Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Missionary Impulse in the Early Asian Christian Traditions

Academic journal article International Review of Mission

The Missionary Impulse in the Early Asian Christian Traditions

Article excerpt

Asia: the cradle of Christianity

In an address on Asia's Message to Europe, delivered in Calcutta in 1883, Keshub Chunder Sen, the great Brahmo Samaj leader in Bengal, observed:

Is not Asia the birthplace of great prophets and saints? Is it not pre-eminently a holy place of pilgrimage to the rest of the world! Yes, upon Asia's soil have flourished and prospered those at whose feet the world should prostrate. The great religions which have given life and salvation to millions of men owe their origin in Asia. . . . But Asia is not only holy ground, but it is a catholic ground also. In this one place you could count all the leading prophets and all the great religious geniuses of the world. No great prophet was born outside the boundaries of Asia.(1)

It is in Asia, the great land mass that extends from the Atlantic eastwards to the Pacific, that about three quarters of the world's present population is found. It is in Asia that the roots of the present great civilizations are to be found. Here the major religions and philosophical traditions of the world had their origins. In another address, Chunder Sen exhorted the Indians to "go to the rising Sun of the East, not to the setting Sun of the West, if you want to see Christ in the plenitude of his glory and in the fulness and freshness of his divine life."(2) Chunder Sen complained that Jesus Christ was presented to the Asians as a western Christ and the history of the Asiatic Christ in Asian soil had been replaced by the history of western missionary organizations in Asia.

Speaking of The Hidden History of Christianity in Asia, John C. England, a church historian from New Zealand, rightly points out that unfortunately only a few churches in the region have retained a strong sense that their history began in the early centuries of the Christian era. He writes:

Christianity can be taken as an ancient Asian religion not just because of its origins in west Asian cultures and in the life of a Palestinian Jew, nor because of the Asian form of its foundation scriptures, but also because of this long and diverse presence throughout central, south, south east, and north east Asian countries.(3)

Like Chunder Sen, John England also complains that such a long and diverse presence of Christianity in Asian history has been so long hidden.

Clearly such a history has not been widely recognised - and our understanding of Christian presence and identity within the particular histories and cultures of the region has been massively distorted - often for doctrinal or ideological reasons.(4)

While we have a great deal of information about western Christianity and its missionary expansion, we know very little of Asian Christianity and its missionary outreach. The Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament does not give us a comprehensive and accurate account of Christianity and its spread in the early period. Its presentation is very selective and partial. Howard Marshall, a New Testament scholar, points out that Luke has idealized and simplified the story of the developments in the early church. He has selected one strand in the history of the church that leads from Jerusalem to Rome and from Jewish mission to Gentile mission, and he has left us in ignorance of many matters about which we would gladly be better informed. "To this extent, he has simplified the movement of church history and we do well to remember that he has not told us the whole story."(5)

While Paul and other Christian missionaries were converting Greeks, Romans and the barbarian tribes in the west, there was equally a great movement of Christianity to the east - Edessa, Persia, Arabia, Central Asia, China and India. The territory of the Roman empire lay mainly in Europe and in that part of Asia to the west of the Euphrates. But to the east of the Euphrates, at the time when Rome was at the zenith of its power, there existed the Persian empire, which extended to and included parts of northern India. …

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