Christianity: An Angel with a Dirty Face?

This is a greatly belated review of Paul Johnson’s A History of Christianity (New York: Athenum, 1977), 556 pp. I have had this book in my possession for nearly forty years, but have only read it through recently. As a representative of what we might call “scholarly popular history,” it is virtually unsurpassed, belonging in the same category as Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, and Richard Rhodes’ The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Such works are written for the entertainment and instruction of non-specialists but draw upon the resources of deep research. Anyone unfortunate enough to have read Johnson’s recent and execrable Darwin: Portrait of a Genius will be surprised to hear that he is—or once was—capable of unbiased judgment and lucid insight.

Johnson has certainly done his homework. He appears to have read whole libraries, yet his prose is uncluttered and his narrative is brisk, only bogging down in a few places. Johnson is a Catholic, and his treatment of canon law and the intricacies of Vatican policy, though relatively brief, is not brief enough for this reader. Also, this might not be the best book for an absolute beginner in the study of church history because it presupposes some prior knowledge of major ideas, persons, and events. For the beginner, probably the best books are Roland Bainton’s Christendom, (New York, Harper, 1966), two vols. (now sadly out of print) and Stephen Tompkins’ A Concise History of Christianity (Eerdmann’s).

The book’s central theme is the rise and vicissitudes of the Church triumphant. Christianity, like Islam, aims to be all things for all people. Its claims are universal, exclusive, and comprehensive. There can be no aspect of life, from the largest public issues to the smallest details of personal choice that are off limits for its concern. The totalizing logic of such an all-encompassing doctrine inclines it towards policies of dominance, hegemony, and theocracy. Whether or not Johnson would agree with the statement just made in precisely those terms, the history he recounts bears out its truth.

Christianity, of course, began as a small, despised sect, marginalized, outlawed, and sporadically (and often half-heartedly) persecuted by the Imperial Roman authorities. Nevertheless, it grew rapidly until, in the Third Century, Tertullian could boast to pagan Romans that Christians were everywhere—in the trades, in the army, and in their neighborhoods. In the Fourth Century, with the Edict of Milan and the official toleration of Christianity, Christians immediately transformed from persecuted outsiders to confident and aggressive insiders who asserted the superiority of their claims over their rivals—the Jews, the pagans, and “heretics,” i.e. Christians with theological differences.

The theorist of Christian domination was Augustine. For Augustine, a universal religion and a universal empire were made for each other. The Church’s claims were total and there could be no limit to its reach or influence. Johnson summarizes Augustine’s view:

“Led by the elect, its [the Church’s] duty was to transform, absorb, and perfect all existing bonds of human relations, all human activities and institutions, to regularize and codify and regulate every aspect of life. Here is the germ of the medieval idea of a total society, with the church permeating everything. Was she not the Mother of All?” (115)

Johnson’s comment is too modest. Such a theory is not merely the germ of the medieval idea of a total society; it expresses the very essence of the totalitarian theories of the Twentieth Century. Except for the fact that they would substitute “Party” for “Church,” the above characterization of Augustine’s view would apply just as accurately to Stalin’s or Mao’s.

The Church, then, was to be the mind and soul of the State, and the State was the muscular body, in particular the strong sword arm of the Church, smiting the Church’s enemies, who were, ipso facto, also enemies of the State. Augustine explicitly advocated that heretics, such as the Donatists, be subject to physical coercion by authorities of the State, and the arguments he gave for compulsion were cited by inquisitors down through the centuries. Thus did the Church rapidly transform from the persecuted to the persecutors, from martyrs to inquisitors, as Johnson puts it.

The fall of the Western Empire did not spell the end of Augustine’s theocratic vision. On the contrary, Dark Age societies strove to put the theory into practice. Emperors ruled by God’s permission and in his name, and bishops were officials of the state, wielding temporal as well as spiritual power. Christianity during this period also vigorously proselytized, extending its outreach to the northern pagans, making France, England, Ireland and, eventually, the Scandinavian societies into Christian kingdoms. How did Christianity displace the ancient pagan religions of the warlike northern peoples? Christians, of course, saw the hand of God at work.

Johnson offers a more pragmatic explanation: Christianity was literate, organized, and disciplined and it gave definite answers on questions, like life after death, about which paganism was vague. When societies emerge from a tribal organization into a nation-state, laws have to be written, taxes collected, wills, deeds, and records made and kept, and judicial practice regularized. The Church, and only the Church, could provide the educated bureaucrats and officials needed for societies emerging from barbarism. Also, kings often saw in Christianity an ideology that would unite their people and place them firmly under the control of the divinely-appointed monarch. Christian support for a more authoritarian notion of kingship also explains its popularity with kings. In an era when there was no conception of the separation of church and state, your king decided your religion as well.

The high Middle Ages saw the conflict between a Church that asserted and reasserted its absolute claims, while the nascent secular and national powers grew stronger and increasingly restive. The rising nation-states sought ever greater autonomy and control even as the Pope insisted upon his prerogatives, occasionally attempting to impose his will with his weapons of excommunication and interdiction. However, it was a losing battle and by the end of the medieval period the Church’s universal claims were overshadowed by the nationalistic self-assertion of the superpowers England, France, and Spain.

It may be possible to detect some Catholic bias in Johnson’s treatment of the Reformation. Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli are given rather short shrift. The figure from that period that gets the most attention is the reform-minded Catholic humanist Erasmus. Johnson sees Erasmus as the voice of moderation and reason in the cacophony of mutual denunciation and vilification that issued from Protestant and Catholic extremists. For Erasmus, a life of simple piety and charity was far more important than a punctilious adherence to every nuance of doctrine. A “heretic” who displays loving kindness to his neighbors is a far truer Christian than the cruel inquisitor who never deviates an iota from orthodoxy.

Such an attractive position has been articulated many times in the history of Christianity, but it has never prevailed, and has never succeeded in vanquishing strife between Christian sects. Johnson does not say why this is so, but the reason is intrinsic to Christianity. From the beginning, Christianity has demanded that its followers hold certain beliefs. The traditional Greco-Roman pagan religion had practitioners; Christianity has adherents. That is, in pagan Greece and Rome, if you performed correctly the rites and sacrifices to honor the state-recognized gods, you were a member in good standing of the official cult, even if you did not believe in literal Olympian deities. Paganism was a non-creedal religion that made no epistemic demands of its followers. Christianity, on the other hand, has always required that certain things be believed—e.g. the divinity of Christ and the atoning significance of his death and resurrection—and, further, has made acceptance of some set of such beliefs a necessary condition for salvation. Inevitably, then, there will always be deep concern for getting the essential beliefs right, and concomitant fear and hatred of those who are thought to promulgate false doctrine, i.e. heretics.

For Johnson, Erasmus also represents the emergence of autonomous reason as a force that can oppose faith and authority. That force came fully into its own with the rise of modern science in the Seventeenth Century and the Enlightenment of the Eighteenth Century. Johnson notes that the members of the Royal Society, though personally pious, sought to elevate science above the acrimony of theological disputation. They therefore decreed that theological topics would not be discussed at meetings of the Society, and that the focus would be entirely upon natural philosophy (i.e. science). Thus, just as national sovereignty triumphed over the Church’s claim of universal authority with the rise of powerful nation-states, so science and philosophy achieved intellectual independence from the demands of doctrine. To Johnson’s credit he evinces no wistfulness for a return to the medieval synthesis in which all knowledge was to form a seamless web, but where theology, the “Queen of the Sciences,” determined the weave and pattern of the cloth.

In fact, Johnson acknowledges that science must proceed without being hamstrung by religious agendas or controversies. He notes that the founders of the Royal Society recognized the need to exclude the discussion of theological matters from the inquiries and debates of the Society:

“The founder-members of the Royal Society were all sincere Christians, but they were coming to accept that institutional Christianity, with its feuds and intolerances, was an embarrassment and a barrier to scientific endeavor. Hence they decided to concentrate purely on science and ruled that religious matters were not to be discussed at the Society’s meetings. So for the first time we have a deliberate attempt to cut off science from religion and to treat the two subjects as completely separate spheres of knowledge and lines of inquiry.” (328)

The separation of theology and science took the methodological form of a rule limiting scientific inquiry to “secondary,” that is, natural causes, and leaving the investigation of the “primary cause”—God—to the theologians. Methodological naturalism was therefore pioneered by sincere Christians.

Johnson is also evenhanded in his discussion of Christian missions. In his view, the biggest failing of the missionary endeavor is that, while it sought converts, it was far too slow to admit native converts to the roles of priest or minister or to any position of authority or power. European control was maintained, as well as a Eurocentric doctrine. Even success in gaining converts was limited. Christian missionaries enjoyed the greatest success with followers of the relatively unsophisticated indigenous pagan and animistic traditions. However, when they encountered groups with equally sophisticated theological traditions, such as Muslims and Hindus, they made little headway.

The most damning part of the book is not one of the sections dealing with crusades or inquisitions, though these are treated candidly and without any attempt at mitigation or exculpation. The most shocking section is Johnson’s detailed and disturbing account of how the churches reacted to Nazism. For all their multifarious failings, the one thing that you might expect of Christian churches is that they would stand up to an ideology of pure evil, especially one that arose in the heart of Christendom. However, Johnson relentlessly exposes the failure of both the Catholic and Evangelical churches to oppose Nazism.  With only a few notable exceptions, the response of Christian bodies in Germany ranged from fecklessness to outright collaboration. Johnson’s judgment is unsparing:

“Thus the Second World War inflicted even more grievous blows on the moral standing of the Christian faith…It exposed the emptiness of the churches in Germany, the cradle of the Reformation, and the cowardice and selfishness of the Holy See. It was the nemesis of triumphalism, in both its Protestant and Catholic forms.” (493)

Of course, those few, like the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who stood up against the Nazis, paid a terrible price. One wonders, however, what would have happened had Catholic and Protestant leaders united in 1932 to declare Nazism a pernicious and anti-Christian ideology.

Unfortunately, after 500 pages of admirable candor, the book’s Epilogue lapses into apologetic mode, and implies that, for all its failings, Christianity is an angel, though perhaps one with a dirty face. In the final few pages Johnson praises Christianity in terms that the preceding account would seem to belie. In fact, his final assessment rests on a number of highly dubious claims and assumptions:

“As an exercise in perfectionism, Christianity cannot succeed, even by its internal definitions; what it is designed to do is to set targets and standards, raise aspirations, to educate, stimulate and inspire. Its strength lies in its just estimate of man as a fallible creature with immortal longings. Its outstanding moral merit is to invest the individual with a conscience and bid him to follow it. This particular form of liberation is what St Paul meant by the freedom men find in Christ. And, of course, it is the father of all other freedoms. For conscience is the enemy of tyranny and the compulsory society; and it is the Christian conscience which has destroyed the institutional tyrannies Christianity itself has created…The notions of political and economic freedom both spring from the workings of the Christian conscience as a historical force; and it is thus no accident that all of the implantations of freedom throughout the world have ultimately a Christian origin.” (516)

So, no one had a conscience before Christianity? No one had an inner voice warning him away from bad behavior? No one felt shame after doing something shameful? Needless to say, nothing in the previous 500 plus pages substantiates such an extraordinary claim.

Johnson also seems to fall for the hackneyed religious-right canard that political freedom has Christian (or, when expressed with political correctness, Judeo-Christian) roots. But as the preceding pages make clear, Christianity conferred the supposed divine right whereby tyrants justified their tyranny, and it also generated the sanctimonious certainty whereby Inquisitors rationalized torture and murder. Worst of all, Augustine’s theory of theocracy is the template for totalitarianism, the model for every ideologue who would elevate his doctrinal obsessions into a total, all-encompassing system. But Johnson says that the “Christian conscience” has destroyed the “institutional tyrannies” that Christianity itself has created. Is Johnson’s claim, then, that the greatness of Christianity is that it is the antidote to its own poison? This would be a very odd sort of apologetic.

The actual antidote was the secularism, rationalism, skepticism, and tolerance of the Enlightenment. It is too bad that Johnson’s candor cannot stretch quite far enough to admit that.