HERETICS FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS. By Justo Gonzalez and Catherine Gonzalez.
HERETICS FOR ARMCHAIR THEOLOGIANS. By Justo Gonzalez and Catherine Gonzalez. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008. 166 pages. Paper. $17.00.
Reviewed by Henry Rowold, Concordia Seminary, Saint Louis, MO.
This is a delightful book, remarkably simple and inviting, given the somewhat ponderous and even politically incorrect title of “heretics.” Fundamentally, what the book seeks to do is to review the formative centuries (five) of the Christian church and its theological development from the perspective of those whose contribution to the process was ultimately judged to be heretical.
This provides a double benefit. One benefit is a clear, even sympathetic view of the “heretics” not as people motivated to pervert the gospel but as “sincere people trying to understand the Christian faith in their own context, asking important questions from the perspective of faith and seeking to lead others to what they took to be a fuller understanding of the gospel” (2). The other benefit is a deepened appreciation of how their concerns, even if judged disputed and ultimately judged heretical, helped sharpen and give focus to the theological creeds and formulations of the Christian church.
Altogether eight doctrinal disputes are discussed: Ebionites, Gnosticism, Marcion, Montanist, Trinity, Donatists, Pelagius, and Christology. Clearly there is overlap between these, but the discussions maintain remarkable focus, so the unique characteristics of each stand out with clarity. Further, spinoffs and recurrences of the various heresies in later and particularly modern eras are referenced, which provides very helpful context for many of today’s theological issues—and the reminder that in theology too Qohelet’s judgment is still pertinent that there sometimes seems “nothing new in the world.”
Overall, this is a book with a wide range of uses. Aside from adding to the church library, this would be a great Bible class or small group study—a non-technical entry to the history and development of church and theology, from which one emerges aware of major players in that development. For leaders, it’s a superbly readable review of the same history, with recommended resources for further background.
As much as it may seem from style and copious cartoon-type drawings that this is a “Heretics for Dummies” book, the authors bring significant scholarship to the task. Both Gonzálezes are published theologians, with Justo better known for his two-volume Story of Christianity and his three-volume History of Christian Thought. Their commitment to the holistic integrity of Christian theology (theology as an organic whole rather than a succession of propositions) and their sensitivity to the mutual reinforcement of worship and theology upon each other (lex orandi, lex credendi) give theological substance to this book for “armchair theologians,” i.e. theological thinkers by commitment even if not by profession.