It was hard to choose a rating since this is a review of four books at once. I had my favorites among them, that's for sure. I really liked the idea of _God in Dispute_, but I did not like the results much. Some of the later characters in the book are outside my area of expertise. The Christians from the second and third century, however, I have read repeatedly. Tertullian and Irenaeus are two of my favorite writers. I understand the thought behind setting them against each other, but I do not at all like the picture it leaves a with a read who is unfamiliar with the early church. Both Tertullian and Irenaeus argued against gnostic heresies using the agreement and unity of the apostles' churches as a central point in their argument. _God in Dispute_ gives a picture of their unity that would never have been sufficient in their day. The churches of the late second century did not have a mere tolerance and general agreement with one another. They kept track of each other, interacted with each other, and had an exalted picture of the one holy and apostolic church based on preserving the teaching of the apostles. (Yes, they also called it catholic, but that was a reference to the unity of the apostolic churches, not to Rome.)
Nothing in the disputes lets the reader know that Tertullian has some writings that were catholic--within the unity of the apostolic churches--before he was won over to Montanism, probably by his frustration with the permissiveness of the churches in regard to Christians who didn't live up to his standards.
The others, however, I really enjoyed, and they were very helpful. The definition of "evangelical" (and even whether it ought to be capitalized!) is a matter, perhaps not of dispute, but certainly of disagreement. BakerAcademic has a series of books on pre-Nicene Christianity for evangelicals, and one of their books devotes at least 15 pages to choosing a definition. Zondervan's publishing rules call for evangelical to be capitalized only when referring to a specific denomination with "Evangelical" in the title, but that rule is hardly followed across the board.
Thus, I was surprised to find that _Discovering an Evangelical Heritage_ places the start of the evangelical movement at the end of the great awakening in the early 19th century. I didn't know that, or the reasons for it, but the ramifications of that perspective on the evangelical movement were far more important than I could have guessed.
I was fortunate to have chosen to read _The American Evangelical Story_ before getting to _Discovering an Evangelical Heritage_. This greatly helped in understanding the influence of various movements on evangelicalism, especially the varying strains of Calvinism. While I once would have lumped Jonathan Edwards in with Whitefield, Spurgeon, and most Presbyterians, I was introduced to nuances I had never heard of nor considered.
While I can't say I memorized all those nuances in my first introduction to them, I did catch that Edwards had a softened version of Calvinism that made room for the world in general to be "called." This helped explain how he, and other Calvinists, could be so involved in a great awakening. It also provided some understanding for how the doctrine of double predestination espoused by Calvin affected Reformed believers in the 16th and 17th centuries, while explaining the explosion of evangelistic fervor in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In fact, I found _the American Evangelical Story_ a whirlwind. It is impossible, if I want to understand the evangelical movement, for me to leave this at one reading. I'd really like to race through it a couple more times, setting aside time to read it through in a couple days, which is possible. I think with two more readings, a lot more could settle in. I suppose it could be read more slowly, but the book seems to pull the reader--or at least this reader--through the story at a rapid pace. Slowing down seems ... wrong; at least while reading this rapid-fire look at 500 years of Christian history.
The last book, _Turning Points_, thrilled me a bit. I completely agree that history is best learned with "turning points" that break history up into periods. The author, Mark Noll, does a superb job of explaining why he is focusing on turning points.
I can't say enough about how important I think this is. Evangelicals in general, in my experience, are woefully ignorant of church history and would have trouble placing even such notable men as Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther in their appropriate age, much less century. If an evangelical can get his hands on _Turning Points_, he will suddenly have a list of eras he understands and can place. The turning points fit into a story, and stories are much easier to remember than lists of facts.
In the end, I decide on four stars because I didn't like _God in Dispute_ too much. I wrestled with giving the series five stars because I believe the benefits of knowing church history are immense. This series is non-threatening to evangelicals, explains an evangelical perspecive on the earliest churches so that they can be understood rather than written off, and is thorough, covering the time from the apostles to our present day in a flowing story.