Is it Fair to Think of Christianity as a Western Religion?
In academic circles and in western society more broadly, there is currently a lot of antipathy toward the western intellectual tradition that has grown out of the classical Greco-Roman world and has been associated primarily with western Europe for the past millennium. Many people both inside and outside the academy find that tradition and its alleged offshoots (especially colonialism and slavery) to be at least deeply problematic, if not reprehensible. There is a major effort underway to listen to voices—past and present—from non-western cultures and other parts of the world, instead of relying on the intellectual history of the West.
This criticism of the West is often accompanied by a critical or even dismissive attitude toward Christianity, on the grounds that Christianity is a product of the West and is complicit in atrocities such as colonialism and the slave trade. It is certainly true that western Christians have been involved in atrocities, but is it really fair to reject Christianity as a whole if one rejects the crimes and excesses of the modern western world?
The short answer is “no.” First of all, one should not reject something altogether because it has been accompanied by excesses; that is the case with any world view or thought tradition. But even more, the answer is “no” because Christianity is emphatically not a western religion. For its entire history it has been present outside the West, and in particular, during the crucial formative centuries (approximately the first five or six centuries CE), virtually all of its great thinkers and writers were non-westerners.
Of course, what we mean by “the West” gets fuzzier the farther back into history we go, but for our purposes, let’s simply define “the West” as the continent that would later coalesce as Europe. Obviously, Christianity began outside the West, because Jerusalem is in western Asia. But even more important is the fact that the consensus understanding of the Christian faith was articulated almost entirely by Christians from Africa and Asia, not Europe. This consensus—what we call “historic Christian orthodoxy” or “the great tradition”—is best expressed by the Nicene Creed, a brief document expressing Christians’ allegiance to the Father, Son, and Spirit, finalized at a church council in Constantinople in 381. The thinkers who shaped this creed and who wrote a vast treasure trove of theological writing undergirding it came from Africa and Asia—Athanasius from Alexandria in Egypt, Cyril from Jerusalem, Basil and two Gregories from what is today central Turkey, etc. They all wrote in Greek (among other languages), but they should not be called Europeans or even westerners. Moreover, the Nicene Creed was approved not only by Christian groups in the Roman Empire, but also by the churches in Persia, Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia, and even India. Every group of Christians in existence—then or now—has approved this creed and the consensus understanding of the faith behind it.
In fact, even the most influential “western” thinker from those early centuries, Augustine (who lived after the time of the Nicene Creed and was not involved in shaping it), was African from what is today Algeria, not from what would later be called Europe. One has to go forward to the second Christian millennium before one finds the majority of Christians living in Europe, and before one finds the major thinkers and writers of the church to be Europeans. For the entire first half of Christian history, African and Asian Christians led the way. And thanks to the explosive growth of Christianity in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Africans and Asians, along with Latin Americans, lead the way again today.
Whatever one thinks of the western intellectual tradition associated with western Europe, one should not make the mistake of thinking that Christianity is a product of that tradition. Christianity deserves to be heard on its own terms rather than being rejected out-of-hand because of its “westernness.”
Donald Fairbairn, Ph.D. is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.
For an introductory survey of early Christian history throughout the Eastern Hemisphere:
Donald Fairbairn, The Global Church—The First Eight Centuries: From Pentecost through the Rise of Islam (Zondervan Academic)
For a more specific account of the development of “historic Christian orthodoxy”:
Donald Fairbairn and Ryan M. Reeves, The Story of Creeds and Confessions: Tracing the Development of the Christian Faith (Baker Academic)