How well do you know the story of Christianity from its birth and infancy among a handful of followers of Jesus Christ, through its years of development into a global religious movement, spanning continents and cultures and transcending educational and social backgrounds?
Bible Gateway interviewed Ian J. Shaw about his book, Christianity, The Biography: 2000 Years of Global History (Zondervan, 2017).
Why is the title of your book “The Biography” and not “The History”?
Ian J. Shaw: The title is designed to show the dynamic of the development and growth of Christianity, from the Early Church period to the present day. The word ‘Biography’ emphasizes the life and change, challenge and progress in Christianity over 20 centuries.
Why is it important for Christians to remember church history?
Ian J. Shaw: The command to ‘remember’ is a biblical one. In Joshua 4 the Israelites were told to build a monument from stones that had been in the middle of the River Jordan to provoke the question from passers-by, ‘What do these stones mean?’ Then the history of the miraculous crossing of the Jordan would be re-told.
The words ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ are spoken every occasion Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper together.
Remembrance is designed to feed faith—‘We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us, the deeds you did in their days, in days of old’ (Psalm 44:1).
Those suffering from loss of memory are terribly debilitated. They cannot remember where they are, where they’ve come from, or even who they are. Their sense of ‘lost-ness’ is frightening. It’s very important that Christians do not lose the faculty of memory, but understand the story of which they are a part; the historical journey in which they participate. For the Christian, the biography of Christianity is the history of their family, and an exploration of their heritage. It should be an exciting adventure of self-discovery.
Understanding—and planning for—the future of the church requires opening up its past. This book affirms the old axiom that ‘those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are destined to repeat them.’
What time period do you identify as the beginning of Christianity and why?
Ian J. Shaw: This is discussed in the first chapter of Christianity, The Biography. Every biography begins with a birth, but the exact date when Christianity was ‘born’ has been much debated. For some it’s the birth of its founder, Jesus Christ. Another point could be the time when the first disciples were called and became followers of Jesus Christ. A case could be made for Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came, transforming the disciples of Jesus from a fearful, uncertain group, into an empowered body of witnessing messengers to the good news of Jesus Christ, prepared to turn the world upside down. A key moment was when the followers of Jesus were first referred to as ‘Christians’ in Acts 11:26.
Most historians of Christianity consider the end of the Roman War in Palestine in AD 70, toward the close of the lives of most of the apostles, as a vital moment.
I know this is asking a lot, but who do you see as the six most important people in Christian history and why?
Ian J. Shaw: This is an almost impossible task! But let’s start after the time of the Apostles—and Jesus had 12 choices! My six are chosen for importance in the overall progression of Christianity, not necessarily because I agree with all they said and did:
- Constantine: the Roman Emperor who embraced Christianity and transformed it from a persecuted minority into a favored religion, no longer fighting for its survival. He did some good things and some not so good things.
- Athanasius: he held the church strong in the face of the teaching of Arius that Christ was not truly God.
- Augustine of Hippo: theologian and pastor, shaped much of the theological tradition of the Western church.
- Martin Luther: reformer, preacher, Bible translator. He stood firmly on the basis of Scripture and his conscience for the right to challenge false and unhelpful teaching and church structures.
- John Calvin: the great summarizer of key Reformation doctrine
- Samuel Ajayi Crowther: the first African Anglican bishop; a morning-star heralding the huge growth in Christianity in the Global South.
How did the Bible materialize in Christian history?
Ian J. Shaw: Although Jesus Christ could write, from what we know he did not choose to write his teachings down. Instead his disciples carefully learned and treasured his words and actions, and recorded them in writing. Some collections of the sayings of Jesus may have been written down in his lifetime. The Old Testament was already accepted and used as Scripture by Christ and his apostles.
Within several decades of the death of Jesus the written documents which make up the New Testament had been produced. This helped to guard the church against error and false teaching. These documents were then copied with a high degree of accuracy by scribes. The canon (meaning ‘straight rule’ or ‘standard’) of Scripture was established in the early church, setting out what writings were regarded as authoritative.
The attempts by some false teachers to reject or undermine some of the New Testament books led to official statements from church councils in the 4th century confirming which writings were to be viewed as Scripture and which were non-canonical. These councils affirmed what had been in use as Scripture for the previous centuries.
Reading, preaching, and teaching the Bible was central to the life of the early Christian community and the global transmission of its message. There was a determination to ensure when the church spoke, it did so based on what God had revealed in Scripture.
How widespread has persecution been in the annals of Christianity?
Ian J. Shaw: Some argue that persecution has been the ‘normal’ state for Christians throughout its 20 centuries of existence, and that freedom from persecution is more unusual.
Up to the early 4th century, persecution was regularly experienced by Christians. After then it ceased in the Roman Empire, but remained an issue for Christians further East.
Persecution has not been faced by Christians all the time. But there have been very intense periods such as in the late 3rd century, during the French Revolution, and under a number of totalitarian regimes and some other religious rulers, when attempts have been made to totally eradicate Christianity. None have succeeded.
What does the future of Christianity look like?
By the start of the 21st century the make-up of Christianity looked closer to those images than it had ever done before. Christianity had returned to what it originally was: a global faith. The axis of Christianity has shifted to the Global South, with over one billion Christians in the non-Western World, compared to 750 million in the West. The next stages of the Christian biography will be significantly determined by what happens in Africa, Latin America, parts of Asia and the Pacific. Yet, although during the 20th century Christianity grew from around 558 million to over 2 billion believers, because this took place when world population was also growing, the percentage of Christians actually fell slightly, from just over around 35% to 32%.
What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?
Ian J. Shaw: Great resources and books and some great price deals.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
Ian J. Shaw: Keep on reading so you can keep on growing!
Ian J. Shaw is Associate International Director of the Langham Scholars Program and Honorary Fellow, School of Divinity, New College, University of Edinburgh. He’s the author of Churches, Revolutions and Empires: 1789-1914; High Calvinists in Action: Calvinism and the City; William Gadsby; and The Greatest Is Charity.
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