The study of ecclesiastical history and the writings of the Saints are a necessity for a proper appreciation of Scripture and its interpretation. Philip Schaff's Church History is one of the few complete ecclesiastical history collections available. There are more modern and reliable translations of the ancient Greek and Latin texts (Ancient Christian Writers and Fathers of the Church Series), which abstain from sectarianism; unfortunately, the publishers have not yet gathered these works into a single collection. Despite the shortcomings of this edition, Philip Schaff's Church History is notable, if only for its presentation of the Reformed perspective on the development of ecclesiastic doctrine.
Schaff was guided by a number of principles in his History. He was convinced, for example, that other church histories conformed to a "dry, lifeless style" that failed to probe the "main thing in history, the ideas which rule it and reveal themselves in the process." Most church histories -he believed- failed to foster a sense organic development, leaving students unable to understand their movement's place in the overall history of the church.
Following philosopher G.W.F. Hegel, who posited that cycles of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis raise what is preserved to a higher level, Schaff maintained: "spiritual growth is likewise a process of annihilation, preservation, and exaltation." An example of this process in Christian thought and practice was -according to Schaff- the emergence of the Protestant Reformation out of the medieval Catholic Church. "The practical piety and morality of Roman Catholicism," said Schaff, "is characteristically legal, punctilious, un-free and anxious; but distinguished also for great sacrifices, the virtue of obedience, and full consecration to the Church." The Protestant Reformation brought a needed corrective through a faith that "is evangelically free, cheerful and joyous in the possession of justification by grace."
In effect Schaff presents Protestantism as the heir of catholicity at the expense of the Roman See (his description of "the Papists" is outrageous), liberating doctrine from the "constraints" of ecclesial authority. Yet he conveniently minimizes the shortcomings of Protestantism, namely its fractious nature and the replacement of Apostolic Tradition with the tradition of subjective interpretation of Scripture. Fortunately he recognized the need for union, envisioning the emergence of a synthetic "evangelical-catholic" Christianity in the future.
Schaff utilizes heavy editorializing to present the writings of the Church Fathers as representing his viewpoint; this unfairly forces the reader to accept his overbearing perspective at the expense of the Church Fathers. If you are approaching this work from a non-Protestant background, you might find it necessary to skip the introductions and the footnotes. Despite the sectarian presentation of Church history, I recommend this work, as it makes the works of the Apostolic Fathers accessible at a reasonable price.