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

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 Liberating Pulpit, The Changing Shape of Church History, and For the Healing of the Nations: The Book of Revelation in an Age of Cultural Conflict.

Volume two of Justo González’s work concerns what transpired in church history from the Reformation to the present day. It is ordered in four sections: the Reformation, Orthodoxy, Rationalism, & Pietism, the Nineteenth Century, and the Twentieth Century. Section one opens describing the need for the Reformation. Corruption, bad theology, the demise of the feudal system, global exploration, humanism, and other factors contributed to the rise of Luther and others. Much attention is given to Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and Protestantism in various parts of Europe. The section is closed with a discussion concerning the Catholic Counter-Reformation.

The second part of the book concerns the fall out from the Protestant Reformation which the author deemed as “the age of dogma and doubt.” Though theological enquiry continued and Christian faithfulness to the Gospel was present, many theological as well as national quarrels gripped various parts of Europe. This led to the rise of rationalism. Gonzalez’s notes, “…rationalism took hold of Europe. Why be concerned about details of Christian doctrine that produce nothing but quarrels and prejudice, when natural reason, a faculty common to all human beings, can answer the fundamental questions regarding God and human nature? (133)” After discussing wars in Germany, France, and England, various orthodoxies arose among the faithful. Strict adherence to such dogmas created reactionary movement like pietism, methodism, and some Christians even leaving the continent to seek a spiritual new beginning in the Americas. I appreciated most the author’s discussions of Descartes, Hume, and Kant. Their philosophies affect us even today.

Part three spans the nineteenth century. The first three chapters cover the political and cultural milieu of the day and how Christianity in the United States, Europe, and Latin America grew in response. Two chapters follow elaborating Protestant and Catholic theology. New geographical expansions occurred alongside theological expansions, many times going beyond the bounds of what was considered Christian orthodoxy (i.e. Schleiermacher and Hegel). It was a time of theological inquiry that sought to meet the challenges created by Kant and Hume head on. The author notes though, “Naturally, in that feverish intellectual activity statements were made, and positions taken, that would soon need to be corrected. (293)” Catholic sought to avoid liberalism by becoming more stringent in certain areas. The section ends with a discussion concerning the great geographic expansion. Gonzalez writes, “Although the consequences of that vast enterprise are still not clear, there is little doubt that, from the point of view of the history of Christianity, the most important event of the nineteenth century was the founding of a truly universal church, in which peoples of all races and nations had a part. (303)” As various empires conquered lands and claimed them for their own, Protestant Christianity was carried into those regions.

The last section of the book is about Christianity in the twentieth century. Early optimism concerning the times was soon crushed by wars, economic upheavals, destructive ideologies, and other terrible situations that affected millions of people. This century saw the death of colonialism as well as the rise of new challenges for the church in different regions of the world. The church rose to the occasion, albeit imperfectly at times. Gonzalez writes, “More than any other international organization, corporation, or political movement, the church cut across national boundaries, class distinctions, and political allegiances. (336)” The Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant churches in Europe and the United States all responded in unique ways that contributed to where we are at now. The book closes on a high note about the rise of ecumenicism and other progressive ideals that have entered the church.

The author’s purpose in his second volume was much the same as the last. He simply sought to create a readable yet comprehensive survey of Christian history beginning with the Reformation to the present day. He writes in the preface that the work could stand alone yet many of the people discussed within the work would disagree with such a reading. He says, “Loyola and other leaders of the Catholic Reformation saw themselves as the continuation and defenders of the story told in our first volume. The same is true of Luther, Calvin, Wesley, and most other great Protestant figures, who did not see themselves as innovators any more than did the Catholic theologians. (xiii)” The author most certainly accomplished his unstated goal of writing an expansive work of Christian history. The blurb on the back of the book states, “The interpretive overview of the Story of Christianity includes a thorough and timely analysis of the growth and maturation of Christianity, including events in Europe, the United States, and Latin America—the latter an area too often neglected in church histories, yet increasingly vital to an understanding of Christianity’s historical development, present situation, and future options.” The work delivered what it sought to offer.

I’m not sure that there was anything within the book that stood out as unique, setting it apart from other surveys of church history. I was impressed with the author’s ability to relay information without getting bogged down in the details. As mentioned in the review of the last volume, his lack of tedious and voluminous footnotes was a blessing. Because it is the dame author and format as volume one, much of what could be said about the author’s style is unnecessary. The format of the book was largely the same as the last volume where the author moved throughout the centuries focusing on the most important events and people who shaped Christianity. I appreciated the author’s brevity the more I read.

The author appeared to be very even-handed in his assessment of various historical episodes. One example is his discussion concerning the death of Michael Servetus. He writes, “Undoubtedly, there are grounds for harsh judgment on the proceedings, and particularly on Calvin’s role in them. But one should also remember that at that time all over Europe both Protestants and Catholics were acting in similar fashion against those whom they considered heretics. (68-69)” It seems easy and almost justifiable to discredit Calvin completely in light of his role in the death of Servetus yet Gonzalez resists such a notion, explaining the historical situation where helps understand the black eye. Again, the author’s unbiased writing style was refreshing. He did not shy away from articulating both the failures and successes of various men, women, and movements within church history. If there is a bias at all within the volume, it may be that the author does not like rigidity when it comes to theology. He mentioned the inflexibility of the successors and followers of Calvin, Luther, and Zwingli in part two of the book writing, “Dogma was often substituted for faith, and orthodoxy for love. Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic alike developed orthodoxies to which one had to adhere strictly or be counted out of the fold of the faithful. (133)”  His discussion of the World Missionary Conference which led to the formation of the World Council of Churches also gave me the sense that he favored ecumenical attitudes toward Christianity as opposed to doctrinal formalism or rigidity.

The book shares many of the weaknesses and strengths of volume one. I continued to appreciate his discussions concerning Christianity in other parts of the world other than the West. As someone who thinks the future of Christianity in the West looks bleak and the future in the Global South is looking bright, it validated such a line of reasoning. He writes, “…it seems that the twenty-first century will be marked by a vast missionary enterprise from the South to the North. Thus, the lands that a century before were considered ‘the ends of the earth’ will have an opportunity to witness to the descendents of those who had earlier witnessed to them. (397)” The volume was comprehensive, readable, engaging and certainly increased my knowledge in various areas. Though I did not enjoy it as much as the first volume, I did enjoy it nevertheless. A possible weakness could be his failure to adequately describe how Christians in the Global South are different than those in the West. Yet, it is a historical book and cannot adequately address every topic in a thorough fashion. A lot more could have also been said about Christianity in the 20th century but it may be the older edition of the book that hindered me more so than Gonzalez’s text as a whole (it has since been revised and expanded which might have addressed this malady). I also wondered why Luther received a whole chapter devoted to explaining his theology but Calvin and Zwingli did not, especially since Calvin was the theologian par excellence of the Reformation.  I would recommend this work alongside the first volume to anyone seeking to understand Christian history and the faith that has been bequeathed to us by our theological forefathers. It seems almost unthinkable and even obtuse for Christians to seek to engage the world around them with the great commission without at least a small attempt to adequately understand how we arrived in the moment we find ourselves in.

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