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The Medieval Church Conundrum: How the Gospel was Preserved and Spread from the Frontiers

Here’s the conundrum or riddle to be solved. What happened to the spread of the Gospel of Jesus the Christ during the unsettled conditions of both western Europe and eastern Europe? New political entities were being forged and there was confusion over the center of the Christian world. In the western Mediterranean, Rome was pre-eminent and in the eastern Mediterranean, Constantinople was dominant. In the southern Mediterranean, Alexandria in Egypt was a prominent Christian center as was Hippo in Libya. The answer is as simple as it is complex. Christian refugees from Africa carried the gospel to the frontiers, far to the northwest, beginning in 387 with those who fled toward Ireland, the Iberian peninsula, and Brittany. Refugees, fleeing from unrest in eastern Europe and Syria, pushed toward the Kurdistan mountains, Persia, Central Asia, southeastward along the Euphrates to the Persian Gulf and into the Indian subcontinent and into China. The missionary journey of Alopen from Nisibis on into China is a documented story as is also the flight of the Coptic Christians into the Ethiopian mountains and into the Sudan. The Gospel was preserved and spread from the Frontiers. From Ireland, Europe was re-evangelized. From Edessa , Armenia, Georgia, and the monastic school of Nisibis, just south of the Caspian Sea, the Gospel went north, northeast, south , and eastward along the ancient Silk Road.

For research purposes no two better treatments have been done than Thomas Cahill who wrote How the Irish Saved Civilization (Doubleday, 1995) and William H. Marnell’s Light from the West: The Irish Mission and the Emergence of Modern Europe (Seabury Press, 1978). Still another excellent source is Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (Henry Holt and Co., 1998). It would also be advantageous to consult Samuel Hugh Moffett’s two volume work A History of Christianity in Asia (Orbis Books, Vol. 1, 1996; Vol. 2, 2005).

The spread of the gospel back into Europe from the frontiers during the Medieval period makes for excellent reading. The thrust eastward into central and southern Asia out of Constantinople, Alexandria, Damascus, Edessa, and Nisibis is equally worth investigation. Just as fascinating, and little known to most western Christians, is that the initial sparks for the expansion into northwest Europe flew out of northwest Africa when Vandals invaded that area. The Christians, for the most part, went across the Straits of Gibraltar, and then northward. Other Christians from Libya and Egypt went east northeast to Antioch in Syria, Edessa in Cappadocia and north toward Armenia. They took the trade routes to Persia and beyond to central and southern Asia, eventually reaching China during Alopen’s time by the middle 700s.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2016

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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