The journey of life takes us all in directions we don’t anticipate. And that is true even for academic historians. In From Every Tribe and Nation: A Historian’s Discovery of the Global Christian Story (Baker Academic, 2014; source: publisher), the renowned American religious history Mark Noll tells how his journey took him from a parochial view of history focused on Western Christianity to a truly global perspective of the Christian past. And he does so in the engaging form of a memoir.
Noll’s volume is the third in Baker Academic’s Turning South: Christian Scholars in an Age of World Christianity series, edited by Joel Carpenter. The other volumes include Nicholas Woltserstorff’s Journey toward Justice: Personal Encounters in the Global South and Susan VanZanten’s Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar’s Journey from America to Africa.
In his contribution to the series, Noll alerts readers to the undeniable shifts that have taken place in the nature and extent of Christianity especially in the last century. Far from a Western religion, Christianity has spilled over into Africa, Asia, and Latin America in remarkable and explosive ways, and with more and more literature available on these shifts, Christians in the West have less and less reason to keep their proverbial head in the ground about world Christianity.
Noll’s book draws in readers because he talks personally about how he slowly awoke to these realities, moving from a young Baptist with dreams of shooting hoops for a living to his recent forays into teaching and writing about global Christianity (see especially The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith and Clouds of Witnesses: Christian Voices from Africa and Asia, coauthored with Carolyn Nystrom). He weaves in important individuals that helped him expand his view to see the global Christian world, and he throws in a bit of humor for good measure. One of my favorite lines comes from the introduction: “While some of the books that historians write might be lively, humane, and compelling, our lives rarely are” (ix).
As an introduction to the global Christian explosion, Noll’s volume offers a unique and effective format for showing how the average Western Christian may need to expand his or her vision of what’s happening in the church today. Noll treats the numbers and gives a taste of the changes in majority world. He also models the humility of a senior scholar who stands ready to learn from others, whether trailblazing scholars of global Christianity or students in his seminars whose papers he highlights in his book.
Noll also raises the right questions when thinking about the recent expansion of Christianity around the globe. It is one thing to celebrate generically the growth of Christianity. It is another to dig into the details of what such Christian growth looks like on the ground. And these expressions of Christianity often diverge from each other on matters of not only liturgy but also doctrine.
The question that faces us is this: In what way are all these diverse groups—evangelicals, Pentecostals, Reformed, Anglicans, Orthodox, Roman Catholics, independent indigenous believers—all united as Christians? Or are they?
Noll never fully answers this question for the reader except to show—as fitting for the memoir format—how he found resolution for himself. And here lies the heart of what I believe Noll aims to communicate in this volume. As he studied world Christianity, Noll continued to see a tension between diversity in local contexts and unity in a shared Christian faith. The incarnation offers the basis for this tension: As God came into the specific first-century human context in the person of Jesus Christ, so Christianity continues to express itself in specific contexts, and that means in diverse ways. Noll came to see that “Christianity has always acted in history as both a particular and a universal faith, and at the same time” (93).
Noll summarizes this “fundamental principle of world Christian awareness” as follows: “all ecclesiastical, theological, and moral categories are situated (that is, all have a history of indigenization in particular times, places, and circumstances); but all may also participate fully in authentic Christian faith” (26). This statement raises the obvious question: How, then, does one define “authentic Christian faith”?
As the reader finds out, Noll accepts a fairly broad definition—of the C. S. Lewis Mere Christianity variety. For example, he states, “whether in Orthodox, Catholic, Lutheran, or Calvinist form, I became convinced that in the Eucharist God draws participants into the fellowship of his Son” (54). He came to believe that God’s act toward believers in the sacraments was true not only for those who viewed them as mystical, but also for those who viewed them as merely symbolic, such as credo-baptists. Yet he goes further. The sacraments are even effectual for “those few believers who do without Communion entirely” (58)—though I admittedly find it difficult to make sense of such a statement.
While Noll claims that he avoided “descending into complete cultural relativity” by holding as a basic marker of authentic Christianity a trust in God as Trinity, he nonetheless sees “Christianity recognizably taking shape—all the way down, with no cultural residue—in an incredibly diverse range of local expressions” (166). And these observations only confirm what he has documented in his assessment of Roman Catholicism today in Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism, written with Carolyn Nystrom (183).
How does one respond to the dizzying array of Christian expressions in the world today? On the one hand, I think evangelicals, like Noll, want these varied expressions to constitute authentic Christianity. But at the same time, one can’t help but wonder if doctrine plays a greater role in delineating boundaries for authentic Christianity than Noll allows. It certainly did in the early church, and by that I mean both in the West and the East.
As the book title indicates, this move toward global representation in the church reflects the biblical prophecy that some “from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages” will stand together as one people of God (Rev 7:9). Evangelicals devoted to Scripture’s authority embrace this hope, and the recent global expansion of Christianity encourages them to believe it is coming true in their lifetime.
But this biblical passage also presents a difficulty when standing alongside the evangelical priority of what they deem to be core doctrines, most importantly the solas of the Reformation era—that we stand on Scripture alone and that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone to the glory of God alone. What are we to make of movements that self-identify as “Christian” but neglect or even reject these doctrines?
In the end, From Every Tribe and Nation offers an engaging, personal introduction to the global Christian story. And it helps readers gain an entry-level understanding of some significant events that have led to the global shift in Christianity. It also raises important questions concerning the unity and diversity of the church today.
I found the answers to those questions thought-provoking but not fully satisfying. The ecumenical vision of the book will certainly appeal to many, and I myself firmly hope in the church being unified, as Christ himself prayed that it would be in John 17. Yet in the way Noll describes a hope of unity, I sense that shared doctrinal grounds remain loosely defined at best.
Some will say that this is very Western of me to desire doctrinal grounds. Perhaps so. But doesn’t that mean that I am simply living out authentic Christianity in my context, as Noll puts it? Isn’t that version legitimate? If so, that raises complex questions about what constitutes universal Christianity as it rapidly expands and changes in the twenty-first century. With increasing diversity in the global church, how small do we have to make the core of Christianity to maintain unity? Yet how do we avoid making it so small that we accept those who preach “a different gospel” (Gal 1:6), which is no gospel at all?
In my study of modern global Christianity, it seems to me that we have much to be thankful for and much to be concerned about. If Noll’s book gets the reader thinking about such questions, then it will have accomplished its primary goal. And that goal is well worth pursuing, even if we have not yet found the satisfactory answers to the nature of the global church that we desire.
*Full Disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.