The second New Testament epoch of missions history according to missiologist Ralph Winter was the Age of the Barbarians. Here, the epicenter of Christianity moved from Rome to Constantinople. The barbarians began their conquering of Rome in the fifth century. The church in Rome, broadly speaking, had begun to rest in its zeal for the advance of the gospel both at home and abroad. Thus Rome culturally decayed. And if Roman Christians were unwilling to go to the barbarians, God brought the barbarians to them. The church suffered greatly, yet by default offered up the richest of the war’s spoils: the gospel. What a backward way for the barbarians to encounter Christ!
Notable in this period was the rise of monasticism through leaders such as Colomban and Boniface, whose monasteries were more training centers for missionaries than they were holy hiding ground. Another highlight of this age was Patrick of Ireland:
At age sixteen Patrick was captured and made a slave in Ireland. He was held for six years under brutal labor. Though finally escaping, he returned to his homeland only to be taken captive again, this time by the gripping memory of his former slavemasters and their pagan hopelessness. Compelled by a vision from God, he willingly returned to Ireland as a missionary. The people were so bewildered by his return that they welcomed him, and he eventually established a remarkable church. He even used missionary methods that still shape missiology today.
Further south, Charlemagne arose during this time like a second Constantine, and though he encouraged Christian ideals, he did not compel the church to gospel advance. Amidst the relative peace, can you guess what happened next?
The third age began with the arrival of the Vikings and their conquering armies. Here the epicenter of Christianity moved again from Constantinople to Scandinavia. Having had zero influence from Christianity, the Vikings were ruthless and annihilated men, women, children, and churches. Yet as the church was pummeled, over time many of the Vikings were compelled by the gospel and believed. Winter concluded,
In God’s eyes, [the Vikings’] redemption must have been more important than the harrowing tragedy of this new invasion of barbarian violence and evil which fell upon God’s own people whom He loved (207).
During this time Pope Innocent III became hugely influential. Roman Christianity, or Catholicism, shaped the Christianity of the Vikings. But the pope did not press for evangelistic efforts beyond Europe. Friars arose as a missions force, taking on vows of apostolic poverty, and going from place to place preaching the gospel. However, it was too little too late in the face of misguided Christianity and the growing threat of Islam.
The fourth epoch is the infamous Age of the Crusades. Here the epicenter of Christianity shifted from Scandinavia to really all of Europe. The warring culture of the Vikings combined with Catholicism to create a strange militant religiosity, and a desire to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims. Unfortunately, most all of Europe rallied to this cause.
Raymond Lull was a grand example of missionary fervor during this age. Called “the apostle of love,” he braved North Africa with the gospel rather than the sword. Lull studied Arab language and culture for nine years before taking several trips into North Africa. Each time he was rejected and banished. On one last fateful journey, he was killed by an angry mob.
Unfortunately, faithful efforts like those of Lull’s were vastly overshadowed by the misguided, unchristian Crusades. The Bubonic Plague brought the Crusades to a grinding halt. It was not that the Crusaders themselves were wiped out, but almost one-half of everyone in Europe who had not gone off to fight. The devastation left the continent in ruins, but was a judgment that ultimately served to advance the gospel once again.
In the next post we’ll consider Winter’s fifth age, and give consideration to the missions history we’re living out today.