Are You Standing on the Shoulders of Giants?
Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions
The year 2000 has provoked a flurry of lists of the "best of the millennium" and "best of the century" as it relates to books, events, films, people, and other categories. The cable TV network in the USA, A&E recently produced a series entitled Biography of the Millennium: 100 People--1,000 Years. Scholars, politicians, and theologians identified the people who have most influenced our world in the Second Millennium. The list can be viewed at <www.biography.com/features/millennium/>. At the top of this list is none other than Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press. Gutenberg also made the top of Life Magazine's ranking of the top 100 events of the last millennium. This list can be viewed at <www.lifemag.com/Life/millennium/events/01.html>. The entry there reads "Gutenberg Prints the Bible (1455) 2-and-a-half billion distributed in 2,197 languages." It shouldn't seem all that remarkable that the printing of the Bible holds center stage in the last 1,000 years of global history.
Into this context comes the Biographical Dictionary of Christian missions edited by Gerald H. Anderson (Eerdmans, 1999, 846p, $50.00pb). Over 2,400 signed biographical entries are included. These represent the work of more than 350 experts, from 45 countries from a wide range of academic, missional, and ecclesiastical backgrounds. The coverage is extensive, ranging over the entire history of Christianity, through the major ecclesiastical traditions, and over a broad definition of who has contributed to Christian missions. The strength of the volume is the high quality of the articles and the impressive array of individuals profiled here. More than some of the superficial attempts at defining the "most influential" people mentioned above, this collection of men and women represents a global march of faithful Christians throughout history who literally changed the world in a thousand ways. Even so, the vast majority will be completely new even to seminary-trained mission enthusiasts. And therein lies its value--documentation of the central role of the missionaries of the Christian church as it has gradually expanded among the peoples of the world.
The inclusion of many African independent church leaders is a major contribution of this volume. If it had been compiled 25 years ago, this would likely not have been the case. These leaders and their churches now belong to evangelical and ecumenical networks, the largest accepted into the World Council of Churches. These also represent some of the fastest growing churches in the world. However, this inclusion is more difficult to project further back in time. One of the more successful "missionaries" on the fringes of the Roman empire was Arius, whose banishment from the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) later resulted in the conversion of many Barbarian tribes. (Ulfilas, the most successful Arian, is included in the volume.) All throughout the history of Christianity, Christians far from the institutional center have contributed significantly to its missionary expansion.
It is likely that such a volume, when revised over the next 100 years, will include a host of nontraditional Christian leaders. The Chinese church, now on the brink of global expansion, might dominate the landscape of 21st century missions. Other church movements, far from the center of institutional Christianity, might also appear on these pages.
Martyrdom is also a significant feature in the history of Christian missions. About 5 percent of the people included in the volume became martyrs. The bishops, evangelists, and foreign missionaries included in this study have the highest rate of martyrdom among Christians.
The personal applications of this volume for Christians revolve around Isaac Newton's adage: "If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Western and non-Western Christians today seem to have little interest in Christian history. The greatest evidence of this trend is the constant reinvention of global plans to evangelize the world. Emerging now at nearly one a week, these "new" plans inevitably contain fatal flaws that were overcome decades and even centuries earlier. The only clear way to the future for today's Christians is a strong working biographical knowledge of those who have preceded us. This book offers the most comprehensive place to start.
Todd M. Johnson is a Youth With A Mission missionary and co-author of the new World Christian Encyclopedia, 2nd edition (Oxford University Press).
Edited by Gerald H. Anderson
Eerdmans, 1999, 846p, $50.00pb