Chapter 12: An Attempt at an Appraisal and Forecast

Christianity Through the Ages
by Kenneth Scott Latourette

Chapter 12: An Attempt at an Appraisal and Forecast

We have brought our story to the date when, because the scroll has unrolled to a point where to attempt to peer into what it next contains would be to pass from history to prophecy, we must pause. Inevitably the question arises: what of the future? Does the record justify any confident predictions? At the outset we noted that the nineteen and a half centuries we have covered are only a small fragment of the course of Homo sapiens and even of what we call civilization; when viewed against cosmic time they constitute only a fraction of a second and embrace a small planet which is a mere speck in the vast universe. We have seen that Christianity is a religion having as its heart Jesus and what His early followers remembered of His life, teachings, death, resurrection, and ascension. We have called attention to the fact that Christianity has never fully embodied what came from Jesus, that it has repeatedly been modified by its cultural environment, and that through the centuries some of its aspects have contradicted much that was at the very core of the early Christians’ memories of Jesus. Again and again we have remarked that some of the chronic evil seemingly inseparably associated with mankind has displayed several of its colossal dimensions among peoples who have called themselves Christian, but that repeatedly efforts to counter this evil, some of them at least partly successful, have been put forth by men and women inspired and sustained by Christian faith.

We have suggested that this contrast was to be expected from what Christians believe to have been the incarnation of the Eternal God. The Eternal God, so they maintain, coming in weakness in Christ so provoked the evil in man that the official representatives of as high a religion and of as good a government as the world had known committed the greatest crime in history, the crucifixion of the Son of God. We have reminded ourselves that Paul saw in the cross both the weakness and the power of God and the seeming foolishness and yet the wisdom of God. We have given as a possible explanation that God’s purpose in creating man has been, not to produce automata, with no freedom to do other than what is determined by their heredity and environment, but to give birth to sons. To do this He has granted men a degree of free will, limited but authentic, and by respecting that free will in the apparent weakness of the incarnation and the cross and by a combination of judgment and love which has accompanied men, both as individuals and in human society, He has sought to win their willing repentance and love. To those who do "receive Him," He has given "power to become the sons of God." But that "power" always works within individuals who still suffer from the limitations inherited from man’s long past. The greatest of those who most nearly approximate to the ideal seen in Christ are not perfect. Often, as we have noted in those whom the Church regards as saints, contradictions are vividly seen of what God wishes them to be. They are in via towards the "high calling of God in Christ Jesus" and, as Paul humbly recognized in himself, have not yet "attained" but are pressing "toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus." This, as at least this author sees it, is the Christian understanding of the human record. Non-Christians and many Christians would not view it in this fashion. Here is, frankly, the conviction from which the preceding pages have been written. We have attempted to limit ourselves to facts which are there for all to see, but our choice and presentation of facts have been governed, consciously or unconsciously, by this basic conviction.

In the course of our story we have seen that Christianity has never been even nominally accepted by more than a minority of mankind. In the first five centuries that minority was almost entirely in a small portion of the earth’s surface, embraced by the shores and islands of the Mediterranean and some outlying districts and containing only a minority of even civilized mankind. When what was then "Christendom" disintegrated from internal weaknesses which Christianity did not fully remedy, and by pressures from invaders, it shrank to about half its former size. It was then slowly enlarged by the "conversion" of rough barbarians from the North. For several centuries "Christendom" embraced only the western tip of a peninsula of Eurasia and a few dwindling fragments in Western. and Central Asia and North Africa which had not fully succumbed to Islam. Although "Christendom" was partly molded by what came from Christ and His apostles, much of its pre-Christian past was painfully evident, and neutral observers would not have adjudged its civilization to be as high as that in some sections of Asia. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries even that "Christendom" was further reduced by fresh advances of Islam and by internal corruption. But beginning in the last decades of the fifteenth century a vast expansion began, partly through attempts of minorities to bring "Christendom" to a nearer approximation to the standards seen in Christ and partly by explorations, conquests, and migrations which within the brief course of four centuries brought all the earth’s surface under the control of "Christian" peoples. Much of that expansion, both internal and external, was marked by heightened contradictions of what was set forth in the Gospel. Yet efforts emerging from the Christian faith were conspicuous and were partly successful in resolving those contradictions in such fashion as to bring individuals and the nascent world community more nearly to conformity to the demands of Christ. In the twentieth century the contradictions were heightened. Within "Christendom" emerged forces, notably war, Communism, and secularism, which threatened to erase whatever remained of its Christian faith, to make the mounting impact of its culture on the rest of mankind destructive of all religion, and, through devices created by "Christians," either to erase life on the planet or to plunge such of mankind as survived back into pre-civilized barbarism. Yet Christianity became more widely represented and more deeply rooted in more peoples than it or any other religion had ever been, and Christians tried to counter the evils of the era made more colossal by forces which were a perversion of the energy released by the Gospel.

What would the future hold? Was the dominance of Western "Christian" civilization a passing phase of mankind’s long pilgrimage? Would Christianity, closely associated with that dominance, continue to spread, be brought nearer to the standards and the hope set forth in Christ, and ultimately prevail? To the last question individual Christians throughout the centuries and especially in the nineteenth century would have given a confident affirmative. Even in the twentieth century, when many in "Christendom" talked of the "post-Christian era," suffered from a loss of nerve, and were under a dark cloud of pessimism, a Pope dedicated the entire human race to Christ and some Roman Catholics and Protestants still took seriously the early Christian dream of making disciples of all nations, baptizing them, and teaching them to observe all that Christ commanded.

The historian as a historian makes no prediction. He can simply point out the contrasting trends. As a Christian he finds no certain answer in the Bible. He remembers that the Old and New Testaments speak of a climactic end of human history, that much in the New Testament identifies the end with the second coming of Christ, and that an early Christian prayer was "even so come, Lord Jesus." As a Christian he also recalls that again and again in the Scriptures, in one form of words or another, confidence is expressed that it is God’s purpose to sum up all things in Christ, both in heaven and on earth. By faith he is confident that we live in a universe created by God through the Word become flesh in Christ, and that God is pursuing elsewhere as well as on this planet the methods which He has employed with man. He believes that God’s might and love as seen in the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection infill the entire universe, both that small fragment of it dimly seen by men through their science, a science most extensively developed in "Christendom," and the vast world where those who have passed beyond our present sight and entered, by His grace, eternal life continue to grow in their knowledge of and fellowship with the Triune God. The Christian recalls the hope that in one of his inspired moments Paul declared: "the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God . . . because the creation [and that must mean the entire universe] will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the liberty of the children of God." The Christian also recalls the varied ways that many of his predecessors have envisioned the forms which that consummation will take. He remembers that even those with whom Jesus talked in the forty days after His resurrection could think of the Kingdom of God --the burden of His discourse -- only as the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Jesus by-passed that interpretation, saying that it was not for them to know "times or seasons which the Father has fixed by His own authority," but that they were to receive power and were to be His witnesses to the ends of the earth. Elsewhere, we are told, Jesus promised those who sought to obey His breath-taking commission that He would be with them "to the close of the age."

That age may seem evil and the close be either at hand or far off, but we as Christians must continue to witness, seeking to bring all men to discipleship and to lead them to obedience to what Jesus taught His disciples. We must do it humbly, recognizing the congenital sin from which we are not yet fully freed, but determined to abound in the work of the Lord, confident that our labor is not in vain if it be in the Lord.