Book Review: Justo L. González’s The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting book reviews from graduate students in my Reformation Theology course at Wheaton College.  Each student had the opportunity to chose their own secondary source and write a review for publication on my website.  Here is the first of the reviews.

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González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Pp. 550. $25.99.

In the second volume of his two-volume The Story of Christianity series, subtitled The Reformation to the Present Day, Justo L. González picks up where the first volume left off on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Part I begins with the Church’s need for reform at the end of the fifteenth century, and ends with a broad overview of the effects of the Protestant movement in various regions of sixteenth century Europe, leaving the reader with a picture of a Europe shaken by the religious and political movements of the previous century. González is a distinguished historical theologian, a retired professor, and a prolific author, having published several acclaimed works on Christian history, including the three-volume series History of Christian Thought. For a topic of such breadth as the history of Christianity, González communicates this story in a readable, understandable, and engaging style, perhaps drawing from his own experience as a professor.

In telling the story of the Reformation specifically, González opens with a quick overview of how the Church came to be in the power-hungry, corrupt state in which it found itself at the beginning of the sixteenth century, describing, for example, how the papacy “fell into the hands of men who were more moved by the glories of the Renaissance than by the message of the cross”, and how monasteries had become “centers of leisurely living” (González 2010). This sets the stage for the Reformation, as many within the Church, including humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, saw a need for a return to the sources in the doctrine of the Church. Politically, the gap between the rich and the poor was widening — an ideal context for discontent.

In Chapters Two to Four, González then introduces Martin Luther, the lawyer-turned-monk and professor who is credited with setting the Western European world on fire with his Ninety-five Theses and other writings challenging the authority of the Roman pope. After highlighting in Chapter Four five key elements of Luther’s controversial theology, González goes on to highlight, in the next three chapters, three other movements which developed at this time: the Swiss Reformation, the Anabaptist movements, and John Calvin’s Reformed theology, whose influence would spread to the Netherlands, Scotland, France, and even to Poland (González 2010).

From there, he turns to developments in England and Scotland in Chapter Eight. After this, González turns the focus back to events on the Continent, addressing the struggle between the Lutheran princes and Catholic emperor Charles V, and the spread of Lutheranism into Scandinavian lands. In Chapters Ten and Eleven, González highlights how the Reformation played out in the Low Countries and in France; often it was accompanied by bloodshed as political and religious interests combined.

Chapters Twelve and Thirteen address what González calls the Catholic Reformation, and the persecution of Protestants — and the influence of Protestantism — in Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Poland, regions in which Protestantism had spread and had some influence. Notably, in the chapter on the Catholic Reformation, González makes no apologies for thus titling that section of the work. Although some treatments of this period choose to call it the “Counter-Reformation”, as in counter-Protestantism, González dates the Catholic Reformation as beginning with Queen Isabella of Castile in 1474, making the movement first and foremost a reformation within the Catholic church that only later responds also to the Protestant challenge when it arises almost forty years later.

Finally, González closes Part I with a chapter entitled “A Convulsed Age”, describing how in this time, much of what had been foundational in Christendom was shaken by the rise of the Turks, the discovery of America and other new lands and their subsequent colonization, and the collapse of “the towering edifice of medieval Christianity” (González 2010). González includes two helpful tools in each part: first, a chronology of rulers of the various kingdoms, popes, and significant events, and second, a list of recommended readings for further study at the end of each major section.

For a work of this breadth — covering Christianity from the early church until the present day in two volumes — its lack of depth comes as no surprise. Someone who has studied the history and politics of the fifteenth and sixteenth century will notice that some significant events were glossed over or lumped along with others. While three chapters were spent on the history and theology of Luther, for example, only one brief chapter was given to Calvin, a figure whose theology inspired numerous groups of “Reformed” Protestants throughout Europe. However, given Luther’s historical significance as the progenitor of the Protestant break from the Roman Church, this emphasis on his life and work is consistent with the overall purpose of the Story of Christianity series. Additionally, González simplified many complex political situations by using more general terms. Again, this reflects the intention of the book to provide an overview of the history of Christianity in this time, rather than an in-depth study.

With González’s intention of breadth over depth in mind, this book is an engaging, even at times addicting, read. He stays away from using historical and theological jargon, but briefly explains relevant terms; though at times glossing over important events, he skillfully lets the reader know that there is more to the story than presented in his narrative through well-phrased general statements; he does not include footnotes or references in the general text, making it easy to read smoothly, like a story, as it is meant to be; the inclusion of pictures help the reader to feel less removed from the historical figures and places described in the book. For the readers who are intrigued and want to discover more, his recommended resources are an excellent starting place.

This is a well-written and excellent overview text for an introductory course for a History of Christianity class, or as a historical supplement to a more theologically-bent course. With his engaging and narrative-like style, González takes a vast and complex subject and makes it accessible for the newcomer to the field. It may not be the book of choice for a more in-depth historical or theological class, or for a serious scholar in the field; however, with the breadth that it covers and the lists provided for further study, it has the potential to make serious scholars out of its readers.

            –Grace Liaw

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