Review & Reflection – The Presbyterian Story

The Presbyterian Story: Origins & Progress of a Reformed Tradition by S. Donald Fortson III (264 pages, 2013)

Review:

As a fan of church history (and a life-long Presbyterian) I was thrilled to receive this book from a dear friend of mine earlier in the year.  Although it’s been several months now since I’ve finished reading it, I’m only now getting around to writing a proper review.  Turns out, marriage can be a bit time-consuming.  Go figure.

First let me share a bit about the author.  S. Donald Fortson is a Professor of Church History and Practical Theology at Reformed Theological Seminary in Charlotte, North Carolina.  His academic career and personal background have allowed him to become very familiar with American Presbyterian church history, and he puts this expertise to good use in the writing of this book.  Unlike many Presbyterian church histories, Fortson begins at the beginning: with the earliest history of the Christian church.  Indeed, out of the ten chapters which make up this book only six deal with church history at or after the Reformation.  Chapter one helpfully argues that church history and tradition are not only valuable but also necessary and nourishing to the life and health of the church.  Chapters addressing early Christianity, the role of the Church Fathers, and the significance of the Middle Ages lay a solid foundation for a study of the Reformation, Puritanism, and Presbyterianism in the British Isles. From there we move to the American continent to examine the development (and sometimes division) of the church through the Old Side/New Side and Old School/New School controversies.  Finally we are treated to a study of the tumultuous 20th century and get a bird’s eye view of the recent and current developments of the Presbyterian story in the American context.

Reflection:

I have to admit, I was impressed with this book.  Although I was not very familiar with the author (I had recently read his excellent little book on Charles Hodge) I have greatly appreciated his scholarship and style.  He communicates well and this book will probably be my go-to for a one volume survey of the Presbyterian story.  One of the greatest strengths of this book, to my mind, is the warm catholicity of it.  It grasps that crucial, though often overlooked, truth that the Presbyterian story can only be understood as one comes to know and love the broader history of the church.  Put simply, to be Presbyterian and Reformed is to be Catholic.  Spending the first 40% of the book arguing for the importance of that history and guiding readers through the first 1500 years of the church’s history primes the pump to know and love the last 500.  The only real weakness I found was the last chapter.  Fortson’s own ecclesiastical context is in the EPC so as a PCA guy I felt that there was insufficient attention given to NAPARC churches in the contemporary context.  His survey tended more towards the left of the Presbyterian spectrum (although clearly not liberal).  That aside, I found Fortson’s book to be refreshing and instructive.  Take up and read!

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