Christian mission in the early middle ages : an examination of mission, baptism, conversion, and saints' lives from the perspective of missiology
Shinn, Beth Alison
The underlying question explored by this thesis is whether missiology, applied as a lens to examine Christian mission in the early middle ages, can reveal new insights from historical sources. This approach has raised new questions and has revealed new tensions such as that between the group and individual, that between top-down and bottom-up mission, and that between syncretism and contextualization. One of the key insights is the need to hold the group and individual in tension, that is· not to choose to interpret sources as either group or individual oriented but as moving between the two. Taking one's identity from a group did not negate the individual, it only meant that the individual submitted to group decisions. This tension, it is argued, needs to be highlighted and held in balance in order to understand how groups and individuals in the early middle ages reacted to, and interacted with, the Christian gospel message. To make this case mission, baptism and conversion, as foundational to Christian mission, are examined. An examination of a selection of the writings of the Church Fathers, Saints' Vitae, Church councils and synods, and other correspondence of the early middle ages in light of syncretism and contextualization has raised questions about definition and content. With Rome and Constantinople setting the standard of content and practice, often anything that looked different was labelled as heretical, barbaric or pagan and this has usually been defined as syncretism. However, if the central core content of the Christian gospel message was not compromised, what was happening could be contextualization (that is, the working out of the Christian gospel message in an appropriate cultural manner). Although these are contemporary labels, early medieval sources do reveal an underlying concern about the loss of correct belief and practices. The common interpretation of missional work as a top-down movement often fails to take into account the evidence for the bottom-up, or organic, spread of the Christian gospel message. This is not to say that the official accounts should be set aside, but rather these need to be balanced with the evidence for bottom-up growth. To put some of these insights into an appropriate context, the Vitae of Boniface, Anskar, and Cyril and Methodius are examined as case studies. Each of these men represents different cultural starting points, different geographical areas, and different emphases in mission work. However, in each of these Vitae the tensions between the group and the individual, a top-down or bottom-up approach to mission, and syncretism versus contextualization can be examined, especially in light of the issues of baptism and conversion. The conclusion is that missiology has much to offer early medieval studies. It is a field of study that is broadly interdisciplinary in its approach which gives it an elasticity which allows it to illuminate this period of history valuably. On the basis of this thesis, the discipline of missiology deserves to be applied much more frequently to the study of early medieval history.