13 Things I Learned About Church History From ‘The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2’ by Justo L. Gonzalez
by Rachel Held Evans
Last Sunday was Reformation Sunday, which I celebrated by being a know-it-all, thanks to Justo L. Gonzalez’s The Story of Christianity, Vol. 2. I am nearly finished reading. Here are a few things I learned:
1. People who say religious dialog is more vitriolic than ever know nothing about church history. See the Martin Luther insult generator for some examples.
2. Luther wasn’t a biblicist. While he insisted on the centrality of Scripture in the Christian life, he believed that final authority rested neither in the church nor in the Bible, but in the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is the Word of God incarnate. The purpose of Scripture, he believed, was to point to Christ. (And he wasn’t a fan of the Epistle of James or the book of Revelation.)
3. Fun story: This dude named John Knox really, really, really hated Catholics. He also really, really, really hated women. So he wrote this book called The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, attacking many of the Catholic women who then reigned in Europe. “His work,” writes Gonzalez, “was poorly timed, for it had scarcely been circulated in England when Mary Tudor died and was succeeded by Elizabeth.” Elizabeth was Protestant and a potential ally of Knox’s. “Although the book was written against her now dead half-sister,” continues Gonzalez, “Elizabeth resented much of what it said, for its arguments based on anti-feminine prejudice could just as easily apply to her. This hindered the natural alliance that should have developed between Elizabeth and John Knox, whose retractions did not suffice to appease the English queen.” LESSON: Don’t expect women to forget your sexist remarks the minute you need their political help. Also, I call dibs on “The Monstrous Regiment of Women” for a band name.
4. More Anabaptists were martyred in the 16th century than Christians as a whole in the three centuries of persecution that preceded Constantine.
5. At a time when Christians were condemning, expelling, and killing one another over doctrinal differences, a guy named Georg Calixtus had the crazy idea that perhaps one could hold to one’s convictions (his were Lutheran) without condemning as heretics those with whom one disagrees. He argued that there was a difference, after all, between heresy and error. This made far too much sense, and Calixtus was largely written off by his contemporaries. But he sounded cool to me so I gave him hipster glasses and a hat:
6. Every so often, someone convinces a bunch of people that the end of the world is at hand. They are always wrong.
7. One of these guys, an Anabaptist named Melchior Hoffman, convinced his followers to take over the city of Münster and make it the New Jerusalem, where everyone had visions and practiced polygamy. It’s kind of a skeleton in the Anabaptist closet. But that’s okay. Pretty much every denomination has several thousand such skeletons...many of them literal... so none of us should get too proud. (You Calvinists have Michael Servetus.)
8. King James—like of the King James Bible—was probably gay.
9. Christians have been using the Bible/religion to support violence, colonialism, slavery, ethnic cleansing, misogyny, anti-Semitism and religious intolerance for centuries. We cannot gloss over this reality. (Also, I know there’s this big push among the neo-Reformed crowd right now to make the Puritans seem not-so-bad, but the Puritans did some pretty bad things…to women, to Native Americans, to Quakers, and to religious dissidents. Seems like we should be able to look at the Puritans with a bit more nuance, without glorifying them on the one hand or demonizing them on the other.)
10. John Wesley did NOT want to break from Anglicanism. He never set out to start a new denomination, but felt compelled to reach those whom the church was not reaching and as a result, inevitably generated a separate church, due mostly to practical concerns rather than theological ones. This really bothered him until his dying day. Another interesting fact: Wesley didn’t support the American revolutionary war “because he could not fathom how the rebels could claim they were fighting for freedom while they themselves held slaves” (p. 272).
11.Teresa of Avila is the only woman in the history of the church to have founded monastic orders for both women and men.
12. The center of Christianity is shifting from the global West to the global South and East. Gonzalez does a great job of exploring this shift.
13. I cannot see how anyone can study Christian history and come away from it thinking, “Well good thing I’ve finally got Christianity figured out once and for all!”
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