From Couch to 5k

518zs+XMmWL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” “You gotta start somewhere.”  Whether it comes from an ancient chinese proverb or really bad country music, the point is the same.  As far as humans are concerned, everything has a beginning.  When it comes to Church History, not only could one do worse, but it is hard to imagine one doing better than beginning with Richard Muller and James Bradley’s Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods.

The volume is especially appropriate for the graduate of most seminary and divinity school programs.  Often one leaves seminaries with a basic knowledge of the major personalities, movements, and events of the history of the church, and little experience or guidance in doing personal historical research and reflection.  This volume will have you digging in archives and feeling like a real researcher in no time.

The opening chapter begins by introducing the technical labels for the sub-disciplines (e.g. historical theology vs. Christian thought) of church history.  For someone who has been lost during a seminary lecture because the professor seemed to be jumping haphazardly between centuries, this chapter is simply a must.   This is followed by a summary of the  various methods of organizing the study of history (Famous figure, synchronic, diachronic, general/special) and their relationship to the rise of the critical outlook on history.

The next chapter raises the problems of perspective (i.e. bringing modern, even parochial, questions to ancient texts) and meaning (where is historical meaning to be found).  At 27 pages, the issues involved are presented succinctly and clearly.  One must refrain from believing that a developed philosophy of history can be developed from this short section.  The authors compensate by including a bibliography on history and historical method on pp. 211-12.  For those with a deeper interest in historical method, I heartily recommend Richard J. Evans In Defence of History & Quentin Skinner Visions of Politics Vol. 1.

The early chapters, though helpful, do not hold a candle to the usefulness of the second half of the book.  Research in any field is as much a craft as it is an art or a science.  Calling history a science implies that one is guaranteed results by following a recipe.  Calling it an art implies that results are the product of inspiration, talent, etc.  History involves procedure and it involves talent.  Like any craft becoming a good historian is the product of years of experience.  The best craftsmanship will learn from the experience of previous generations.  This handbook allows the young student to avoid wasting time using resources that are redundant and doing research that has already been done.  This book is also an introduction to the etiquette of working with librarians, doctoral advisors, and fellow scholars (established and aspiring).

Chapters three through five are a crash course in serious historical research.  Research libraries are minefield for the uninitiated and one can waste hours of precious time with the wrong reference materials.  This discussion is a bit dated but still holds much value for current students.  At this point, it is important to note that this volume holds value for biblical studies students as well.  The separation between New Testament and Early(est) Christianity is always shrinking.  For the aspiring Old Testament scholar, this book will offers helpful reflections on methodology, practice, and transferable research skills.   There is much to be gained here for the entire spectrum of the theological encyclopedia.

One very helpful section of the book describes a process for transforming scattered notes into unified prose for the final dissertation.    The authors advise using homemade cards (or 3×5 cards if you are unmotivated) and writing the reference on the top right corner.  Then one is to summarize and evaluate the relevant resource  in a single paragraph.  It is important to limit this into one paragraph because it will be directly inserted into the cumulative project.  Then revised to make it flow and part of the overall argument.  It is incredibly helpful to read about how established scholars go about organizing their research, and compare notes.  For having been written in 1995 the book has plenty to offer on incorporating computer-based research methods and resources.  This is where the book certainly shows its date. I laughed out loud at the mention of dial-up modems. At 20 years old, the book does not discuss research programs like EndNote or Zotero. A lacuna that the reader must fill.

The final chapter offers advice on transition from the doing research so that you know absolutely everything about very little to teaching at an undergraduate level (often outside of one’s expertise) and trying to maintain active research in one’s area.  Muller and Bradley argue for a balanced approach claiming that research inevitably makes one a better teacher and vice versa.  The book is rounded out with an extensive bibliography that is divided into the four major periods of church history, alongside of a bibliography of the major comprehensive histories and surveys.  These bibliographies alone are worth the price of the book.

My enthusiastic endorsement of this book should be evident.  What are the short comings?  Apart from being slightly dated I can think of two.  First, the book describes the life of a Christian historian without much discussion about the temptations one will face.  As mentioned earlier, doing history is a craft and like all crafts there are ethical questions raised for the individual in the study of history.  It is not so much that the book contains a bad ethic, but it neglects to discuss the allure of historicism for those who deal in the social causes behind theology.  More discussion on this would be helpful for beginning historians.

The second major flaw in this book is its failure to elaborate on how the field of Church history relates to broader cultural and intellectual history.  What impact did the Vietnam war have on American theology in the sixties?  The authors clearly press home the importance of such a relationship, but offer little advice for situating one’s own narrow field in the broader stream of history.

These minor criticisms aside, it is hard to contain my enthusiasm for this little volume.  Many would benefit from its practical research advice.  If you are a student in any field that makes use of history and her sub-disciplines (philology, paleography, etc.), then this volume is simply “must read” material.

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