Justo Gonzalez & EPC Latino Clergy

Renowned Hispanic theologian lectures at seminary forum

Wesley Forum lecturer Dr. Justo Gonzales (back row, second from left) spent time talking with Eastern PA Conference clergy. Posing with him here are (from left): the Revs. B. K. Chung; Brunilda Martinez; Lucretia Cotto; Nelson Quinones of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA); Capt. Keila Sotomayor of the Salvation Army; Manfredo Martinez, moderator of the conference’s Latino Commission; and Irving Cotto.  Photo courtesy of the Rev. Christopher Fisher 

Dr. Justo J. Gonzalez, one of the world’s foremost Wesleyan Hispanic theologians, was the guest lecturer at the 2016 Wesley Forum of Evangelical Theological Seminary.  Held April 12 on the seminary’s main campus in Myerstown, PA, Dr. Gonzalez’ lecture series was titled “Mapping the Future.” The lecture series focused on the shifting cultural maps the Church has navigated over two millennia and our hopes for the future, as history moves toward the goal of the Kingdom of God.

González, a native of Cuba, is a retired professor of historical theology. He taught at the Evangelical Seminary of Puerto Rico and at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology before becoming a full-time author and advocate for the advancement of theological education for Hispanic students.

He founded the Asociación par la Educación Teológica Hispana (AETH), the Hispanic Summer Program (HSP), and the Hispanic Theological Initiative (HTI), seeking to strengthen Hispanic Christian leadership worldwide. An ordained United Methodist minister, he has published over 120 books, mostly on history, but also various books on Scripture and theology. His books have been translated into some eight languages, the best known being his two-volume The Story of Christianity.

Besides his Ph.D from Yale, Dr. Gonzalez has received seven honorary doctorates, and in 2014 he was given the biennial Distinguished Service Award by the Association of Theological Schools (ATS).  Accompanying him at the Wesley Forum was his wife, Dr. Catherine Gonzalez, who is also a church history professor, retired from Columbia Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia.

The first lecture, ‘Shifting Maps,’ noted the shift in the center of world Christianity away from the North Atlantic over the last 60 years.  Such shifts have taken place since the early church.  The first center was Jerusalem; but within a generation, the center had moved to Antioch and out into the Greco-Roman world.

All the letters in the New Testament except Romans were written to churches in Asia Minor.  That region declined in influence as the Church became Mediterranean-centered, running along the axis between Rome and Alexandria, Egypt. Each region’s unique culture influenced the shape of Christianity.

The Roman acceptance of Christianity impacted its shape for many centuries, including the imperial concern for law and order.  African Christianity developed alongside the Greek philosophical schools of Alexandria, focused on concern for ideas like ultimate truth and Christ as the logos of God.  Gonzalez concluded by highlighting the importance of history, reminding the audience that the Bible is full of history from beginning to end, including the future history named by the prophets and Apostles.

His second lecture followed broadly the cultural shifts that impacted the European center of Christianity from the end of the old Imperial Roman system, through the Holy Roman Empire and the Age of Reason, to the Modern Era and the decline of North-Atlantic Christianity.  Highlights included the conflict with Islam, the rise of Science and the Reformation, and the history of missions.

Many European trading empires carried their versions of culture and Christianity into the kingdoms they conquered.  The discovery of the Americas greatly affected European Christianity, as New World gold helped fund the long European wars to suppress Protestantism.  Simply trying to survive at first, part of the Protestant movement developed strong themes of self-reliance and individualism. The daughter churches planted by this movement shifted further in the same directions, increasingly fracturing the unity of the Church.  Worldwide, such churches were told to be self-governing, self-supporting and self-propagating.  Unexpectedly, they also became self-interpreting.

The great wars of the 20th Century heralded the end of the European axis of Christendom.  The West has retained the economic power, but lost the spiritual power.  The greater, non-Western world now has many centers of evangelistic zeal, and the U.S. has itself become their mission field.  Gonzalez concluded by noting that churches all over the world have much to give and receive from each other, and none should be captive to one particular culture’s contributions.

The third lecture, “Remembering Backwards,” highlighted the nature of biblical faith as not just rooted in past history, but also as forward-looking.  Gonzalez compared faith to playing chess: a poor player only reacts to past moves.  A good player anticipates the future to win.  Faith is similarly forward-looking, because God has promised good to us. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for…” (Hebrews 11:1).

All history is moving toward that ultimate future, God’s goal of the Kingdom.  The early Church’s understanding of the sacraments reflects this: not just remembering and identifying with Christ’s cross and sacrifice, but with his conquest of death. The Resurrection is the beginning of the new creation.  Christian hope is therefore oriented toward the future in God.

“This is what I believe. This is what I am living towards. This is what I know is going to happen. And out of this hope I am going to live.”  Gonzalez concluded by quoting Augustine’s City of God.  “The seventh age will be our Sabbath…which will come on the Lord’s Day, the eighth day, the eternal day, consecrated by the Resurrection of Christ  …There we shall rest and see; see and love, love and praise. Behold the essence of the endless day!”

Dr. Gonzalez met for lunch between sessions with many of the Hispanic pastors of the Eastern PA Conference. Representatives from the Seminary and from the Bishop’s Cabinet of the Eastern PA Conference were also present. Dr. Gonzalez shared important information from the Association of Theological Schools, including an exciting change in policy to allow qualified certificate programs to replace a bachelor’s degree as sufficient preparation for Masters-degree theological studies.  Those present were pleased for the opportunity to meet with Dr. Gonzalez and to hear such a world-class lecturer.

Held annually at Evangelical Theological Seminary, the Wesley Forum Lecture Series has as its goal to bring leading Wesleyan scholars, theologians and leaders to speak on issues relevant to the Church today.  Recent lecturers have included Dr. Billy Abraham, Distinguished Theology Professor at Perkins School of Theology, Dr. Ben Witherington III, New Testament Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, and Dr. Wendy Deichmann, President of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio.  For further information, see the seminary website: www.evangelical.edu.

By the Rev. Christopher L. Fisher

The Rev. Dr. Christopher L Fisher, PhD, is the Director of United Methodist Studies at Evangelical Theological Seminary, where he oversees the Center for Methodist Studies.  He is an elder in the Eastern Pa Conference and pastor of First United Methodist Church in Schuylkill Haven, PA, Northwest District, where he lives with his wife Elizabeth and their four children.