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Christendom and Christianity, Book Reviews

Christendom and Christianity | Book Reviews

Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture

Write the Vision: The Church Renewed

The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity

Reviewed by Thomas Scarborough

This review encompasses three small books which belong to the same series. Corpus Christianum and the Corpus Christi. According to Chambers Dictionary, Christendom is “the part of the world in which Christianity is the received religion”, while Christianity is “the religion of Christ”.

All three books identify the beginning of Christendom as the adoption of Christianity as the state religion under the Roman emperor Constantine, and all three agree that this era has recently come to a close. We now live in a completely new era of the Church. Wilbert Shenk quotes Herbert Butterfield: “We are back for the first time in something like the earliest centuries of Christianity.”

Although the authors broadly share the same views of historical developments, they approach them with significantly different perspectives. Here follows a summary of the content of the three books, in my own order of preference.


David Bosch begins by describing in some detail the legacy of the Enlightenment, and the tendency of the Church to “make faith rationally plausible”. He describes the Grand Ideologies of the Enlightenment, and how these “contain all the attributes of religion”. However, Enlightenment reason, which “conferred legitimacy on itself, is now being challenged to defend its legitimacy”. “By and large, in our own time, people have begun to give up the expectations of the Enlightenment”.

This having been said, religion has not been on the wane, as was once largely expected to happen. The human being is “homo religiosus”. Moreover, all people “worship gods, even if they do not know it, or deny it vehemently”. There exists “the impossibility of not believing”. This is a view that has emerged particularly through postmodernism, and has been highlighted e.g. by Michael Polanyi. “Genuine religion can therefore help us to become resistant to the lure of ideologies; it can be a means of neutralizing ideologies”.

Bosch concludes with “five ingredients of a missiology of Western culture”: an ecological dimension, countercultural mission to the West, ecumenical mission to the West, contextual mission in the Third World, and a ministry of the laity.

David Bosch was killed tragically in 1992, and his book might therefore seem dated — but I don’t think so. Wilbert Shenk comments that Bosch “had the rare ability to distill the insight and wisdom to meet the demands of the day”. This might be both the greatest strength and the greatest weakness of his book. Insight and wisdom do not necessarily translate into theological coherence, and they are not always rigorously worked out. However, this is a booklet that sparkles.


“Write the vision!” is the commandment that Habakkuk received from God in Hab. 1:2. In keeping with this, Wilbert Shenk’s booklet represents his own vision for the Church today.

He begins by describing how, “in modern Western culture . . . churches have been in a long phase of decreasing adherents and increasing cultural marginality”. Then he delves into the history of the past few centuries, describing several failed attempts to reach our modern culture, and a few which succeeded surprisingly well — with some reference also to the resistance of the established Church to more successful attempts. This is one of the great strengths of the book.

The problem with Christendom, writes Shenk, is that it “may be characterized as church without mission”. One needs only to look at the confessions of Christendom: “all emphasize the being rather than the function of the church”.

With this in mind, Christians should once again “learn to think about their culture in missional terms”. Missions should no longer be thought of as “activities conducted beyond the borders of historical Christendom”. Rather, “the sole source of renewal for the church is the missio Dei”.

Shenk takes a positive view of the position that the Church finds itself in today. He quotes Herbert Butterfield as saying that “we can just about begin to say that at last no man is now a Christian because of government compulsion”, or because it will win an individual social or economic benefits. The Church is once again “the diaspora”, “instruments of God’s saving intention in this world”.


This book was less satisfying, from two points of view. Firstly, it seemed to be steeped in theological jargon which was ill defined (e.g. “the tradition of Jerusalem”, or “the evolving of God’s creation”). Secondly, while the author spoke of the need to “disentangle our authentic tradition of belief from its cultural wrapping”, he seemed to be well wrapped in the same himself — particularly from the point of view that he seemed fixated with culture, and seldom referred his discussion to God.

On the positive side, Douglas John Hall develops his broader themes clearly, and he lucidly describes what Christendom has become in contradistinction to Christianity.

Looking back to Constantine, he states simply: “What was born in that distant century, namely, the imperial church, now comes to an end. That beginning and this ending are the two great social transitions in the course of Christianity in the world.” His central theme is that of “disestablishment”. The Christendom which was established through Constantine now needs to be disestablished — and this needs to be done with the active participation of the Church. Hall makes an interesting distinction between the establishment of the Church in Europe (legal, or de jure), and in North America (social, or de facto).

In the past, writes Hall, Christianity “permeated culture”, and “the institutions of Christendom survive today”. However, the world has changed, and his “basic thesis” is that the Church now needs to “give up trying to cling to the Christendom model”. It needs to shift its emphasis from fellowship towards discipleship, from behaviour towards confession.


All three books begin with the same preface. The basic premiss is that “one of the developments integral to modernity was the way the role of religion in culture was redefined. Whereas religion had played an authoritative role in the culture of Christendom, modern culture was highly critical of religion and increasingly secular in its assumptions”. The question, then, is how the Church should address this.

By and large, these books would seem to address this question in a worthwhile way. However, I myself would have preferred a greater emphasis on the shift in the Church’s conception of the Triune God than on shifts in social or cultural relations.

As a matter of interest, as a student of theology I participated in one of David Bosch’s seminars in Zürich — and it was Wilbert Shenk who encouraged me to enrol for my current graduate degree at Fuller Theological Seminary, prescribing these books (and others) for a course in Contemporary Culture in Missiological Perspective.


Bosch, David J. Believing in the Future: Toward a Missiology of Western Culture. Harrisburg, Pennsyvania: Trinity Press International, 1995. ISBN 1-56338-117-6 or (UK) ISBN 0-85244-333-1. Publisher Price US$9.

Hall, Douglas John. 1997 The End of Christendom and the Future of Christianity. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1997. ISBN 1-57910-984-5. Publisher Price US$11.

Shenk, Wilbert R. Write the Vision: The Church Renewed. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1995. ISBN 1-57910-647-1. Publisher Price US$17.


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