From Patristics to Parochial Christianity

Before history became a modern research tool, Christian scholars preserved the written documents of bishops and other Christian leaders from as far back as second century. These documents focused on the conversations and debates that resulted in creeds that define orthodox belief. Within a century and a half, theological affirmations of who Jesus Christ is (Christology) and God’s three-fold nature (Trinity) were formulated at Nicea (325 CE), Constantinople (381 CE), and Chalcedon (451 CE), with the assistance and interference of Roman emperors and their wives. The study of the writings of these church “fathers” became known as Patristics, which is how Church history as a discipline started. Most seminary students are familiar with them – Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Origen, Iraneaus, Athanasius, the Cappadocians, and many others.

Before the Council of Chalcedon the diversity within Christianity was muted by a relative consensus around Nicea and Constantinople. Despite the underlying differences of language (in particular, Greek and Latin) and cultures, the Roman Empire provided easy communication and a unifying identity. This facilitated a “orthodox” consensus among Christians in the Empire. Those outside the boundaries of Rome were not fully aware of the creeds, but it appears that their core affirmations and spirituality retained much commonality.

But after Chalcedon, Christianity became deeply fragmented along national, cultural, and theological lines. Christianity in Persia rejected Chalcedon in favor of a Nestorian understanding of Jesus’ two natures. Furthermore, in order to mitigate the suspicion that Christians were loyal to Rome, the long-standing enemy of Persian rulers, many Persian Christians severed ties with the Roman and Greek churches. In the south, Egyptian Coptic Christians rejected Chalcedon and chose to embrace a single-nature view of Jesus Christ. Cultural differences were again significant factors for this separation. Bear in mind that Persian and Coptic Christians continued to embrace the first two creeds that affirmed the divinity of Christ and the trinity of the God-head.

From this point on, Christians in the West became less and less aware of Christians in the East and the South. Missionaries from the Persian church traveled along the Silk Road to India and China. For a time, they were likely the largest church in the world, having established monasteries and churches as far as China. To the South, Coptic Christians traveled down the Nile to reconnect with Christian communities in Ethiopia. By the 8th century, however, Muslims became a dominant force in Africa and the Middle East. The Christian presence was greatly reduced, but the surviving communities have left a significant amount of records that continue to be examined.

Christianity became the dominant religious presence in the Latin- and Greek-speaking world, but also underwent transformation and schism. As the Western Roman Empire was overrun by Germanic tribes in the fifth century, the imperial government relocated to Constantinople, where Greek became the language of church and state. There, Eastern Orthodoxy flourished and expanded into the Slavic regions of Eastern Europe. The vestiges of Latin-speaking culture were largely confined to the bishop of Rome, who now wielded unprecedented authority over church and state. The Great Schism of 1054 insured that Latin and Greek Christianity would become increasingly parochial. 

There is no doubt that the story of Christianity in the West is both triumphant and tragic. It overcame the crisis of social disintegration in the early middle ages by helping to rebuild European society. The writings of Augustine and Aquinas laid a foundation upon which Western intellectual tradition was built. Later, the Protestant and Catholic Reformations in the 16th century created a dynamism that transformed the world. As the British and American nations became dominant, their versions of Christian history took on center stage. In the social engagement of the Trans-Atlantic Evangelical awakenings and the Anglo-American missionary movements, Christians heroically stemmed the tide of skepticism and doubt. But because Christianity was so well integrated into Western culture, it could not prevent – and often endorsed – the worst aspects of the Crusades, colonialism, the slave trade, imperialism, and racism. Nevertheless, this remains a parochial story.


Dr. Timothy Tseng, Pastor, former Professor of Religious History
Tim has done research in Chinese American Christianity, Asian American studies, and the history of race in the United States. Tim was also the founding Executive Director of the Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (2005-2011). He currently is the Pastor of English Ministries at Canaan Taiwanese Christian Church in San Jose, CA., @tim_tseng


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