We are repeatedly hearing the statement that we are living in the post-Christian, and especially the post-Protestant era. The data adduced to support this analysis are sobering. But to generalize from them is to be blind both to history and to the current global situation. Indeed, the opposite is true. If mankind is viewed as a whole, never has Christ been as great a force in the human scene and never has Protestantism played as large a part in the human drama.
One Side Of The Story
The evidence for the sombre diagnosis is obvious. If we are to appraise the world situation in its full dimensions we must not dodge it. We must face it in all its stark reality. The march of atheistic communism across much of Europe and Asia and now with its footholds in the Western Hemisphere is a grim fact. Within the past 45 years, communism has brought approximately a third of the human race under its sway. Wherever it has control the Church has been beleaguered and has lost in numbers. Less spectacular but in some respects more ominous is the growth of what we call “secularism”—the dismissal of religion and especially of Christianity as irrelevant and intellectually untenable. In Western Europe, the traditional heartland of what we have been accustomed to call Christendom, church attendance has sharply declined. That is true not only in the cities, where the forces of the revolutionary age in which we are immersed are centered, but also in many rural districts. It is common to both Protestantism and Roman Catholicism. In Latin America the process of de-Christianization of what in an earlier era was seemingly the most successful Roman Catholic mission field has continued. The overwhelming majority of the population regard themselves as Catholics, but only a decreasing minority can be regarded as “practising” their religion. The two devastating world wars of the present century were fought with weapons and methods that were first devised in “Christendom.” The first of the wars broke out in “Christendom.” The second can be said to have begun with Japan’s attack on China in 1931 and 1937, but it attained global dimensions with the explosion in Europe in 1939.
Most of the forces which have challenged Christianity had their inception among peoples regarded as Protestant. The deism which contributed to the skepticism of the eighteenth century and to the French Revolution was first formulated by men who conformed to the (Protestant) Church of England. Communism was given its classic formulation in predominantly Protestant England. That was by Marx and Engels. They had been reared as Protestants but believed that the stubborn facts of contemporary society and scientific knowledge made necessary the abandonment of the faith. Much of the scientific achievement which has undermined the faith of millions, including especially the formulation of the theory of evolution, has been by men of Protestant upbringing. Two among many were Charles Darwin, who had once intended to enter the ministry of the Church of England and Herbert Spencer, who had his boyhood and early youth in a strongly Evangelical atmosphere. The Industrial Revolution with its creation of machines and the factory system and a type of urban society which has made difficult the maintenance of church life, had its inception in Protestant Great Britain. The atomic bomb, with its threat to civilization and the survival of the human race, was first developed in what we once regarded as Protestant America.
These indisputable facts could be given in more detail and to them others could be added. Were they the entire picture, we Christians, and especially we Protestants, would have to acknowledge, regretfully, that we are in the post-Christian, and especially the post-Protestant era. Were they all, we would be forced to say that Christianity, notably Protestantism, had been giving rise to forces which are destroying it—that Christianity has been digging its own grave.
But those who focus their eyes on these facts ignore both important features of history and significant movements of our day which tell a very different story.
First of all, there has never been a Christian era. To be sure, the first five centuries after Christ witnessed the winning of the nominal allegiance to Him of the large majority of the population of the Roman Empire. We have rightly called it an amazing achievement. But the Roman Empire embraced only a small fraction of the earth’s surface. Most of mankind was outside its borders. It included only a minority of even civilized mankind. To the east of it were Persia, India, and China, together far more populous and certainly as highly civilized. In the first five “Christian” centuries the first two were touched only slightly and the third not at all by the Christian faith. Even the Roman Empire was only superficially Christian. The morals of the majority of its population had been affected very slightly. The rise of monasticism was a protest against the non-Christian lives of the millions who bore the Christian name—the earnest attempt of minorities to lead the full Christian life.
For several hundred years even this superficial Christianity seemed to be on the way to extinction. In the seventh and eighth centuries a new religion, Islam, espoused by the followers of Mohammed, became the dominant religion in about half of the erstwhile “Christendom.” Not far removed from them in time, hordes of “barbarians”—the ancestors of most of those who will read these lines—swept down from the North in successive waves which lasted for about six centuries and threatened to obliterate the portions of “Christendom” which had not come under Moslem rule.
In time these barbarians were “converted.” But for the majority conversion entailed no thorough commitment to Christ. We are often told that the European Middle Ages witnessed the high-water-mark of the Christian tide. But Medieval Western and Southern Europe, nominally Christian, and containing the majority of those who bore the Christian name, embraced even a smaller proportion of civilized mankind than had the domains of the Caesars and only a very small section of the land surface of the globe. Moreover, although Christianity made a deeper impress upon the culture of medieval Western Europe than it had on that of the Roman Empire, Western Europeans were far from fully conforming to the standards of Christ. For example, recall the Crusades. The Papacy stimulated these successive wars of conquest which in the name of the Cross cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and left a legacy of hate which still embitters relations between the West and the Arab world and which deepened the gulf between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West. By a strange irony, Pope Urban II, noted for his efforts to reform the Church, initiated the First Crusade and Bernard of Clairvaux, esteemed one of the outstanding saints of all time, preached the Second Crusade.
The Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, raised the level of the lives of the Christians of the West and was followed by emigration and missions which planted the faith over a wider area than in any preceding era. But even then, in Asia, the most populous continent, Christians remained small enclaves and until the present century numbered only a few thousand in Africa south of the Sahara.
In the sense of mankind’s conformity to the Christian faith, there has, then, never been a Christian era.
In Pursuit Of A Goal
As a second fact we must recognize that in no previous age has that goal been as nearly attained as it is in the present century. This is seen in at least six ways:
1. Never has the Christian faith been as widely accepted as it is today. Indeed, no other religion has ever had as extensive a geographic spread as has Christianity in the twentieth century. It is true that the world contains more non-Christians than at any previous time, but that is because of the population explosion of the past two or three centuries. In the past 50 years the percentage of those who bear the Christian name has mounted in land after land—notably in India, Indonesia, and Africa south of the Sahara. In the United States the proportion of the population who are church members has grown from about one-twentieth at the time of our independence from Great Britain to nearly two-thirds in 1961.
Significantly, in contradiction to the assertion that this is the post-Protestant era, in the past 150 years the spread of Christianity has been more by Protestantism than by any other branch of the faith. Much of the geographic expansion has been through Roman Catholics, but more has been through Protestants. A century and a half ago Protestantism was confined almost entirely to North-western Europe. Today it is the prevailing form of the faith in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, and it is increasing by leaps and bounds in Latin America, the Philippines, Africa south of the Sahara, India, and Indonesia. Much of the growth has been by migration from North-western Europe, but it has been chiefly by “home” and “foreign” missions.
2. Christianity is more deeply planted among more peoples than ever before. Until the last half century the churches among non-European peoples were mostly dominated by Westerners. The anti-colonial, anti-imperialist surge of the past four decades might have been expected to have weakened these churches; but because of the inner vitality of the faith in land after land indigenous leadership has been emerging. Among some peoples, the faith continues to spread with little or no help from the churches of Europe and America. We are seeing this, for example, among the Bataks in Indonesia, in the Southeast Asia Christian Conference, and in the Pentecostal movements in Brazil and Chile. The circumstance which we accept as axiomatic that the churches of peoples of European origin in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa produce their own leaders, lay and clerical, and do not depend on Europe for them, is evidence of the manner in which the faith has become rooted in these lands.
Here, too, although the Roman Catholic Church has made striking advances, the gains have been more pronounced among Protestants. For example, the Roman Catholic Church in the United States still depends in part on Ireland’s Catholic South for its clergy, and only a few clergy come from Europe to the Protestant churches of this country.
3. In no country—with the possible exception of North Korea (where we do not have data)—has Christianity been erased by communism. In Russia both the Orthodox and the Baptists persist and attract adherents from the younger generation. On the mainland of China, although diminished in numbers, the churches go on and baptisms of adults as well as children are known to be taking place.
“No other religion has ever had as extensive a geographic spread as has Christianity in the twentieth centzkry.… In the past 50 years the percentage of those who bear the Christian name has mounted in land after land--notably in India, Indofzesia, and Africa.…”
4. New movements are appearing in the churches—proof of continuing vitality. Often they enlist only a few and are what Toynbee has called “creative minorities.” Some are much larger. In the Roman Catholic Church are the liturgical movement, the increase in Bible study, and Catholic Action, all of them engaging growing numbers of the laity. In Protestantism are the Evangelical Academies in Germany, Kerk in Wereld in The Netherlands, Iona in Scotland, “house churches” and “retreat centers” in England, and numberless movements of many kinds in the United States.
5. As never before Christians are approaching an answer to our Lord’s high priestly prayer “that they all may be one.” In a day when our contracting globe with the emergence of a world neighborhood—tragically quarrelsome—challenges them to a united witness, Christians are coming together. That is happening in a variety of ways—partly through the “Ecumenical Movement” and partly through other channels. Christians are still far from attaining to the unity implied in our Lord’s command that his disciples love one another as he loved—and loves—them, but advances are being made. These, too, are primarily among Protestants and on Protestant initiative.
6. Christ is having a wider effect upon mankind than ever before. That, too, is chiefly through Protestantism. Among the many examples are the Red Cross and the United Nations, both clearly of Protestant parentage, and the influence upon Gandhi, and through him on all India, this through Gandhi’s contacts with Protestants.
What is the meaning of this strange and striking contrast—on the one hand between the growth of movements antithetical to the faith and chiefly through a perversion of Protestantism, and, on the other hand, the amazing vitality and growth of the Christian forces, also largely through Protestantism?
Both are foreshadowed in the teaching of our Lord. On the one hand is his breath-taking Great Commission to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that he has commanded. On the other hand his parable declares that both wheat and tares are to grow until the harvest. As Christians seek to obey the Great Commission they witness the progressive fulfillment of the prophecy in the parable. “The children of the Kingdom” increase in numbers and in their fruitage in the life of mankind. “The children of the wicked one” also multiply.
Is God to be defeated? We are told that he sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world—the world which crucified his Son—but that through his Son the world might be saved. Clearly, as the Church has long known, we are living between the times. God’s purpose is to sum up all things in Christ, whether in heaven or on earth—a staggering promise of cosmic significance. The “all things” must embrace this vast universe. It was through “the Word” that “all things” were made—through his Son God created the world—and the Son has been appointed “heir of all things.” We are warned against seeking to establish a chronology for the attainment of God’s goal or for a resolution of the contrast. But our faith is in God. He will not allow his Word to fail in the mission to which he has sent it. In his own good time and his own way, not ours, he will accomplish the purpose which he has in Christ.
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