Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Number 20: Justo González

I have decided to make this series about the 20 most important theologians in the Wesleyan tradition. Number twenty is the Cuban-American Methodist theologian Justo González (1937-).

Justo González attended United Seminary in Cuba, received his M.A. at Yale, and was the youngest person to be awarded a Ph.D. in historical theology at Yale. He is perhaps best known not only for his three-volume History of Christian Thought, but also his two volume The Story of Christianity. He has had considerable influence on a generation of pastors who have used his textbooks in seminary courses on historical theology. His wide-ranging knowledge of church history is accompanied by a penetrating analysis of theological trends and motifs. In passages like what follows, González has a gift for explaining how historical factors influenced theological moves. In writing about the American Methodist separation from the Church of England, González writes:

For a long time, Wesley had been convinced that in the early church, a “bishop” was the same as a “presbyter” or “elder.” This led him to the conviction that all ordained presbyters, including himself, had the power of ordination. But he refrained from employing it to avoid further alienating the leadership of the Church of England. The independence of the United States, however, posed new difficulties. During the War of Independence, most of the Anglican clergy had been loyalists, and after independence most of them had returned to England. This made it difficult – sometimes impossible—for the inhabitants of the new nation to partake of communion. The bishop of London, who supposedly still had jurisdiction over the former colonies, refused to ordain personnel for the United States. Convinced as he was that the celebration of communion was the very heart of Christian worship, Wesley deplored this situation – while he also deplored what he took to be the unwarranted rebellion of Brittan’s former colonies. Finally, in 1784, he ordained two lay preachers as presbyters for the new country, and made Anglican priest Thomas Coke their “superintendent” a word that he well knew had the same meaning as the Greek word translated as “bishop.” (The Story of Christianity, volume 2, p. 215).

Note the complexity of the situation that González highlights. It wasn’t just that Wesley was a pragmatist, ordaining whomever he wanted. It wasn’t that Wesley did not care for the traditions of the Church of England or had a low church ecclesiology. It was Wesley’s belief in the centrality of the Eucharist combined with the historical accident of the American Revolution that led to this split. It is González' mastery of history and theology that makes this insight possible. Many historians would miss the key theological problem at the heart of Wesley’s dilemma.

González taught at Candler School of Theology of Emory University in Georgia for eight years followed by eight years at United Seminary. He also served as adjunct professor of history at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia and is now retired from the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, Georgia. He is also a member of the Rio Grande Conference of The United Methodist Church. His wife, Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, is also an accomplished historian.

González has always displayed a knack for making difficult theological concepts accessible to a wider audience. His book, Heretics for Armchair Theologians, explains such heresies as Gnosticism, Marcionism, Donatism, and Pelagianism, while setting forth an orthodox understanding of Trinitarian doctrine with simplicity and grace:

In the last few decades, theologians have begun to recover a long forgotten tradition of seeing the Trinity as a model for life in community. From this perspective, what the Trinity teaches us is that true oneness and true glory – the oneness and the glory of God – does not consist in standing alone in solitary splendor. It is rather, a matter of interrelationship. God is one, God is one in a higher fashion than anything else is one, and yet God is one in community. Thus, to those who say that the doctrine of the Trinity asks us to believe in the nonsensical notion that three can be one, we may answer that, on the contrary, the Trinity is unique example of what it means truly to be one. God’s oneness is such that there is love even within the Godhead itself. God is love, not just in the sense that God loves us, but also in the sense that the inner life of the Trinity is a life of love. (p. 92)

González’ gifts for theological exploration has also been displayed for thousands of laity in the United Methodist Church as he has hosted the Christian Believer videos, in which the classical doctrines of the Christian faith have been studied and explained over the course of 30 weeks. I once taught a Christian Believer class, and I can attest to his ability to connect with a wide range of students as they connect Christian doctrine and life.

González has written a number of books from the perspective of his Hispanic culture. Two of them are Mañana : Christian Theology from a Hispanic Perspective and Santa Biblia : The Bible through Hispanic Eyes. Gonzalez also authored, Each In Our Own Tongue: A History of Hispanics in United Methodism. Regrettably, I am not able to comment on the specific contents of these books, but they do remind us of the ability of the Wesleyan tradition to adapt to different cultures, languages, and places.

During one of his 2007 lectures at Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic Americans (MARCHA), González told his listeners that hope is the "future pulling us forward. We don't fear the future because we've seen the future in the person of Jesus Christ. The hope and future we see should affect our present."

He specifically mentioned the undocumented immigrant as a symbol of courage, hope and determination. "The immigrant is a man that has the courage to leave his family, home and town behind in order to cross miles and miles of desert, many times on foot, risking his life. He reaches the border and crosses, sometimes not even knowing what to do, continually living under Damocles' sword that Immigration (authorities) may get him."

He added: "Our task is to let this country know that the reviled undocumented immigrant embodies in a much profound way the values we hold dear in this country."

González encouraged his listeners to be people of hope, and to teach others to be "daring in their hope."


Michael Westmoreland-White said...

Very nice. I would've quoted from Three Types of Theology, but that's just me.

I saw Gonzalez talking to John Yoder once ('94?, '95?) at a banquet at the AAR/SBL meeting, but I was too far away to hear what they said to one another. This was during the time when many were debating the possibiliy of "postmodern" theology and it ocurred to me that neither Yoder, nor Gonzalez needed to be "postmodern,"--not even in the sense someone like Tom Oden would use the term--because neither of them had ever been "modern." They were simply "unmodern" in theology.

Dan Lower / KKairos said...

I had Gonzalez as my history textbook in college for two separate classes. I do not regret it one bit; his combination of readability, neutrality and ease in exploring how theological/philosophical ideas influenced the history of the church (without downplaying the importance of politics in certain matters)...

He's the sort of historian that every historian should be.

Paul Pavao said...

I found your blog in the process of trying to find out how to get hold of Justo Gonzalez. I'm hoping to get an interview for my site.

His history books are easy to read, and they cover everything. He's definitely become my favorite historian to recommend because he's so easy to understand.

That little passage on the Trinity is awesome because it's so practical. John 17 says the same. We're to be one just as the Father and Son are one.