Asian Christianity and Christian History: Reflections after Thirty Years

Scott W. Sunquist

A Little History

It was three decades ago that I began teaching Asian Christianity to Asians in Asia. I had not even finished my PhD, I knew nothing about the local churches in Southeast Asia, and I was struggling to help the family adjust to a tropical climate while finishing the last four chapters of a dissertation and teaching four courses a semester. In the midst of these tensions a great revelation came to me: Asians would rather study western Christianity than Asian Christianity. Western Christianity, especially the Christianity of the Empire (Great Britain) was so much more attractive to my students. They loved talking about the Reformation, Puritans, the early Methodists and even Plymouth Rock. Frankly, I enjoyed that history also, but it seemed so inappropriate on the equator in Southeast Asia.

When I asked my students why they were so interested in western Church history, but not in Asian there response was consistent: There are so many books and other writings on the western church, but there is hardly anything written about Asian Christianity.

That was thirty years ago. Today things have changed some, but there is still the issue of scholastic imperialism, whereby the power of western scholarship is attractive to the former colonies. Even now in the twenty-first century, I know of many good Asian Christian scholars who would like to dedicate their lives to studying issues that are not their issues. And here is where I begin my reflections and suggestions for scholars of Christian history today.

Some Redirection: Three Points

  1. Asian Christianity shares some of the same issues as western Christianity, but only some of the issues. Western Protestant scholars this year are reflecting again on their heritage which began (by some reckoning) 500 years ago in Wittenberg. October 31, 1517, is an artificial and highly symbolic starting point. For Asian Christians, the Reformation is not very important. It is important to know something of the background of the missionaries that came to Asia, but that is only indirectly important for Asian Christians today. If it is very important to Asian Christians, then their self-understanding is misguided, and they are reinforcing stereotypes that have plagued Protestant churches in Asia for close to two centuries: “Christianity is a western religion.” This is, of course, not true. But as long as Asian Christians do not lift up their own primary issues first, they reinforce the lie that says that Christianity is a European religion and it is foreign to what makes an Asian an Asian. History, Asian Christian history, must be in the foreground of the thinking and therefore the identity of Asian Christians.
  2. The incarnation leads us to reflect on the (faded) image of God in each culture and therefore to study the history of Christianity contextually. (Early Asian theologians [Ephrem the Syrian, Narsai of Nisibis, etc.] described human beings as reflecting God’s image as on a mirror. Sin had made the image faded, and salvation means having the image polished or cleaned. 1 Corinthians 13:12 may be behind this understanding of the image of God.) Each and every culture is uniquely suited and gifted to reveal God’s glory to the nations. This means that we do not (must not) give priority to a foreign culture in our study of Christian history. However, in the teaching of Christian history in Asia today, the use of western textbooks guides most Asian Christian leaders to see that Christianity gives priority to a European contextual form. But in fact, “[E]arliest Christianity developed at the intersection of three continents, caught between two major empires, centered on the teachings of one Asian peasant” (Scott W. Sunquist, “Ancient Christianity in Asia,” in Explorations in Asian Christianity: History, Theology and Mission [IVP Academic, 2017), 27). This being the case, we can and should tell the Asian Christian story as an Asian story, not as an addendum to the western story. Asian Christianity is not just mission history.
  3. The western Christian story, which tells of the slow penetration of empires and nations once a ruler is converted, is a unique Christian story. It is not normative, and it is not what Jesus or Paul envisioned. I believe that today most Christians in the West, and much of the non-Western world, assume that Christianity will eventually lead to the conversion of political rulers. In the back of many Christian minds is this goal. Constantine, Clovis, and the kings and queens of England seem to be the assumed norm. There is a great line in the PBS program, “The Crown” that sticks in my mind. Elizabeth the first is explaining to the young Queen Elizabeth the second her responsibility:

Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth, to give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards; an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey and not in a government building. That is why you are anointed and not appointed. It is the archbishop who puts the crown on your head, not a minister or a public servant, which means you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.

These are noble words, but we need to see that this is not normative, even though God used it in the spread of the church for a period of time. The Asian experience, where Christianity develops in the midst of a pluralistic (or Buddhist, or Muslim, or Hindu) nation, is the norm for Christianity. This seems to be what Jesus expected (“My kingdom is not of this world,” John 18:36) and it is also Christianity’s future. There are no more Christian emperors, presidents, or queens officially supporting Christianity. None.

Explorations in Asian Christianity

Over the past few decades, since my wake-up call in 1987, I have been studying, speaking and writing about Asian Christianity. In the past twelve or fourteen years, I have spoken and written about Asian Christianity mostly in Asian seminaries and universities in Asia. In Explorations in Asian Christianity: History, Theology and Mission, I brought together a number of these essays and in doing so have had time to reflect on two important issues: how much I have been mentored in my scholarship by Asian Christians (both ancient and contemporary Asians), and the few insights that I have come to in my scholarship. I say few, because the older I get the more I realize that I have very few original ideas. Most of our books and articles are reworking ideas that others have thought before us. A little idea like “missional church” is nothing new, really. Belgium Roman Catholics in the 1920s were writing about this, and practicing what it meant in their work in China (Matteo Nicolini-Zani, Christian Monks on Chinese Soil: A History of Monastic Missions to China [Liturgical Press, 2016], 1-31); here the word “apostolic” is used rather than missional, but it would be splitting hairs to say that the Greek etymology has priority over the Latin. Apostolic means missional). Neither is “world Christianity” a new concept. There was an important book published in 1947 by Henry P. Van Dusen entitled, World Christianity: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow (Friendship Press). He also endowed a faculty chair in world Christianity in the 1940s. Earlier than that, Christians were talking about world Christianity as the great new fact of our time – William Temple made this comment at his enthronement as Archbishop in 1942.

So it may be more accurate to say that what follows are four concepts I have rediscovered or been reminded of. These are four ideas from the book which I think are important for the church today to reflect on, globally.

  1. I have written about the “missiology of place.” In my historical research, I have come across certain places that seem to have a rich missiological meaning or even purpose. I have discovered that Shandong province in China is one of those places. Its significance for religions, philosophy, and of course for Christian mission is remarkable. We usually study the big cities like Beijing or Shanghai or Hong Kong. But for missiology, I argue that Shandong is far more significant.
  2. I have written about the significance of early Asian theological education. I think there are important lessons for Asian theological education today (and even for western theological education). Most of our theological education is so tightly woven together with Enlightenment thinking that we are completely out of touch with the goal of theological education most of the time. This chapter, “Asian Theological Education: Earliest Trajectories, Contemporary Concerns,” is a challenge to a declining western church, and to a western dominated Asian church.
  3. A third theme I think would be fruitful for further discussion is how we study Christian history. In the twenty-first century, the study of Christian history is much more complex than in the age of Christendom. Three issues — the global nature of the faith, the collapse of Christendom, and the shift from western to non-western dominance — demand the exploration of new historiographies. In this volume, I propose the concept of cruciform apostolicity as a way to study Christian history. These two themes are not randomly chosen. They come out of scriptural as well as historical realities. The cruciform nature of Christianity is remarkable when compared to other religions of the world. Regarding apostolicity, most religions are not “missionary,” but tribal or ethnic (or national). Christian history, I believe, must be studied looking through these twin lenses.
  4. A final concept that deserves further reflection relates to whether we should talk about Christian diversity in the language of “Christianities.” My approach is to look at what we mean by such language and how we understand what holds Christianity together. Everyone who talks about Christianity has a core of basic beliefs and practices that they call “Christian.” But once we admit to this, it is difficult to say what that core is. What is the genetic makeup of Christianity that distinguishes it from what is not Christianity? I believe it matters that we talk about this, and that we work toward greater agreement.

The study of Asian Christianity has helped me see or rediscover these (and other) themes for mission and history writing. However, I hope that the greater good of this essay is that it encourages Asian Christians to zealously identify themselves as Asian Christians, through their own joyful study of their own unique heritage. The global church will benefit from this robust reflection.

Posted Dec 13, 2017