What is a global history of Christianity? Most traditional Church history books are effectively the history of the European Church or a global history of specific Church traditions. In the recent past, historians have begun to write geographically specific histories of the Church in Asia (Samuel Moffett), in Africa (Elizabeth Isichei) and in Latin-America (Enrique Dussel). Others have attempted sweeping surveys of Christianity around the world (Kenneth Latourette, John McManners, and Adrian Hastings). Still others have offered evolutionary accounts of Christian thought (Jaroslave Pelikan). This prompted me to think of the Christian experience as a global rather than an isolated and strictly religious geographical history. As for the choice of using the word Christianity over the word Church, I wanted to write about the events and experiences of people who identified themselves as Christians, whether or not their detractors thought they were part of the church. However, there are boundaries to what a Christian believes in. I consider the minimal set of beliefs to include a Trinitarian creator, the incarnation of the Logos as the Christ, the reality of spiritual estrangement from and the promise of full reconciliation with God. Hence, a global history of Christianity attests to the experiences of people who identified themselves as followers of The Way in Jerusalem and expanded to become the world theological religion[1] called Christianity. This definition of Christianity will necessarily exclude some radical Universalists,[2] Unitarians or strict monotheists,[3] and radical pantheists,[4] because the Bible is clear that not everyone is saved, that God is Trinitarian and that God and creation are distinct. It is this definition of Christianity that we wish to examine.

[1] Religions that are not theological do not speak of worshipping a transcendent god, whether a creator or not.
[2] In this view, there is no distinction in the postmortem existence between a Christian and every other human, religious or not.
[3] In this view, God consists of a single person so that the Holy Spirit and Jesus are not recognized as divine beings.
[4] In this view, God and creation arise from a single reality with independent consciousness but share an identical essence.

 

I have set out to capture a history of Jesus’ followers across the world in four movements, set approximately 500 years apart. My thesis is that significant geohistorical changes fueled by emerging political consciousness, scientific inference, missional impulse and technologies in the 6th, the 11th, the 16th and the 21st centuries shaped the trajectory and self-understanding of Christians.

This global history of Christianity does not seek to be comprehensive or denominational, but to identify and appraise the influences that shaped the forces of belief in Jesus Christ around the world. In this sense, it is also a history of missions.

In the first 500 years, Christianity was shaped by the birth pangs of a new faith, from the near ashes of several Palestinian Judaisms. As the oral faith of Israel was adopted and then expanded to include Gentiles, the imperative for a written sacred text resulted in the Christian Bible.

 

GHC-1-Cover(s)

Executive Summary

1. Jesus and the Kingdom of God:

The First Christians were mostly of Jewish heritage who responded to Jesus’ teachings that the Messiah had come and the kingdom of God was near. Later, Gentiles who adopted this emergent faith joined the Jews in their beliefs drawn from oral recollections and subsequent writings that recounted Jesus’ teachings. These distinctly Christian beliefs introduced three persons, Mary, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. Bible and Church became mutually reinforcing authorities, complementing each other. The Messiah was God expressed in humanity. James, Peter, and Paul led the Church in Jerusalem, Northern, and Southern Turkey respectively.

2. Politics:

The center of Christianity moved from Jerusalem to Rome after the fall of the Temple in the year AD 70. It moved again to Byzantium as Rome fell in AD 410. Byzantium (Constantinople) became the New or Second Rome. The bishop of Rome came to be known as the pope and he claimed supreme authority over all other bishops based on Peter’s confession at Caesarea Philippi. But four other bishops resisted this claim and subsequent councils witnessed the battles among them to be the first among equals. The bishoprics of Jerusalem, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Constantinople vied for primacy over the universal church and jostled for privileged political advantages within the Roman Empire.

3. Theology:

The need for consistent doctrines arose to counter inaccurate teachings, requiring reflection upon what was taught by Jesus and the prophets. This gave rise to the work of theology – study of the things of God – the human attempt to describe and explain doctrines (teachings). Disagreements on what it meant to be a Christian often led to charges of heresy. This prompted the Church leaders to examine the Scriptures closely and erect boundaries of orthodoxy. Doctrines were developed to answer questions about the scope and nature of the faith. Theologians emerged to articulate the unutterable majesty of God. The question of the authority to teach came to the fore. Scholarship was inescapably linked to political patronage. The events of the Four Ecumenical Councils showed how major individual and cataclysmic events shaped the political and economic structures of entire nations and vice-versa. Social changes usually followed theological pronouncements. With the establishment of institutionalized Church, there was a need for a central authority. The Emperor needed a spiritual counterpart he could trust. As the council selected its leaders, one rose to prominence – the bishop of Rome. This led to a subsequent tug-of-war between papal and conciliar powers. The councils that gave rise to the papacy found its own authority diminished when it gave the pope the power to call councils into being. The locus of power has swung between popes and councils for two thousand years.

4. Monasticism:

Christian Monasticism has its origins in the Christian East such as Egypt, Syria, and Cappadocia. Monasticism ranges from the life of the hermit, characterized by varying degrees of extreme solitude, to the life of the cenobite living in a community (a “common life”), offering a limited amount of solitude. Monasticism always entails asceticism, or the practice of disciplined self-denial. Many began in imitation of Jesus’ 40 days of physical denial in the Judean desert. Eventually, their significant contributions to education and healthcare earned them respect even among their political enemies. However, during the crusades that began in the 11th century, some monks became pilgrims-at-arms.

5. Missions:

The proximity of North Africa, Egypt, and Ethiopia to the Middle East made them the earliest non-European national Churches. China and India were recipients of early missionaries from the West. The ‘losers’ in the theological battles founded Persian and Arabian Churches. They sent out missionaries and found few competitors from the orthodox ‘winners’. The Middle East, Persia, and Arabia saw a weakening of the Church during the eve of the Islamic invasions. During the 5th century, monks and missionaries preserved the Bible in literature. In the meantime, the non-European Churches enjoyed a remarkable period of expansion as Nestorians and Monophysites reached the outer edges of non-Western civilization.

Conclusion: A New Faith

The work of the Spirit is far greater than we dare imagine and our knowledge of God is far more modest than we would like to admit. It is often difficult to assess winners and losers in the heat of doctrinal combat for the correct understanding of the Gospel. May those of us who claim to believe know what it is that we claim to believe. At the close of the 6th century, had Christianity been a temporal empire, it would have been the largest on earth for it had truly become a world religion on the move. No one can begin to measure the contribution of Christianity to world history. The impact of the Church on humanity was, on the whole, overwhelmingly positive. The Church has resources beyond its own intrinsic capacities to transform even a weary and broken world because its strength is from ‘out of this world.’