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What happened to two thirds of the Church?

Cross and Lotus from a Christian Monument in China, 781 CEEarlier this week Dr. Philip Jenkins came and spoke to a number of faculty and students at Bethel Seminary on the subject matter of several of his books (most recently ‘The Lost History of Christianity‘). It was very eye opening. His focus has primarily been the eastern and African church during the millennium of the church. Here is a brief except from an interview with him discussing the eastern church.

Also, this Eastern world has a solid claim to be the direct lineal heir of the earliest New Testament Christianity. Throughout their history, the Eastern churches used Syriac, which is close to Jesus’s own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. Everything about these churches runs so contrary to what we think we know. They are too ancient, in the sense of looking like the original Jerusalem church; and they are too modern, in being so globalized and multi-cultural.

I personally really enjoyed what some of the research has uncovered about the eastern churches work in contextualization and their cultural interactions with other faiths and people groups.

Undoubtedly, its ability to relate to other cultures and religions in a way that does not necessarily mean conceding any fundamental claims on either side. These Christians interact freely with Buddhists and exchange ideas to the point that some use a lotus-cross symbol. At the same time, this is an authentic version of ancient Christianity – liturgical, monastic and mystical.

From its earliest ages, Christianity has always been a vastly wider, more diverse and more global faith than we ever give it credit for.

The Lost History of ChristianityIt was actually Christian Bishops (non roman) that translated the Buddhist scriptures into the local language of the people of Tibet because Christianity was there before. The same Christians used imagery and language from religions like Buddhism to communicate the scriptures.

There are many questions that get raised once we embrace the reality that Christianity was a global faith long before any modern mission movement. Questions like:

  • How does the extinction of the majority of the church in the 14 century effect our eschatological (end times) perspective and theology?
  • With a thousand year tradition of contextualizing scripture how does this change our scholastic and daily use of the bible?
  • With a smaller cannon (number of books in the NT) that we have in the west should we look again at what was included in ours?

I think that the most striking is that we have never heard about this Church in the west. Yes it was mostly exterminated in the 1300’s, but there is a whole other set of valid traditions of the faith (that in some cases may be more valid expressions of Christianity). Why not? Instead of trying to bring the gospel to a place like China, we are trying to salvage the faith that existed there for a thousand years. Instead of trying to discover how Islam and Christianity can coexist we can look at people who lived that way for centuries.

The most important question I believe has to do with how this affects our view of the church. There was a church that didn’ t use Greek philosophical concepts to understand God, they didn’t have church fathers like Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther and so on. So without devaluing their Christianity, how can it change and inform our experience and practice of the faith today? (the same question I have for the church of the Global South today).

I believe the answer to that question will be quite liberating for the church, if the church can embrace the reality that we are the off shoot of only a small portion of the faith.

[Top Image is a Cross and Lotus from the "Nestorian" Christian Monument in China, 781 CE, bottom is the newest book by Philip Jenkins]

Quotes from  Belief Net