Edited by John McManners Oxford. 724 pp. $39.95 until 12/31/90 $45 thereafter

THE GREATEST story ever told, no doubt, is the story told in the Bible. But the second greatest is the story of Jews and Christians down through the centuries that followed the biblical period. This is partly because no other world religions have quite so strong a narrative line (including respect for the infinite multiplicity of personal narrative lines). For Jews and Christians, the cosmos has a beginning, a middle and an end. Reflecting on the cosmos, Jews and Christians see a rollicking, tumultuous history rather than quiet cycles of nature's endless returns.

For both these world religions, too, the central axial point of history is what happens in personal intellect and will: in Yahweh's first of all, and then in individual human intellects and wills. Virtually every chapter of the Bible turns on a decision of intellect and will, either divine or human. In one chapter, King David is faithful to his Lord; in the next, unfaithful. The suspense always is, Which will it be next?

Similar considerations led the great British historian Lord Acton to write that the central line of all human history is the development of liberty, moral and political, and that this central line is most visible in the institutional experimentation that has accompanied the global spread of Christianity. Like Judaism, Christianity focuses laser-like attention on the arena of intellect and will in every individual. Less bound to birth and genealogy than Judaism, Christianity has had to work out a distinctive way of becoming a community both universal and highly differentiated; one in faith, yet highly personal and voluntary. The deepest and most original idea of the West, then, is that of individual liberty -- liberty of conscience, the primacy of the person.

Yet this seemingly individualistic idea has a social dimension. Individual personhood must be nourished by a culture as a whole, through many social and institutional supports. These institutional forms protecting individual liberty were arrived at only slowly in history and at the price of disagreement and bloodshed; this Pilgrim's Progress has not come cheap. Christianity's central symbol, the cross, predicts this. "Unless the grain of wheat fall into the ground, and die, it cannot bear fruit."

These roots of Western culture are explored in a new and beautiful volume edited by John McManners, The Oxford Illustrated History of Christianity. As befits its title, the text bears more than 350 illustrations: paintings, maps, charts, photographs -- one for every other page. Only once do as many as six pages go by without an illustration; only four or five times, as many as four. These photos are chosen with sound instinct, although one can easily think of missing motifs.

The accompanying essays, written by 19 distinguished and seasoned contributors, are well-designed to cover not only time but space; this particular history is remarkable for its global dimensions. It is written throughout by historians following historical canons; it tells, so to speak, not the "inside" story, but an objective one. As John Taylor puts it in the final essay, quoting H.G. Wells, "It is on the whole more convenient to keep history and theology apart."

The first half of the book covers the founding of Christianity until the year 1800. These nine long essays do not display the coherence of such well-known and highly praised histories as those by Philip Hughes and Paul Johnson, among others, but they do convey considerable ease on the part of masters of voluminous materials. To single out just a few of these essays: Henry Chadwick describes the early Christian community; Jeremy Johns covers Christianity and Islam; Colin Morris covers the years 1000-1450; Patrick Collinson writes on the late medieval church and the Reformation; and editor McManners constructs two admirable chapters on the Enlightenment and the global expansion of the Christian idea and the Christian life.

More original in conception is part two, which while entitled "Christianity Since 1800" is divided spatially into essays on each of six separate continents. Martin Marty offers a spirited, good-humored and fact-stuffed essay on North America, Frederick Pike on Latin America, Peter Hinchliff on Africa, Owen Chadwick on Europe.

The third and last section is the most problematic. It contains four essays on "Christianity Today and Tomorrow," covering the themes of faith, imagination, conscience and the future. These essays are understandably the most speculative and least convincing; in describing current events and trends, historians are seldom at their best. The four authors of these essays -- Maurice Wiles, Bryan Wilson, Basil Mitchell and John Taylor -- are splendid choices, and well-informed. But all are British and (Maurice Wiles aside) reveal a touch of the weariness and latitudinarianism from which Christianity suffers today in Europe. Perhaps, too, the future is not so easily glimpsed from Britain. More than a slight touch of modish Oxford leftism also infuses discussions of the Third World, America and some yet unseen "third way" between "the inhumanity of both East and West."

Altogether these essays leave one a little dissatisfied about the question: What is it that drives the Christian spirit in an unwelcoming world? What continues to inspire a civilization as dynamic as any the world has known? And in what consists the originality of Christianity, as compared with the other great religious-secular cultures of the world? These accomplished historians tell the tale, but do not organize it around the question of Christianity's uniqueness and its unparalleled influence upon other cultures. The attentive reader, however, can tease out at least at few of the perspectives that Christianity has by now introduced into the whole world.

Aside from those already mentioned -- historical consciousness and personal liberty -- there is also the conviction, recognized by Alfred North Whitehead, that the Creator of the universe is intelligent and wise, so that every single event, however random, has a meaning that diligent human intelligence can ferret out. In other words, the enterprise of scientific intellect is not in vain.

Another is the conception of social justice. Christians, like Jews, have been instructed by the Bible that each of them has an obligation to help to change the world -- "to prepare for the kingdom of God"; that is, to help to make historical societies more just, more brotherly and merciful, and more committed to the truth. Other world religions may carry analogues of these views, but seldom do they show such certitude that what humans do in history has intrinsic religious value. Self-denial and asceticism are important to Judaism and Christianity, but both religions are rather world-changing than world-fleeing. A THIRD is the biblical insistence on human sinfulness. If every human sometimes sins (as the Bible insists), the political corollary is that no person should be entrusted with unlimited power. Thus, Aquinas long ago described the best regime as one in which there are checks and balances among the three power principles: monarchial (executive), aristocratic and democratic. Thereafter, experiments with checks and balances grew ever more refined. James Madison was seldom more biblically orthodox than when he wrote: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."

By 1990, as this new history emphasizes, Christianity has achieved a global physical presence, and Christian ideas -- even more perhaps, a kind of Christian imagination or sensibility -- suffuse nearly all international discussions about compassion, the rights of even the outcasts among peoples and the personal dignity of all. In many places on this planet today, it is not necessary to be Christian in order to act as if one were. As Albert Camus once wrote: "What do they lack but churches, these atheists of our generation, to distinguish themselves from being Christians?"

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting, as this History makes evident, that there is a special bond between Jews and Christians. Christianity may appear to Jews to be a Jewish heresy; to Christians, Christianity makes no sense apart from Judaism.

The shape that all our world religions will assume in the more technologically unified, but self-consciously pluralistic world of the 21st century is not yet clear. But in the darkling glass of the present, the future of Christianity has always been obscure. Much depends on human intellect and will -- and God's.

Michael Novak holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His latest book is "This Hemisphere of Liberty."