Thanks to nothing_to_say (and check out her new blog focusing on New Testament studies) I just finished reading Justo Gonzalez' The Story of Christianity. This is a two volume survey of Church history that covers the birth of the Church in Acts through through to the 20th century. I heartily recommend the book; it is an easy read, rarely polemical or particularly academic and the author makes the personalities and controversies of the Church come alive.
There's no way to comprehensively review a book that covers so much ground so I'll just record a few of the impressions I formed as I read.One of the fun things about reading history is when you slot pieces of information into what you already know. I had this happen a lot. For exampe: Everybody knows more or less the history of Henry VIII, his wives and divorce, the birth of the Church of England and his two daughters who became Queens: Mary and Elizabeth. I was aware Mary was Catholic and Elizabeth was Protestant (got to love her Motto: "I see, and say nothing"). I never quite put the obvious pieces together however: Why was Mary Catholic? Why was Elizabeth Protestant? Personal belief probably had nothing to do with it - Mary was the child of Henry's marriage to Catherine of Aragorn. Henry tried to have his marriage to Catherine annulled and eventually split from the Pope over his (just) refusal. Elizabeth was the daughter of Henry's second wife Ann Boleyn. The Pope held that Elizabeth was illegitimate (and therefore a pretender to the throne) so of course she had to support the Church of England. Mary on the other hand was supported by the Catholic Church which rejected the annulment of of her mother's marriage. Of course she would be strongly Catholic... An obvious thing but an aha moment for me none the less.
Another thing I enjoy about reading history is when it causes me to rethink today in light of the past. One of the issues that Church history raises for me is the place of tradition. Chesterton describes a respect for tradition as democracy where the dead can vote! I'm coming from the radical protestant wing of Christianity (and if you'd read Gonzalez' book you'd know what that means) so I obviously have a different relationship to tradition than did Chesterton. It's worth thinking about though: Christians can be (I know I am sometimes) insular and complacent... Assuming that what I believe is obviously the truth and most Christians agree with me.
Tradition and history can give complacency a much needed smack on the head. I feel less certain of my theological positions when I discover that the vast majority of Christians throughout time would profoundly disagree with me. Take spiritual disciplines and exercises: how does it inform how I live my faith to discover the variety and consistency of spiritual discipline in the Church throughout history? Reading about early Church practices like weekly fast days makes think about the value of spiritual disciplines. Similarly - finding out that the early Church typically made applicants for baptism go through two years of instruction should inform how I view baptism.
I also had the opposite reaction when I located some beliefs of the Church in their historical context. I identify with the Internet Monk (who has long been one of my favorite blogger but recently has gotten even better: don't look now but I think he's trending anabaptist...) when he expresses affection for Catholicism because of it's non-trendy I-am-what-I-am nature. American Evangelicalism is ridiculously trendy and there's a certain attraction to a Church who just says "This is who we are. Deal with it."
That said - it's funny to read about the (relatively) recent status of some Catholic dogma that most bothers me. Transubstantiation (the doctrine that the elements of communion physically change to become the actual body and blood of Christ)? That didn't become dogma till the fourth Lateran council in 1215! A recent innovation... Papal infallibility (the idea that the Pope when speaking Ex Cathedra is free from error)? Declared by Pope Pius IX in 1870! This declaration gave force to his earlier Ex Cathedra pronouncement on the Immaculate Conception of Mary (ie: Mary was born free from original sin). In 1950 Papal infallibility allows Pope Pius XII to dogmatically declare the Assumption of Mary (the doctrine that Mary was taken up into heaven at the end of her life)...
The point is not that the ideas are recent innovations - but their establishment as Dogma (things you must believe to be Catholic) is a recent innovation. On the scale of Church history, at least, the Catholic Church has also had its evolutions.
That said - it is good for me to read a non-partisan history of Christianity. My ignorance of Church History is at least partially a Protestant ignorance. Protestant tellings of Church history (at a popular level) have tended to caricature: there was the early Church which obviously started right but gradually went off track and by the time Constantine shows up was completely screwed up until Martin Luther started straightening things out... In between (313-1517) there were a few good guys (I think we like St. Francis) but mostly the Church was a mess.
There's even a little bit of truth to that caricature: it is disheartening to read about the Church involved in wars and political intrigues - ecclesiastical figures with no interest in Christianity, division and confusion (three Popes at the same time!) and so on (and don't get cocky Protestants! All I have to say is 30 Years War!). Despite all the failures and fiascos the Church didn't disappear and the history of the less interesting but more devout leaders of the Church is worth reading for the reminder that there have been faithful through all times and circumstances. It is one Church catholic - though I sometimes forget - and especially for those of us who don't really tie our Christianity to history it is a worthy thing to be reminded and aware of tradition. I'm not sure that the dead get to vote, but they should at least get to nudge us from time to time.