Vince L. Bantu. A Multitude of All Peoples: Engaging Ancient Christianity’s Global Identity. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2020. xi + 239pp. $35.00 paperback.
“Christianity is and always has been a global religion . . . it is important to never to think of Christianity as becoming global” (1). Vince Bantu opens his work with this claim and supports it with a thorough survey of the early non-western church
Following this introduction, Bantu devotes chapter 1 to the origins of western church dominance following the emergence of the Emperor Constantine (d. 337) and the Council of Chalcedon of 451. Employing Hellenistic language on the two natures of Christ, the formula of Chalcedon succeeded in alienating African and eastern churches—communities that possessed an orthodox Christology but used different vocabulary to express it. In chapter 2, Bantu describes the churches of Africa (Nubia, Egypt, Ethiopia, North Africa), while in chapter 3 he presents Christians of the Middle East (Syria, Lebanon, Arabia, Armenia, Georgia). In chapter 4, Bantu focuses on the Church of the East in Syria and Persia and mission along the Silk Road through Central Asia to China. In a brief concluding chapter, he argues that the present global church should celebrate contextual theology and set apart indigenous leaders to remain truly global.
While Bantu’s thesis does not break new ground on early Christianity’s global nature, his work strongly supports the works of Phillip Jenkins, Scott Sunquist, Dale Irvin and others by providing a robust picture of ancient African, Middle Eastern, and Asian Christianity. I especially appreciated the section on St. Ephrem the Syrian whose theological method and products included hymns and (madrashe) and homilies (memre)—a form that developed from and resonated with his Syrio-Persian context. A few years ago, I was at a theology conference where a western theologian discounted St. Ephrem’s works as real theology because he did not write in prose. That theologian needs this book.
Though Bantu argues that western cultural and theological hegemony characterizes the global church’s story, this is not the whole story. To be sure, Byzantine church and political leaders pressured and even oppressed those who rejected Chalcedon. However, as Bantu shows (132-136), some myaphysite churches in the Middle East also oppressed their fellow Melkite Christians, who followed Chalcedon. Sadly, the Egyptian Coptic Abba Shenoute used violence against pagans and one wayward monk in his African context (17). Catholicos Timothy of Baghdad certainly navigated nasty church politics within the Church of the East.
Having done my graduate work on North African Christianity, I was happy to see Bantu’s survey of the African church in chapter 2. While the African fathers discussed (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine) were indeed African, they were also culturally Roman. Tertullian and Augustine lived for a period in Italy and there is no evidence that any of these fathers knew a language other than Latin or Greek. It would have been good to recognize that North Africa, particularly the cities, was really Roman Africa.
In summary, Vince Bantu has done an excellent job of telling the story of the non-western church in the ancient world and certainly supported his claim for an early global Christianity. This work should be read by professors and students of church and mission history as well as those currently serving in ministry in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.
For Further Reading
Jenkins, Phillip. The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia and How it Died. New York: HarperOne, 2009.
Irvin, Dale T. and Sunquist, Scott W. and History of the World Christian Movement: Earliest Chrisitanity to 1453. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2001.
Ott, Craig and Netland, Harold. Globalizing Theology: Beliefs and Practice in an Era of World Christianity. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006.