William G. Young’s Handbook of Source Materials for Students of Church History is one of its kind. As the title suggests it is a source book of great value. The purpose of the book, as the author himself points out, is to provide the students of Church History, especially of the Asian context, a first hand exposure of the early writings.The documents presented in the book covers the period from the beginnings of Christianity in first century A.D. to the middle of the seventh century. This work is the result of Young’s meticulous research in the field of early church documents. He has taken much pain in providing relevant information. Much of the material available in this book are translations from French, Latin and even Syriac. Some documents were in fact translated by the author himself.
In the preface, Young clearly sets out the parameters which guided him in the selection of the materials for the resource book. This also acts as a good introduction making the readers realise the necessity and value of this book. The book covers primarily four key areas. They are: Geographical expansion of Christianity, the religious life of the members of the Christian community, the early theological controversies and heresies, and the relationship of the Church and the State. In the first section, Young places materials under four sub divisions. First comes the expansion of Christianity from Jerusalem to all the four directions. It is very interesting to read the accounts of the rapid expansion of the faith as early as the beginning of the third century in almost all major regions. History students who are already exposed to this through many other history books would be delighted to read the account of all that directly from the original sources. Immediately after this, the documents that help us understand the reasons for the growth of Christianity are enlisted. It is amazing to see the various kinds of methods used for evangelisation by the early Christians. I was deeply moved by the sincerity of the humble believers of the early church, who although could not explain the gospel well, went on sharing the gospel with great passion to their neighbours.
Similarly, the next division, titled as ‘Accounts of Conversion,’ is the most interesting part of the handbook. The conversion experiences of some of the famous Christians of the first five centuries are enlisted. Most appealing one for me was the account of Augustine’s conversion. The last part of the first section contains documents that are related to the contents of the early messages and explanations of some important biblical concepts. It is surprising to see the boldness of the early church fathers in condemning idolatry and other evil practises though they were a minority. This part covers a great deal of material from the immediate post-apostolic era written by the Patristic fathers. In the second section, Young sets out the religious life of the early Christians. Materials give an adequate picture of the early worship pattern, Eucharist, and fellowship. Moreover, the section contains documents which reflect upon the early baptismal practices and teachings about baptism. There are documents which mention about some of the spiritual disciplines of the community like that of fasting, prayer and Bible study. The documents that deal with the pilgrimage and relics are the interesting ones in this section. Young also supplies materials which elucidate the caring nature of the community. He gives a peculiar list of people who faced death. Nevertheless, it highlights the hope of the early Christians. The last part of the second section gives a glimpse of the organisation of the early church. Documents related to the ordination of bishops and other clergy are cited.
The third section entirely deals with the development of early church doctrines. There are documents which highlight the apostolic traditions and patristic teachings. Moreover, some of the earliest creeds are listed. The most resourceful part of the book in my opinion is the list of the documents that represent the major Trinitarian and Christological heresies of the early centuries. This part is a real treat for those who would like to see how the early Christians debated over many issues. Young deserves appreciation for the way in which he has categorised the various documents under various theological topics.
The last section of the book comprises documents related to the relationship between the church and state. Young covers documents which highlight the place of church amidst Persecutors, sympathisers, and later Roman Christian emperors. He also includes some material on the condition of Christians under Persian empire.
In all the sections, Young has included at least a few materials that pertain to the Asian context. This book would act as an eye opener for many Asian students especially making them realise that Asian Christianity is as old as the movement itself. The portions on eastern heresies is especially useful for the Indian students to understand the teachings of St.Thomas Syrian Christians. Another successful aspect of the book is is in the area of placing Asian church tradition within the world wide Christian tradition. Moreover, some of the materials in the book are new to me. For instance, the church in the Persian empire is totally a new information. The topic wise arrangement of the book, rather than chronological, helps the readers to easily spot necessary documents. Finally, Young deserves our commendation for compiling a work of immense value like this. He has done it in a highly dignified manner. As he expected (in the preface), this volume would certainly be used by Church History students as a raw material for their research. Published by ISPCK, Delhi, 1999.
Reviewed by Sam K John