Review of The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day Part One

Justo González is a Cuban-American Methodist minister, theologian, and church historian. Along with his wife Catherine Gunsalus González, he teaches as an adjunct professor at Columbia Theological Seminary located in Decatur, Georgia. He is also on faculty at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. He is a prominent voice in Hispanic theology and has contributed much work in the area of history and theology. His two-volume work The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day is considered the standard throughout Bible colleges and seminaries. He was the youngest student to be awarded a doctorate at Yale for historical theology and was awarded the prestigious Ecumenism Award from Washington Theological Consortium for his work of bringing unity and a spirit of ecumenicism to the church. He is the author of ten books including The Apostle’s Creed for Today, Essential Theological Term, and Heretics for Armchair Theologians.

Volume one of Justo González’s work concerns what transpired in church history from the apostolic age to the dawn of the Reformation. Part 1 deals with the early Church. González  discusses the first century, beginning with the cultural and religious milieu of the day that set the stage for the acts of God through Jesus of Nazareth. He covers the Gentile mission, how the apostles possibly died, the conflicts the early church had with the state, and so on until moving into the second century. The second century saw the church begin to move away from its Jewish roots and have to morph or integrate into different types of settings. The author discusses at length various threats to the stability and orthodoxy of the church including persecution, Gnosticism, Marcionism, Montanism, and other issues. Many ministers and theologians were raised up to defend the church and the canon, the creed, and a sense of apostolic succession grounded the wayfaring communities. González closes the section discussing the daily inner workings of Christians during this period as well as the last spark of severe persecution before the rise of Imperial Christianity.

Section two along with the first comprises the largest portion of the book. The rise of the Imperial church with the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan forever shaped the course of history. For the first time in history, it became expedient and even fashionable to become a part of the church which led to the monastic movement which sought to return to the first century ideal found within the Gospels. The author spends considerable time discussing the Arian and Donatist controversies as well as the work of many “famous” bishops, theologians, and pastors including no less than Athanasius, the great Cappadocian fathers, Ambrose, Augustine, Jerome, and John Chrysostom. He closes this section discussing the fracturing of the Western church in light of the Barbarian hoards that swept across the land.

Part three covers a large expanse of about a thousand years known as the Medieval period. Christendom was officially birthed and moving and European society was shaped by “Christian” ideals, art, and forms. González  elucidates the Chalcedonian debate that happened in the Eastern church, various reforms forged by monks, the crusades against the Muslims of the Middle East, the fragmenting of the church with abuse, and various movements led by John Wycliffe, John Huss, and many others which set the stage for the Reformation under Luther, Calvin, and Cranmer. This section closes out with a discussion about the Renaissance and the rise of Humanism.

The last and shortest section of the book really maps out the expansion of Christianity into other parts of the world such as North and South America, East Asia, and into the depths of Africa. The expansion of Christianity during this period occurred on the back of attempts of various nations such as Spain, France, Portugal, and others to claim various parts of the recently discovered new world. While this was going on, the Protestant Reformation was beginning on the mainland under Luther and others.

The author opened his work saying, “The reader will probably be surprised to learn that I regard this book in large measure as autobiographical…to tell the story of those whose heirs we are is to write a long preface to our own life stories. (xiii)” He reminds the readers that doing history converges with the making of it. We are the result of two millennia of God’s work in the world. Though the author never comes out and states forthrightly, “My aim is to provide an expansive and all-encompassing narrative of what has happened in church history for the past 2,000 years,” yet that was his purpose. For all intents and purposes, he most certainly accomplished his goal. He covered the most important moments and movements that shaped the church for years to come.

Dr. González  is a lucid and straight-forward writer. Though there were certainly moments where his personality was implicitly on display, his ability to simply state the facts was commendable. I was impressed with his ability to cover so much ground while still engaging me as a reader. One of the best features of the book was his inclusion of quotes from the various theologians, monks, and pastors he was discussing in each section. The lack of copious amounts of footnotes also made the text a better read. I did not find myself getting bogged down chasing rabbits at the bottom of each page. He did not shy away from the darker moments and people within the church’s history. He writes, “Like it or not, we are heirs of this host of diverse and even contradictory witnesses. Some of their actions we may find revolting, and others inspiring. But all of them form part of our history. All of them, those whom we admire as well as those whom we despise, brought us to where we are now. (xvii)” This showcased the author’s humility as well as academic honesty. The history of the church has not always been a positive thing and the author did not refuse to tell the true story. That was refreshing.

I appreciated that the author included so much about women and minorities throughout his work. This was likely the case because of his Hispanic background as well as the recognition that women have had a sordid role within church history and the author’s desire to tell their side of the story. He writes as a male historian and theologian yet goes out of his way to include how women were used to powerfully shape the church through the Holy Spirit. At the onset of his work, he admitted that no one is truly unbiased as they reflect and analyze history. He writes, “The notion that we read the New Testament exactly as the early Christians did, without any weight of tradition coloring our interpretation, is an illusion. It is also a dangerous illusion… (xvii)” We can avoid such a danger by understanding our tradition and our current cultural setting that affects the way we view and interpret history. González ’s commitment to the truths of Protestantism was evident while not coloring how he presented the truth of what occurred in the past.

While there are more strengths than weaknesses, I did find a few faults with the work. First, there were certainly moments when more could possibly be said about the various topics he covered within his chapters. I found myself getting just a taste of what God was doing during the time of Ambrose, Basil the Great, and Gregory and desiring more! I want though to be humble and not critique a book for what it does not say yet this seemed important to mention. This may just be an unfortunate but necessary failure for any survey work. Second, there seemed to be a little methodological uncertainty as I read the work. At times (especially at the beginning of the volume) it was a survey of important movements, happenings, and occurrences. Then the volume turned largely biographical with whole chapters devoted to the likes of Athanasius, Ambrose, and Augustine. It made me wonder what else was happening during the times of those men. These chapters make sense given how important those men were but it seemed odd to me that the flow of the work was broken.

The strengths of this work are numerous. First, the book was readable while covering topics that are weighty with significance. It was easy to follow along and I felt as a reader that I understood how the church finally arrived at the Reformation. Second, I get the sense that the author truly believes God has been at work throughout the history of the church. This was not just an exercise in relaying historical facts but telling students for decades to come what the Holy Spirit has been up to. Third, as someone not usually great with remembering dates and settings, the appendixes, maps, and timelines also helped me further understand the progression of history. Fourth, I appreciated his section on the beginning of colonial Christianity. This engaged me given the fact that I’m American and want to know more how we ended up in our current theological and historical setting. Fifth, the time he allotted to Eastern Christianity alongside Western Christianity was an encouragement. He also sought to offer a global perspective which was evident in the last section. Though he writes as a Westerner, he was intentional about including others in his scholarly endeavor. Though it would be difficult to get the laity and students to read a church history volume, I would whole-heartedly recommend this work to be read as a primary source for anyone desiring to know more about our Christian heritage.


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