Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

20 May 2013

Days that Changed the Course of History…and an Ordinary Year: Two Different Approaches to History

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Over at the Gospel Coalition blog, Joe Carter recently wrote about how four leading church historians responded to the question: “After AD 70, what day most changed the course of Christian history?” The respondents proposed four different answers. Two of the replies had to do with the advance of Islam. Specifically, one writer pointed to the Muslim invasion of the Middle East around 650 and the other to the fall of Constantinople on May 29, 1453. A third historian suggested the conversion of Constantine to Christianity in the early fourth century. And the final correspondent identified George Whitefield’s preaching at the church pastored by Jonathan Edwards on October 19, 1740, as the day that most changed the course of church history. I tend to think George Marsden’s brief answer is the best (though perhaps the least “interesting”) of the four, but you’ll have to read that post if you want to know which date Marsden proposed.

Reading Carter’s post reminded me of a book I read several years ago. I was reminded of the book, not because it focused on a pivotal day or a key event, but actually because it was written from a very different perspective. In 2009, Giusto Traina’s book 428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire appeared in English translation (from Italian). As the title suggests, Traina chose to focus his work on a relatively “ordinary” year—one of those years that is silently passed over in most history books. In 428 the Roman Empire was in the midst of slow but steady decline. Rome itself was still the symbolic center of the empire. But practically speaking, political power had been transferred to Ravenna in the West and Constantinople in the East. The city of Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths some eighteen years prior, and in less than thirty years the Vandals would come knocking as well.

By 428 Christianity had been the official religion of the empire for about a generation, and some church fathers were inclined to speak about the spread of the Christian faith in triumphal language. However, as Traina points out, paganism was still alive and well in some parts of the empire, even if it had gone largely underground. Of course, lots of things happened in 428. But for the most part, the things that happened were not the sort of things that usually make it into history textbooks. Traina’s book is both different and helpful because it provides a snapshot of the Roman Empire during the empire’s declining years. The book is a fairly quick and interesting read. It provides a sort of counterbalance to posts and books that focus on the “big events” of church history.

Studying major events like those mentioned by the four historians in Carter’s post is key to understanding the development of Christianity. But Traina’s book reminds us that history is largely composed of fairly “ordinary” years. During such years many unknown Christians have loved and served God, and Christ has providentially superintended the growth of his church.