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Theology can be a coat of mail which crushes us and in which we freeze to death. It can also be-this is in fact its purpose!-the conscience of the congregation of Christ, its compass and with it all a praise-song of ideas. Which of the two it is depends upon the degree in which listening and praying Christians stand behind the theological business.
Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians, p. 36
There is nothing like suspense and anxiety for barracading a human's mind against the Enemy. He wants men to be concerned with what they do; our business is to keep them thinking about what will happen to them.
C.S. Lewis, Screwtape Letters, p.28
The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning.
Emil Brunner
Dilthey worked '...to illuminate the difference between the structure of these sciences of meaning and the natural scientific explanation of events based upon the formulation of theoretical frameworks and the discovery of causal laws.
Georgia Warnke, 'Gadamer' p. 2
In the absence of a deep inner life a priest will turn into an office clerk, and his apostolate will turn into a parish office routine, just solving daily problems.
Pope John Paul II quoted Great Souls, p.285
All written language calls for retransformation into its spoken form; it calls for its lost power.
Richard Palmer, Hermeneutics, p. 15
Jesus' preaching is in fact characterized by a large element of simple fact-telling, of simply telling people with authority what actually is.
Dale Bruner, The Christbook, p. 120
Bach's music is much more valuable proof of the existence of God than any of the theological proofs.
Vladimir Fetsmin, Russian Pianist, Newsweek, Aug. 1, 1994
Prayer needs to carry with it the commitment of our whole being to bring about the just conditions that make prayer possible...
Don Postema, Space for God, p. 158-59
The goal of the interpreter is not to seek to discern one conceptual unity within the book, or to reconstruct one consistent line of theological discourse throughout the dialogue, but rather to see how this literature was designed to function as a normative guide within a community of faith, which acknowledges its authority.
Brevard Childs, Intro. to OT as Scripture, p. 533
...the knowledge of God consists not in frigid speculation, but carries worship along with it...
John Calvin, The Institutes, bk 1, ch 12
…theology..has no reason to exist other than to critically accompany the missio Dei.
David Bosch
...it is through conflict and sometimes only through conflict that we learn what our ends and purposes are.
Alisdair MacIntyre, After Virture, p. 164
St. Francis of Assisi's religion was 'not a thing like a theory but a thing like a love affair.'
G.K. Chesterton
The history of Western epistemology might be described as the quest for a method of reasoning that assures certain knowledge. But philosophers have now come to the conclusion that there is no way to reason that both extends our knowledge and certifies the results.
Nancey Murphy, Reasoning and Rhetoric in Religion, p. 53

The Conversion of Europe

Monday, November 15, 2010


van_gogh_starry_night.jpgMany Western scholars have assumed that Christianity is a European religion. Many
Western Christians have assumed that the form of Christianity which they know is the way it has always been.  Andrew Walls’ first lecture corrects both views by placing European Christianity within the wider story of God’s work in the world.

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The Roman Empire Becomes Christian

The Roman Empire was a globalizing force in Europe and beyond. It was a pluralistic society consisting of a variety of peoples from lands they had conquered. Romans citizens were Greek, Iranian, Babylonian, Assyrian among others. But the empire was held together by the Greek language, literary tradition and philosophy as well as a free market for religion and ideas.

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Jews were an unusual part of this society. They had a hard-edged exclusivity in their religion. This exclusivity was ethnically based which kept other people’s out of their religious expression. But Julius Caesar released them from military service in the Empire. Their observance of the Sabbath and their exclusive worship which did not allow worship of the imperial cult did not make them good soldier material.

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Within this plural setting, Christianity viewed in many ways. Some, for example, saw it as a secret society with loathsome even cannibalistic tendencies. Others saw it as one among many philosophical schools. It had some of hard edged exclusivity of Jews, including rejecting any recognition of gods save one. But Christianity was not ethnically based. Therefore, it did not gain the status of licensed exception as Judaism. This meant that they could get in trouble with the government in ways in which the Jews could not.

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Christianity was repressed in fits and starts in the Pax Romana. Repression was used to curb the growth of Christianity. It was also used to break the leadership of the church. But it was not meant to eliminate it all together until Diocletian in the fourth century. By then it was too late. Christianity had already spread throughout the empire.

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Constantine was a prudent politician as emperor of Rome. He did not, indeed he could not, establish the church as a state religion. Rome was too committed to plurality. But the peace between church and state which he instituted was a prudent and realistic measure. He set up the conditions for the rapid spread of Christianity by removing all the cultural barriers to the faith as well as rewarding Christianity with marks of favor. The later Emperor’s of Rome were uniformly Christian.

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The last Roman institution to resist Christianity was the old aristocracy of Romans in the form of the senate. They saw Christianity as an intrusive influence from non-Roman cultures. Nevertheless, their legislative action followed popular demonstration. So the Christian community gained strength and threw down the altars of the old Roman gods. Christian theologians and preachers celebrated this downfall. There was no single, decisive event that marks the fall of classical paganism. Instead it was a process which moved through towns and cities while having less of an impact on the rural peoples of the Empire.

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The Church and the Christian Empire of Rome

Though the Empire was now Christian its goal remained the same; to maintain the empire and to protect the frontier. The threat to the unity of this Empire came, not from the resurgence of paganism, but from divisions within the church. This was especially true when the divisions stemmed from the development of Christianity in different contexts. The good of the Empire required that there be an authentic form of Christianity which would be promoted by church and state. Councils were called when disputes among Christians grew loud. The church had to decide which side of the dispute was authoritative. Once the decision was made Constantine added the punishment of banishment to the traditional punishments meted out by the church.

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The theological quest to establish the truth of the person of Christ and the political quest to keep empire from strife and division were regular sources of dispute in the Empire. Constantine would call a council. The theologians were slow to deliver a consensus on the issue at hand. Many of these councils did not recognize Christian communities outside of the Empire, such as the Armenians, the Persians and the Ethiopians. The decisions by the councils did not end the controversy within the Empire, much less in Christianity. The council of Nicea did not end the Arian controversy. The Council of Chalcedon did not bring an end to the Nestorian and Monophysite controversies. They simply reinforced the localism of Christianity in the Empire and ruptured the relationship between the Syriac and Coptic Christians on the one hand and the Greek and Roman Christians on the other.

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Europe beyond the Roman Empire:

Beyond the frontier of the Roman Empire were northern people’s known in Rome as “barbarians”. These were pre-literate people who were outside the sphere of Roman civilization. Their villages did not have the trademark bathhouse, gymnasium and library of Roman civilization. Their language sounded to the Romans like it was all “ba-ba”; thus the name barbarian. Christians in Rome shared the low view of barbarians in the society as a whole. Tertullian even associated the coming collapse of Rome to the barbarian hordes with the tribulation of the Bible.

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As the Roman frontier weakened, Constantine moved the capital of the empire from Rome to Constantinople. Italy fell to the Barbarians and in the 6th century Spain fell. But Christianity did not end with the Roman Empire.

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Christianity had already begun to influence the barbarians beyond the frontier. Christian slaves from the empire had maintained and spread their faith to their captors. Wulfila, for example, was descended from slaves and emerged as a Christian leader among the barbarians. He translated the Bible into Gothic (minus the book of Samuel because his people already knew enough about fighting.).

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The Christian faith of the empire was an urban faith with a literary tradition. Christianity had taken over the Greek academy for their own purposes. But the barbarians were pre-literate peoples who spent half the year farming and half the year raiding. The lived harsh lives where disaster was never far away. The boundary between the natural and the supernatural worlds were narrow and crossed on a regular basis. Power and protection were key requirements in their lives and were at the heart of their religion. They were key issues in the Christianity that took root among them as well.

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Examples of European Christianity among the Barbarians:

1) The beginnings of Christianity in Ireland

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Raiders from Ireland landed on coast of Britain (England and Wales). Britain had been part of Roman empire for a short time, during which Christianty established. Patrick was on of those abducted as a slave and taken to Northern Ireland. In captivity his nominal Christianity became vivid. As a shepherd he had much time for prayer. Dreams and visions were also a regular part of his religious experience. A voice in one dream told him in that is was time to leave his slavery and go home. He found a ship ready to take him back to Britain, just as the dream told him. After a series of adventures recounted in his autobiography, he safely reached home. Once home he had another dream in which he was told to return to Ireland, not as a slave, but as a missionary.

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2) Christianity in Gaul
Gaul was part of Roman empire. Its Celtic, barbarian population had become Roman and Christian. But in the 5th century it was over run by the Franks under the leadership of Clovis. Roman law and administration quickly broke down in Gaul. Only the church’s leadership was left to negotiated with Clovis. Clovis took a Christian wife from the subject people. She sought his conversion. But Clovis rejected his wife’s God. After all, if he was as powerful as she said, his own conquest of Gaul would never have succeeded. Clearly his gods were more powerful than hers’. This view was confirmed in Clovis’ mind when his son died in his baptismal robe.

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Clovis later found himself in a desperate military situation where it seemed his forces would be overwhelmed. As a last ditch effort, he prayed to his wife’s God. Beyond all reasonable expectation, the enemy army retired from the field just before they were to win. Clovis and his leaders impressed by military deliverance. Together they decided that there was no harm in worshipping such a powerful divinity. The King and 3,000 military followers were baptized. (for more see Gregory of Tours’ account)

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3) Christianity in Northumberland

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The kingdom of Northumberland was the result of various invasions by Germanic raiders. Here too, Christian people were overwhelmed by invaders who then have to be converted as well. Edwin, the King of Northumbria, had a Christian wife. He was well disposed to Christianity. He liked what heard from his wife’s chaplain. But he needed the support of the leading men of the kingdom. He called council to discuss the “new doctrine” and “new worship”. A priest of old religion stood in favor of Christianity. His reasoning was as follows: (1) He had applied his life to the old gods. (2) He had not found favor in the eyes of Edwin and others had been promoted ahead of him. (3) If his gods were any good this would not have happened. Therefore, he urged the king to choose Christianity if he too sees them as better than the old gods and more efficacious. Edwin decided to receive faith and be baptized. (for more see Bede’s work)

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4) Lessons from the conversion of Northern Europe

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Conversion in Northern Europe was not an individual affair. Instead it was corporate and consensual. Baptism into the new faith was a sign that one had literally entered new community. Whole groups were baptized together. The old community was reconstituted with new symbols and standards. The customary law of the converted people took in Christianity and made it the basis for their legal system.

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5) The conversion of Iceland
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Iceland did not become Christian until 1000. Northern European communities converted by decision of the warrior cast and the King. Iceland was more of a democratic society ruled by the heads of each household in the community. A confrontation regarding Christianity was averted by the heads of household giving a respected leader of the community the power to decide for or against Christianity on behalf of the community as a whole. After a long period of consideration underneath a cloak, this person threw the cloak aside and said that they would become Christian. He said that the days and feasts of the community would change to reflect this new commitment. He said that exposure of female babies would end. He said that horse flesh would no longer be eaten. And the shrines of the old gods would stay open for a while longer before being closed forever. Though there was some grumbling, the community as a whole abided by the decision. They were, after all, a single peole with a single code of conduct.

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Summary:

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It took Europe many centuries to become Christian. Overtime, however a symbiosis did develop so that literature, art and music of Europe were deeply penetrated by Christianity. Theology was developed to answer questions arising from European history.

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European Culture and Christian Theology

1) A new mode of organizing theology developed in Europe. Using cultural methods of organizing law, Christian systematic theology developed.

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2) The theology of the atonement developed in Europe

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Theology comes out of the need to make decisions. When Christainty crosses cultural frontiers new theological issues arise. Theology typically answers one of two questions: what should I do or what should I think?

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“What should I do?” We see this issue in play in the development of Hellenistic theology in 1 Corinthians. Issues which had no precedence in Jerusalem became live questions in the new Hellenistic setting. James and Andrew never thought about food sacrificed to idols because they were never asked to dinner by pagans. But after Peter and Paul began to eat at non-Jewish tables issues of what meat could be eaten by Christians became critical. Thus, Paul deals with the issue in his first letter to the Corinthians.

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“What should I think?” The Roman who has become a Christian says “I realize Jesus is divine Lord and worship him as such.” “But you also tell me he is one God.” “What is relationship between the divine Lord and the creator Yahweh?” Again, ask a Jew this question and he would say something like “Jesus is at the right hand of God” (which, by the way, Stephen said to a group of Jews. They understood him so well that they lynched him.) But such language is confusing for citizens of the Roman Empire. “Does God have a right hand when you have told me he is invisible?” They want to know what they are to think about the nature and being of God. This was critical in their world because plenty of stories were circulating about god’s begetting humans by a human mother. Is Jesus like Hercules; that is, half god? Such a question is not answered by saying, “Jesus is Messiah” or by saying “Don’t ask irreverent questions”. Instead, in the Greek language of the day, an answer has to be developed for the new context of Christianity. After a very painful process, the Nicene creed is the result.

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Now the theology developed in the Roman setting Greek gives us a doctrine of trinity and incarnation. But very little is said about atonement. Even today it is not a very big subject in Greek church.

The theology of the atonement comes into Western theology by asking questions from the Western context. The first great atonement thinker is Anselm. He ponders Western law as it applies to Christianity. Western law is concerned with things like, “How far are kin responsible for offenses of their kinsmen?” Such thinking connects with Paul’s words about first and second Adam. But it must be devleoped further. “How far does issue of compensation come into the Christian understanding of sin?” “In Germanic law you must pay for the damage you have done. Problems really develop when you cannot pay. This causes Western theology to think more and more about atonement and develop theories of atonement not thought in previous contexts.

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Conclusion

This history illustrates the theme of the serial nature of Christianity. World

Christianity is not a progressive expansion, as perhaps Islam can claim, but a

serial progression. It is a movement of ups and downs; of the places of

greatest strength falling into decline while rising in to new life in quite

different places. In the Western half of the Roman Empire one of the world's

greatest civilizations with deep penetration by Christian thinking collapsed.

Her Christians thought her demise was the beginning of the great tribulation.

But a new church was rising among the people of the North and West; the very

people who overran the Roman Empire. Christianity among these people developed

into the Christendom of Europe; a territorial expression of the Christian faith.

A geographical area defined by its adherence to the Christian faith. The mass

conversion of these people followed the decision of military elites to follow

Christ. Within Christendom all were baptized in their infancy, not for the

purpose of mission, but to keep their territory unified. The theology of the

atonement developed and deepened. A two-tiered system of Christianity was

shaped. The secular Christians in the churches with their priests struggled

with the many compromises of Christianity in the world. This developed into a

deep sense of sin and failure in trying to follow Christ as a Christian people.

The monastic movement, which began in Egypt, was redeveloped to enable people to

go deeper in their faith. This is the origins of Western Christendom. But

there is another story of the Christian faith developing out of the Roman Empire

to be told. The story of Eastern Christianity.


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