The result is that when someone asks, "Where was the evangelical church of Christ during those long 'Dark Ages' of Europe when the Church of Rome usurped the place of the Holy Spirit?" there usually follows a notable silence. The Iona colony of Scotland may be mentioned, or the later Waldenses of the Italian Apls, both involving small numbers. There is a better answer to the question, however, and the following narrative seeks to shed some light on it.
The story of the Church of the East's mission to Asia is one that needs to be told to today's church. It is the story of a dedicated missionary effort and the ever expanding witness of Christians from Antioch to Peking, nearly 6,000 miles by foot, until multitudes of Christians lived from the 30th to the 120th longitude in medieval times.
Here also is evidence that pitfalls to the church's mission always exist. Common examples are such things as an inadequate appreciation of the spiritual deadness of the natural man, failure to recognize the necessity of heart repentance and the meaning of baptism, the temptation to consider external acts of piety as necessarily representing inner holiness, the acceptance of liturgy and form in the place of justification by faith alone and identification with Christ, compromise with the world's secularism and other people's religious practices, sacramentalism, over-identification with a particular political regime, and concern with the elite that leads to failure to reach out to the common people.
The lesson of the gospel in the Near and Far East during the Middle Ages is that such failures as are referred to above can cause Christian communities where churches once flourished to disappear so completely that later generations not only do not know what the gospel is but are not even aware that it was ever present in their midst. In those cases the only witness to the living may be the testimony of the dead, written on tombstones. An illustration of such a voice out of the past is that of a ninth century Christian in a central Asian cemetery, where the gentle words still whisper, "This is the grave of Pasak -- The aim of life is Jesus, our Redeemer."2
As someone who is half Chinese, I appreciate the non-Western focus. Obviously the application of this work to specifically Reformed history is limited, so I don't plan on posting about it to a great extent. However, it does provide an additional answer (or two, really) to the question of historical continuity and a nice antidote to the Rome-centered history of Catholicism, and so to that end I'll relate interesting information contained therein (if any) as I proceed through the text.
1. The following picture is Robert MacGregor's restoration of a silk painting found in 1908, in a cave sealed in 1036. It depicts a missionary bishop of the Church of the East.
2. John M. L. Young, By Foot to China: Mission of The Church of the East, To 1400 (Lookout Mountain, GA: Grey Pilgrim Publications, 1991), i-ii. This text may be found online for free.