The Lost History of Christianity

Jenkins, Philip. The Lost History of Christianity. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008. 315 pp. Hardback. $26.95.

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In The Lost History of Christianity, Philip Jenkins—Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University—argues that the overarching narrative of Christian expansion is misguided and based upon a faulty understanding of history. He builds this argument upon the foundation provided by his groundbreaking book, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity—in which he demonstrates that the modern narrative of the decline of Christianity represents both an ignorance of Christianity’s own history, and a lack of awareness of the incredible growth seen in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Whereas The Next Christendom explored the modern shift of global Christianity, in The Lost History of Christianity, Jenkins sets out to re-frame the entire Christian narrative. In doing so, he attempts to dispel the ill-informed claims that until recent years Christianity has experienced uninhibited growth beginning in Europe and extending to the world. He argues that the evidence demonstrates that, “for most of its history, Christianity was a tricontinental religion, with powerful representation in Europe, Africa, and Asia” (3). Regions in which Christianity once thrived have seen it snuffed out to the extent that “any Christian presence whatever in these parts is regarded as a kind of invasive species derived from the West” (2).

In light of this evidence, Christians must face the unsettling discovery that much of what they have come to believe about the history of their faith is decidedly inaccurate. While most Christian histories include the Eastern (Asian and North African) churches until the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), the focus shifts predominantly after this date to Europe. Jenkins provides extensive evidence that Chalcedon was not the death knell of the Eastern church, but was rather the beginning of a fascinating millennium of growth and influence that lasted into the fourteenth century. This evidence demonstrates that “Christianity did indeed become ‘European,’ but about a millennium later than most people think” (25).

Jenkins contends that in rediscovering the Christian heritage in the Eastern churches, modern Christians will learn valuable lessons from their Christian forebears. The Eastern church sets an example in facing a complex and ever-changing religious landscape that has very much in common with the religious diversity of the twenty-first century. Further, the Eastern tradition provides examples of living as a religious minority under the rule of other faiths. Finally, this rediscovery provides a much-needed historical perspective on what appears to be the decay of Western Christianity—this is not the first time such regional transformation has occurred. Jenkins argues that our current misunderstanding of history has led to a crucial missing-piece to our understanding; we need a “theology of extinction” (249).

Analysis of Argument

Before describing the Christian church residing in early Asia and North Africa (indeed, before the first chapter), Jenkins believes that his work must be defended from the accusations that these histories cannot be justifiably considered “Christian.” Many have critiqued the width of Jenkins’ definition of “Christianity” in The Next Christendom, because he readily included those who self-identified as Christian without attempting any delineation between those of the orthodox Christian faith and heterodoxy. In light of the condemnation of the Nestorian and Monophysite Christians at the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), Jenkins’ claim that these heretics represented the lost history of Christianity would not be well received without his defense of the authenticity of their Christian faith. He argues that the use of these sectarian labels is “misleading if it paints these churches as anything less than authentically Christian” (x).

He then proceeds to describe the churches in Asia and North Africa in glowing terms. He sees little, if any, significant theological distinctions between these churches and the European church. Both traditions “were strongly liturgical and hierarchical” (71). Both traditions held monasticism in high regard, and Jenkins adds that, “monasticism probably originated in third-century Egypt” (72). It was the influence of Persian dualism upon Syrian and Mesopotamian Christians that led the Eastern church to practice deep piety and strict asceticism. While the Western tradition was leery of mysticism that reeked of Gnosticism, Eastern Christians were very comfortable with such experiential faith.

Jenkins views the immense political and regional differences between the two Christian traditions as much more significant in the history of the Christian faith. While the European church enjoyed the strength of Rome, Eastern churches flourished apart from the strength of the state. While the Western church overtly influenced the Roman Empire with power, the Eastern church influenced its leaders more covertly by serving rather than domineering. Upon the collapse of Rome, the church in Europe grew in power and prestige whereas the Eastern churches flourished while wielding very little political influence. This alliance with the Roman state power, it seems, is the defining difference between the East and West. According to Jenkins, “if we are ever tempted to speculate on what the early church might have looked like if it had developed independently… we have but to look east” (7).

Yet this development apart from a significant state government placed the Eastern church in great danger. Though surviving—and at times, flourishing—through political upheaval, after time, Eastern Christianity would descend into nothingness and virtually vanish from existence. Though posing no political threat to the Islamic leaders—who were quickly capturing and converting the continents—that which began as friendly relations between the two faiths devolved into forced conversions and massacre. While this historical account of Islam’s religious persecution against Christianity has been challenged in recent days, Jenkins counters that, “the story of religious change involves far more active persecution and massacre at the hands of Muslim authorities than would be suggested by modern believers in Islamic tolerance” (99). Increased persecution even in the last century has influenced much of the modern Christian historical narrative.

This elimination of Christianity from Asia and North Africa at the hands of Muslim regimes, however, will never be complete. The influence that Eastern Christians had upon early Islamic thought and practice remains. The fact that many of the earliest mosques throughout Asia were merely re-purposed cathedrals built during Christian prominence, and that these re-purposed cathedrals stood as the examples for the building of future mosques, provides further attestation to this reality. It is not an overstatement to claim that the Christian influence of Muslim practice is literally built into Islamic structures.

Jenkins concludes with an important chapter on the manner in which Christians are to interpret this lost history. Drawing from reactions in these very histories, Jenkins provides what he deems inadequate interpretations—that is, the destruction of the Eastern church was God’s judgment upon their sin, or upon their heretical faith. He dismisses these notions immediately, stating, “such opinions carry little weight for most mainstream Christians today” (252). Jenkins would rather find purpose in God’s secret plan, concluding that, “the fact that we cannot discern purpose or guidance in earthly events does not mean that none exists” (257).

Critical Evaluation

Jenkins writes in an incredibly engaging manner. Rather than writing the book in the typical construction of an argument, Jenkins allows the reader to discover the history through stories. This is the greatest strength of this book—it does not read like a history text. Instead, it is written in such a way as to appeal to those at a popular level as well as those who have devoted their lives to the study of church history. Jenkins tells stories that draw the reader in while demonstrating that the Eastern Christians described therein do not differ in significant manner from the modern Christian reader.

However, the critique can be made that Jenkins intentionally glosses over—and at times, dismisses outright—significant differences in theology in general, and more specifically Christology, in order to deliberately manufacture a shared identity between subject and reader. He begins this manufacturing process before the first chapter begins. It is noteworthy that while providing voluminous footnotes in support of his arguments, Jenkins writes, “modern historians stress that the different schools [Orthodox, Nestorian, and Monophysite] had much more in common than their enemies suggested,” and leaves it without a reference (x). He writes further that, “all shared a faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, baptism, adoration of the Cross, the holy Eucharist, the two Testaments; all believed in the resurrection of the dead, eternal life, the return of Christ in glory, and the last judgment,” yet minimizes distinctions made within these general beliefs (xii). All may have shared faith in the Trinity, but disagreements over the nature of the Incarnation led to the condemnation of the Nestorian and Monophysite churches as heresies at Chalcedon. Jenkins may be correct in arguing that this was more due to political expediency than to theological necessity, nevertheless, the burden of proof still rests on his position.

No historian—not even Philip Jenkins—can simply wave his hand and eliminate centuries of witness. His historical argument lacks a critical theological defense for the orthodoxy of the Monophysite and Nestorian Christians; yet, sadly, it does not seem that Jenkins is interested in this theological minutia. His comment that, “few would contemplate a God so rigid in his devotion for precise orthodoxy… that he would allow his mildly erring servants to suffer massacre, rape, and oppression,” may sting rhetorically, but it demonstrates a lack of reverence for the truth of Scripture’s precise orthodoxy (252).

This apparent disinterest in precise orthodoxy becomes more significant when he minimizes the scandal of the willingness of the Eastern Christians to accommodate other faiths. He quotes an inscription recounting the Christian faith in Buddhist and Taoist terms, and writes that, “both in China and in southern India, some Nestorians used a distinctive symbol in which the cross is joined to the lotus, symbol of Buddhist enlightenment” (15). He describes the comfort with which Timothy (an eighth-century patriarch of the Church of the East) existed in a Muslim context and that he acknowledged before the ruling caliph that the Prophet Muhammad, “walked in the path of the prophets” (17). Timothy is quoted as length as describing all global faiths as attempts to understand the Divine, though the true faith could not be known in this world. Jenkins defends Timothy from any accusation of accommodation by explaining, “given the setting…Timothy had to acknowledge the virtues of the Prophet Mohammad” (17). Thus, Jenkins’ shining example of the Eastern church elevated Muhammad as a prophet and claimed that Christianity did not have a reasonable claim to the truth.

Jenkins may, in fact, share such an opinion. He describes Christianity and Islam as “sister faiths” (39). He further suggests that Christians might someday accept that Islam’s “growth in history represents another form of divine revelation, one that complements but does not replace the Christian message” (258).

Conclusion

Behind Jenkins’ radical claims lies an incredible story. Archaeologists continue to make incredible discoveries that completely re-frame the Christian historical narrative. Jenkins connects many of these discoveries magnificently in his construction of a lost history consisting of conquest and growth, deterioration and devastation. In doing so, he attempts to provide a helpful perspective for modern Christians as they seek to understand the current shift in global Christianity from the West to the South. This history was lost. That this is the lost history of Christianity, however, remains to be adequately defended.

The modern shift in Christianity that Jenkins describes in The Next Christendom does appear to be eerily similar to that which he describes in The Lost History of Christianity. What once stood as a bold witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ, accommodated—and eventually surrendered—to the prevailing culture before disappearing like a morning fog. Yet in the providence of God, the gospel had already gone forth to another land and another people who would carry the torch of orthodoxy. Perhaps the greatest encouragement from Jenkins’ work is that God remains sovereign, and that though “the grass withers, and the flower fades, the word of our God will stand forever” (Isa 40:8).


Philip Jenkins, The Lost History of Christianity.

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