Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity

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Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity. By Lamin Sanneh. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2008. Pp. xxii, 384. £60 / $99; paperback £11.99 / $19.95.

John Carman's review of Lamin Sanneh's Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity introduces both this volume and the significant series of which this work is the inaugural volume. Published by Oxford University Press and edited and directed by Sanneh, Professor of Missions and World Christianity, Yale Divinity School, and Professor of History at Yale University, the Oxford Studies in World Christianity is a series of volumes currently under production that will address world Christianity in light of its non-Western appeal and development. Each volume in the series has been assigned to a leading authority in the field, Carman among them. The Overseas Ministries Study Center supports this seminal project on World Christianity and looks forward to its publications. Additional information can be found at www.omsc.org/oxfordstudies.html.-Editor

This book is about two major transitions now taking place in the history of Christianity. The first is a shift from a Western to a post-Western church, where the increasing majority of Christians live outside Europe and North America. This shift is the result of a dramatic increase in the last fifty years of the number of Christians outside the West and of a marked decline, both in church membership and in Christian observance, in the former Christian heartlands. "In 1950," Sanneh writes, "some 80 percent of the world's Christians lived... in Europe and North America. By 2005 the vast majority of Christians lived in . . . Asia, Africa, and Latin America." The change in the figures for Africa is even more striking, from 9 million in 1900 (most of them in Egypt and Ethiopia) to 60 million in 1960, and 393 million in 2005 (p. xx). The change is not only one of population shift. Sanneh maintains that "the current awakening had occurred without the institutions and structures that define Western Christendom . . . monasteries, theological schools, and hierarchical agency"; furthermore, political power, instead of being of assistance, has been "a problem and a burden to overcome" (p. x).

The second transition is less marked and may be less obvious: the recognition of thefirsttransitionby Christian theologians, historians, and church leaders. Lamin Sanneh, originally from Gambia, taught at the University of Aberdeen and at Harvard University. Since 1989 he has been the D. Willis James Professor of World Christianity at Yale Divinity School. He is not simply an observer of this second transition, for he has taken a leading role in appealing to scholars not to resist but to accept gratefully this new view of a new chapter in Christian history.

Because the book is concerned both with a major historical change in Christianity and with the implications of this change for Christians, its organization is partly chronological, partly geographic, moving from region to region, and partly thematic, dealing with many important aspects of Christianity, especially in its present post-Western phase. Sanneh notes at the beginning that the current simultaneous expansion of Christianity in one part of the world and its contraction in another repeats earlier patterns in Christian history. He observes that "the religion is now in the twilight of its Western phase and at the beginning of its formative non-Western impact" (p. xx). His introduction deals with the growing consciousness of Christianity's world mission as attested in the New Testament and with the spread of Christianity in the Greek-speaking Hellenistic world beyond the boundaries of the Jewish synagogue. The first chapter deals with the expansion of the Christian movement during the following centuries. Within an empire under increasing attack, Christians developed a culture that was distinct from Hellenistic culture and yet borrowed much from it. Beyond and subsequent to Roman rule, the church established itself as a minority in non-Christian societies (examples from the Middle East and India) and gained cultural dominance in tribal societies to the northwest (examples from England and Iceland). …