Book Review: The Story of Christianity, Volume 1 – By Justo L. Gonzalez

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Letter TThe Story of Christianity is a two volume history of Christianity by Justo Gonzalez. The first volume covers “The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation.”

Gonzalez begins with an introduction in which he discusses why we should study the history of Christianity. The primary reason presented is so that we will better understand our faith and what has influenced it; to know that we have been influenced by a certain past which colors our vision and threatens to ‘absolutize’ our personal interpretations, thus: “One way we can avoid this danger is to know the past that colors our vision. A person wearing tinted glasses can avoid the conclusion that the entire world is tinted only by being conscious of the glasses themselves… Not only is our view of the present colored by our history, but our view of history is also colored by the present and by the future we envision.”

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What follows from this is a 490 page discussion of the progression of Christian history from Christianity’s roots in Judaism up until the period just before the Protestant Reformation, roughly 400BC to around 1600AD. Gonzalez is a very readable writer, that is, he isn’t overly technical and writes in a way that is easy to understand, although he does go more in-depth than say R. Dean Peterson in his book A Concise History of Christianity, but such is to be expected in a longer text.

Gonzalez’s history might also be described as fairly ecumenical, as he doesn’t (at least as far as I noticed) bring the bias of any particular theological affiliation; one aspect which might be noteworthy is that Gonzalez does fall into what one may call the contemporary method of doing history, perhaps best exemplified in lines such as “History is not the pure past; history is a past interpreted from the present of the historian.”

As is common with most texts following the history of Christianity, fair portions of the text are spent discussing the early apologists, persecutions, heresies and councils. This is followed by the period of the Imperial Church (once it had become official under Rome), discussion of various great minds in the early church, the effects of Rome’s fall, monasticism and medieval Christianity. Also of note is that the text spends fair portions discussing Eastern Christianity as well as Christianity as it was spread to the New World during colonial expansion.

I was impressed with the clarity of thought when discussing figures such as Aquinas or William of Occam (amongst others) – Gonzalez does well in laying out the essentials of their thought while fitting it into the overall narrative of church history.

All in all I would say that Gonzalez text is a worthwhile read, and many chapters which the reader may not be interested could be safely skipped without much harm. It is nothing groundbreaking, but it’s a nice study.

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Memorable Quotes:

-“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, for it tends to absolutize our interpretation, confusing it with the Word of God.”(p.3)

-“The earliest Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were.”(p.27)

-“But in the West the church became the guardian of what was left of ancient civilization, as well as of order and justice.”(p282)

-“A true philosopher does not seek to prove what the mind cannot understand, even if the question at hand is a doctrine of faith… A philosopher who claims to prove the eternity of the world, and a philosopher who claims to prove its creation out of nothing, are both poor philosophers, for they ignore the limits of reason.”(p.375, while discussing Albert the Great)

-“On the basis of all this, one could even say that it was Thomas [Aquinas] who opened the way for Western modernity.”(p.380)

-“Church buildings thus became the books of the illiterate, and an attempt was made to set forth in them the whole of biblical history, the lives of great saints and martyrs, the virtues and vices, the promise of heaven and the punishment of hell.”(p.381)

-“This was not a disbelieving theology, willing to believe only that which reason could prove. It was rather a theology which, after showing that reason could not reach the depths of God, placed everything in God’s hand, and was reading to believe anything that God had revealed. And to believe it, not because it made sense, but because it had been revealed. This in turn meant that the question of authority was of paramount importance for theologians in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.”(p.435, while discussing John Duns Scotus and William of Occam)

Specific Criticisms

One criticism I might throw at this text is one which I alluded to above, in that there are various chapters which could be skipped without missing much; this is simply due to the fact that many chapters towards the middle of the text are devoted to individual thinkers, ie, Athanasius, The Cappadocians, Ambrose of Milan, John Chrysostom, Jerome, Augustine, which I think could have produced a better flow had they instead been integrated into the given section discussing their time period.

The later discussions of the church in the New World also seemed to lack a certain relevant theme, and felt more like simply summations of expansion rather than being set into some overall narrative. Perhaps this isn’t the fault of the writer, and I don’t know how it might be remedied, but it seems noteworthy.

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Eugene Lilley (MDiv, MA) is a member of the Society of Christian Philosophers and the American Chesterton Society.

He may or may not be a Time Lord.

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