor Davidson: The Birth of the Church

Ivor J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine, A.D. 30-312. The Baker History of the Church, Vol. 1. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 400 pages.

Books on the rise and growth of the early church abound, focusing on various personalities and emphases. Do we need additional volumes to add to this library? If they are as well written as this new book, I believe that the answer is a resounding yes! Ivor Davidson has done us all a wonderful service, by re-presenting the story of the first three centuries of Christianity in this first volume of what should prove to be a fascinating series by Baker Books.

Ivor Davidson is a senior lecturer in systematic theology at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand. In his preface, he explains that his aim in writing this book was to produce “a fresh narrative history of the early church that is accessible in style, comprehensive in scope, and—not least—up-to-date in scholarship” (p. 7). It is this reviewer’s conviction that he succeeded in his threefold purpose. Birth of the Church is both readable and informative, and could be easily digested by the layperson and the minister, the student and the teacher, the seminary president and the youth group member. History is presented as story, with a flowing narrative that includes personable characters, memorable places, thrilling travels, and fascinating conflicts. Davidson does not simply give us a list of people, places and dates, but shows how Christianity grew among real people, with real problems and issues, troubles and triumphs—people we can relate to and understand.

Still focusing on the real people from those centuries, although written from a mainstream evangelical perspective, Birth of the Church does not hesitate to hold up “the other side” of the numerous debates among those who professed to follow Christ (and what that meant) in those early centuries. What was Montanism, Gnosticism, and Marcionite dualism (among others), and why did those early followers become Montanists, Gnostics, and Marcionite dualists? Arguments for both sides of each debate are presented, in the end demonstrating why one side prevailed over another. Davidson is refreshingly balanced and uniquely fair in his historical narrative, but still shows why we believe what we believe today in mainstream Christianity.

The early church and its struggles did not arise in an historical or cultural vacuum.

The early church and its struggles did not arise in an historical or cultural vacuum. Rather, Davidson rightly sets it square in the midst of the Mediterranean area of the Roman empire of the first through fourth centuries. As a “movement” that encompasses religious, social, cultural, and political turning points, each of these must be taken into account in order to fully understand the birth and rise of Christianity. Davidson does a wonderful job of explaining these contexts to a modern audience. Many readers may find themselves surprised to discover that not much has changed in almost two millennia. The average twenty-first-century Christian faces challenges that are very similar to those faced daily in the first three centuries after Christ: civil ridicule, religious pluralism, moral relativism, and others. Understanding these similarities helps the modern-day Christian to make a connection with his predecessors, the rich heritage of that “great … cloud of witnesses,” those saints who have gone before (Hebrews 12:1).

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Category: Church History, Fall 2005

About the Author: Michael J. Knowles earned his Bachelor of Theology degree at Summit Pacific College in Abbotsford, BC, Canada, and has published numerous articles and book reviews. He and his family currently live in Washington state, where he teaches health education at Skagit Valley College in Mount Vernon, and also works as a pharmacy technician in Bellingham.

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