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  • Writer's pictureKirk Bagby

Review of "The Global Church"

Donald Fairbairn provides a succinct history of Christianity in the patristic period in his book The Global Church: The First Eight Centuries.[1] He divides the patristic period into three sections: “the church in the pagan world (ca. 30-ca. 300),” “the Christian kingdoms prior to Islam (ca. 300-ca. 600), and the church during “the rise of Islam” (ca. 600-ca. 800) (Fairbairn, xv). While many historians conclude the patristic period much sooner (Fairbairn, xiv), Fairbairn believes that 800 is a “better date for ending the story of the patristic church” because it includes the rise of Islam and all seven of the “so-called Ecumenical Councils” (Fairbairn, xiv-xv).

Chapter one describes the cultural and political setting of the first century world in which Jesus was born. Transportation and communication were easy due to Roman roads. Global trade was common, and much religious interaction was present throughout the Roman Empire (Fairbairn, 16-24).

Chapter two begins by describing the spread of Christianity to the Jewish people in Jerusalem after Pentecost. Then, due to persecution in Jerusalem, Christianity spread to Syria, Anatolia, and possibly beyond the Black Sea (Fairbairn, 29-35). To the west, Paul, Peter, and others took the gospel to Macedonia, Rome, and possibly to Spain (Fairbairn, 35-39). Also, Christianity reached Egypt and northwest Africa by the mid-first century and possibly to Edessa in the east by the end of the century (Fairbairn, 39-42). While there are numerous extrabiblical accounts of apostolic ministry, “we cannot and should not accept as history all of the postbiblical accounts of apostolic ministry” (Fairbairn, 47).

Chapter three describes Christianity under the pagan Roman society in the first three centuries. Although persecution did occur, “there were many periods in the first three centuries and many places in the Roman world when/where there was virtually no ill treatment of Christians” (Fairbairn, 49). Some notable persecutions include 64-68 in Rome under Nero, the mid-90’s in Anatolia under Domitian, 177 in Gaul under Marcus Aurelius, and 202-203 under Septimius Severus (Fairbairn, 54). These persecutions were somewhat isolated and short lived. However, more widespread persecutions occurred under Decius in 250-251 and Valerian in 257-260 (Fairbairn, 56-57). In the second century, Christians such as Justin Martyr and Tertullian wrote apologies defending the faith from misunderstandings (Fairbairn, 55). Also in the second century, Christians were present in Persia under the Parthians and the Sassanids (Fairbairn, 58-63).

Chapter four depicts the common practices of early Christian worship. The earliest postbiblical Christian writing, the Didache, stressed the importance of worship on Sundays as well as fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays (Fairbairn, 68-69). The sacraments of baptism and the Eucharist were especially important in early Christian worship. Liturgies changed from informal to more formal from the first to the third centuries. Church services often contained two parts: “the service of the word and the service of the table” (Fairbairn, 80). Fairbairn notes that there was a variety of ways in which Christians worshiped in the early centuries of the church (84-85). Later, the church settled into long lasting routines involving “three great structures: the episcopacy (the office of bishop), the creeds (Christian professions of faith in God), and the canon (the list of which books were considered to be scriptural)” (Fairbairn, 87). This is described in chapter five.

Chapter six introduces the first heresies in the church. Fairbairn defines a heresy as “a mistake on a point so central to the Christian faith that salvation is threatened” (Fairbairn, 105). He says that heresies are not always deliberate attempts to distort the faith but also that “heresy and orthodoxy are not arbitrary” (Fairbairn, 105). Heresies can yield benefits by encouraging believers to articulate the doctrines of the Bible more clearly and accurately (Fairbairn, 105). Some common heresies in the second and third centuries include “dualistic heresies” such as Gnosticism and Marcionism and “heresies of relationship” such as Ebionitism and Modalism (Fairbairn, 106-115). Also, Fairbairn argues that Montanism is not properly called a heresy, although some Montanists did occasionally stray from Scripture (Fairbairn, 115-117).

Chapter seven mentions the first church schism which resulted from the issue of what to do with those who had lapsed during the Decian persecution (Fairbairn, 124-125). Some church leaders were gracious and forgiving towards the lapsed, while others like Novatian were strict (Fairbairn, 124-126). Novatian’s followers were even more strict after his death, and they split from the church (Fairbairn, 128-129).

Chapter eight begins Fairbairn’s second section which describes the “Christian Kingdoms Prior to Islam (CA. 300-CA. 600)” (Fairbairn, 135). Within twenty-five years, “the whole Christian world except for Persia (and India, if Christianity was present there by this point) went from living in pagan regimes to dwelling in Christian ones” (Fairbairn, 137-138). The kingdoms of Armenia, Georgia, and Aksum (Ethiopia) all became Christin (Fairbairn, 138-146). In the Roman Empire, persecution was intense in areas such as Anatolia, Palestine, and Egypt in the early fourth century (Fairbairn, 148). But in 324, Constantine became the ruler of the whole empire, and “in the Roman Empire, Christianity changed more dramatically through Constantine’s rise to power than at any other point in history” (Fairbairn, 151).

Chapter nine describes Christians in kingdoms that remained pagan such as Persia and India. While Christians had often lived in peace in Persia prior to Constantine’s conversion, Shapur II began a fierce persecution of Christians in Persia in 339 (Fairbairn, 155-156). Churches were destroyed, and thousands were executed until 363 when persecution slackened after Persia defeated Julian in battle (Fairbairn, 158). In 345 some four-hundred Jewish Christians, who may have been fleeing Shapur’s persecution, arrived in India on the Malabar coast, and Christianity began to expand in India (Fairbairn, 164-166).

Chapter ten mentions the second great church split involving the Donatists in Latin North Africa in the fourth century. Like the third century Novatian schism, this schism resulted from conflicts following the effects of persecution and those who had lapsed because of it (Fairbairn, 170-173). Constantine intervened in this conflict by siding against the Donatists (Fairbairn, 174-175). Nevertheless, the Donatists grew in Latin North Africa (Fairbairn, 175-176).

Chapter eleven explains the rise of monasticism, “the longest-lasting, largest, most varied, and perhaps most misunderstood parachurch movement in Christian history” (Fairbairn, 183). Asceticism was practiced by pagans, especially in dualist religions that were antagonistic toward the material world (Fairbairn, 183-184). There were Christian views such as Montanism and Origenism which influenced Christian asceticism while affirming God’s good creation, and by the fourth century many men and women left society to live in the deserts (Fairbairn, 184-185). Both persecution and the pagan influx into the church after Constantine’s conversion compelled many Christians to leave their cities and live in the desert, especially in Egypt (Fairbairn, 185-186). Two different monastic lifestyles emerged. Some people lived in near isolation while others lived in communities (Fairbairn, 186-191).

Chapter twelve describes the Arian controversy in the fourth century. Arius believed that Jesus was a created being and was not co-eternal with the Father (Fairbairn, 206-207). Bishop Alexander of Alexandria stood against this view of the Trinity (Fairbairn, 207). Constantine called a council in Nicaea in 325 which condemned Arianism; however, Arians would later reinterpret the council’s conclusion (Fairbairn, 208-210). In 381 Emperor Theodosius called the Council of Constantinople which reaffirmed the Nicene faith and the full deity of the Holy Spirit (Fairbairn, 281). While many Christian kingdoms affirmed the Nicene Creed, some Christians, such as those in the Gothic tribes, remained Arian (Fairbairn, 221-223). Fairbairn calls this controversy “likely the most complicated and confusing theological dispute in Christian history” (Fairbairn, 224).

After this controversy, issues regarding Jesus’s incarnation emerged around the turn of the fifth century including Apollinarianism and Nestorianism, (Fairbairn, 225-230). In 431 the Council of Ephesus yielded an agreement on how to describe Jesus’s incarnation; however, confusion caused further conflicts (Fairbairn, 235-237). Later, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 yielded a definition that clarified Jesus’s two natures and one personhood (Fairbairn, 239-241), but conflicts over the Chalcedonian Definition created schisms in the church in Persia (Fairbairn, 243-248). Also, conflict occurred in the Mediterranean world, and the Second Council of Constantinople was held in 533 to affirm the four previous councils (Fairbairn, 248-256). Nevertheless, Oriental Orthodoxy split from the rest of the church (Fairbairn, 256-260).

Chapter fifteen describes the drift between the Mediterranean churches in the West and East. Although their split did not finally occur until after the turn of the millennium, differences in theology, politics, and church organization can be seen in the fifth and sixth centuries. From that time on, churches in the East and West began operating independently (Fairbairn, 263-282).

Chapter sixteen explains the importance of monasticism in the spread of the church from the fifth to the seventh centuries. Monastics took Christianity to Nubia in Africa, Northern Europe (including Ireland, Scotland, and England), and China (Fairbairn, 283-296).

In chapter seventeen, Fairbairn begins his third section of the patristic period, which describes the church during and immediately after the rise of Islam (CA. 600-CA. 800) (Fairbairn, 301). First, Fairbairn describes the history and culture in which Muhammad was raised. Arab tribes were divided, and they worshiped many different deities; however, in the early sixth century, Jews and Christians were present in Arabia, too (Fairbairn, 304-306). Conflicts turned violent among Jews, Christians, and Arabians, and Muhammad would have heard stories of Christians who sought violence against his people (Fairbairn, 307-308). In about 610 Muhammad began seeing visions which he understood to be divine revelations (Fairbairn, 309-310). He amassed a following and sought to unite Arabia under his new religion using force (Fairbairn, 310-312).

After Muhammad’s death in 632, his followers quickly spread Islam throughout the world using force or threat of force. Syria, Palestine, and Egypt fell within a decade, and northern Africa fell by 700, followed by Spain in 720 and central Asia by 750 (Fairbairn, 320). Although the Arabs attacked Constantinople multiple times, they were defeated (Fairbairn, 332). Also, Charles Martel defeated the Muslims at Tours in 732, pushing back the Muslims’ advancement in Europe (Fairbairn, 334-335). Still, the Arabs “were now masters of the most expansive empire the world had yet seen, larger than those of Persia, Greece, Rome, and China earlier” (Fairbairn, 335), and the world map began looking similar to what we see today (Fairbairn, 337).

Chapter nineteen reveals how the Muslims tolerated Christians and Jews at first, due to ambiguity among their beliefs. Gradually, conflicts between Muslims and Christians grew, and Christians such as John of Damascus wrote apologies defending the faith against Islam (Fairbairn, 339-342). Furthermore, an Apology for the Christian Faith was written in Arabic around 780 (Fairbairn, 345-347). Despite the tragedies of the Arab conquests, “almost everywhere that the Arab armies advanced, the church survived” (Fairbairn, 355). In the mid-eighth century, the Arab conquests ceased, and most of the Christian world was under Muslim rule (Fairbairn, 356), but a significant Christian presence remained in Aksum/Ethiopia, India, China, and Europe which all remained free from Muslim rule (Fairbairn, 356-367).

Fairbairn concludes by emphasizing that common consensus was present in the church throughout this patristic period (Fairbairn, 369). Despite cultural differences, commonality can be seen in their episcopal system of organization and their liturgical worship (Fairbairn, 370). Although church splits did occur, Fairbairn emphasizes that the history of the church is a single story and a global story (Fairbairn, 372).

I found The Global Church to be an excellent description of the patristic period of the church. First, I appreciate Fairbairn’s “Concluding Reflections” at the end of each chapter in which he explains how his readers can better understand and interpret historical events. He reveals biases which modern Protestants may impose upon their understanding of church history, and he seeks to explain a balanced interpretation of church history. Furthermore, he often gives practical applications for his readers. Second, while many history books attempt to describe history as objectively as possible without interjecting insights and opinions, Fairbairn occasionally includes his opinions throughout his book. I believe that no historian can write history completely free of prejudices and opinions. Thus, I appreciate his honesty in revealing his opinions and suggestions regarding controversial accounts of history. Third, I commend Fairbairn for giving special attention to church history in parts of the world that are often ignored such as Persia, India, Asia, China, Nubia, and Aksum. I learned much about Christian history in these regions that I had never heard before. Lastly, I appreciate his emphasis on the commonalty of Christian doctrine, especially regarding the issues of Nestorianism and the Chalcedon Definition which resulted in Christological divisions. I would be curious to know what other church historians think about his suggestions regarding these issues (Fairbairn, 237, 248). Do other church historians see commonality among those churches which split over Christological issues?[2]


[1] Donald Fairbairn, The Global Church: The First Eight Centuries: From Pentecost through the Rise of Islam (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2021). All further citations from this source will be parenthetical.

[2] This paper was written for the class CH501 "Church History One" which I took at Asbury Theological Seminary in the spring of 2022.

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