To read church history is to discover yourself: "The Story of Christianity" [volume one] by Justo Gonzalez
Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s those of us studying Church History depended upon the splendid Penguin History of the Church series for an orientation to the almost two-millennia sweep of Christianity. Now, a half-century later, it is intriguing to look at the story with the advantage of five decades of fresh research. Justo L Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation  is both a refresher for us Penguin champions now in our senior years as well as an excellent introduction to Christianity’s story for those whose religious education never progressed past sixth-grade Confirmation and the sixth commandment.
If you are conditioned to “hate history,” [perhaps from education’s tendency to “teach for the test”] then Gonzalez’s style and content might change your mind. than the captivating story of who we are and how we came to be. “The Story of Christianity” is the presentation of history best enjoyed on a quiet evening in a generous leather seat with a brandy or cigar at hand. History finely written is a pleasure to embrace, even when its narratives take us to unthinkable tragedies and outrages. Even details and numbers capture us: did the Black Plague really kill 1 of every 3 Europeans? How do you feed 120,000 Crusaders without starting a second war?
This volume [as well as its companion, from the Reformation in 1517 forward] is the story of the Christian experience from the ground up, in a narrative that is informative and rarely overwhelming. We discover, for example, that with a few notable exceptions such as St. Paul, the first centuries’ proliferation of Christianity depended less upon charismatic missionaries as true anonymous word of mouth believers, particularly in the lower echelons of Roman society. [“Nameless merchants and slaves” who transversed the empire, as the author puts it.] Christian fraternity and solidarity—particularly the custom of the agape or love meal—were the characteristics that won new admirers and perplexed many Romans, who tended to view Christians as “low life.” Except for the Emperor Diocletian’s broad persecution in the late third century, Roman harassment of Christians was sporadic, regionalized, and at times eccentric.
Gonzalez presents the development of Christian theology and creed in a manageable narrative as the Church defended itself from a variety of external and internal assaults upon its sacred treasury of belief, most notably the humanity and divinity of Jesus defined by the first Church council, Nicaea, in 325 A.D. The most enduring doctrinal crisis of the first millennium was “Arianism,” which, briefly put, denied that Jesus is “of the same substance” as the Father, i.e., that he is God. Arian thinking did not deny the unique mission of Jesus on earth, which is why this errant trend had a long shelf life, including among many of the “barbarian” settlers in the Western Roman Empire who were converted by Arian missionaries.
It is clear from this text, and other contemporary works, that historians have been very busy over the half century since I went to school. Gonzalez highlights the discoveries of the “desert mothers” who prayed, worked, and wrote as contemporaries of the “desert fathers,”—those who sought to escape the mediocrity and madness of the later Roman Empire from the fourth century. He continues to highlight the richness of later feminine monastic life parallel to the male orders, and on down to the grassroots independent mystical communities of the late medieval era that marked the democratization of religious experience and exasperated and threatened a male church governance fragmented and running on fumes by the 1300’s. It was this explosion of lay spirituality, known as the Via Moderna, which produced the classic text The Imitation of Christ.
Gonzalez provides a steady narrative of the major events of the Christian era, through the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the corresponding emergence of the East, the rise of Islam and the crusading response, the Eastern break from Roman hegemony, the development of the Holy Roman Empire with Charlemagne, the Hundred Years War, the Black Plague, the Avignon Papacy, and the Western Schism of three popes, to cite several. Each subject, of course, remains the object of ongoing study, and this volume will hopefully inspire newcomers to Church history to break off into specific readings on such compelling episodes as the Fourth Crusade or the rise of Ferdinand and Isabella.
The author, who has a three-volume history of Christian thought among his completed works, provides insightful descriptions of the medieval thinkers and the universities they raised. Anselm, Abelard [with Heloise, of course], Albert and Thomas Aquinas all get their due, though it is mildly amusing to see William of Ockham, of “Ockham’s Razor fame,” bringing up the medieval decline portion of the narrative. Overall, Gonzalez captures the early Renaissance shift in philosophy and anthropology from a systematic and other-worldly exercise to a subjective celebration of human experience and destiny. The bridge from Ockham to the modern era’s Descartes becomes intelligible.
Gonzalez concludes this volume with a lengthy narrative on the Spanish and Portuguese ventures to the East. Although commercial motivations were the initial driving force, the success of both nations in the Western Hemisphere and the Orient raised major ecclesiastical questions. Columbus, for example, originally wondered if he had stumbled into a primordial Eden when he landed in Hispaniola. Just as the Reformation in Europe was taking shape, the Church wrestled with the religious nature of indigenous peoples [did they have souls?], missionary outreach, national jurisdictions in the New World, and moral questions involving slavery and the destruction of existing cultures.
It goes without saying that the subject matter of this historical survey is organically connected to Christian/Catholic life today, in part because we are still looking for solutions to yesterday’s questions. But for a Christian, this work is a family history: we carry the religious genetic codes of this narrative in our individual and communal being. In studying Church history, we discover ourselves.