On Teaching Christian History

Andrew Walls has some rather devastating criticisms of typical approaches to teaching Christian history. “A common church history syllabus begins with what is called the early church. In fact, it usually deals only with the part of the early church that lay within the Roman Empire. By missing the early church beyond the Roman Empire, the syllabus also misses Asia and Africa. It also loses the chance to compare the experience of Christians in the Persian Empire, who never had a Constantine, with the experience of Christians in the Roman Empire, who did. Students are led to identify the “Great Century of Missions” as the nineteenth, without noticing that there are other great centuries in the missionary history of the church or instituting any comparison between the nineteenth and the nineteenth and the ninth century.”[1]

These approaches are problematic because they leave Western students to assume that “Western Christianity is a normative form of the faith, seamlessly connected with the church fathers.” Unfortunately, “Even well-read scholarly Western theologians are sometimes surprised at the statement that Africa has nearly two thousand years of continuous Christian history, or that nearly fifteen hundred years of Asian church history took place before Western missionaries arrived, or that the first preaching of the gospel before the king of northern England was roughly contemporary with that before the emperor of China.”[2]

Such a parochial view of Christian history limits Western Christians in their ability to understand and participate in the global church today.

[1] Andrew F. Walls, “Globalization and the Study of Christian History,” in Globalizing Theology: Belief and Practice in an Era of World Christianity, ed. Craig Ott and Harold A. Netland (Nottingham: Apollos, 2007), 78-9.

[2] Ibid., 78.

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Filed under Christian History, Teaching

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