What can we learn from the spread of Christianity in the earliest centuries?

First published on: 13th September 2018

Interested in discovering how Christianity spread in its earliest centuries, despite being an underground minority facing opposition and persecution? Or finding out what was its distinctive character in a Roman world of competing gods and idols? Rev Frances Young shares the main themes she will explore ahead of this year’s Archbishop Blanch Memorial Lecture on 17th October.

What is it about the history of early Christianity that interests and inspires you?
One might say I got into this area of research through a series of accidents, but the interest lies in the fact that this was the period in which Christians argued out what their new religion was all about. The issues and arguments I find fascinating, not least because of the similarities and differences between their general cultural and intellectual context and ours. It was a period of expansion from being a tiny underground, persecuted minority to becoming generally accepted – indeed favoured by the powers that be. So how did this happen and why? The answers could be both intriguing and relevant to us in our post-Christian world.

Without giving too much away… what are the main themes will you explore during the lecture?
I probably won’t be able to cover all the following suggestions, but here are some themes I find important. The first concerns the ways in which Christianity had purchase on society then and was able to expand: it certainly was not evangelistic campaigns – they were an underground organisation. The important factors seem to be: networking, belonging, support for the weak, healing, care for the sick, contempt for death. Secondly, I’ve been intrigued by a series of theological themes that can challenge us, e.g.:

(i) For them the notion of one God, Creator all that exists, and the nature of God’s creativity, was a live issue, and they took more than one countercultural position. This whole area is again highly controversial. The rediscovery of our creatureliness/our place in the created order seems to me to be potentially very important, not least because of the ecological threats to our planet.

(ii) Being part of something bigger than ourselves, indeed, their sense of one grand narrative from beginning to end as the key to life, the universe and everything, and the key to the meaning of scripture … that seems to me to be an important corrective to the individualism of the evangelical Gospel: human solidarity in sin, suffering and salvation.

What do you hope that attendees will take away from the lecture?
Hopefully people will gain a renewed sense of Christian identity – and a kind of ‘ecumenism over time’; as well as be encouraged by models of faith, hope and trust even in the midst of an alien cultural environment.

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