After the Second World War, no French author was more celebrated amongst Catholics than Henri Daniel-Rops (1901-1965). The editor of The Twentieth Century History of Catholicism, he was a prolific author well known in France for his novels but also known across the West for his histories of the Church, eventually culminating in his magnum opus, the History of the Church of Christ. This monumental work, originally published in French from 1948-1965, was translated into English and published from 1960-1967 by J. M. Dent in ten hardcover volumes. In 2022, after being out of print for decades, the first English volume, The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, was republished in two parts by Cluny Media.
Although Daniel-Rops is less well-known today than formerly, it is to be hoped that Cluny’s republication of the first volume the History of the Church of Christ will aid in returning him to the general awareness of Catholics throughout the world. The familiarity that he once enjoyed is still deserved today, for his History is at once a work both accessible and scholarly. It carefully presents the development of the church in its historical and theological context as any scholarly history should, but it does so in language that is not only clear but beautiful. Moreover, the work is suffused throughout with a sense of sincere and devout belief that delights in and marvels at God’s establishment and preservation of the Church across the centuries. With a well-placed exclamation mark here, a pious interjection there, Daniel-Rops’ learned yet conversational style is conveyed in an idiom that somehow never loses its authority even as it confesses itself astounded by what it must depict. Consider, for example, his depiction of the martyrdom of Saint Stephen:
Stephen knew well enough what end awaited him. Already, so he told his accusers, he saw the heavens opening, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God. Blasphemy! More blasphemy! At this the exasperated audience fell upon him and dragged him away. The Roman procurator would know nothing of this illegal execution: or anyhow, there would be nothing that he could do about it. What this impious creature deserved was death by stoning, the supreme penalty for blasphemy. The stones soon began to fly, striking down the heroic deacon, who prayed aloud to Jesus, begging Him to forgive his torturers. A young Pharisee stood in one corner, watching the scene and grinning: his name was Saul, and he stepped forward and offered to look after the executioners’ cloaks.
Here, the narrative is replete with psychological details that can be surmised—the exasperation of the crowd, the indifference of the Roman authorities, and the grin on Saul’s face, which so contrasts with the converted man that he would become. Daniel-Rops turns a novelist’s eye on the events of the early years of the Church, and what flows from his pen is a narrative that is always gripping even as it remains firmly grounded in history, the Bible, and other early sources which have survived.
A few pages later, he describes the beginning of Philip the Deacon’s missionary work, situating it within the context of the historical moment:
We find him going into Samaritan territory first of all, to carry the Word of God to the people there (Acts viii. 4–25). This action, which does not seem particularly astonishing to us, would have been more than surprising to the Jews of the day: they must have regarded it as a considerable scandal. Everyone in Jerusalem and the other pious Jewish communities detested the Samaritans, descendants of a pack of pagans, heretics, unclean folk whose very water, according to the rabbis, was ‘more impure than swine’s blood.’ The Jews had never forgiven them for having built a temple at Gerizim, in days gone by, which had rivalled that of Sion, and there had been great rejoicing when John Hyrcanus had razed their capital to the ground in 128 b.c. The disciples had made their own feelings on the Samaritans plain enough to Jesus Himself, when He had spoken in friendly fashion to a Samaritan woman; what in the world would the faithful in the Holy City think of the deacon who attempted to convert those accursed people?
Here, Daniel-Rops explains the long-standing antagonism which existed between historical Jews and Samaritans in terms that might well prove illuminating to many modern Christians who are unaware why Jesus’ followers objected to His exchange with the Samaritan woman in John 4. The situation was not merely theological, but also political and social: there were fundamental differences mixed up with petty jealousies into the sort of intractable cultural hatred that can still be found in troubled regions of the world today. Daniel-Rops begins this particular explanation in scripture and then broadens out into the use of other sources—an approach he uses throughout the first volume of his history, where biblical evidence is appropriate. Later volumes, which extend all the way up to the twentieth century, rely upon other forms of contemporary documentation, but never fail to present the history in the same eloquent and engrossing style, as in this excerpt from his examination of Karl Barth in the final book of History of the Church of Christ:
In 1933 the National Socialist storm fell upon Germany. Barth saw at once that the Hitlerian doctrines, if taken to their conclusions, led to the heathen heresies in which man becomes the God whom he was trying to destroy. The founding of the German Christian Church was a warning to him: one cannot praise God by singing the Horst Wessel song.
The almost effortless and concise elaboration of complicated lines of thought is what makes Daniel-Rops such a valuable historian. A page later, he describes Barthian theology and dialectic in a single paragraph written in terms that any layman would find approachable, before moving on to the impact of Barth’s theology on Protestant standpoints. In this regard, the praiseworthy History of the Church of Christ serves also as an instruction in the basic theological and philosophical movements that have existed within and around the Church, broadly understood.
Today, when there is precious little instruction in history generally, and in the history of the church most especially, there is a great need for works like those of Daniel-Rops, which both situate and connect the key figures and intellectual developments of the fundamental forces that have shaped the modern world. His History of the Church of Christ should be considered essential reading for anyone who desires to have a fuller knowledge of the Christian faith, its practices, and its historical development. And, it is to be hoped that Cluny Media will continue with the republication of the complete series of volumes beyond The Church of the Apostles and Martyrs, so that Henri Daniel-Rops’ magnum opus will again experience the popular and widespread readership it so richly deserves.