For centuries the ancient Church was as successful in Africa and Asia as in Europe.… Why then has not Christianity become the religion of the East?

One of the deepest experiences of modern Christendom is the awareness of a common destiny of the Christian churches. They all are confronted today with the same theological questions (the Church and its unity, Church and ministry, the doctrine of the Holy Spirit, the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture, Word and sacrament) and with the same practical problems (how to preach the Gospel to modern man, the structures of the Church, ministry and laity, liturgy, the relationship among the Christian denominations). Almost all themes of the Second Vatican Council are on the agendas of our synods. This solidarity was experienced in the most convincing way when Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic priests, Lutheran and Baptist pastors met in the prisons and concentration camps of this enlightened age of ours and faced the same execution squads.

The time has definitely gone when a church could believe that the fall and defeat of another church would present her with a great opportunity for conquest and victory. The decay of the national churches in Europe will not mean that now Rome or Protestant free churches take over there, nor will the decay of Roman Catholicism in Latin America lead the people into the Protestant folds. Certainly, individual conversions to another church will always take place. But the indifferent masses will find other alternatives. This is what Rome has learned during the past thirty years and what has created Roman ecumenism, as one of the deepest roots of the ecumenical movement of this century is the growing awareness of a common destiny of all Christendom. We cannot discuss here the ecumenical movement. We have to limit ourselves to the question: What does this experience mean for the evangelistic task of the Church?

Common Destiny

What is that common destiny which becomes manifest in the history of modern Christendom? It is that Christianity is losing its hold on the Western world. The bond that has connected our Western, European-American civilization with the Christian faith is being severed. This is no new discovery. Everyone knows it. Historians and sociologists have repeatedly described this process that began in the Renaissance and found its first climax in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, when French philosophy sentenced to death the Christian faith, the Church, and even God himself. The French Revolution carried out this death sentence. It was a terrific shock to the whole of Christian Europe when for the first time a Christian nation abolished not only ecclesiastical institutions but Christianity itself. Since that time the phrase “the death of God” has been heard in Europe (Hegel, 1802), and the churches are compelled to defend the Christian faith against the growing atheism of philosophical and political systems that offer themselves as substitutes for the religious faith and the Christian institutions of the past. Equally as dangerous as open hostility, if not more dangerous, is the growing indifference of the majority of people in all modern nations, the lack of interest in religious questions and of religious knowledge.

Article continues below

It is in this historic context that the programs of “evangelism” appear. The word “evangelize” means in the New Testament nothing else but to proclaim the evangel, the Gospel. This proclamation is first of all the preaching of the Gospel to those who have not yet heard it, missionary preaching. In the second place, it is the continuous preaching of the Gospel in the regular Sunday service of the Christian congregation (“they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine …,” Acts 2:42). There is also a third kind of proclamation, that addressed to those who either are in danger of apostatizing from the Church or have already apostatized. The great document of this proclamation in the New Testament is the Epistle to the Hebrews (10:23 ff.). It is this proclamation that we call “evangelism” proper.

This distinction is, however, somewhat theoretical. First of all, the content of the proclamation is always the same, whether addressed to pagans, to Christians, or to people who have lapsed from the Church or are in danger of doing so. Moreover, every sermon should have a missionary character. From the very beginning (1 Cor. 14:23 ff.), the preaching in the “mass of the catechumens”—that is, the first, the public part of the service—was one of the great opportunities to preach also to non-Christians. And it should be “evangelistic” in view of the danger of apostasy that threatens all Christians. But the principle of our distinction should be maintained. The situation of man in what has been called in America the “post-Christian” age, the era in which Western civilization is severing the bond with the great Christian tradition of the past, requires a special emphasis of the proclamation of the Church. It finds a touching expression in the question that, according to the Gospel of John (6:66 ff.), Jesus addressed to the twelve on the occasion of what might be called one of the first apostasies: “From that time many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him. Then said Jesus unto the twelve, Will ye also go away?” It is a very personal question, penetrating, demanding a decision for or against the easy conformism of the many, a decision for or against Christ, a decision in which no less is at stake, as Peter’s answer makes it clear, than eternal life and eternal death: “Lord, to whom shall we go? thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Article continues below
The Present

We leave it to more competent spokesmen to discuss the question how (and how successfully) the Church during the last generations has tried to cope with its evangelistic task. We try to clarify the present task of the Church by looking back to an event of the past that well may foreshadow the destiny of Western Christendom. This is the breakdown of the Church in the Near East and in all Asia under the impact of Islam.

We take it for granted that Christianity is a Western religion. This was not always so. The Christian faith came to Rome, Thessalonica, and Corinth as an Asiatic religion. At the time of the Council of Nicaea, the Greek Church still looked like an appendage to the Syrian Church, just as the Latin Church was at that time an appendage to the Greek Church. As Jesus and all the apostles were Asians, so the “Greek” Fathers of the fourth century were men from various parts of the Near East, from Egypt, Syria, and Asia Minor. The ecumenical synods were held in the East, either in Asian cities or in Constantinople at the border of Asia. Their symbols, the creeds of Nicaea and Constantinople, and the formula of Chalcedon do not contain “Greek philosophy.” Under the thin veil of the Greek theological language they render biblical truths. Almost every clause of the Nicene Creed is taken literally from the Bible. The only word that could suggest philosophical origin is the famous homoousion, but even this has nothing to do with Greek philosophy. It is Oriental, Asian theology that speaks in it. As we Westerners have received from Asia and Egypt the dogmas of the Trinity and of the Person of Christ, so an African with strong national, anti-Roman feelings gave us the doctrine of sin and grace on which Roman Catholicism as well as the doctrines of the Reformation are based.

Why, then, has not Christianity become the religion of the East? It was on its way to becoming just this. The mission of the ancient Church was for centuries at least as successful in Asia and Africa as it was in Europe. In the same years when Boniface on behalf of the pope began to build up the ecclesiastical organization of Germany, the “Patriarch of the East” in Mesopotamia—his name is, translated, “The Crucified has conquered”—consecrated the first archbishop for China and made China a church province. The monument of Sin-gan-fu, erected in A.D. 781, contains the names of those who were the high clergy of China at the time when Charlemagne “converted” with the sword the last pagan German tribe. Since 500 the East Syrian Church had spread through Persia, Turkestan, and Mongolia to the old capital of China, Si-an-fu the terminus of the old caravan road that connected Syria with the Far East. For centuries this church had been flourishing in Central Asia. Originally a church of Syrian merchants, it had been able to convert Huns, Turkish tribes, and Mongols. In the South its mission stretched to South India, Ceylon, and Sumatra. It had existed in China for more than 750 years. At the climax of its history, this church, under the “Katholikos” of Seleucia-Ktesiphon, the Patriarch of the East “after the manner of Peter, the head of the Twelve Apostles, and Paul, the founder of churches,” comprised 230 episcopal sees, forty-seven metropolitan sees, and millions of believers. Its downfall in Mongolia and China resulted from the political upheavals in Central Asia in the fourteenth century (Tamerlane), which led to persecution of the Church and, in many parts, to the replacement of Christianity by the religion of Mohammed.

Article continues below

We Christians of the West, Catholics and Protestants, are so accustomed to the idea that the history of the Church is the history of progress and victory that we are hardly able to get used to the truth that the Church must also suffer defeat and even death. For the West, the Cross has always been the symbol of victory. “In hoc signo vinces.” In this sense, the Latin Church of the sixth century, one of the darkest centuries in the history of Europe, has celebrated the Cross: “Vexilla Regis prodeunt/Fulget Crucis mysterium” (“The standard of the King proceeds, Forth shines the mystery of the Cross”). Whoever has met “Assyrian” refugees, escapees from the mass murders in which the last remnants of the old Syrian Church were destroyed by the Turks in our lifetime, knows that the Cross can be symbol of the victory in quite a different sense. As Christ triumphs in the death of his martyrs, so he may, in a way we shall never understand in this world, triumph also in the defeat and death of the earthly Church. We should never forget that the mystery of all church history is to be found in him “who openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth.” This word crushes the Pelagianism and triumphalism that endanger our missionary and evangelistic work.

Article continues below

One of the roots of the tragedy of the old Syrian Church in Asia was its isolation from the rest of the Christian world. Those in this church knew much of the other churches, especially of Rome. Their liturgy commemorates saints much more than any other liturgy—from the Old Testament (beginning with Adam) and the New, the great martyrs of the first centuries, the Greek Fathers up to A.D. 400, Latin Fathers like Cyprian and Ambrose, “the 318 bishops” assembled at Nicaea, and a multitude of saints of the Syrian Church and the far-flung church in Asia—as if the lack of actual communion should be made up for by spiritual communion with the whole of Christendom.

What has caused this isolation? It was the destiny of the Syrian Church to be divided by the iron curtain that in the time after Constantine went down between the Roman Empire and Persia. The great mission church in Persia, which had to go through the most cruel persecutions after the persecution in the Roman Empire had ceased, was tolerated only after it had severed all connections with the West. This led to a doctrinal separation. The Church of East Syria, which now belonged to the Persian Empire, followed theologically the tradition of the school of Edessa and did not recognize the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431), which condemned Nestorius, who by the Patriarchate of Alexandria was made the scapegoat of a heresy he never really had shared. Nor did the Eastern Christians realize that they had become “heretical.” In their Christology, shaped by the great theologians of the school of Antioch, they were not able to understand how the divine and the human natures of Christ could coexist in one person. It was a defective Christology, an older theology that had not been regarded as heretical when it arose. The world politics of Rome and Persia along with the church politics of the great Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, and Rome made any decent theological solution of the doctrinal issue impossible. This is the tragedy of the greatest mission church in the history of Christianity. We know too little of the life of the Church in Asia to be able to gauge the connection of the breakdown in the later Middle Ages with the doctrinal situation. Only one point may be stated. It seems that Christianity in Central Asia was replaced by Islam. The descendants of the “Nestorian” Christians became Mohammedans.

Article continues below
Sacrificing The Gospel

A similar tragedy occurred in connection with the Fourth Ecumenical Council, at Chalcedon in 451. Here the attempt was made to settle the Christological controversies that divided the Church just as once the Arian controversy had divided the Church and shaken it to its very foundations. In Nicaea the issue was the true divinity of Christ. The Christian faith stands and falls with the confession of Thomas: “My Lord and my God.” There would be no Christianity today if in the fourth century the Church had left open the question whether Christ is really God from God or whether this is only figurative speech. The word homoousios, whether we like it or not—Luther did not like it, and even Athanasius used it only sparingly—means nothing else but that Jesus Christ is God, as the Father is God. A demigod or an angel could not be our saviour (Heb. 1). But if this must be recognized, what about the humanity of Christ?

It was the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon that gave the answer. As Jesus Christ is true and perfect God, so he is true and perfect man. As he is homoousios, of one substance with the Father in his divinity, so he is homoousios, of one substance with us in his humanity. This is the clear doctrine of the New Testament. “In all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest … to make reconciliation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). “For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” (4:15, 16). Christ would not be our Saviour, were he not our brother.

We cannot discuss the controversies that preceded and followed Chalcedon. The objection against the “homoousios with us” came from another school of thought that developed into what is being called “Monophysitism.” These men rejected the “one person, two natures” of Chalcedon and taught that the human nature of Christ had been totally absorbed by the divine nature in the Incarnation, so that after the Incarnation there was only one, namely, the divine nature. This makes the human traits in the life of Jesus incredible—his life of prayer, his trembling in Gethsemane, his cry, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Whatever improvements may be necessary in the formula of Chalcedon, the Monophysitic doctrine is intolerable because it makes Christ an enigmatic shadow. He ceases to be the Christ of the Bible, the “firstborn among many brethren” (Rom. 8:29).

Article continues below

Here also, as in the case of the Nestorians, it must be asked whether or not a mutual understanding, a reconciliation of the parties on the basis of common study of the Bible, was possible. Serious attempts have been made. But why have they failed? If today a reconciliation between the Orthodox and the Monophysitic churches is envisaged on either side (mainly on the basis of suggestions made at the Fifth Ecumenical Council in 553), why was it not possible in the fifth and sixth centuries? The answer is that the issue had ceased to be a mere theological problem. The great political awakening of the Orient had begun. While the Roman Empire collapsed in the West under the attacks of the Germanic tribes, it disintegrated in the East. The era of Western rule over the Near East that had begun under Alexander the Great was drawing to its end. As today the peoples of Africa and Asia regard Christianity as the religion of the West and its mission as colonialism, so the awakening nations of Asia and Egypt resented the church of the “Rho¯maioi” and their emperor in Constantinople. The Chalcedonian formula of “one person in two natures” was slandered as the “idol with two faces.” Monophysitism became the Oriental form of Christianity. The doctrine that Christ is “of one substance with us according to his humanity” was rejected by the majority of the Christians in the churches of Syria (the Jacobites), Egypt (Copts) and Ethiopia, and eventually also Armenia. This means that Christ ceased for them to be our brother and therewith the merciful high priest and Saviour. The full saving Gospel was sacrificed to the new nationalism of the peoples of the Orient.


Around 600 the people of the Orient were still Christian. A hundred years later this was no longer so. The real awakening of Asia had come in the rise of the new political and religious power of Islam. Within a few generations the Near East had become Mohammedan. The Arabs tolerated Christians and Jews, and the Christian churches could survive. But it was only a small, insignificant minority who retained with touching faithfulness their Christian heritage in their small churches and their poor homes, a foreign body in the great Islamic world that for centuries was the leading political and cultural power in the world. How is it to be explained that the majority of the Christian peoples readily gave up their faith, exchanged the Saviour of the world for the greatest and most dangerous false prophet? Human explanations are here insufficient. This is the mystery of Antichrist. If we remember that also in Central Asia Christianity was eventually replaced by the religion of Mohammed, the mystery becomes even greater. Every mosque from Morocco to Turkestan, from India and Pakistan to Istanbul, from the Caucasus to the countries of Central Africa, is a monument of apostasy and faithlessness. Each of these mosques should be a church.

Article continues below

Since the nineteenth century, the question has repeatedly been asked whether this tragedy will repeat itself in Western Christendom in our time. Everyone knows how far the apostasy from the Christian faith has advanced in the “Christian” countries of Europe and the Americas. To see clearly what is going on in the Christian world is the first presupposition of any effective evangelism. From an insight into the religious situation in the present world we must come to an understanding of our task. Evangelism has to put to the Christians of our time, to churches and individuals, the great question: “Will you also go away?” Evangelistic preaching must show what going away would mean. It would mean that we would have to live without a Saviour, without forgiveness, without hope for life eternal. Most Protestants, even in our churches, have reached that stage where they think they no longer need forgiveness. We look at ourselves as Rousseau looked at his life in the beginning of his Confessions, and no longer as Augustine looked at himself in his Confessiones. We have to discover again, and to bring home to our hearers, the nature and the greatness of sin. It is not enough to repeat the old words. We must not shrink from speaking the language of the Bible, but we must be sure to explain to our hearers the full richness of the biblical view of man and his sin. We must make clear to them what the love of God is, the love of him who died for us.

To have a Saviour means to love him. But we cannot love him without knowing who he is. There is no true faith in Christ without a clear confession, a clear answer to the question he puts to us: “Who say ye that I am?” The ancient churches of which we spoke lost their love for Christ when they were no longer able to confess his true divinity, his true humanity, and the unity of his person. We must overcome the pernicious notion that we can have a Christian faith without a Christian doctrine. We must overcome in our evangelism the fear of being dogmatic. None of the apostles, none of the great evangelists of the early Church, knew this fear. This is the heritage of the era of Pietism in the Western Church. Undogmatic evangelism leads to emotionalism and to conversions that, being only superficial, do not have a lasting effect. We should not be afraid to emphasize again the importance of the great creeds of the Church, which have the power to bind together Christians of various backgrounds. We ought to try to counteract the tendency of modern missionaries to encourage every young church to create its own creed, possibly with the intention of finding new forms of faith and theology over against the creeds of the “Western” churches. This would only increase the tendency toward nationalism on the mission fields. Younger churches that follow this policy will have a destiny like that of the churches that separated from the Orthodox church in the ancient world. They will disappear.

Article continues below

True evangelism should develop a new understanding of the liturgy of the Church. In the apostolic Church, the Christian life of the individual began with baptism, which led to the sacrament of Holy Communion. The Church cannot exist without the sacrament. Evangelism should keep this in mind.

Evangelism must be based on a clear concept of what the Gospel is. It is the message of the forgiveness of sins. The justification that is essentially the forgiveness is inseparably bound up with sanctification. The new obedience must shape the entire life of the Christian. It comprises also the obedience that the Christian must show in his life as a member of society, of a family, and of a nation, and in the social obligations of his calling. This has been unduly neglected in that time of individualism during which modern evangelism has been shaped. The reaction to this neglect came in the form of the so-called social gospel, which assumed that the Gospel contains a law for society, as if the Kingdom of God can and should become manifest in the order of human society. Neither Jesus nor the apostles nor the early Church assumed the task of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, or of demanding and carrying out social reforms. Such reforms, which a Christian may desire and further, belong entirely in the sphere of what the Reformers called “civil justice” (justitia civilis). It is the task of the state and not of the Church to carry out social or political reforms. The Christian is engaged in them only as citizen, not as a Christian. The New Testament forbids the Church to attempt to establish a theocracy (John 18:36). Evangelism must make clear the nature of the Gospel and warn men against falsifying the New Testament Gospel by confounding it with social theories that originate in human wisdom or foolishness and not in the Word of God.

Article continues below

The duty to proclaim the Gospel is a duty of the Church at all times, irrespective of success. There are times in which the Gospel seems to find open ears. There are times in which the hearts seem hardened. This was the experience of the prophets (e.g., Isa. 6:9 ff.) and of our Lord himself (Mark 4:12; John 12:37 ff.). True evangelism will never despair of the power of God and his Word. But it will always remember that we cannot open the hearts of men. This is God’s privilege (Acts 16:14). The Holy Spirit alone can cause men to say in the hour of the great temptation, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”

Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.

Our digital archives are a work in progress. Let us know if corrections need to be made.