Creation, Culture, and a Missional Approach to Church History

Bradley Melle

The term “church history” immediately conjures up a collage of images: Gothic script and stone cathedrals; flowing vestments, gleaming chalices, bones, and books. The thing is, most conventional accounts of church history masquerade as comprehensive while they are in fact regional. Popular understandings repeatedly perpetuate the false myth that church history is a European affair, even though Christianity has been a global phenomenon since the day of Pentecost. Wider arcs relay a developmental story of western ecclesiastical institutions, their correct theological ideas, and the obvious falsity of their heretical opponents. Vague clichés about “knowing where we came from to know where we’re going” aside, within denominational circles church history is often utilized to reinforce already-held assumptions of theological orthodoxy. Narratives rapidly progress from an imaginary pristine early church to the Reformation to the climactic emergence of our particular denomination. As such, church history is often small, Eurocentric, and irrelevant to Christian practice today.

When I first read the gripping essays of Andrew Walls, I was jolted out of this kind of history. His monumental anthologies informed me that divinity had been translated into culture-specific humanity in Jesus the Nazarene. While the doctrine of the incarnation was nothing new, I had always unwittingly conceived of Jesus’s humanity in abstract terms, rather than in all his “scandalous particularity,” as described by Dean Flemming. This meshed with what I was encountering in the missiological work of Michael Goheen: that “the Gospel is translatable by its very nature,” and that Christianity was simultaneously at home and alien to every culture that ever existed. This understanding of the culturally flexible and ever-resilient Christian gospel exposed me to the global reach of Christianity. Historians like Philip Jenkins, Lamin Sanneh, and Vince Bantu introduced a global history I never knew: the ancient practice of Christianity in Nubia and Ethiopia, Syrian monks presenting the gospel before China’s Tang emperor in the seventh century, and visions of the angel Gabriel and the extraordinary evangelistic journeys of William Wadé Harris across the Ivory Coast; the list went on and on.

Using translations of translations, communities across the globe read and applied the gospel afresh in their own contexts with their own concerns and priorities in the purview. They followed the way of Jesus into uncharted cultural territory and forged creative new expressions of faith. With these new insights in tow, I embarked on studies into the history of Native American Christianity. I hoped to uncover accounts of indigenous peoples grappling with the awe-inspiring story of the gospel in conversation with their own treasured wisdom, forging new Christian expressions, insights, and riches. I knew enough to know that the gospel story was originally transmitted to indigenous peoples through western Europeans, so I turned my attention to the western Christianity I thought I knew.

I quickly discovered that what I thought was “normal” Christianity was itself a highly indigenized form, initially the result of the story of Israel’s Messiah meeting the categories and questions of the Hellenistic Greco-Roman world. Concerns utterly foreign (and potentially blasphemous) to the Jewish followers of Jesus—the “nature” of God, the precise dynamics in the relationship between God the Father and God the Son, the proper way to understand the physis of the divine and human Jesus—these were just some of the pressing priorities for Hellenistic Christian communities. My eyes widened and I wondered: What kinds of theological questions did indigenous peoples pose about the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus? Did the Haudenosaunee’s stories of the Peacemaker clash and combine with the account of the Messiah? What brilliant blend occurred when the Anishinaabeg and their Seven Generations teaching interacted with the prophets of the Old Testament? How did Mi’kmaq Catholics square their accounts of Gluskap with the creation account in Genesis? What new ceremonies emerged when Midewiwin rituals interacted with the Eucharist? What aspects of tradition remained? What was left behind? What was transformed? I was excited to dive in.

As I began my PhD studies at the University of Toronto, I placed one foot in the world of Indigenous Christianity while keeping the other further back in European church history to better understand the dynamics of the encounter. I learned that in the early Middle Ages, the baton of the Jewish-Hellenistic Christian hybrid was passed on to the Germanic tribal communities of northern Europe. Here Christian faith underwent yet another radical cultural reinvention.

Germanic communities converted en masse, following the decisions of their king and his military elites. In my adolescent years I had learned by osmosis that these kinds of conversions were illegitimate—“just political”—in contrast to the individual born-again experience prized by the evangelical tradition. Under the guidance of Walls and his electrifying essays, however, I soon discovered my own presentist self-righteousness.

Unlike the Greeks, Germanic peoples were less interested in metaphysical truth and more focused on power, protection, and security. The thought of gaining the support of the God of all creation was a tempting prospect but it demanded proof, not from science or reason, but on the battlefield. Finding himself in an especially desperate position against the Alamanni at the battle of Tolbiac in the late fifth century, Clovis I, King of the Franks, rashly called on his wife Clotilde’s Christian God. Much to his surprise, the battle was won, and afterward, Clovis begrudgingly sought baptism on behalf of his people. While the battlefield certainly operated as an arbiter of religious truth, above all else Germanic communities valued tribal unity. Division was a sure-fire recipe for civil war, and in the small, closely knit villages and harsh landscape of the northern forest, any break in the ranks spelled potential doom. For Germanic peoples, a nation must have one worship, one custom, and one law. A community could certainly change their religious allegiance, but this was a decision for the leadership and binding on everyone. This was simply their cultural reality, the soil in which they knew and grew.

Equally important was the legitimacy of conquest and the valor of war. Raiding and the seizure of new lands had long served a central role in Germanic social and economic life. As the kingdoms of northwestern Europe gradually shifted their corporate allegiance from Odin to Christ, this cultural norm was mapped onto the practice of evangelism, despite long pacifistic Christian traditions in play elsewhere. In the Germanic Christian imagination, conquering new territories not only demonstrated the superior strength of Christ, but it also expanded the land holdings of Christian kings and, by extension, the tutelage of Christian law. Disturbing as it may sound to us, according to the cultural logic by conquering new territory a Christian king extended the kingdom of God. This posture undergirded the crusades, eventually stretching overseas to the Americas in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Herein lay the seeds of a conquering, colonizing Christianity that I was quickly discovering had traumatized the indigenous peoples of North America. The demand that all conform to a single systematic theology and Christian praxis, itself forged in cultures foreign to indigenous worlds, was rooted in this Greco-Roman-Germanic synthesis of both metaphysical precision and communal unity. Things that were natural and sensible translations in one culture were artificially imposed on another. The identification of a particular cultural expression of Christianity with the gospel itself prevented the healthy development and maturity of Indigenous Christianity.

The gospel may be infinitely translatable, but this paradigm was not operative in North America. It was not uncommon for European missionaries to state that indigenous languages were so “primitive” that they were incapable of expressing Christian truth. This acidic form of conformist Christianity turned violent with the institution of the Indian Boarding Schools, wherein a brutal program of socio-cultural reengineering was forced on abducted indigenous children and overseen by Christian missionaries. I had naively expected to find rich cultural gospel hybrids among indigenous peoples in North America, but I had neglected to consider the destructive impact of colonization. Recognizing this took on new gravity after reading Walls: Christ had been denied his incarnation among the indigenous peoples across North American history, and the fruit was overwhelmingly bitter.

The shift away from a Eurocentric story delineating the evolution of timeless orthodox doctrine to a paradigm that emphasizes an array of global gospel encounters is refueling the study of church history. If we have eyes to see it, church history can furnish Christian communities today with a rich kaleidoscopic library detailing diverse interactions in nearly every time and place imaginable. A fresh and enriching approach to the history of Christianity is emerging within learning communities aimed at missional engagement, one such being the Missional Training Center in Phoenix, Arizona. A missional approach to church history is first and foremost undergirded by the assumption that God’s activity, the missio dei, is primarily focused on reconciling his alienated world and restoring it to all its fullness. A missional church history contends that Christian communities across time and space participate in the “saving work” of God, partnering with his project of “cosmic, creation-wide, culture-wide renewal.” This perspective is nourished by the biblical theology and holistic creational worldview of Dutch Neocalvinism indebted to towering figures like Abraham Kuyper, Herman Ridderbos, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Al Wolters, among others. The creational worldview emphasizes the irreducible, expansive, multidimensionality of God’s created order and contends that God’s redemptive activity is equally full-orbed.

This holistic creational worldview has wide-reaching implications for the understanding of the human creature and organically generates an extraordinarily rich cultural anthropology. Drawing inspiration from the sophisticated missiology of Lesslie Newbigin and David Bosch, the missional approach to church history acknowledges that despite our abstract imaginings, there is no such thing as a cultureless human being, only one enmeshed in that “scandalous particularity” of a certain time, place, language, history, custom, and symbolic system. Andy Crouch defines culture as “what we make of the world”—a simple definition that is extraordinarily refreshing and exciting. While we often emphasize the image of God in the individual, bearers of the image of God always and only travel in culturally specific packs. In fact, the sin of Babel was the rejection of the injunction to fan out beyond the horizons in bands. Spreading out quickly weaves new ties of belonging and kinship; new landscapes are inhabited, time passes, history is made, and new stories are told; new languages are forged, art is produced, and ideas are imagined. This scattering across the landscape naturally produces the diversity destined for image-bearers as they respond creatively to different aspects of God’s creation. The Tower of Babel rejected the creator’s design and replaced it with an imperial hoarding of control, conformity, and homogeneity, one that the creator swiftly dismantled and restored to its proper path.

A missional approach to church history places heavy emphasis on the cultural-situatedness of human communities, further dignified through the incarnation when the Creator God took on flesh as a first-century Palestinian Jew, in fulfillment of Abraham’s destiny to bless all the nations. In Walls’s words, from here the gospel diffuses across “cultural frontiers,” transplanted as it were into the diverse soils of human communities. The gospel is translated into new languages, new syntheses are forged between cultural wisdom and the cosmically transformative good news, and the Body of Christ takes on flesh in new contexts. In fact, Christian theology itself is ongoing and emerges when the biblical story is excavated for answers to previously uncharted cultural questions.

Undergirded by this high view of human culture, the missional approach to church history makes use of serious historical, sociological, and anthropological sources to produce dynamic, textured, life-like portraits of historic Christian communities and the particulars of their encounter with the gospel. It eschews both presentist self-righteousness and exotic romanticism, instead entering a dialogue with past communities and emphasizing their distinct contextual concerns, questions, priorities, and assumptions. It pursues humility, refusing to cast sweeping judgments on entire communities of people far removed from us.

After the hard work of constructing a realistic portrait is complete, the missional approach applies an oscillating two-pronged analysis to the historic gospel encounter in play, exploring the ways that community was faithful to the gospel vision in their own time and place as well as the ways they resisted transformation, baptized idolatry and produced unhealthy, syncretistic admixtures. All collectives of image-bearers are heirs to unique wisdom, creativity, stories, traditions, and life-giving practices from particular ancestral lines. These are praiseworthy and worth preserving. The book of Revelation labels these cultural treasures “the splendor” of the nations, brought into the New Jerusalem at the age to come. However, these same collectives of image-bearers are sullied by sin. They both bear and perpetuate the drive of the anti-creation—land-vomiting practices of destruction and devastation; customs that drain and sap and dehumanize; social structures of inequality, oppression, and misery; systems of abuse and injustice; intergenerational traumas that block, pervert, prevent, and diminish—the bitter poison of idolatry’s ruin. Through a series of probing questions, a missional analysis of church history places these two realities side-by-side, pursuing insight through a realistic and balanced analysis.

At this point, the missional approach to church history encourages a return to the present cultural moment, applying the same two-pronged analysis to our own context. Through discussion, attention is aimed at the pursuit of a more healthful, faithful, creational, and incarnational Christian practice, one highly attuned to the questions, concerns, needs, tendencies, insights, pitfalls, and corruptions of our own cultural community. Using history as a launching pad, it asks questions like this: How did followers of Christ sign the coming kingdom in fifth-century France? What might it look like in twenty-first-century North America? What burning questions filled the Greek public square and how did the good news engage? What pressing questions are people asking in Toronto, and how does the gospel announce good news there? How did Armenian Christians mediate the life-giving presence of the Most High in third-century Edessa? Where is the Spirit’s healing most needed in the southwestern United States in 2022? Did anyone speak up as prophets of the God of justice and mercy when Africans were enslaved in seventeenth-century Brazil? How are God’s image-bearers being desecrated and dehumanized in Winnipeg’s inner city? What wisdom existed in the Dravidian Agamas, and how did this shape the faith practice of Malayali Christians in southern India? What psychological insights are on offer in our day and age, and how should American Christians incorporate them into spiritual formation? Why did Germanic Christian nations create a militaristic evangelism program despite Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? Where are Canadian Christians baptizing certain practices as good when, in actuality, they produce anger and division? By asking questions of historic Christian communities in other times and places, we gain a new vantage point to ask similar questions of our own Christian practice. Done this way, church history becomes an inexhaustible library of gospel-culture encounters.

In 1998, Cayuga pastor Adrian Jacobs noted that “Western Christianity has failed to make the incarnational leap into the Aboriginal world and culture.” By the 1990s, despite immense barriers and deterrents put forward by “concerned” Euro-American pastors and leaders, Indigenous Christians were vocally challenging the presumed normativity of western theology and practice, arguing that it was pervaded by a corrosive dualism that had led generations of indigenous peoples to believe their traditions were inherently evil. In the words of Ray Aldred, from this point on Indigenous Christians would instead engage in the project of cultivating an “authentic Aboriginal Christian spirituality.” While it can be a real challenge to cross into uncharted cultural waters with the gospel story, this is church history in the making.

Posted Dec 14, 2022