Schansberg: A Look at Global Christianity

January 17, 2016

Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story

by Eric Schansberg, Ph.D.

Awhile back, I read a review of Mark Noll’s “Every Tribe and Nation” in First Things magazine. It looked good, so I picked it up and was not disappointed.

I first came across Noll with his provocative book, “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.” Along with Os Guinness’s “Fit Bodies, Fat Minds: Why Evangelicals Don’t Think and What to Do About It,” Noll explained how and why evangelicals had neglected the life of the mind; laid out the implications of that failure; and challenged scholars and laypeople to do better. As such, Noll and Guinness were two of the general catalysts for my book on Christianity and public policy, “Turn Neither to the Right nor to the Left.” (The specific catalysts were the crazy things I was reading and hearing from the Religious Left and Religious Right.)

Since then, I’ve skimmed through Noll’s brief survey of key moments in Christian history — and thumbed through his book on the history of Christianity in the United States and Canada. I’ve exchanged a few professional but pleasant emails with him. But I hadn’t read him thoroughly since “Scandal,” so I was glad to get re-acquainted.

The subtitle of “Every Tribe and Nation” is more descriptive than the title. The book is, in large part, the story of a historian’s discovery of “the global Christian story.” So, it is both the “global Christian story” in general (the details of the general expansion of Christianity over time) and the “a historian’s discovery” of this in particular (the various catalysts for Noll’s arrival on the scene as a scholar of worldwide Christianity).

Noll has always seemed like a modest fellow. So, writing about himself was not something he would relish. But the series editor (Joel Carpenter) challenged Noll to “write a personal narrative to describe the process by which I came to share their belief that full attention to the non-Western world had become essential for any responsible grasp of the history of Christianity.” (xi) After initial reluctance, Noll agreed to write the book, since it was a “puzzle begging to be explained”; “spoke directly to the experiential and theological realities of Christian faith”; and was “a natural extension of efforts to encourage myself and others to pursue the intellectual life as a calling from God.” (xii)

I won’t take the time to share the details of Noll’s story here. But let me say that the story is interesting and the influences were multi-faceted — home and church background, other scholars and current events, Providence and a lot of hard work.

On the Global Nature and Growth/Spread of Christianity

Noll describes the growth/spread along the way — and also provides quite a bit of data (along with a brief but appropriate discussion on the limits of such statistics [132, 138]). He also points readers to the vital contemporary work of Phillip Jenkins. Some of the stats:

Although Noll does not make this point explicitly, it’s important to note that an understanding of “global Christianity” has (massive) implications for eschatology. If Christianity has spread immensely — and at least from a worldwide perspective, continues to spread — then Premillennial and Amillennial pessimism (to the extent that they exist) is somewhere between sadly blinkered and completely unwarranted.

On Christianity and Culture

Throughout, Noll describes the importance of the context of cultural influences on (proper) theology and practice. His discussion of Andrew Walls’ work (93-97) was the best summary of this point.

First, “Christianity has always acted in history as both a particular and a universal faith, and at the same time . . . has always been adapting to specific times, regions and cultures, but with a recognizable measure of commonality wherever it appears.” Moreover, “church history has always been a battleground for two opposing tendencies . . . [each of which] has its origins in the Gospel itself.” God meets us “where we are,” which must include a cultural context. But he wants to transform us as well. As in other contexts, we have “the already and the not-yet” of God in Christ and Holy Spirit (93-94).

Second, “the spread of Christianity into new regions has always stimulated Christian theology . . . [and] prompts new questions, both practical and theoretical . . . [while it] still displays unusual coherence.” (94-96) How to translate God’s name? How to avoid syncretism but be “relevant” — to be all things to all people so that by all means, some may be saved? How to understand Christian justice in various economic and political contexts? And so on.

Third, “world Christianity displays the essential character of Christianity itself.” Christianity is rooted in cross-cultural communication — from the Incarnation itself to the way in which the Bible was written (God and man) and the historical spread of Christianity across tribes, nations, people (what other religion has had this?). As Wells writes: “Following on the original act of translation in Jesus of Nazareth are countless re-translations into the thought forms and cultures of the different societies into which Christ is brought as conversion takes place.” (96-97)

For Noll, understanding this led to an important change in his worldview. Reminiscent of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” and our goals in “DC: Thoroughly Equipped,” Noll writes that “dogma was actually becoming more important, but the range of dogmatic questions that now seemed of first importance shrank considerably.” (56)

On Historians and Christianity

Noll has some fascinating thoughts on how historians have historically “handled” Christianity. (Well, at least it was fascinating for me, especially in light of reading a similar book-length description of this for the field of anthropology.) Noll says that Christian historians have generally pursued a “middle course” — between “the extremes of providential history” and treating religion in a reductionistic manner (101). Noll details three general positions in the field: pre-modern, modern and post-modern– or “more precisely, the ideological, the scientific and the deconstructive” (103).

Pre-modern/ideological illustrates the truth of propositions already “known” to be true (103), usually “ransacking the past for examples [to] show why my theological position or ecclesiastical group is right” (104). For this reason, Grant Wacker has labeled this “tribal history” (104) — for its “instinctive, non-reflective partisanship” (105).

Modern/scientific is a self-confident approach that emulates the “strictly empirical conception of the physical sciences” (105). Postmodern/deconstructive notes that “all historical writing always has been inherently political” (105). Along the same lines, Noll discusses the evolution of views in the Church about missionaries — from (pre-modern) hagiography to (postmodern) seeing the inherent tensions in missionary work.

Noll concludes that missiologists are well-positioned to work with aspects of all three views: to resonate with the pre-modern sympathy for sending/receiving churches; to understand the value of objectivity and analysis where possible; and to value the “diverse incarnations of the gospel in cultures very different from each other.” (107) As believing Christians, their “ultimate identification preserves them from the blood lust of ideology, the desiccation of scientific pretense and the silence of deconstructive solipsism.” (108)

Eric Schansberg, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation and an economist at Indiana University Southeast, is the co-author of a 21-month Christian discipleship curriculum, “Thoroughly Equipped,” for developing competent lay leaders in the Church.


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