The Next Christendom: Discussion 2

Today we look at Chapter 2 of Philip Jenkins' book: "Disciples of All Nations."

It is often said that "history is written by the winners."  That tends to be true.  Those in power are often able to define what "historically happened."  And so Jenkins writes Chapter 2 to remind the Western (and Non-Western reader) that Christianity is not a Western religion.  That strong, vibrant expressions of the Christian faith existed before Christianity became associated with Europe and the United States.

Even non-Westerners (and certainly American and Europeans) tend to think of Christianity as being Western.  But long before that, Christianity was strong in places that today we call Syria, Iraq, and Ethiopia.  While Constantine is remembered as starting the mingling of Christianity and the State (Christendom), Jenkins points out that the same thing occurred in Armenia and Ethiopia at the same time.

The same holds true for the Coptic Christians of Egypt who have a long ancient history as do the Thomist Christians of Western coastal India. "I would argue at the time of the Magna Carta or the Crusades, if we imagine a typical Christian, we should still be thinking not of a French Artisan, but of a Syrian Peasant, or Mesapotamian town dweller, an Asian, not a European."

The the 1500's arrived and the first period of globalization led to countries like Spain, Portugal, and England propagating the faith to every corner of the world.  By the 1950's, "the United States was supplying two-thirds of the 43,000 Protestant missionaries active around the world.

For Protestant Christianity, the center of the faith was very much in the West.  Only 1% of Protestants were non-Western in 1800, but by 1900 it was 10%.  Since then, of course, we have seen exponential growth as we discussed in discussion 1.


It's true that Christianity has primarily been viewed as Western for the past few centuries because it has primarily been propagated by European and North American nation-states.  This coincided with a rise in economic power beginning in 1500.  Asian, the Middle Eastern, and Latin American empires and civilizations were not able to compete with the fast economic growth.  The combination of nation-states advancing Christianity and the rise of Protestantism (sola scriptura) expanded the rate at which Christianity could be shared.

But another reason why Christianity is often viewed as Western is because Armenian, Nestorian, Ethiopian, and other Eastern forms of Christianity often had big theological differences between the orthodoxy of the West.  For instance, some of these groups were monophysites: They did not believe Jesus was fully human and fully divine but rather had one nature while Nestorians believed that the human and the divine were fully separate.  Because orthodoxy came to be defined by the churches of Western Europe, Eastern Europe and today's Turkey--anything beyond that is forgotten as having been a part of Christian expansion.

So Christianity became "Western" as did the definition of Christian orthodoxy.  One of the challenges that the current wave of non-Western growth is presenting is that often the theology growing in Latin America, Africa, and Asia is not entirely orthodox either.

This raises some questions:

Is there such a things as orthodoxy?

Did Nestorian Christianity and the other earlier versions of the faith get a bad deal?

Or were they genuine expressions of the faith?

If African Christianity or Asian Christianity now goes in a different unorthodox direction, is that okay?

Is "orthodoxy" just a Western product?

Some scholars and people are suggesting that the answer is "yes."  That if we look at the historical church councils, we see that there were close votes and political campaigns in deciding what would become "orthodox" thought.  Consequently, it is not entirely fair that the West got to define Christian Trinitarian orthodoxy.  So if this (Western) Christian Trinitarian orthodoxy is dismantled by the Next Christendom (Non-Western Christianity), this is not such a bad thing.

I actually disagree with that position.  I do believe there is a concrete Christian orthodoxy we can appeal to--and that God revealed that through historical moments and human beings--just as he did the scripture.  So I trust the early Christians and the Councils that they set up.  I do not, for instance, believe that the Prosperity Gospel is orthodox Christianity, nor do I believe that post-modern Christianity that emphasizes Jesus as a nice guy and underplays the role of Christ's atonement is orthodox.

Does that mean that Christian orthodoxy is Western?  Not really.  These councils occurred in the Near East, not in London or Boston.  Furthermore, it is more an issue in my mind of apostolic authority and the authority of the Early church than geography.

The best thing about Chapter 2 is that it gets Western Christians out of the mentality that Christianity went directly from the Apostles to Europe and America.  Many denominations and Western traditions act as if this is the case.  Nothing mattered but the Apostles, Martin Luther, and their denominations history.  Chapter 2 corrects that and is consequently very important.