Church History

An Introduction to Research Methods and Resources

Reddit icon
e-mail icon
Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
James E. Bradley, Richard A. Muller
  • Grand Rapids, MI: 
    Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
    , March
     314 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


The first edition of James E. Bradley and Richard A. Muller’s Church History—published in 1995—grew out of a research methods seminar for Ph.D. students working in church history and historical doctrine at Fuller Seminary. However, the book, like the seminar, is inclusive of systematic and philosophical theology disciplines and Th.M. students, because the authors are convinced that the historical method is common to all these fields. Any book that has not gone out of print for over twenty years—and is now available in an updated second edition—is worthy of consideration, and this volume is no exception. Given that I was familiar with the first edition, I was interested to see what updates the authors would include. In sum, this remains a useful primer on the historiography of the Christian church (in the West) and available resources for the church historian. Nevertheless I have some reservations, which lead me to believe that a third edition needs to follow much sooner than twenty years for the title to remain competitive.

This edition has maintained the format of the first, which the nearly-identical analytic table of contents makes clear. It also remains largely in two parts: a narrative of how to do research (about 175 pages) and an annotated bibliography of research tools (nearly 120 pages). This is a two-edged sword. I suspect many students will engage the required reading from the first part and never look at it again; I was hoping that this first part would have been reformatted as a reference tool, but its very accessibility—its narrative style—militates against this; nevertheless, the analytic table of contents serves adequately in this regard. Regarding accessibility, students will particularly benefit from the introductions of select resources in each narrative section as a prelude to the bibliographic second part. The second part is broken into chronological historical periods, introducing each period and then providing an annotated bibliography of resources for that period. While remaining strong overall, it is unfortunate that updates in places were uneven. For example, Section 6 “Historiography and Historical Method” (268-270)—arguably a center of focus for a volume on methodology—drops none and adds only five entries and one is a lacuna from the first edition adding the only foreign language volume listed (excepting a few translations). Further, even if being selective is necessary, omitting John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford University Press, 2002) is unfortunate. Gaddis, although a Cold War historian, has provided a brief, inexpensive, accessible look at the historical method that should be of interest to church historians too in that he refuses the hegemony of the quantitative method of the social sciences in favor of a more scientific and interdisciplinary approach that accepts and seeks objective truth (in so far as that is possible). In my view, such an omission means there is room for improvement.

The weaknesses noted above though are not overly serious now—but in future, and depending on the nature of the primary sources stressed in a given research methods seminar, these issues will come increasingly to the fore. For example, text databases such as the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae and their specialized search capabilities are discussed in terms of their enhancing traditional methods of research. In my view, these would be better served if recouched in terms of exploiting the digital humanities, which are rapidly subsuming standalone computing tools useful to the humanities, including historical research. More importantly though, the authors note that, since publication of the first edition, Protestants have grown more interested in church history and historical theology, however, in my view they have not adequately addressed this. Unsurprisingly this volume is strongest when discussing the interest of its authors—Reformation history—but they missed an opportunity to strengthen the section on Patristics and seem satisfied with a few minor updates, for example, noting that Questan’s Patrology is now five volumes, and the TLG is no longer a “CD-ROM project.” Unfortunately, they also omit any reference to tools like the Patrologia Orientalia, and make no mention of any tool that facilitates working with Slavic, Armenian, Georgian, Syriac, Arabic, or Coptic Christianity in late antiquity. This could arguable be addressed in a seminar with specialist literature, but omitting Greek and Syriac tools highlights the omission of the Eastern Churches which is a significant lacuna that will be increasingly felt. The complete lack of reference to De Gruyter’s Prosopography database is also unfortunate as it is an exceptional tool for distinguishing individuals in sources of the middle Byzantine period. Finally, by maintaining the commonplace—if problematic—closure of the Patristic age at John of Damascus (eighth century), they ignore at least four hundred years (c. 800-1200 ce) of the Medieval Church, which is then limited to the Latin West up to the Reformation. The growing interest in church history and historical doctrine rightly noted by the authors, I would argue, includes a growing interest in the Eastern Churches among evangelicals; consequently this was a missed opportunity.

One last point, there is one more minor, if humorous, quibble: the subsection titled “Taking Notes” has expanded from two-and-a-half to four pages, but this to add phrases like “In the older, hardcopy model,” or “scissors-and-paste,” and sentences updated to: “All scholars, however, use separate file cards, usually 3 x 5, for complete bibliographical information ... and file them separately.” Should 3 x 5 cards be stressed these days, really? Finally, this was and remains a useful introduction to methods in church history, but it will only retain its usefulness in programs focused on the Protestant interest in the later Latin Medieval West, unless updated much sooner (within five years?) to appeal more widely, addressing some of the issues I have noted, especially its failure to adequately address Eastern Christianity.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Scott Ables is a postdoctoral fellow at the Harvard Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 31, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

James E. Bradley is Geoffrey W. Bromiley Professor Emeritus and Senior Professor of Church History at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Richard A. Muller is P. J. Zondervan Professor Emeritus of Historical Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary.


Reading Religion welcomes comments from AAR members, and you may leave a comment below by logging in with your AAR Member ID and password. Please read our policy on commenting.