Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction by Mark A. Noll

If I was independently wealthy, I would order the entire set of this series and begin a life of obsessive autodidacticism:

Oxford’s Very Short Introductions series offers concise and original introductions to a wide range of subjects–from Islam to Sociology, Politics to Classics, Literary Theory to History, and Archaeology to the Bible. Not simply a textbook of definitions, each volume in this series provides trenchant and provocative–yet always balanced and complete–discussions of the central issues in a given discipline or field. Every Very Short Introduction gives a readable evolution of the subject in question, demonstrating how the subject has developed and how it has influenced society.

But alas, I am not, so I must simply read as many books as I am able to fit into my schedule.  I started with The History of Protestantism by Mark A. Noll:

Mark A. Noll, named one of America’s most influential evangelicals by Time Magazine, provides a fresh and accessible history of Protestantism from the era of Martin Luther to the present day. Noll begins with the founding of Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist churches in the sixteenth-century Reformation, and considers the rise of other important Christian movements like Methodism and Pentecostalism.

But rather than focusing on just the familiar European and American histories, he discusses the recent expansion of Protestant movements in Africa, China, India, and Latin America, emphasizing the on-going and rapidly expanding story of Protestants worldwide. The book highlights the contributions of well-known figures ranging from Martin Luther and John Calvin to Karl Barth, Dora Yu, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, and Pandita Ramabai, and it sheds light on why Protestant energies have flagged recently in the Western world while expanding dramatically elsewhere. Detailing the key points of Protestant commonality–including the message of Christian salvation, reliance on the Bible, and organization through personal initiative–he illuminates the reasons for Protestantism’s extraordinary diversity.

And it was exactly what I was hoping for from this series: a short and succinct yet informative and insightful overview of a topic.  Noll gives you a great overview of the history of Protestantism from the Reformation to the global church of today and he sprinkles in enough details and interesting conclusions that it is more thought provoking than you might expect for a survey of this type.

As an example, here is Noll summing up the era of Protestant Christendom:

The era that stretched from the first Reformation generation to the renewal movements of the late 17th century was the Protestants the best of times and the worst of times. It was the best of times because the release of Protestant energies allowed Lutherans, the Reformed, and Anglicans to create local Christian civilizations that produced brilliant achievements with world-historic significance. It was the worst of times because these Protestant civilizations were continually embroiled in warfare, which opened the door to a godless secularism that was damaging for Christian convictions of all varieties.

What a great summary; informative but also a bit provocative and thought provoking. The book is full of this sort of breakdown. It gives you the big picture – points you to important people, ideas, and events – but also offers turning points and key takeaways for further thought and study. In short, this is how introductions should be done.

Highly recommended for those interested in Christian or religious history.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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