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World Christianity: Its Implications for History, Religious Studies, and Theology

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 March 2013

Peter C. Phan
Georgetown University


The paper traces the emergence of the concept of “World Christianity” to designate a new academic discipline beyond ecumenical and missiological discussions. It then elaborates the implications of “World Christianity” for the History of Christianity in contrast to Church History and for the study of Christianity as a “world religion.” The paper argues for an expansion of the “cartography” and “topography” of Church History to take into account the contributions of ecclesiastically marginalized groups and neglected charismatic/pentecostal activities. Furthermore, it is urged that in the study of Christianity as a world religion greater attention be given to how local communities have received and transformed the imported Christianities, the role of popular religiosity, and the presence of Evangelical/Pentecostal Churches. Finally, it is suggested that “World Christianity” requires the expansion of theological method and reformulation of some key Christian doctrines.

Copyright © The College Theology Society 2012

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1 Lamin Sanneh proposes a distinction between “global Christianity” and “world Christianity.” The former refers to Christianity throughout the globe that still reflects the forms and patterns of European Christianity; the latter to the Christianity that has been received by and indigenized in different locations, without all the trappings of Western Christianity. See his Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel Beyond the West (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), 2223Google Scholar. Here I use “World Christianity” in the latter sense.

2 Just a few examples at random: Center for World Christianity (New York Theological Seminary); The Center for the Study of Global Christianity (Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary); Center for Global Christianity and Mission (Boston University); Center for the Study of World Christianity (University of Edinburgh); The Nagel Institute for World Christianity (Calvin College).

3 E.g., The Journal of World Christianity; Studies in World Christianity; Missions and World Christianity. Palgrave Publications is publishing a new series of monographs on World Christianity with Dale Irvin and Peter Phan as general editors.

4 On the relationship between Christendom and World Christianity, see Phan, Peter C., “A New Christianity, but What Kind?” in Landmark Essays in Mission and World Christianity, ed. Gallagher, Robert L. and Hertig, Paul (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009), 201–18Google Scholar, at 202–4. While Christendom as a socio-political and ecclesiastical regime is dead, it lingers on under the label “Judeo-Christian” used to describe Western civilization.

5 Thangaraj, T., “An Overview: Asian and Oceanic Christianity in an Age of World Christianity,” in Asian and Oceanic Christianities in Conversation: Exploring Theological Identities at Home and in Diaspora, ed. Kim, Heup Young, Fumitaka, , and Morimoto, Anri (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2011), 1121Google Scholar, at 11–12.

6 New York: Friendship Press, 1929.

7 Van Dusen, H. P., World Christianity: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (Nashville: Abingdon, 1947)Google Scholar.

8 Latourette, K. S., Toward a World Christian Fellowship (New York: Association Press, 1938)Google Scholar and The Emergence of a World Christian Community (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1949)Google Scholar.

9 Van der Bent, A. J., God So Loves the World: The Immaturity of World Christianity (Madras: The Christian Literature Society, 1977Google Scholar; Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979).

10 The recent literature on inculturation and contextualization is immense, particularly by African and Asian authors. For a helpful historical overview, see Hunt, Robert A., The Gospel Among the Nations: A Documentary History of Inculturation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)Google Scholar.

11 Thangaraj, , “An Overview,” 1517Google Scholar.

12 For an informative overview, see Kollman, Paul V., “After Church History? Writing the History of Christianity from a Global Perspective,” Horizons 31/2 (2004): 322–42CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

13 González, Justo, The Changing Shape of Church History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2002)Google Scholar; idem, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper, 1985); idem, History of Christian Thought, 3 vols. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1969–1975).

14 Walls, Andrew, The Missionary Movement in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996)Google Scholar; idem, The Cross-Cultural Process in Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001).

15 Sanneh, Lamin, Translating the Message: The Missionary Impact on Culture (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1989)Google Scholar; idem, Whose Religion Is Christianity? The Gospel beyond the West (Grand rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003); idem, Disciples of All Nations: Pillars of World Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007).

16 Irvin, Dale, Christian Histories, Christian Traditioning: Rendering Accounts (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1998)Google Scholar; Irvin, Dale and Sunquist, Scott W., History of the World Christian Movement,. vol. 1: Earliest Christianity to 1453 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2001)Google Scholar.

17 See his edited work, Enlarging the Story: Perspectives on Writing World Christian History (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002)Google Scholar.

18 Noll, Mark A., The New Shape of World Christianity: How American Experience Reflects Global Faith (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009)Google Scholar.

19 Jenkins, Philip, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008); idem, The Lost History of Christianity: The Thousand-Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia—and How It Died (New York: HarperOne, 2008).

20 The best overview of this demographic shift is given in Johnson, Todd M. and Ross, Kenneth R., eds., Atlas of Global Christianity 1910–2010 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009)Google Scholar. A helpful documentary sourcebook is Koschorke, Klaus, Ludwig, Frieder, and Delgado, Mariano, eds., A History of Christianity in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, 1450–1990: A Documentary Sourcebook (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007)Google Scholar.

21 Here the works of Dana L. Robert on the role of women are exemplary and path-breaking.

22 Jenkins's analysis of the southward shift, albeit rich and insightful, should not be taken without critique. See Phan, “A New Christianity, but What Kind?”.

23 See Thangaraj, , “An Overview,” 1314Google Scholar; Kollman, , “After Church History?”, 336–37Google Scholar.

24 See Masuzawa, Tomoko, The Invention of World Religions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

25 Ibid., 1–2.

26 In fact, as Masuzawa points out, Max Weber has no use for the distinction between “world religion” and “national religion” since from the sociological point of view, all religions are particular, despite their claim to universality and their evangelistic mandate (ibid., 28–29).

27 Among the best recent texts on World Christianity are Irvin, and Sunquist, , History of the World Christian Movement, vol. 1Google Scholar; Irvin, Dale T., Sunquist, Scott W. and Burrows, William, History of the World Christian Movement, vol. 2: Modern Christianity from 1454–1800 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2012)Google Scholar; Noll, The New Shape of World Christianity; Davis, Noel and Conway, Martin, World Christianity in the 20th Century (London: SCM, 2008)Google Scholar; Jacobsen, Douglas, The World's Christians: Who They Are, Where They Are, and How They Got There (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)Google Scholar; Daughrity, Dyron B., The Changing World of Christianity: The Global History of a Borderless Religion (New York: Peter Lang, 2010)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, Church History: Five Approaches to a Global Discipline (New York: Peter Lang, 2012).

28 See Leo, XIII's encyclical Aeterni Patris (1879), Scholar, which promotes a renaissance of Thomism.

29 An example is the sixteenth-century controversy known as de Auxiliis between the Jesuit Luis de Molina (1535–1600) and the Dominican Domingo Bañez (1528–1604) concerning the relation between divine grace and human freedom, with the former privileging human freedom, the latter divine grace; the former accusing the latter of Lutheranism and the latter accusing the former of Pelagianism. In 1607 Pope Paul V decreed the end of the debate and forbade one side to accuse the other of heresy (DH 1997).

30 On this, see Phan, Peter C., “Doing Theology, Asian Style,” In Our Own Tongues: Perspectives from Asia on Mission and Inculturation (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004), 174200Google Scholar.

31 An important contribution to this theme is Heim's, MarkSalvations: Truth and Difference in Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1995)Google Scholar; see also idemThe Depth of Riches: A Trinitarian Theology of Religious Ends (Grand Rapid, MI: Eerdmans, 2001).

32 For an overview of contemporary theologies of religions, see Knitter, Paul, Introducing Theologies of Religion (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2002)Google Scholar; Knitter, Paul, ed., The Myth of Religious Superiority: A Multifaith Exploration (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2005)Google Scholar.

33 From the Roman Catholic perspective, see the works of D'Costa, Gavin, The Meetings of Religions and the Trinity (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2000)Google Scholar; idem, Christianity and World Religions: Disputed Questions in the Theology of Religions (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009). On the Pentecostal side, see Yong, Amos, Beyond the Impasse: Toward a Pneumatological Theology of Religions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003)Google Scholar; idem, Discerning the Spirit(s): A Pentecostal-Charismatic Contribution to Christian Theology of Religions (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2000).

34 Subordinationism as applied to the Logos (e.g., in Arianism) was rejected at the council of Nicea (325) and the divinity of the Spirit was affirmed at the council of Constantinople (381). However, the Spirit is practically subordinated to the Son, as his/her “procession” from the Father “and from the Son” (Filioque) strongly suggests, whereas he/she has no role to play in the “generation” of the Son from the Father (there is no Spirituque). Furthermore, the descending analogy for the Trinitarian processions, that is, from the Father to the Son to the Spirit, reinforces the subordination of the Spirit to the Logos. There results an imbalance in the eternal, transcendent or immanent Trinity that compromises the trinitarian relations in the Trinity. This imbalance translates into the subordination of the Spirit to Jesus in the history of salvation in which the Spirit is thought to be incapable of acting not only apart from and independently of but also outside of Jesus.

35 For an elaboration of this view, see Phan, Peter C., “Jacques Dupuis and Asian Theologies of Religious Pluralism,” in: Kendall, Daniel and O'Collins, Gerald, eds., In Many and Diverse Ways: In Honor of Jacques Dupuis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2003), 7285Google Scholar and “Christ in the Many and Diverse Religions: An Interreligious Christology,” in: Denny, Christopher S. and McMahon, Christopher, eds., Finding Salvation in Christ: Essays on Christology and Soteriology in Honor of William P. Loewe. (Eugene, Oregon: Pickwick, 2011), 307318Google Scholar.

36 Peelman, Achiel, Les nouveaux défis de l'inculturation (Ottawa: Novalis, 2007), 52Google Scholar.

37 For an excellent presentation of the theology of the church from the global perspective, see Gaillardetz, Richard, Ecclesiology for a Global Church: A People Called and Sent (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010)Google Scholar.

38 On the hermeneutics of Vatican II, see the historically informed works by O'Malley, John, especially his What Happened at Vatican II (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010)Google Scholar and ‘The Hermeneutic of Reform’: A Historical Analysis,” Theological Studies 73 (2012): 517–46CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Rush, Ormond, Still Interpreting Vatican II: Some Hermeneutical Principles (New York: Paulist, 2004)Google Scholar; idem, “Toward a Comprehensive Interpretation of the Council and Its Doctrine,” Theological Studies 73 (2012): 547–69; Faggioli, Massimo, Vatican II: The Battle for Meaning (New York: Paulist, 2012)Google Scholar.

39 Paul, Pope John II, Encyclical “On the Permanent Validity of the Church's Missionary Mandate” (Redemptoris Missio), December 7, 1990, Scholar.

40 Among these other documents, see the Pontifical Council for Inter-Religious Dialogue's statement “Dialogue and Proclamation: Reflection And Orientations on Interreligious Dialogue and the Proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus,” May 19, 1991,, and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's, Declaration “On the Unicity and Salvific Universality of Jesus Christ and the Church” (Dominus Iesus), August 6, 2000, Scholar

41 Contemporary literature on mission is legion. Among the best English-language works are Bevans, Stephen B. and Schroeder, Roger P., Constants in Context: A Theology of Mission for Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004)Google Scholar and Prophetic Dialogue: Reflections on Christian Mission Today (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2011)Google Scholar.

42 See Davis, and Conway, , World Christianity in the 20th Century, 288–93Google Scholar.

43 This essay is a revised version of the lecture given at the University of California in San Diego on October 13, 2011 in honor of the Rev. Eugene Burke, CSP (1911–84), for whom the Lecture on Religion and Society is named and whose life has made an enormous contribution to the Catholic Church. I am proud to say that I share with Fr. Eugene Burke two things: professorship at the Catholic University of America and presidency of the Catholic Theological Society of America, which he co-founded.