A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity, Vince L. Bantu. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020.
Summary: A well-documented study of the global spread of ancient Christianity, controverting the argument of Christianity as White and western, and contending for the contextualizing and de-colonizing of contemporary global Christianity.
Often in Christian witness with people from Western countries, the challenge is whether someone can believe intellectually or volitionally, or dealing with ways they may have been put off by the church. In other parts of the world, or with people from those parts of the world or from minority cultures, the issue is that Christianity is thought of white and Western, and it would be an abandonment of one’s culture to believe. In significant part, this arises from mission efforts that have been both culturally captive to the West, and often been the Trojan horse for colonizing efforts.
This book addresses this challenge in several ways. One is that it traces how the early church in the West diverged from other believers in Africa, the Middle East and Asia. The fusion of church and state that began with Constantine marked the beginning of the separation from churches in the East. The framing of orthodox Christian belief at Chalcedon in Hellenistic language distanced believers who spoke of Christian faith in different heart languages.
Then in successive chapters Bantu traces the indigenous Christian movements in Africa, in the Middle East, and along the Silk Road. The exclusion of Miaphysites, those who would say that Christ exists as one person and one human-divine nature, separated the Africans and others from the West. What Bantu shows is the vibrant indigenous churches that developed in each of these parts of the world–the Copts in Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Maronites in Lebanon, and the Armenian Church, the early church in India tracing its origins to St. Thomas, and churches along the Silk Road.
The book summarizes the history of each of these indigenous movements that at one time, or even down to the present have been a vibrant Christian presence (consider the 21 Coptic martyrs brutally killed in a videotaped Isis message). The history is accompanied by images of church buildings and artifacts from these churches. The history and archaeological evidence make a strong case for the trans-cultural, global character of early Christianity that existed from the earliest centuries through the first millennium, long before western mission movements.
Likewise, the history of the interaction between the early churches of the West, and sister churches in Africa, the Middle East and Asia offer lessons for today. Chalcedon, from the perspective of these churches, rejected their understanding of Christ and the Christian faith, insisting on a Hellenistic framework for this belief. Bantu shows how indigenous churches responded to the rise of Islam, and sometimes were able to frame Christian faith in ways that were doctrinally sound and yet sidestepped the controversies surrounding God and his Son.
At the beginning of the third millennium of Christianity and the unprecedented global spread of Christianity, the message of this book more important than ever. At times, churches outside the West still struggle under Western theological and cultural domination. In other places, indigenous leadership is framing culturally contextualized yet theologically faithful approaches that advance the gospel. Will Western churches relinquish control in the former instance and affirm and learn from the latter? This book both offers historical evidence that indigenous churches may thrive, and that Christianity from its very beginnings was not exclusively white and Western.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.