May 01, 2014
Dr. Fairbairn authors a series about why evangelicals should care about the early church. If you are just now joining us, you can read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here; Part 5 here; Part 6 here; Part 7 here; Part 8 here; Part 9 here; Part 10 here; Part 11 here; Part 12 here; Part 13 here; Part 14 here; Part 15 here.
It is often said—correctly—that the Battle of Tours in 732 changed the course of history. It took place exactly a century after Muhammad’s death, during the great wave of Arab expansion that re-drew the political and religious map of the world. Arab Muslim forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar into Spain and then over the Pyrenees into France. Had they been able to continue their advance, they would likely have overrun all of Europe, but they were defeated by Merovingian forces from northern Europe under the command of Charles Martel and forced back into Spain. Charles Martel’s grandson Charlemagne would go on to solidify his control over the region and start a great renaissance of learning in the ninth century, and Western Europe would begin its slow rise to world prominence.
As we tell that familiar story, we often forget that another, equally fateful battle took place at about the same time. In 717–18 in Constantinople, Byzantine Emperor Leo III and his forces narrowly defeated Arab invaders, forcing them back into what is today Turkey. The close call led to an enormous amount of social and theological soul-searching in Byzantium (among other things, the Iconoclastic Controversy arose out of the ideological battle with the Muslims), but it would be more than seven centuries before Muslims (Turks, not Arabs) would conquer Constantinople in 1453. The siege of Constantinople in 717–18 could easily lay claim to having “saved” Europe just as much as the Battle of Tours fifteen years later.
But not long after the Arabs failed to take Europe from either the West or the East, a third, far greater clash took place halfway around the known world. For we need to remember that the two great powers in the world in the eighth century were the Arabs and the Chinese, and the Arabs were much more interested in expanding eastward along the Silk Road than westward or northward. (In fact, it is likely that part of the reason they failed to take Europe was because they devoted much more energy to taking Asia.) After the resolution of an internal conflict brought unity to the Arab forces, they squared off with the Tang Chinese army in 751 at the Battle of Talas, in what is today Kirghizstan. The Arabs were victorious, and China began its slow decline from world power to isolationist kingdom. The Arabs solidified their hold on most of Central Asia, and the region became solidly Muslim.
These THREE almost contemporary battles—not just the one we Westerners are familiar with—changed the course of history. But what about CHURCH history? The picture is varied and complicated, but it may not be too much of an over-simplification to say that the churches in most parts of the world at that time were too closely tied to the local kingdoms. In Western Europe, the church rode the coattails of the victorious Merovingian kingdom to increase its stature and prominence. At the same time, it is surely fair to say that the church adopted too many of the traits of the worldly kingdom, leading to an increasingly militant form of Christianity that would ultimately produce the Crusades. In China (yes, there WAS a church in China then), the church was equally tied to the local kingdom and suffered greatly as the kingdom became more isolationist and xenophobic in the ninth and tenth centuries. By the year 1000, Christianity had disappeared from China.
In between Europe and China, though, something different began to happen. In the Middle East and Egypt, the churches learned to adapt to a lack of power, to a second-class status in society, and for the most part, those churches have endured and maintained their witness during the long centuries of Islamic governmental control. They suffered through the vicious Islamic backlash against Christians in response to the Crusades and the even more vicious Islamic purges of the 20th and 21st centuries. Those churches have accumulated many problems in their checkered history, and they are far from perfect. But they have also learned something about what it means to bear witness to the gospel through suffering. As Christians in the West face the reality of our declining influence on an increasingly post-Christian society, perhaps we will find that the churches that have stood their ground in hostile territory for over a millennium have something to teach us today.
Dr. Donald Fairbairn is the Robert E. Cooley Professor of Early Christianity. His responsibilities include further developing the Robert C. Cooley Center for the Study of Early Christianity at the Charlotte campus, which explores the historical foundations of the Christian faith.
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