Revised: October 27, 2014

From Parochial Christianity to World Christianity

At the beginning of the twentieth century, church history was nothing more than Patristics, the Reformation, and white Christian men. At the end of the twentieth century, little has changed. Even in Asian seminaries (especially evangelical ones), church history and theology is usually taught the same way, albeit in an Asian language. We have inherited a version of church history that is in need of revision and updating.

But over the past twenty years, changes have occurred in Roman Catholic and mainline Protestant seminaries – especially in the theological disciplines. Liberation, Black, feminist,  contextualized, Postmodern, and Post-colonial approaches to theology have started thoughtful people on the path of de-parochializing Western Christianity. While some theologians argue that these theologies have gone too far, they cannot justify privileging a parochial theology. That’s because even though Christianity has been a world religion for a long time, this reality is now inescapable and pressing upon all of us.

The historical study of Christianity as a global phenomenon is also on the rise. Unlike history of missions, which has been around for while and emphasizes the stories of Western missionaries, the history of world Christianity looks at church history from non-Western lenses. It doesn’t preclude Westerners, many of whom were very significant and deserve a place in the history, but it is more interested in how non-Western Christians embraced, owned, and reshaped the Christian faith.

Does this require a wholesale rejection of, say, Reformed theology and history? Not at all. But insofar as Reformed theology and history is written from a parochial perspective alone, that is what needs to be “reformed.” For example, the history of Chinese Calvinists from Indonesia needs to embrace the unique cultural, political, and ecclesial realities of the Chinese experience in Indonesia.

More comprehensive world Christian histories are being published now. At the moment, most of these texts are primarily compilations of parochial histories. In the future, more integrated approaches will appear as historians begin to reflect on cross-cultural and trans-national developments.

One of the temptations that current world histories should avoid is to limit each group studied to national boundaries. More attention to minority populations within each nation-state needs to be given. Thus, the histories of African American, Asian American, and Latino American Christianities shouldn’t be excluded from future editions of world Christianity histories.

So it is with the study of the history of Christianity, which started as a study of theological documents and has become a modern scholarly tool for understanding how one religion interacts with a variety of cultures.

With apologies to Lord Chesterfield, history is not “a useless heap of facts.” How it is written and read impacts the identity and actions of future generations.

A large part of Jesus’ mission and message is about revising the past. It was true that Jesus did not come “to abolish the Law or the Prophets…but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17, NIV) Nevertheless, in the process, he significantly revised them. In this section of his Sermon on the Mount, he introduces a couplet that begins with the phrase “You have heard that it was said…” and concludes with “But I tell you…” In other words, as Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets within his teachings, he is updating and revising them at the same time. See Matthew 5, verses 21-22, 27-28, 31-32, 33-34, 38-39, and 43-44.

Christians have inherited a revisionist historical methodology from Jesus! Even the Acts of the Apostles is written with this in mind. As the Gospel spread beyond its Jewish context, the Christian movement grows and adjusts to new people who bring their worldview and culture into the Church. Yet, the core of the Gospel remains.

 

I want to conclude with a warning. There is no guarantee that the history of world Christianity will make its way into the consciousness of everyday people and Christians themselves. There is also no guarantee that more research about the history of world Christian or of racial minorities will be conducted. Advocates of these histories must be placed within educational institutions, publishing houses, and academia. Popularizers of these histories need to be supported and heard by the rank and file. Only then will the stereotype that Christianity is a white, Western religion be shattered. Only then can Asian American Christians find their place and voice within the worldwide church!

“History repeats itself because no one was listening the first time.”- Anonymous

 

 

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. timtseng.net, @tim_tseng

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