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The Story of Christianity, Volume 2 by J. González Essay (Book Review)

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Updated: Nov 23rd, 2020

Biographical Section

A Biographical Sketch of the Author

Justo L. Gonzalez is a retired Christian historiographer and Hispanic theologian. He was born in Havana in 1937. He studied theology at the United Seminary in Havana before joining Yale University for his M.A. and Ph.D. in historical theology. He began his professional life as a biblical scholar at the Puerto Rican Evangelical Seminary as a before relocating to the US. Subsequently, he took up the role of an adjunct professor at Emory University and a teacher at the Georgian Methodist Church seminaries. Gonzalez co-founded the Apuntes, a religious journal publishing commentary on the Latino theology. He also established two religious organizations dedicated to Latino theology – the Association for Hispanic Theological Education and the Hispanic Theological Initiative. He has received prizes and recognitions for his ecumenical work and interfaith unity in his native Cuba and globally. Gonzalez is a prolific author who has written and co-authored numerous books on the history of Christianity. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, is a sequel to an earlier volume that examines church history from the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century up to the contemporary times.

Summary of the Contents of the Book

Volume 2 of The Story of Christianity, just like volume 1, is divided into four interrelated parts. The theme in part 1 is the Reformation. It picks up from the Protestant Reformation stirred by Martin Luther’s work that appeared to disparage Pope Leo X and the Roman Catholic doctrines.1 Subsequently, the author’s analysis delves into the Reformation in Europe through an exploration of the lives and works of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin. Throughout Part 1 of the book, the author highlights some of the doctrinal contestations that stirred up Luther and others to call for a ‘Catholic Reformation’. He also examines the reformations that occurred in British and French territories, the Swiss Reformation, and the emergence of the Anabaptist movement in the 16th century. The revolutionary Anabaptists advocated for the primacy of the bible, did not perform infant baptism and were exponents of the separation of the church from the state.2

Part 2 focuses on the events that followed the Reformations in Europe. In particular, the discussion centers on the doctrines of Orthodoxy, Rationalism, and Pietism beginning with the age of dogma. Gonzalez explains that, in the 17th century, the major denominations, notably, Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic faiths, created a set of dogmas/orthodoxies that believers had to follow through to be considered faithful.3 The denominations developed specified “patterns of belief and practice” into recognizable orthodoxies.4 Those opposed to these three orthodoxies turned to the Rationalist philosophy.

The Enlightenment period saw people whose beliefs were incompatible with the dominant doctrines relocate to other areas. Others, i.e., the Spiritualists, stressed the spiritual aspect of the scriptures to an extent that they refused to acknowledge the political connections.5 Still, some believers, including the Methodists (John Wesley) and Pietists like Spener, emphasized “personal faith and piety” as opposed to orthodoxies.6 However, those practicing Pietism or Spiritualism did not severe their Methodist links or plant new churches. Gonzalez ascribes that the forking of the Reformations into the different movements to the differences in theological and political perspectives. The section ends with a discussion of the First Great Awakening in the 13 American colonies. This great evangelical movement, which was led by Jonathan Edwards, caused the spread of Protestantism in Europe and British colonies in the mid 17th century.7

In Part 3, Gonzalez explores the political dimensions of the churches and denominations from the late 1700s to the turn of the 19th century. This period saw the emergence of nation-states and the fall of the colonial rule. In the US, the American Revolution saw the 13 colonies gain self-rule. Theologically, the second great awakening started around the 1790s with the Baptist and Methodist churches spearheading a major revival in America.8 In Europe, political changes, such as the French Revolution, saw the church increasingly grow separate from the state. The evangelism and revival in North America culminated in missions to Latin America to spread the gospel.

The heightened missionary activity towards the turn of the 19th century transformed Christianity into a global religion. The church expansion also led to the rise of Protestant and Catholic theological views. An example of the modern Protestant theology is the one by Schleiermacher, which affirmed the pluralistic piety in Christianity.9 Gonzalez also discusses the papal theological ideas by Pius IX, Leo XIII, and Pius X as well as the geographical expansion of Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, among other regions. He highlights the pros and cons of the missionary work and the church’s role in reinforcing colonialism.

The final part of the textbook deals with the major events of the 20th century. Gonzalez first explores the orthodox traditions of the Eastern Church, including the Byzantine rites and the beliefs and practices of the Russian Orthodox Church and other Eastern churches. He also examines the Communist and Islamic influences on Orthodoxy practiced in Russia and the Middle East. The analysis also focuses on the theological developments during the papal reign – Benedict XV to Pius XII.10 The increased transparency in the wake of the Second Vatican Council during this time sought to trigger a spiritual renewal in the church and promote ecumenism.11

The final section also explores the effects of the wars that occurred in the first half of the 20th century on Protestantism. Gonzalez considers the place of Protestant Churches as the key actors in the democratization process in postwar Europe, especially in Germany.12 In America, the aftermath of World War I saw the increase in socioeconomic competition and doctrinal rivalry between fundamentalist and liberal churches. The Great Depression was marked by a theological shift to faith by action. Historical figures like Reinhold Niebuhr preached faith with action to believers. The book ends with a prediction that missioners from the global South will in the future be the witnesses to the believers in the North.

Review of the Book

The Author’s Purpose and Its Fulfillment

The author’s purpose in this text is to recount the history of Christianity from the Reformation era to contemporary times. His focus throughout the text is on the Reformation and Enlightenment and how they shaped European Christianity, evangelism in the New World, and the nerve centers of modern Christianity. The author does a good job attaining his purpose through the exploration of the political and theological developments that either fostered or curtailed European and American Protestantism. Gonzalez delves into the details about Martin Luther’s contestations, the rise of denominational dogmas, and the philosophical options – Spiritualist and Pietism – that arose during the Enlightenment period. He also recounts Catholicism and Orthodoxy in the Eastern Church and their political ties in Europe. The contemporary evangelicalism to Asia and Africa is also very well discussed. However, in the chapter about Catholic theology, the author only centers on the Pope as opposed to the Vatican interpretation of the controversial theological problems of the day.

The Book’s Uniqueness

Unlike other texts on church history, the book predicts future evangelicalism trends. Gonzalez envisions the global south sending evangelical missions to the 19th-century centers of Christianity. He writes, “Thus, the lands that a century before were considered the ends of the earth” will witness to the “descendants of those who earlier witnessed to them”.13 Another unique thing about this book relates to the author’s consideration of the mega-events and significant historical figures and the ‘minor actors’ as well. Gonzalez’s discussion on the Reformation centers on not only the roles and perspectives of prominent personalities like Luther and John Calvin but also those of neglected voices, such as Tetzel. The author also does an excellent job fitting the two-century long history of the Reformation in Europe into one chapter. In addition, Catholicism, Protestantism, and Orthodoxy are explained in detail through the eyes of the popes and the various Reformers and early evangelicals.

The Author’s Style

Gonzalez retains the same style he used in volume one in this text. His presentation involves not only the narratives and ideas of significant historical personalities like Martin Luther but also those of minor players like Tetzel. He does not confine himself to the historical facts of the influential people but considers the perspectives of all actors and institutions to give a complete picture of the contexts. Gonzalez also seems to consider Christianity a global phenomenon as opposed to a localized religion. He does not ascribe the evangelicalism to all parts of the world to Western missionary activity only, but to the Eastern Church as well. In this regard, he explores not only Catholicism and Protestantism in Europe and the New World, but also Orthodoxy in Russia and the Muslim influence in the Arab world. Therefore, Gonzalez takes a global perspective in analyzing the spread of Christianity to all corners of the world.

The Author’s Biases

Gonzalez gives a balanced analysis of the historical events, institutions, and personalities – including heroes and villains – that have defined the church history since the Reformation period. His discussion seems to center more on the growing divide between Protestantism and Catholicism than on Christianity as a whole and other world religions such as Islam. He lightly talks about Islam, which has emerged as a big player in geopolitics. He emphasizes more on the major Christian denominations that are influential in the world. Another bias evident in the text is the greater focus on the Pope in the chapter on Roman Catholic Christianity. The discussion seems to revolve around the papacy as opposed to Catholic missionaries abroad and church planting.

Conclusion

The second volume of The Story of Christianity retells the Reformation and post-Reformation Christianity in Europe, N. America, Latin America, Asia, Russia, and Africa. Gonzalez uses a global perspective to analyze the key historical figures (e.g., Luther) and minor ones, religious institutions, and events that shaped theological and political developments over a 500-year period. The book ends with a discussion of the ecumenical efforts and future evangelicalism trends.

Bibliography

Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity, Volume 2 – The Reformation to the Present Day. San Francisco: HarperOne Publishers, 2010.

Footnotes

  1. Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 – The Reformation to the Present Day (San Francisco: Harper One Publishers, 2010), 14.
  2. Ibid., 58.
  3. Ibid., 132.
  4. Ibid., 164.
  5. Ibid., 197.
  6. Ibid., 207.
  7. Ibid., 228.
  8. Ibid., 244.
  9. Ibid., 285.
  10. Ibid., 346.
  11. Ibid., 356.
  12. Ibid., 364.
  13. Ibid., 396.
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