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January 2009

Volume 1

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Have you ever run your fingers over the carved choir pews in Westminster Abbey or gotten lost in Willow Creek Community Church? I ask that because these buildings make an important historical statement. They and the thousands of others like them, big and small, shout that Christianity has had a strong connection with Europe and with everywhere Europeans have gone. There is that little one in Wesleyville on the shore of Lake Ontario and the magnificent mass of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Churches are found everywhere from Patagonia to the Arctic Circle, from Reykjavik, Iceland to Sydney, Australia.

To the annoyance of some, the ‘West’ and Christianity go together like bacon and eggs or Canada and snow. It’s obvious—Christianity is the religion of the West. And so it is or, at least, it has been for the last five or six hundred years. But what about the first 1400 years after the Lord Jesus Christ walked this earth? Ah. That’s a different story. Until close to 1400 AD, most Christians lived in Asia. Over the last twenty years or so, the non-western nature of Christianity for most of its history has become increasingly clear. I am not going to try to review all the evidence here, rather I am going to go to three times and places which illustrate this idea. They might be surprising.

Xi’an – 635 AD

[Aluoben’s] message is mysterious and wonderful beyond our understanding. . . . [It] is lucid and clear; the teachings will benefit all; and they should be practiced throughout the land.” (Martin, 42)

Who are the players here? First, the speaker, believe it or not, is Taizong, Emperor of China and representative of the brilliant Tang dynasty which ruled China from 618 to 907 AD. Aluoben was a Syrian who had travelled overland all the way from Persia, if not Syria itself, to the capital of the Chinese empire. Amazingly, Taizong was throwing his support behind Christianity. He had done this for Buddhism and other religions, but he was making space for Christianity, too—and in 635 AD. Remarkable.

How do we know about this? The story is found on an upright stone pillar in an inscription carved in 781 AD. The text is universally accepted as an authentic picture of 150 years of Christian history in China. Anything before 635 is pretty well lost in the mists of time. Christians may have arrived there in the second, third or fourth century. It is possible the first were merchants trading along the famous Silk Road, and they may have been followed by priests and intentional missionaries, seeking the lost. But here we have a carved-in-stone account of a Christian being welcomed at court in the capital city of a mighty empire.

What really went on during those early centuries in China is still being sketched. What is emerging are the ruins and the records of hundreds of monasteries and churches stretching from Syria to China, translations of the Bible, and unshakable faithfulness under intense persecution. The Christianity of the Church of the East, or “Jingjiao” in Chinese, (the “Luminous Religion”) had taken root in China. But that is not the only surprise you find when you dig into the depths of the Christian story.

Baghdad – 781 AD

The picture we see here is especially striking in the light of the daily reports of tension between parts of Islam and the rest of the world. Baghdad, now the site of mayhem, sectarian violence, suicide bombers and the fortified “green zone,” was then the biggest city in the world with 1,000,000 residents. In 762 AD, the Abbasid dynasty had established it as the centre of the Muslim world. They built a “house of wisdom” there and invited scholars of all religions to come and work together. Soon there was an illustrious collection of Christians, Muslims, Jews, Hindus and others collaborating on their translations and research projects in complete peace.

Baghdad was also the centre for the Church of the East, the same denomination which had reached China 150 years earlier. Timothy I was the leader at the time, in office from 780 to 823 AD, and in that position he carried forward a vigorous missionary policy. In fact he was at the centre of what may have been the greatest era of missionary outreach the Christian Church has ever known. Under him Christians were active in India, Turkestan, Mongolia, Tibet and China, among other places. The bishops Timothy appointed were missionary evangelists, establishing the Church in one place then moving on to another unreached area. One scholar says that around 800 AD the Church of the East claimed “tens of millions” of members (Baum, 60f.) and another states that as late as the beginning of the fourteenth century membership was still numbered at between seven to eight million (Baumer, 4). As extraordinary as all this is, one of the most memorable ventures Timothy ever experienced took place in his own town.

For two days in 781 AD, Timothy was locked in theological discussion with the absolute head of Islam. This man, Caliph Muhammad ibn Mansur al-Mahdi, was not only the most intimidating political figure in a vast region of the Middle East with the power of life and death over those under his rule, but he was the chief defender of Muhammad’s faith. How did the discussion go? Well, Timothy clearly understood the delicacy and danger of the situation in which he found himself, and he addressed the Caliph with great respect. But he did not buckle under the pressure. He denied that Muhammad was on the same level as Abraham, Moses, Elijah and the other prophets. He denied that the Koran was from God. (Talk about taking your life in your hands!) And he repeatedly affirmed the doctrine of the Trinity—“I stand by it and shall die in it!” (The Apology, 198) But he did not die. The Caliph lived only two more years, but Timothy survived another forty giving energetic leadership to his church. There was something within him that compelled him to reach out to the city around him and to the world that stretched beyond, sharing the light and life of the reign of God in Christ. And much the same can be said about the next person we will look at.

M’Banza – 1510 AD

This place could not have been much more different from the other two we have considered. Here we are in the lush jungle of west-central Africa. The Portuguese were a bold, adventurous maritime nation in the fifteenth century. In 1482, one of them, Diogo Cao, sailed his three ships up the Congo (Zaire) River. Among other things, he was looking for a water passage to Ethiopia where Europeans guessed Prester John might live. The Europeans thought John was a powerful Christian monarch somewhere in the East. People hoped that once they had contacted him they could obliterate the Muslims in a great pincer movement from the east and the west. As it played out, neither Diogo Cao nor anyone else found Prester John—he never existed. He was a legend. Diogo did something else, however, that turned out to be very important. He forged a relationship between the kingdoms of Portugal and Kongo.

By 1510 Afonso I was well established on the throne of the Kongo people following his father’s death in 1506. Having been baptized in 1487, he overcame the opposition of his younger pagan brother to become king as a Christian in 1506. He had one dominant concern—to create a strong, independent realm which would be thoroughly Christian. Remember, this was in the jungles of Africa in the early decades of the sixteenth century.

King Afonso learned Latin and Portuguese. He began a correspondence as an equal with first one and then another King of Portugal. He also exchanged letters with two popes. He repeatedly asked for theological and devotional books and often fell asleep late at night pouring over them. He was a wise and shrewd ruler protecting the independence of his people. He sent his son, Henrique, to Lisbon to study theology, and he welcomed him back to Kongo years later after Henrique had been ordained a bishop in Rome. Working together with his son, Afonso created ordained leaders from his own people to give direction to the Kongo church. He also sent well-educated Kongo teachers into the remote parts of his kingdom to teach children and to instruct everyone in the essential truths of Christianity. Missionaries actually said that Afonso, himself, was a better preacher than they were. John Thornton, leading authority on Kongo history, says cautiously,

We can. . . say with confidence that a form of Christianity, practicing its own local variations but recognized in Rome as orthodox and accepted by European priests operating in the country, had become the national religion of Kongo probably as early as the reign of Afonso I.” (Thornton, 159)

There can be no doubt but that Afonso’s fiery independence had social, political, and economic motives. However, he also felt a deep spiritual responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that his people heard the Christian message in their own language and in the most understandable way possible.

Conclusions

Without question Christianity is now associated with the West. However, for the first millennium and a half of its existence, it was predominantly an Asian religion with a tinge of Africa. The explanation of how all that changed would require much more space than I have here. The three cases we have looked at underline the idea that for most of its history Christianity has truly been a global religion. That is not triumphalism. It is an historical reality—and it comes as a bit of a surprise. Clearly, there is a lot more left to learn.

Bibliography

  • Mingana, A., trans. “The Apology of Timothy the Patriarch before the Caliph Madhi.” Bulletin John Rylands Library, 112 (1928):137-226.
  • Baum, Whilhelm and Dietmar W. Winkler. The Church of the East: a Concise History. Translated by Miranda G. Henry. London and New York: Routledge Curzon, 2003.
  • Baumer, Christoph. The Church of the East: An Illustrated History of Assyrian Christianity. Translated by Miranda G. Henry. New York: I. B. Fauris, 2006.
  • Palmer, Martin. The Jesus Sutras: Rediscovering the Lost Scrolls of Taoist Christianity. New York: the Random House Publishing Group, 2001.
  • Thornton, John. “The Development of an African Catholic Church in the Kingdom of Kongo, 1491-1750.” The Journal of African History 25 (1984): 147-167.

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