A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity by Vince Bantu

Summary: Exploring early Christianity’s history, beliefs, and geography.

Christianity has always been a global religion, despite many believing that it is only recently that the universal nature of Christianity has learn.  A Multitude of All Peoples is not the first book of this type, but of the couple that I have read, I think it is the most helpful. Philip Jenkins’ Lost History of Christianity looked at the demographic history of Christianity. Still, it did not engage the theological content of Christianity as well as A Multitude of All Peoples does. Thomas Oden’s How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind is a narrower type of book, not just only looking at Africa, but also trying to justify more research into early Christianity in Africa.

The book opens with a discussion of the importance of understanding that Christianity has always been a global religion instead of the misplaced understanding that Christianity only came to Africa and Asia from European missionaries. Christianity misconstrued as only a western religion, is a severe stumbling block to formally colonialized or oppressed people. Also, the long history of Christianity’s relationship to culture needs the history of local adaptation and enculturation, both in positive and negative ways, to give insight into how Christianity works in culture. Bantu ends the book with some of this discussion, and while I read more to understand his result better, his interaction with other perspectives is helpful.

Bantu has a couple of significant strengths. One is that he is concentrating not just on those Christians that spoke Greek or Latin or interacted with European Christians like Augustine or Athanasius, but also those that spoke languages that are relatively new to western study. There was a far more detailed history here than what was in either of the two other books.

Second, A Multitude of All Peoples looks at the theological disagreements, not just as religious, but also linguistic, cultural, and political. This plays out too often when Christians moved into roles of power within a state and then used the power of the state to persecute their political or theological opponents with the same tools of oppression used against them. Egyptian, Shenoute of Atripe, justified violence against non-Christians and even against other Christians as the will of God. (He killed one of his fellow monks during a physical punishment.) Part of this is how Christians viewed the state. Bantu shows that Eusebius identified the Roman Empire, “an eikon of the Kingdom of God.”

The view of the state and the church becomes so entwined that it is difficult to separate one from the other. This happened not just within but also outside, as political enemies saw Christianity (or particular expressions of Christianity) as so connected with the state that it caused  (or justified) Christian persecutions. For instance, the Persian Empire persecuted Christians because of the Christian connection to Rome, or Mongol protection of Christianity resulted in Christianity being wiped out in China after the fall of the Mongol Empire. (Constantine sent a letter to the Persian emperor suggesting that Christians in Persia would be more loyal to Rome than to Persia and suggested at the same time to Christians that it was God’s will that they are politically loyal to him because Rome was a Christian empire.)

It wasn’t only political issues but also linguistic ones. It is not a new idea that the Filioque (the theological point that separated Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox were likely as much linguistic as theological because Catholics were speaking Latin and Eastern Orthodox were speaking Greek. When even more languages got involved, along with their cultural biases, theological splits were not solely about the theology but also about the linguistic and cultural divide as well.

Because Western Christianity has told a theological history from its own ‘winning’ perspective, it is easy to see how the ‘losers’ of some of these arguments were misconstrued. Bantu spends a good bit of time showing that the Miaphysites (single nature of Christ) were not arguing for Christ being only fully divine or fully human but were resistant to describing how Christ was both human and divine with extra-biblical (platonic) philosophy. This pattern repeats throughout the book with Bantu exploring non-theological issues that influenced the theological result.

Another linguistic issue is that Syriac and other eastern Christians appear to have the Old Testament translated directly from Hebrew and not through Greek. In other areas, some issues are still current. The earliest Christian work in Arabic, On the Triune Nature of God, explains the trinity without the use of sonship language, as do some modern missionaries and apologists that work with Muslims. In other cases, Syriac was considered the more holy language, and there was ethnic discrimination against those that did not speak Syriac as a first language, which resulted in an ethnic/religious caste system within Christianity.

Throughout later Christian history, there are many instances of Christians that are from separate Christian communities who mistrust one another for cultural reasons more than theological ones but frame it in theological terms. For instance, an Arabian Christian visiting India to be a missionary finds Christians there, but objects to listening to the gospel readings while seated ‘and other things not permitted by divine law’. An Egyptian monk in the 6th century went to India and wrote eyewitness accounts of Christians in Ethiopia, Arabia, India, and Sri Lanka (a millennium before Marco Polo).

Before Marco Polo, there was a Chinese Mongol Christian that led a pilgrimage to Jerusalem around 1280. In part, because he found his trip to Jerusalem dangerous and Muslim persecution was increasing, in 1284, he went to Rome as an official emissary to try to recruit Papal support to make Jerusalem safe for pilgrims from all Christian areas and make partnerships against Muslim aggression. Similar to St Francis, Rabban Sawma disappointed his parents and sold all of his possessions and gave them to the poor, broke off an engagement, and began a monastic life. After being investegated by Cardinals before being allowed to see the Pope he recounted a statement that was orthodox but not centered in Western theological concerns. “Rabban Sawma respectfully pushes back against the idea that the Father and the Son are the cause of the Spirit because it is incongruous with the East Syriac doctrine of their fundamental unity…”. Eventually, Sawma visits England and France and secures support for an alliance against Muslims.

Within 200 years, the Christian community in China largely disappears in reaction to persecution, which is related to the Mongol relationship to Christianity and the later East Syriac and Franciscan and then later Jesuit missionaries to China can not regain the Christian foothold that had existed there for at least 500 years, probably longer. China persecuted not just Christianity, but Islam as well as culturally incompatible with the new Chinese empire.

The story of A Multitude of All Peoples is that all theology is contextual. History, politics, culture, and current events matter to the spread and depth of Christian penetration in a culture. Christianity was not a Jewish then Greek then Roman religion that spread through Europe and then through the rest of the world. Christianity from the beginning was multicultural, multiethnic, and global. Recovering an understanding of early Asian and African Christian expressions can help discover a Christianity that is not rootest in Western colonialism.

I need to read more to fully understand the nuanced discussion that Bantu was trying to navigate between himself, Andrew Walls, Lamin Sanneh, Willie James Jennings, and others at the end of the book. There were portions that I seem to agree with multiple sides at the same time and I am sure I am missing more than I understood of that short section at the end.

I do highly recommend A Multitude for all People because we do need to Engage Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity. The history here is readable and engaging. I read the whole book in a couple of days and want to read more.

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