He spake also this parable; A certain man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came and sought fruit thereon, and found none. Then said he unto the dresser of his vineyard, Behold, these three years I come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and find none: cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?
The Contingent Existence of Europe
If Europe truly exists for the sake of the Gospel and the Christian faith, and is upon that basis alone whereby it is founded, then the existence of Europe is perilously dependent upon God’s good graces. Its existence is wholly contingent upon God’s mere pleasure. The question which we need to ask ourselves is therefore, does Europe in fact please God?
Suppose we take our evaluation of Europe’s performance from the end of the Gospel of Matthew, the Great Commission. Thus, Europe’s existence would be solely justified by its function in advancing the preaching of the Gospel and the making of disciples of all nations. Whatever other this-worldly benefits which European Christendom brings to the world, it is this ultimate spiritual end whereby we shall evaluate its theological worithness. We shall therefore ask whether Europe deserves to exist based solely upon its ability to fulfill the end of spreading the Gospel.
The Impediment of the Gospel’s Spread by European Christendom’s Sheer Existence
If we identify the start of European Christendom with Constantine’s patronage of the Church, then it seems that Europe’s existence is problematic to the Gospel. When Constantine began to patronise the Church and so began joining the cause of the Gospel with the Roman Empire, this lead rapidly to the extermination of Christianity in lands beyond the Roman Empire, especially in empires who are rivals with Rome who accused the Christians in their land for being Roman agents. As Philip Jenkins notes:
When Christians traveled beyond the Roman frontier, they had to leave the protection of the empire, but the very fact of imperial power could be a mixed blessing. Already by the third century, Persia had a substantial Christian presence, concentrated in the south of the country, along the Gulf. Once Rome became Christian, the link with that froeign government made life difficult for Christians living under the rule of the rival superpower of the time. (From the third century through the seventh, Persia was ruled by the powerful Sassanian dynasty.) The Persians responded by executing hundreds of bishops and clergy in a persecution at least as murderous as anything ever inflicted by pagan Rome: in the fourth century, the Persians killed sixteen thousand Christian belivers in a forty-year period.
By “establishing” Christianity with a certain particular political or civic power, the Kingdom which is not of this world becomes entangled with the disputes of this world. Constantinian establishment of Christianity may have meant worldly comforts for Roman Christians, but it also meant the destruction and entropy of Christians who did not live under the Roman Empire who suddenly found their faith caught up in worldly politics. It also threatened to narrow the scope of Christianity to that which exists only within the boundaries of the Roman Empire.
The Historical Shortcomings of European Evangelism
The record of European evangelism is mixed. Because the boundaries of the Roman Empire and the Church were entangled, often the boundaries of the Church could only be expanded with the boundaries of the Empire. Missions were often only effective when headed by imperial power. To be sure that didn’t mean that there was no evangelism or spread of the Gospel beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. The Arian missions to the Goths occurred beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Assyrian Church of the East, or the Nestorians, which spread throughout the Islamic lands once rivalled both Latin and Orthodox Christianity in size and influence (see my notes here). However the Nestorian Church, which was under the protection and patronage of the Muslim Caliphates, spread despite Europe and not because of it. They needed to assure their Islamic overlords that they were “on their side” by celebrating every defeat of European Christendom by the Islamic forces that they might continue the work of the Gospel in the Middle East.
This situation was largely unchanged throughout the later part of European history. The spread of Christianity globally was often accompanied by colonial power. The two greatest attempt by Europeans to spread Christianity without imperial power, China and Japan, failed spectacularly. Because of the inexperience of Europeans of evangelising without the benefit of European Christendom and the substantive entangling of their own culture with the Gospel, they either erred on the side of creating little Europes in Asia or by the opposite tendency to cave into everything local just to win a nominal congregation. The former tendency lead to the Japanese mass persecution of the Church, who accused them of being European imperialists seeking to subject Japan to Europe, the latter tendency led to the sub-Christian Gospel in China which was practically ashamed of the Crucifixion and which mission the Pope was eventually forced to pull the plug.
It seems therefore that the entanglement of Europe with the Gospel unnecessarily burdens and impedes the work of Gospel with its “European” character. Personally I think it is plausible that the unusual and sudden rise of European power after the Reformation, when it had been civilisationally dwarfed by the Middle East and China throughout history, might be due to God prudentially deciding to grant the Europeans some measure worldly power that they might, through their imperialistic tendencies, be able to disperse the Gospel globally.
The Present Day Burdens of the “Western Link” of Christianity
The difficulties of Western evangelism in the past was at least partially overcome by their sheer material and imperial power. Today however, the West has not only ceased to be actively advancing the Gospel globally, they have even become a deadweight to Christians outside of the West. The Western legacy of Christianity has become a rock of offence and a burden. It seems to me that every corruption, liberalisation and degeneracy of the West flows directly into the East through highly “Westernised” churches.
One of the great ironies about Western narratives about how Protestantism lead to the liberalisation of the Church compared to Roman Catholicism, which is supposed to be a traditional or conservative bulwark, is that the situation is reversed in the East.
To use my own country as an example, the Roman Catholic Church is generally more shockingly liberal than the Protestant church. The Roman clerics here are generally infected with the worse excesses of Vatican II and liberation theology without the checks of traditional European Christianity. I’ve attended Bible studies where the Roman priest refuses to admit that the resurrection actually occurred instead of being merely something which happens as a “resurrection experience”, a stance unthinkable for a Protestant pastor here. The Roman Catholic Church was also the potential conduit of the entry for the leftist liberation theology into Singapore and was only stopped when the authoritarian Prime Minister at that time, Lee Kuan Yew, detained without trial several papist labour workers to the consternation of the Roman archbishop. (He even resisted initially in support of them until Lee Kuan Yew met with him privately and he backed down from the confrontation.)
To give a more recent example: There was a great controversy over the homosexuality issue in Singapore and for some reason this time the government let the public square slug it out. So there were many mainline Protestant denominations publicly holding the line and the controversy got quite intense. Suddenly out of the blue, the Roman Catholic archbishop stabs the Protestants in the back by publicly declaring that we should all be more tolerant and even brought up the idea of celibate same-sex relationships.
I’m sure the true papists would say how the Archbishop’s advice was all dandy and square with some niggardly point of canon law. But it scandalised the Church here to no end and it was quite simply a betrayal of the rest of us for the papists to break ranks just to portray themselves as the “nice guy” compared to us nasty homophobic Protestants and to ingratiate themselves to public opinion while sneaking degeneracy unheard of into Singapore.
Personally I was truly quite pissed by that piece of Machiavellian treachery by the Roman Church just to score a political advantage.
This is not to say that there are no degenerate Protestant churches or sects in Asia. Ironically however it is precisely because of the Roman Catholic Church “living links” to the West whereby the infection of Western corruption can spread more easily through them than via a decentralised Protestantism which is able to contain and quarantine the effects of a degenerated Western Christianity to the West. We could simply dismiss every theological madness of Western Protestantism by simply saying, it’s a Western thing. But if a European Roman Catholic cardinal says something shocking, the Roman Catholic Church are all tied down together.
Thus, it seems that not only has the Western legacy of Christianity has long ago ceased to be of service to the Gospel, now it has become a positive deadweight to it. It seems the Western entanglement of the Gospel, if not the very sheer existence of Europe itself, has increased the burdens of our Gospel preaching. We need not only to fend off the necessarily links of Western degenercy and the Gospel, we need to fight against the very West itself. The ideal, or rather idol, of the West, with its aura, or rather illusion, of material superiority as well as glory has caused the more Westernised Asians to clamour after their godless secularism, liberalism, and libertine of sexual mores, as an example of emulation for us in the East.
Conclusion: “Cut it down; why cumbereth it the ground?”
These of course are mere theological speculations, for who indeed could discern the counsels of the Lord? And we of course should not discount the unexpected, perhaps a miraculous revival and recovery of Western Christianity. The Lord may do a new and unexpected work in the West.
However, it seems very clear to me that the West has given ample cause for God to decimate it a thousand times over. The marriage of the Gospel with Europe, far from being a match made in heaven, may now be a contamination of the Gospel, and God may now judge it more expedient to purge the Gospel of its European taint by reducing Europe to dust.
If there is any merit to the saying that “those whom the gods wish to destroy, first they drive mad”, then the present civic madness of the West seem to indicate a divine intention to obliterate Europe from the map.
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