The Barbarian Conversion. 1st of 3. The Roman Empire becomes a Christian Empire

This is the most important book on the history of the expansion of Christianity in Europe. Dr. Ralph Winter said this book is “dripping with missiological insights.” Apart from the book of Acts, our early evidence for the spread of Christianity is patchy. How did Christianity arrive in Alexandria, beyond along the coast of North Africa to Carthage? It is reasonably clear that Christianity spread east and west both quickly and anarchically, without overt strategy or leadership.[1]

Catastrophe: A Christian emperor is said to usher in the kingdom of God on earth. The story of Emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity is well-known. Eusebius (d. 339 AD) was thrilled: A Christian empire was the same as the coming of the kingdom of God on earth.[2] sees the achievement of a unified Christian empire as the goal of all history. Christianity and empire would mutually support one another. Fletcher calls it the Eusebian Accommodation. Christianity would advance the empire’s legions colonized new territory. Christianity was for Romans, not for barbarians. The Christian poet Prudentius said, “Roman and barbarian are as distinct from one another as are four-footed beasts from human beings.”[3] Even the most daring thinkers, such as Augustine of Hippo (in today’s Tunisia), found it hard to dispense with this ingrained cultural assumption.[4] With this theory, there could be no thought of adapting to the cultures outside of the empire. Augustine, a Berber had adapted completely to the Latin language and the Roman culture. He believed that his fellow Berbers had to become culturally Roman before they could become Christians. The Berbers resisted this condescending attitude. Frederick Norris writes, “At the very moment when a Berber contextualization of the gospel needed strong pastoral guidance, Augustine’s own Latin culture left him unable to see the possibilities.”[5] In 430 AD, as Augustine lay dying in bed barbarians besieged his city. Would history have been different had his church de-Romanized the gospel of the kingdom of God? Hesychius evidently claimed that the gospel had already been preached to all nations. Not so, argued Augustine, ‘for there are among us, that is in Africa, unnumerable barbarian tribes among whom the gospel has not yet been preached . . . yet it cannot rightly be said that the promise of God does not concern them’ because ‘the Lord did not promise the Romans but all nations to the seed of Abraham.’[6] “How shall they preach unless they be sent?” Augustine wrote. But he did not follow the logic to its conclusion, “Therefore we must send out missionary preachers.”[7]

References Cited

[1] R. A. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity, 1st American ed. (New York: H. Holt and Co., 1998). 14

[2] Ibid. 24

[3] Ibid. 390

[4] Ibid. 228-9

[5] Gerald H. Anderson, Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions (New York: Macmillan, 1998). 33

[6] Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity. 31

[7] Ibid. 32