A Biographical Sketch of the Author
Justo L. Gonzalez is a notable church historiographer and a theologian who specializes in Hispanic theology. He was born in Cuba in 1937. He went to United Seminary in Havana for his first theological training. Later, he joined Yale University for his M.A. and doctoral studies in historical theology. He first had an eight-year stint at the Puerto Rican Evangelical Seminary as a bible teacher before moving to the US. He worked as an adjunct professor at Emory University and taught at theological seminaries in Georgia. Gonzalez is a cofounder of Apuntes, a journal that carries publications on Latino theology. Gonzalez also founded the Association for Hispanic Theological Education and the Hispanic Theological Initiative. Further, he has received various recognitions and awards for his ecumenical work aimed at promoting interdenominational unity. He is a prolific author whose books are useful seminary texts. Among his popular works is the two-volume book, The Story of Christianity, which traces the history of the church from its infancy up until the dawn of the Protestant Reformation.
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Summary of the Contents of the Book
The textbook, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1, gives a detailed account of church history, including the dominant historical figures and events, such as the Protestant Reformation, and the European socioeconomic forces that affected the spread of Christianity in the first 15 centuries. The book is organized around four sections. In the introduction, the author explains why it is important for a believer to study church history. The main reason given is that studying the history of Christianity helps believers understand the Christian faith and the forces that have shaped, i.e., “the past that colors our vision” and threatens to make individual interpretations absolute.1
In the first section, The Early Church, Gonzalez examines the beginnings of the early church. He explores the Jewish and Greco-Roman cultures that surrounded the early church in its outward expansion from Jerusalem. The section covers the fall of the Second Temple and the theological differences between early Christians and the Pharisees. The Pharisees practiced legalism and advocated for the application of the Law in all situations.2 In contrast, the lives of the Sadducees, who were the aristocratic class of the Jewish society, were centered on the Temple. Due to the theological differences, the two groups differed strongly with the teachings of Jesus and His followers regarding salvation.
Another aspect covered in the first section is Paul’s missions as well as those made by church leaders to minister to the Diaspora Jews and Gentiles.3 To support the missionary work, the scriptures were translated from Hebrew to Aramaic and Greek languages that were widely spoken around the Mediterranean region.4 These efforts culminated in the authorship of the Alexandrian bible version, the Septuagint, which played a critical role in spreading the gospel to the Gentiles. Later, as Christianity spread to Rome, the clash between the faith and emperor worship precipitated the persecutions of early Christians. The early believers were persecuted due to their refusal to “burn incense to the emperor’s image”, a treason charge.5 Other Roman emperors such as Caesar Nero persecuted early Christians due to their abstinence from pagan worship. Besides persecutions, heresies such as Gnosticism and asceticism threatened the growth of the Christian faith.
In the second section, The Imperial Church, the author explores the political forces that affected the early church. His analysis starts with the conversion of Constantine, which saw the emergence of a state religion, the construction of big church structures, and the burning of incense in church.6 In addition, the creedal councils were established in various cities in Asia Minor, marking the beginning of early ecumenical work to these regions. The book also highlights the lives of key historical figures such as Augustine, who baptized Ambrose – a bishop who clashed with Theodosius the emperor over the punishment of Christian arsonists.7 It also explores the heretical teachings of Donatixm, Arianism, and Manichaeanism that had infiltrated the church. Manichaeanism held that the bible is a compilation of inelegant writings and that evil was the principle of darkness.8 The heresies sought to dispute the authority of the scriptures as the word of God.
In the third section (Medieval Christianity), Gonzalez’s focus turns to Christianity in the middle ages. While the ‘dark ages’ were seen in the Western Church, Eastern Christianity saw a Renaissance during this period.9 In addition, the growing theological and cultural differences between the East and West culminated in the schism of1054.10 The differences arose from the distinct political courses that dominated the two regions. The fall of the empire in the West saw the pope gain significant political influence. In contrast, in the East, the empire thrived for another millennium with successive Christian emperors making political decisions based on philosophical perspectives such as Platonism. Early theologians like Thomas Aquinas opposed the Platonic views – temporal realities – that had the danger of undermining the world (creation) and God’s incarnation in the Person of Christ.11 Perspectives on the existence of God also dominated the philosophical arguments during the middle ages.
The medieval Christianity in the east was marked by theological controversies and friction. The Carolingian Renaissance triggered significant theological changes such as architectural designs, musical pieces, and devotion in the church.12 This section also discusses the contributions of pre-Reformation personalities like John Huss and John Wycliffe whose objections to the Roman Catholic teachings heralded the Protestant Reformation.
The fourth section of the book, i.e., Colonial Christianity, examines the European expansion to other parts of the planet. Western missionary movements were the hallmarks of the colonial Christianity that saw the spread of the gospel in the New World. Gonzalez explores the activities of early missioners, bible translations, and the preaching to the gentiles. The early movements involved the Spanish and Portuguese missionaries traveling and preaching to the native inhabitants of North America and South America. The author also highlights the historical figures, events, and ideas that defined the European conquest of America by Portugal and Spain.
Review of the Book
The Author’s Purpose and Its Fulfillment
Gonzalez’s purpose for writing this textbook is to recount the history of Christianity from its Jewish through the Middle Ages and imperial systems to the pre-Protestant Reformation period. The author seeks to give a panoramic history of the church through an in-depth exploration of the historical figures, their perspectives, and the events that defined the first fifteen centuries of Christian history. The author achieves this purpose very well through an in-depth discussion that centers on the Jewish and Roman realities in the first century, the preaching to the gentiles by Paul and others, the rise of persecutions, and the heretical doctrines that pervaded the early church. Gonzalez also gives the narrative history of the imperial church characterized by the establishment of creedal councils after Constantine’s conversion, the great schism, and the early colonial movements. The chronological analysis gives the reader an apt panoramic view of the early church, the challenges and opportunities that existed, and the forces that precipitated the Protestant Reformation.
The Book’s Uniqueness
The uniqueness of The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 lies in the exceptional analysis of the heresies pervasive in the early church and their refutations. The major heresies and controversies of the imperial church, including Donatixm and Arianism, are examined in thoughtful analysis. Gonzalez ascribes the fall of Arianism to the interpretations of the ‘Apostle’s Creed’ and the Nicene Creed.13 Another unique feature of this text is the chronological development of the early church theology. The author gives details related to each event in church history in four sections. The incorporation of the historical writings of other writers and philosophers helps build the context for the historical events discussed. The analysis also includes the political and religious leaders that influenced theological development and the expansion of Christianity in an early age. The author gives a list of resources in each section to allow the reader to authenticate the facts reported.
The Author’s Style
Gonzalez masterfully integrates the key aspects of the leading historical figures in developing the history of Christianity up to the pre-Reformation era. In addition, the integration of the primary theological issues that the political leaders, religious figures, and philosophers addressed in church history is an important characteristic of Gonzalez’s style. He writes that the book is a “history of the deeds of the spirit in and through the men and women who have gone before in the faith”.14 In this view, he explores the lives of the apostles and early missioners as well as the political forces that curtailed or promoted the spread of Christianity in Europe. In each section, the author gives the stresses the problems and possibilities presented to the early church that shaped the modern theological perspectives. His approach reflects the contemporary style of presenting history, whereby historical facts are examined through the eyes of the historical figures and contexts in order to fit the disparate developments into the overall Christian narrative.
The Author’s Biases
Gonzalez generally gives a balanced account of church history supported by historical facts and writings. While he does not label the doctrines that were considered unorthodox by the early church as outright heresy, his authorship style appears to be biased towards the historical figures. He is heavily reliant on the political developments of the time compared to religious figures and biblical contexts. He also relies more on ancient literature in the analysis than on recent archeological findings. Nevertheless, the author is ecumenical in his discussion and does not reveal his Methodist background.
Gonzalez, in volume 1 of his text, traces church history through the eyes of the early apostles, missioners, and political figures. He also gives an in-depth study of the creed councils, persecutions, the fall of the Roman empire, and heretical doctrines that infiltrated medieval Christianity. He also lays out the theological differences that precipitated the great schism and the colonial missionaries into the New World.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. San Francisco: Harper One Publishers, 2010.
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- Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 – The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (San Francisco: Harper One Publishers, 2010), 4.
- Ibid., 10.
- Ibid., 12.
- Ibid., 13.
- Ibid., 16.
- Ibid., 126.
- Ibid., 191.
- Ibid., 210.
- Ibid., 239.
- Ibid., 251.
- Ibid., 319.
- Ibid., 252.
- Ibid., 162.
- Ibid., 4.