For Adrian Hastings, the history of the Christian church is a story of renovation. In his introduction to A World History of Christianity, he gives this summary of the last 2,000 years:
“It is a history of change and translation, of the regular reinvention of itself in new languages and regions.”
So what has the church been up to? It has changed and translated. It has reinvented itself through contact with new languages in new regions. Hastings is on to something quite important here: Christianity is not bound to its initial expression. The New Testament is a Greek document but you do not need to read or speak Greek to ‘get’ Christianity. The first Christians were Jewish but you do not need to become more Jewish to be a Christian. Nor does being a Christian make you necessarily more Jewish.
Christianity is not meant to meet peoples like a bulldozer, steamrolling civilizations and languages to leave behind a flat-lined horizon. It does not call down fire from heaven and leave a scorched-earth monoculture. Christianity is much more like a river. Although its current always tends toward one end, it moves and meanders with the different landscapes it encounters. Like the unceasing flow of a river, it brings life and reshapes the terrain along the way. Let me point towards two implications of Hastings’ summary.
Christianity is not ‘ours’
First, there is an important sense in which Christianity is not ‘ours’. The us that I have in mind behind that ours is the church of the West. Something has gone astray when a book about God from a Canadian is theology, but a book about God by a Kenyan has to be qualified as African theology. Do we see our own expression of following Jesus as the pristine exemplar of Christianity? Are we somehow ‘unsullied’ by cultural concerns and pressures? Should we see the rest of the world’s Christians as something like half-siblings that we graciously cheer along as they work their way to being more like us?
Christianity is ours in the sense that it is freely and fully given to us. But it is not ours any more than it can belong to anyone else. The gospel has been a part of the Western tradition throughout the era and has significantly shaped us. But it did not originate on our account or even amongst us. As a Canadian born a long way from Galilee, I am only a Christian because Christianity has a history of change and translation. We must own our identity as grafted-in branches (Romans 11).
Change and translation began immediately. Jesus the Jewish Messiah was proclaimed as Lord (kurios, κύριος) throughout the Mediterranean world. By the third century we know of translations of the Bible into Latin, Syriac, and Coptic. Gothic, Armenian, Ethiopic, and Georgian followed shortly after. It is this process of translation and renovation which brought the gospel to me. I trace my spiritual lineage through 2,000 years of change, reinvention, and translation and the force of that momentum leads to the next point.
Translation must go on
The second implication of Hastings’ summary is that the process of translation is not a prologue. Reinvention is the story and not merely the setup. Christianity only really lives as it grows and that growth means new interactions with new languages and cultures. If we will be truly Christian we need to keep this process going. There are new encounters waiting but we can also pursue this thought close to home. Civilizations are not static. The story of the church is always moving through new territory because language and culture change over time. Are our Bibles still speaking to us in our language? Is the gospel reaching every offshoot of the expansive sprawl of our culture?
The task at hand is still the task that was first handed to us and this is the reason that I am studying the Septuagint. These Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible are a witness to the process by which we live up to our calling. In the Septuagint we can watch reinvention take place as the Old Testament was made to speak a new language (Greek) in a new culture (Hellenistic Egypt). These translations are fruitful ground for exploring our own continuing renovations.
Disciples will only be made of (and by!) all nations if the task of change and translation enables each nation to hear and receive Scripture on their own terms. The translation of the Bible is essential but it is only a beginning. After the gates open the water has to make its way throughout the extensive terrain. As it does – through change, translation, and reinvention – a distinctive church flourishes and swells. Not as an off-brand version of our own ‘real’ Christianity, but as a vital and valid expression of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Perhaps all this talk of change is a bit worrying. It is easy to imagine that reinvention might rob Christianity of its essential core. How do we distinguish what can be changed and what must be kept? The translatability of Christianity does not leave it without substance and force. Hastings also notes:
“Of course, Christianity also has its unifying characteristics. It is, above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. The centrality of the figure of Christ, however variously portrayed, holds it together, combined with the acceptance of the scriptures of the New Testament, all of which are centred upon him.”
The church is not a bulldozer but neither is it a mist which evaporates without a trace or a track left in the soil. Our task is difficult but we should also learn to see this as an opportunity. There is a compelling beauty as each new ‘translation’ of Christianity expands our vision and helps the whole church to see the whole of God and his gospel more clearly.