To the ends of the earth

'The Expansion of Christianity'
Cover detail from Timothy Yates' 'The Expansion of Christianity.'

In The Expansion of Christianity, a slim volume that is part of the IVP Histories series, Timothy Yates tracks the spread of Christianity from the earliest period of the faith through the twentieth century. In his sweep, he hits all the major missionary efforts and players, everyone from Patrick of Ireland to David Livingstone and Albert Schweitzer.

As a survey, I found the book useful and rewarding, but I also personally found some of the material theologically troubling. I was, for instance, fascinated by the stories of the early spread of Christianity to the Far East. But here’s the rub: Those first missionaries to the East were primarily Nestorians. Given that Nestorians were deemed heretics by the church, I am vexed by the question of whether their evangelism was for naught or was somehow invalid.

Yates is silent on the question. But if the assumption is that their version of the gospel was defective enough to be invalid (and many would say so), then it follows that their converts were not true Christians. While I understand that judgment, I’m not prepared to accept it.

I am much more prepared at this point to assume God will surprise us all with how gracious his grace truly is and how inadequate our theological categorizations have been and are. Saying so acknowledges a sticky wicket of its own, of course, but that’s where my thinking is of late, and Yates helped provoke my thoughts along that track.

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