Retrieving History

Memory and Identity Formation in the Early Church

series: Evangelical Ressourcement

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Retrieving History introduces the early Christian ideas of history and history writing and shows their value for developing Christian communities of the patristic era. It examines the ways early Christians related and transmitted their history: apologetics, martyrdom accounts, sacred biography, and the genre of church history proper. Stefana Dan Laing shows that exploring the lives and writings of both men and women of the ancient church helps readers understand how Christian identity is rooted in the faithful work of preceding generations. Her book also offers a corrective to the individualistic and ahistorical tendencies within contemporary Christianity. It will appeal to professors and students in church history and patristics courses as well as pastors, worship leaders, and educated laypeople.

About the Series
The Evangelical Ressourcement series is grounded in the belief that there is a wealth of theological, exegetical, and spiritual resources from the patristic era that is relevant for the Christian church today and into the future. Amid the current resurgence of interest in the early church, this series aims to help church thinkers and leaders reappropriate these ancient understandings of Christian belief and practice and apply them to ministry in the twenty-first century.

Time Line
1. Invitation to the Past
2. Ancient Historical Writing and the Rise of Historical Literary Forms
3. History as Apologetic: Harnessing a Usable Past
4. Martyrology: Remembering the Martyrs' Noble Example
5. Hagiography: Martyrdom as Discipleship in Early Christian Biographies
6. Ecclesiastical History: The Story of the Church
7. Conclusions and Trajectories


"At the core of history are the stories we tell of ourselves and of our communities. The stories we choose to tell or the stories we choose to ignore are equally as important as the way we tell them, for they form us into the people we are. From the very beginning, Jews and Christians have been admonished to remember and to recount the stories of God through God's people. In Retrieving History, Laing calls us to listen again to the witness of the past and recognize that what lies before us is a clear choice between what Justo González calls 'innocent history,' which is a form of selective forgetfulness, and 'responsible remembrance,' which leads to responsible action. This volume is an important reminder that forgetfulness is the easy way out."

George Kalantzis, professor of theology and director of the Wheaton Center for Early Christian Studies, Wheaton College

"History is a slippery thing. Once it's over, it turns into memory, and everyone knows how unreliable memory can be. Stefana Dan Laing's excellent book tackles this issue directly. With impressive scholarly expertise and lively writing, she examines how early Christian memories were gathered, shaped, and marshaled as polemical arguments or world-shaping narratives. Retrieving History expertly describes how 'what happened' in the ancient church became 'what we believe to have happened.' All the right topics are covered: apologetics, martyrdom, hagiography, and Eusebian-style history. For those who think the past matters, this book is important reading--for the collective remembrance of the faithful is one of the greatest shapers of the Christian mind today."

Bryan Litfin, professor of theology, Moody Bible Institute

"Stefana Laing's Retrieving History is a welcome contribution to the retrieval of early Christian ways of thinking about Christianity and Christian living. She offers a model of how to read history for contemporary benefit in addition to introducing the reader to the enormous material in early Christianity that benefits modern Christians. Laing helps readers find value in early Christian history without cherry-picking those isolated texts with which modern readers might agree. There are many introductions to early Christian thought, but few reclaim ways of doing theology while remaining faithful to the writers whose texts are the subject of inquiry."

Steve McKinion, associate professor of theology and patristic studies, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

"In Retrieving History, Stefana Dan Laing brings her expertise in classics, theology, and history to bear on an important but understudied aspect of Christian history. By answering the question, 'How did the early church remember its past and what role did that play in forming its identity?' she offers a work of significant value to twenty-first-century evangelicals who long for a meaningful collective Christian identity but suffer from the effects of modernity's radical individualism. This is a serious work of painstakingly researched and well-sourced scholarship. Further, Laing's prose flows beautifully, making it a joy to read. A significant contribution to scholarship as well as an exhortation toward a more robust ecclesiology, this book is recommended for anyone interested in patristics, historiography, or the church. You will not be disappointed."

Miles S. Mullin II, professor of religious history, Hannibal-LaGrange University

"Laing serves up a delightful feast of historiographical insight, garnished with a dash of contemporary application. Her engaging study is prepared with precision and presented with style. The early Christians wrote historical materials to form social identity and to transform moral character. Similarly, Laing does more than merely inform her readers, who will find their perspectives challenged and changed by her critical reflections."

Paul A. Hartog, professor of Christian thought, Faith Baptist Theological Seminary

The Author

  1. Stefana Dan Laing

    Stefana Dan Laing

    Stefana Dan Laing (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is assistant professor of divinity and theological librarian at Beeson Divinity School, Samford University. She previously served as assistant librarian at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary...

    Continue reading about Stefana Dan Laing


"The author writes clearly and skillfully for a non-academic audience and makes rich use of an impressively wide range of primary sources. . . . Laing is to be complimented on her clear and careful use of genre analysis that subtly introduces a lay readership to questions whose technical character could quickly become deadly. . . . Recommended for undergraduate libraries, seminaries, and adult reading groups."

Michael Hollerich,

Catholic Historical Review