Christianity: Christianity in Western Europe

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Although the history of Christianity in each of the regions to which it has spread manifests certain special characteristics that set it apart, the development of Christianity within the history of western Europe has in many decisive ways shaped its development in all other regions. The English man of letters Hilaire Belloc (18701953) formulated the significance of that developmentas well as a highly idiosyncratic and debatable philosophy of historyin his epigram of 1912: "Europe will return to the [Christian] faith, or she will perish. The faith is Europe. And Europe is the faith." Belloc's pronouncement is partly historical and partly hortatory, and even those who would vigorously reject the first and hortatory half of his formulation would probably acknowledge the historical force of the second half. Through most of its history, what most people, insiders or outsiders, have identified as the Christian faith has been the particular form that the Christian faith has acquired in its European experience. Asia, Africa, and the Americas have imported most of their Christianity from western Europe or Britain, and while Christianity did indeed begin in Asia Minor, most Christians in Asia Minor now practice and believe versions of Christianity that have come there only after having first been filtered through Europe. The history of Christianity in western continental Europe and the British Isles is, therefore, indispensable to the understanding of Christianity wherever it exists today. It is no less indispensable to the understanding of the history of western Europe itself. And in that sense at least, Belloc was right.

In recounting the history of Christianity in western Europe and the British Isles from the time of the apostle Paul to the present, this article is designed to account for the identification of Christianity with Europe and to describe its later significance. Therefore, various incidents and individual details of persons and places are selected as they illustrate the several stages of the process, and much more must be omitted than can be included.

Beginnings of Christianity in Europe

The coming of Christianity to Europe may in some ways be read as the leitmotif of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. The entire life and ministry of Jesus had taken place in Palestine. He did not speak a European language, and except for a few Romans, such as Pontius Pilate, he did not meet any Europeans. Acts also begins within Palestine, in Jerusalem, but the story of the second half of the book is set largely in Europe, one of its high points being the confrontation of the apostle Paul with an audience in Athens (Acts 17) and its climactic conclusion coming in the final chapter with his arrival at Rome. It was either to Europe or from Europe that Paul addressed the bulk of his letters, including the three longest ones (Romans and 1 and 2 Corinthians ), and he wrote all of them in Greek. From the Gospels it would have been difficult to predict that Christianity would become European, much less that Europe would become Christian, but with the career of Paul that direction had begun to become clear.

For the period of two and a half centuries between the career of Paul and the conversion of the emperor Constantine (r. 306337) there exist many items of information about the appearance of Christianity in one or another part of Europe. One of the most instructive of these is the account, preserved by Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 260/270c. 339) in book 5 of his Church History, of the persecution of a Christian community at Lyons, in Gaul, in 177178. The church in Gaul is thought by many scholars to have been the source of the earliest Christian missions to the British Isles, which date from the second or third century, when some of the Celtic inhabitants of Britain were converted (hence the usual designation "Celtic church"). The apostle Paul wrote to the church in Rome, "I hope to see you in passing as I go to Spain" (Rom. 15:24). Although the evidence for his having ever actually made such a journey to Spain is tenuous, tradition was quick to attribute one to him.

As that reference indicates, however, the most powerful Christian center in Europe was, from the beginning, at the most powerful city in Europe: Rome. One tradition attributes the founding of that community to the apostle Peter around 42 ce, but critics of the credibility of that tradition have often pointed to the absence of any reference to Peter in the letter that Paul addressed to Rome fifteen years later (even though the final chapter of that letter is a catalog of proper names). But whoever it was that founded it, the Christian church at Rome was prominent enough both for Paul to send it his most important letter and for the emperor Nero to instigate a persecution of it, during which both Peter and Paul were said to have suffered martyrdom. That persecution did not diminish the power and prestige of the Roman church, which became a significant presence in the city and (especially after the capture of Jerusalem in 70 ce and its consequent decline as the mother city of Christianity) first among the Christian centers of Europeindeed, of the Mediterranean world.

Although many of the most notable leaders of Christian thought during the second, third, and fourth centuries were not located in Europe but either in Alexandria (Clement, Origen, Alexander, Athanasius, Cyril) or in Roman North Africa (Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine) or still in Asia Minor (Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Cyril of Jerusalem, Jerome), most of them had some sort of European connection: Athanasius found asylum in Rome when he was driven out of Alexandria; before Jerome went to Palestine, he had undertaken the translation of the Vulgate at the behest of Pope Damasus, whom he served as secretary; Augustine was brought to Christianity in Europe through the teaching of Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Similarly, although the first seven ecumenical councils of the church were held at such Eastern cities as Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon, rather than in Rome or any other European city, it was in fact the power and prestige of Christian Europe that often determined their outcome. The Spanish bishop, Hosius of Cordova, was in many ways the most authoritative of the bishops at Nicaea in 325, and when, according to the contemporary account, the bishops at Chalcedon in 451 declared that "Peter has spoken through the mouth of [Pope] Leo," they were acknowledging once more the special status that European Christianity had achieved as early as the beginning of the fourth century.

The event with the most far-reaching consequences for the history of European Christianity, indeed for the history of Christianity everywhere, was the conversion of the emperor Constantine and the ensuing transformation of the Roman Empire into a Christian empire. That change took place on European soil when, in the Battle of the Milvian Bridge on October 28, 312, Constantine defeated the forces of his rival Maxentius, who was emperor for Italy and Africa, and thus became sole emperor. Attributing his victory to the Christian God, Constantine identified the cross of Christ as the "sacred sign" by which the Senate and the Roman people had been restored to their ancient glory. Christianity rapidly moved from being persecuted to being tolerated to being preferred to being established. Constantine in 330 transferred the capital of his newly christianized empire from Rome to Byzantium, renamed Constantinople, or "New Rome." For the history of Christianity in Europe, this move away from Europe served, somewhat ironically, to endow Europe with a position of even greater consequence for the future, for much of the aura that had surrounded Rome and the Roman emperor continued to surround Rome, but now descended instead upon the Roman bishop, who from Europe would declare and enforce his position in the collegial company of bishops as "first among equals" (equals who would become less equal in the process).

Simultaneous with the developing establishment of a Christian empire and of a Christianized European society, and in part as a reaction against it, monasticism both Eastern and Western gave institutional form to the ascetic imperatives of primitive Christianity. Now that the sharp line of differentiation between the church and "the world" had been blurred, it was necessary to find a new and more striking way to draw the line by "forsaking the world" and going into a monastery. Above all, it was the work of Benedict of Nursia (c. 480c. 547), through his Rule, that gave European monasticism a settled form. The monks were to become the principal missionaries to the new populations of Europe as well as the principal transmitters of the cultural heritage, classical as well as Christian, and thus the educators of medieval Europe. It was in recognition of this role that Benedict has been designated "patron saint of Europe."

Medieval Europe

In all of these ways European Christianity was developing in the direction of the forms and structures it was to have when it came to deal with the new populations that arrived in Europe. The beginning of the Middle Ages may be defined for our purposes here as the period during which those new populations were becoming Christian.

Some of these, most notably the Goths, had already become Christian before their arrival: Ulfilas, the fourth-century "apostle of the Goths," had worked among them as a missionary, translating the Bible into Gothic. Paradoxically, however, the christianization of the Goths was to work against them when they came to Europe, because the form of Christianity that Ulfilas had brought them was tainted with the Arian heresy and therefore stood in the way of an immediate political alliance between the Goths and the bishop of Rome. The future of Christian Europe belonged to such an alliance, in which all the Germanic, Celtic, and western Slavic tribes would eventually share. Among these tribes it was the Franks who came to assume a position of leadership when, in a reprise of Constantine's conversion, their king, Clovis, became an orthodox Catholic Christian in 496. With the support of the Catholic episcopate, Clovis set about the task of subduing the "heretical" Visigoths, militarily and then ecclesiastically, in the name of the orthodox faith. As a consequence, in the course of the two centuries after Clovis, the Frankish crown became the principal protector of the Roman see, which reciprocated by supporting Frankish political and territorial ambitions. The coronation as Holy Roman Emperor of the Frankish king Charles, known to history as Charlemagne, by the pope in the year 800 was as much the recognition of an already existing status quo as it was the creation of anything new, but it has served ever since as perhaps the primary symbol of the spiritual unity of "Christian Europe" as a cultural entity.

The Christianization of Europe and of the nations that came into Europe was at the same time the conquest of their indigenous religious traditions, sometimes by missionary activity and sometimes by military victory. Formally and externally, the conquest was taken to mean the total obliteration of the old faith. Thus, when in the early 720s Boniface, the Benedictine monk who bears the title "apostle of Germany," chopped down an oak sacred to the worship of the German god Thor at Geismar, this was interpreted to be the replacement of the "false gods" of paganism with the Christian deity. Yet the same Thor or Donar, god of thunder (Donner ), was to give his name to the Germanic designations for the sixth day of the Christian week ("Thursday" or "Donnerstag"), the very week that began with a Sunday devoted to the weekly commemoration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Similarly, Friday's name came from Freyja, Germanic goddess of love and counterpart of Venus, who gave her name to that same day in French. The names of gods were sometimes transformed into the names of saints who often had the same provenance and some of the same functions as the gods. In sending Augustine to Kent, Pope Gregory I (r. 590604) gave instructions that the new centers of Christian worship should be at the places already revered as holy by the native population; thus, sacred springs and streams became the sites of Christian baptisms. "Conquest," therefore, involved some measure of continuity as well as the more obvious forms of discontinuity.

Conversely, Christianity became European at the cost of increasing discontinuity between itself and Christian churches elsewhere. Such ruptures of continuity took place even within Western Christianity, as the centralized authority of Romeadministrative, liturgical, sometimes also doctrinalclashed with older regional systems. Much of the History of the English Church and People by Bede "the Venerable" (c. 673735) is devoted to the process by which older "Celtic" practices on such questions as monastic tonsure and the date of Easter had to surrender to customs developed on the continent and enforced by the papacy. Even more dramatic and far-reaching in their implications were the deepening differences between East and West. As "New Rome," Constantinople developed forms of organization and worship that gave to Byzantine Christianity a special character that it was to transmit to its daughter churches in eastern Europe. The dream of a single Christian empire reaching from one end of the Mediterranean to the other, all held together by a Greco-Roman Christian culture, never became a reality for any significant length of time, not even under the emperor Justinian (r. 527565), who strove to achieve it by every means available, from armies to dogmas to jurisprudence. And as the Christianity of western Europe began to come of age, its family resemblance to Byzantium became less discernible. The rise and rapid expansion of Islam in the seventh and eighth centuries had, among many other consequences, the result of isolating Eastern Christendom and the Christianity of western Europe from each other. Fundamental differences of missionary methodology asserted themselves, most prominently in the Christianization of the Slavs during the ninth and tenth centuries. Byzantium sought to make a nation Christian by translating the Bible and the liturgy into that nation's language, Rome sought to do so by teaching it to pray in Latin and to accept Roman primacy. The collision between these two methodologies on the Slavic mission field coincided with increasing tensions over jurisdictional questions (such as the proper titles for the patriarchs of Old and New Rome) and doctrinal disputes (such as that over the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father and the Son). All of these were symptomatic of the growing alienationor, to put the matter more positively, of the growing self-awareness of western Europe as a Christian civilization in its own right rather than a Byzantine outpost.

One other difference between Byzantine Christianity and the Christianity of western Europe during the Middle Ages was political. Although the Eastern church was not the servile department of state that Western polemics have often described it to have been, its vision of the Christian empire did view the imperial power as having been transmitted directly from God through Christ to the emperor, without the mediation of church and hierarchy. By contrast, as the symbolism of the coronation of Charlemagne by the pope suggested, the mediation of the church was seen in the West as essential to the legitimacy of political power; it was seen that way by a succession of popes, but also by many emperors and kings, who invoked papal authority to validate their political sovereignty. Claiming the right to "bind" and "loose" (cf. Mt. 16:1819) not only the forgiveness of sins but also political office, the papacy repeatedly came into conflict with the civil power, which often made use of the territorial church in its own land as an instrument of power politics. In the conflict between Pope Gregory VII and Emperor Henry IV, climaxing in their encounter at Canossa in 1077, one of the issues was the tension between the particularistic ambitions both of the German emperor and of the German church and the universal claims of the pope, who, as part of his campaign to purify and reform the church, strove to secure its independence from the economic and political entanglements of the feudal system. A century later, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, defended those universal claims against the king of England, Henry II, and was murdered in 1170.

Combining as they did religious zeal, military ambition, national rivalry, and a yearning for the exotic, the Crusades, beginning at the Council of Clermont in 1095 and ending with the Turkish victory over the Christian forces at Nicopolis in 1396, were, on one level, an expression of the medieval ideal of a united Western Christian Europe: England, France, Germany, and Italy joined forces under the cross of Christ and with the inspiration and blessing of the church to rescue the "holy places" in Palestine. On another level, however, the Crusades are frequently interpreted as a disaster both for Christianity and for Europe, for they not only failed to achieve their goal in Palestine but also proved to be divisive within Christendom itself. The Crusades, as well as the confrontations between "spiritual" and "secular" authority, for which parallels can be found throughout the history of European and British Christianity both in the Middle Ages and since, illustrate the church's paradoxical role as simultaneously the patron of national cultures (whose kings were said to rule "by the grace of God") and the embodiment of a cultural ideal transcending all national boundaries.

That paradox was also at work in other aspects of medieval culture. In the millennium from Boethius (c. 480c. 525) to Martin Luther (14831546), the intellectual history of Europe during the Middle Ages is, to a remarkable extent, the history of Christian thought in its interaction with philosophy, science, and political theory, as these came into medieval Europe both from classical antiquity and from contemporary Islam and Judaism; the Scholasticism of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, whose most influential spokesman was Thomas Aquinas (c. 12251274), was an important chapter in the history of philosophy no less than in that of theology. Much of the architecture of the Middle Ages was made possible by the needs of the church for basilicas, abbeys, and cathedrals, and its art by the themes of Christian worship and devotion. Sacred music and secular music not only coexisted but interacted, both in the monastery and in the community. Early monuments of the literatures of Europe, such as Beowulf and the Norse sagas, document the blending of Christian and non-Christian elements in western Europe, and so, under more explicitly Christian inspiration, do late monuments such as Piers Plowman and Dante's Commedia. Here again, the relation between universal and particulara Latin literature, which is European, versus the several vernacular literatures, which are nationalmanifests the ambivalence of the Christian role in what the medieval historian Robert S. Lopez has called "the birth of Europe."

Europe in the Reformation

Thus there were in medieval Europe, and in the Christianity of medieval Europe, centrifugal forces far more powerful than could be acknowledged by the political and ecclesiastical rhetoric of the oneness of the corpus Christianum. Such oneness as there was had probably reached its zenith in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council, when political and ecclesiastical representatives from all over western Europe had hailed the authority of Pope Innocent III. But both before and after that council, this authority and the unity it symbolized were in jeopardy. National churches pledged their allegiance to the popeand went their own way in polity, liturgy, and religious practice. Kings and emperors craved anointing from the church, but often craved its property and power even more. And theologians opened their treatises with affirmations of their creedal orthodoxy, but manipulated the ambiguities of creedal language to ignore or revise or even undermine the dogmatic tradition.

But whatever cleavages of nations, parties, and schools of thought there may have been in medieval Europe, the principleand the illusionof unity-within-diversity remained. All of that was shattered by the Reformation of the sixteenth century. Conditions in the church throughout western Europe during the later Middle Ages had convinced nearly everyone that some sort of reform in capite et membris ("in head and members"), as the saying went, was needed; there were widespread complaints about episcopal and clerical negligence, abuses of authority at all levels were perceived to be rampant, ignorance and superstition among the people were being overlooked or even encouraged by the church, and even the most responsible voices in ecclesiastical positions acknowledged that almost every high official (sometimes up to and including the pope) could be suspected of having bought his office and thus of having committed the sin of simony. The spectacle of a schism between two popes, one at Rome and the other at Avignon, seemed to prove that the medieval tradition of reform, as enunciated in the eleventh century by Gregory VII, was inadequate to the crisis of the fifteenth century. During that century, a series of church councils (Pisa, 1409; Constance, 14141417; Basel-Ferrara-Florence, 14311445) sought to achieve reform by legislating changes in church life, reestablishing (unsuccessfully) ties to the Eastern churches, formulating orthodox doctrine on various issues, such as purgatory, that had not been set down before, and clarifying the relation between the authority of the pope and the authority of the council. This last issue led to new schisms, this time between pope and council. Some advocates of reform, notably Jan Hus in Bohemia, even set into motion forces that would produce separate churches.

In the intellectual and cultural life of Europe, this was at the same time a period of intense activity and of vigorous change. Although it is historically incorrect to interpret the humanism of the Renaissance, whether Italian or Northern, as a rejection of the essential content of Christianity, it did represent an attack on many of its received traditions. Thus the humanists attacked medieval Scholasticism both for its ignorance of classical culture and for its distortion of Christianity. They made the monks the object of ridicule for caricaturing the ethical imperatives of the New Testament, and they pointed to the contradictions between those imperatives and a great deal that was going on in the institutional life of European Christianity. In keeping with the humanistic motto "Back to the sources!" Italian humanists like Lorenzo Valla (14061457) and northern humanists like Erasmus (1469?1536) devoted their scholarly attention to recovering the original text and the authentic message of the New Testament, and in this sense they also belong to the history of late medieval reform. Humanist and churchman at once, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros (14361517) demonstrated the possibility of holding together Roman Catholic orthodoxy and a commitment to educational and ecclesiastical reform.

What kind of evolution of Christianity all these various reform movements would have brought about on their own is a subject only for speculation. For it was revolution, not evolution, that swept across Christian Europe during the sixteenth century, transforming both the map of Europe itself and the character of European Christianity in the process. The one church of the Middle Ages became the several churches of the Reformation. Each of these reformations was to shape the history of European Christianity in a distinct way.

The Lutheran Reformation carried out into cultural, political, and ecclesiastical structures the impulses set in motion by Martin Luther's struggle for faith. Although Luther began that struggle on the assumption that he could find salvation only within the institutional forms of the Western church, he ended by repudiating many of them, even denouncing the pope as antichrist. A right relation with God was the consequence not of human moral striving but of the divine gift of forgiving grace. That gift, moreover, was appropriated by faith alone, faith being understood as confidence and trust in the divine promise. And the authority for knowing this promise and being assured of this grace was not the voice of the church, but the word of God in the Bible. To be sure, these three Reformation principlesoften cited in their Latin formulations as sola gratia, sola fide, sola Scriptura became the common property of much of Protestantism, not only of Lutheranism, even though Lutheranism often claimed to be alone in carrying them out consistently. But in the Lutheran churches of Europe, above all in Germany and Scandinavia, these principles, enunciated officially in the Augsburg Confession of 1530, served as the foundation for new developments in many fields of culture. The Lutheran chorale, which began with the hymns of Luther himself, flourished from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, producing not only hundreds of new liturgies and hymnals but also the sacred music of Johann Sebastian Bach (16851750). In formulating the implications of the Reformation principles, the theologians of the Lutheran church constructed systems of Christian doctrine that sometimes rivaled those of the medieval Scholastics for comprehensiveness, if not for philosophical sophistication.

The Calvinist traditionor, as it has often preferred to identify itself, the Reformed traditionshared many of the central emphases of the Lutheran Reformation, but sought to carry them out with greater consistency. As worked out in the career and thought of John Calvin (15091564), it took sola Scriptura to mean an elimination of those features in worship and Christian culture that could not claim explicit biblical warrant. The primacy and sovereignty of divine grace implied that not only salvation, but also damnation, was the consequence of the will of God. Perhaps most important of all was the Reformed belief that the social order, no less than the life of the individual believer, must be brought into conformity with the revealed word of God. In the Calvinist lands of Europe, therefore, far more than in the Lutheran ones, the Reformation brought about a concerted effort to reshape politics and economics in accordance with this standard. Whether or not this helped to create a spiritual climate in which modern European capitalism was able to take seed, as Max Weber and other scholars have contended, is still a matter of controversy, but Calvinism certainly did shape attitudes toward work, property, social justice, and public order not only in the Swiss and other non-Lutheran forms of Protestantism on the continent, but far beyond the borders of western Europe (including North America).

One of the regions in which the Calvinist Reformation became a major cultural force was the British Isles. Through the reformatory work of John Knox (c. 15141572), it was the Reformed version of Protestantism that prevailed in Scotland. Doctrinally this meant that the Scots Confession of 1560, which Knox composed together with several colleagues, was to be the first official statement of the teaching of the Reformed Church of Scotland, until it was replaced by the Westminster Confession of 1647. Liturgically, the Reformed character of the Church of Scotland was guaranteed by The Book of Common Order (15561564), in which Knox and his associates set down forms of worship that in their judgment conformed to the scriptures and affirmed the evangelical commitments of Reformation faith.

The relation of England to the Reformed tradition was considerably more equivocal. Although the earliest influences of the continental Reformation came to England through the writings and the disciples of Luther, the terms of the settlement that emerged from the break with Rome occasioned by the divorce of Henry VIII (14911547) avoided putting the Church of England unambiguously into any one confessional camp. The Book of Common Prayer, the retention of the apostolic succession of ordaining bishops, and the Thirty-nine Articles, taken together despite their deep differences of approach, defined the settlement. It was only with the rise of Puritanism and its protest against such ambiguity that Reformed patterns of churchmanship and theology began to press for control within Anglicanism. The established church of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries left a permanent imprint on English culture through such literary monuments as the Authorized Version of the Bible and (despite profound divergences) the works of John Milton (16081674).

Unless the term Reformation is understood in a polemical and denominational sense as coextensive with the term Protestantism, however, it is necessary to include in it the history of the Roman Catholic reformation as well, and not simply to interpret this as a "counterreformation." The Protestant Reformation did not exhaust the imperative sense of reform within the church. In every country of Europe, therefore, Luther's activity evoked not only a defense of Roman Catholic doctrine and order but also a call for greater dedication to the cause of reform. The most abiding expression of that dedication came at the Council of Trent (15451563), which reaffirmed the church's teaching by identifying which positions among the many being espoused by churchmen and theologians lay within the bounds of orthodoxy and which did not. No less urgent an item on the council's agenda was the elimination of the abuses to which its fifteenth-century predecessors had already addressed their attention. Bishops were now obliged to be resident in their dioceses, instead of collecting the income and leaving the duties to surrogates. Preaching and teaching were prominent among those duties, and therefore the professional training of future clergy in seminaries was incumbent on the church everywhere. Implementation of the Catholic reformation was entrusted not only to a revitalized episcopate and clergy and a reformed papacy but also to the renewal of the religious orders and to the development of a new religious order, indeed, a new kind of order, in the Society of Jesus, founded by Ignatius Loyola (14911556). In part to compensate for the losses of European territory to Protestantism, the Jesuits and other religious orders undertook an intensification of missionary activity in the New World, as well as in Asia.

Also a part of the Reformation in Europe, despite their exclusion from conventional accounts, were the representatives of the several radical reformations. Anabaptism criticized Lutheranism and Calvinism for not having gone far enough in their rejection of traditional Roman Catholic forms, and it pressed for a "believers' church," in which only those who made a public commitment and confession would be members; since that excluded infants, the practice of infant baptism was repudiated. To be consistent, many of the Anabaptists, notably the Mennonites, likewise disavowed the Constantinian union between church and state, and some of them even repudiated the definition of "just war" and hence the theory that Christians could wield the sword. Although such groups as the Mennonites retained the orthodox doctrines of the Trinity and the divinity of Christ, the radical critique of traditional Christianity led others to question these as well. Despite their relatively small numbers, the churches and sects of the radical Reformation were expressing misgivings about the forms of institutional and orthodox Christianity, misgivings that appear to have been widespread, though unacknowledged, throughout Europe, both Roman Catholic and Protestant. Thus the end result of the Reformation was a Europe balkanized into confessions and denominations that continued to divide among themselves, a Europe in which the assumptions of a thousand years about a common Christian worldview were less and less valid.

European Christianity in the Modern Period

If it is correct to characterize the era of the Reformation as a time when revolution began to replace evolution as a means of dealing with the problems of church and state, it is even more appropriate to see the situation of European Christianity in the modern period as one of coping with an age of revolutionor, more accurately, of revolutions in every sphere of human activity. One of the most widely used histories of Christianity in the modern period bears the title The Church in an Age of Revolution.

Politically, the Europe that emerged from the conflicts of the Reformation would seem to be the negation of revolution. When history textbooks speak of this as "the age of absolutism," they are referring to the achievement, under such monarchs as Louis XIV of France (r. 16431715), of a level of royal authority seldom witnessed before or since, in which the church, though with some reluctance, acted as a buttress of the secular power. Yet before the century that began with Louis XIV on the throne of France had ended, the overthrow of monarchy in France and the proclamation of a new order (even of a new calendar) symbolized the end of secular absolutism, and increasingly the end of Christian hegemony. Many of the leaders of the French Revolution were openly hostile not only to the institutional church but also to the principal teachings of the Christian tradition as a whole; others sought a more positive relation between Christianity and revolution. Both overt opposition and the quest for rapprochement were to play a part in Christian reactions to the successive revolutions of modern Europe, for example in 1848. Christianity was identified, by friend and foe alike, as allied with the ancient regime; and by the time it had come to terms with the revolutionary regime, that was already being overthrown by a new revolution, with which Christianity must once more come to terms. A permanent outcome of those seemingly constant shifts was the creation, in many countries of Europe, of Christian democratic parties, sometimes at the conservative end of the political spectrum but often centrist in their policies, and even of various forms of Christian socialism. The condemnation of socialism and of other modern revolutionary movements in the Syllabus of Errors issued by Pope Pius IX in 1864 must be seen in counterpoint with the "social encyclicals," especially those of Pope Leo XIII (r. 18781903), which articulated a reconciliation of Christian teachings with the best in the democratic systems; a similar range of political opinion, and thus of response to the revolutions of the time, was present as well in the various branches of European Protestantism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

What Christians of all denominations found objectionable in much of revolutionary ideology was not only its attack on political regimes with which the institutional church had made its peace, but also its alliance with intellectual and social movements that seemed bent on undermining the Christian faith itself. Thus the theoretical foundations of both the French and the American revolutions contained many elements of the philosophy of the Enlightenment. Against the traditional Christian insistence on the need for revelation, Enlightenment thought defended the capacity of the natural mind to find the truth about the good life, and against the Christian distinction between the capacities of human nature and the superadded gift of divine grace, it ascribed to human nature the ability to live in accordance with that truth. Enlightenment science, and above all the philosophy that both underlay much of the science and was based upon it, seemed increasingly to make the Christian doctrine of creation irrelevant.

Enlightenment thought was the most vigorous expression of the more general attack on traditional European Christianity known as "secularism," which may be defined as the belief that, here in this world (Lat., saeculum ), religious ideas about revelation and eternal life are not necessary to the development of a good life for the individual or society. Philosophically that belief has expressed itself in the construction of rational systems of thought and of conduct that attacked or simply ignored the claims of supernatural grace and revelation. Politically it took the form of gradually withdrawing from the church the privileged status it had held in the countries of Europe. Public education excluded Christian teaching from its curriculum and Christian ceremonies from its practice. The state would determine the criteria for what made a marriage valid, and the church ritual would at best serve only as a public attestation of a status defined by secular criteria. The clergy, who in medieval Europe had been tried in their own courts even for offenses against the political order (the issue on which Becket had clashed with the English crown) lost their special legal standing. Of the many instances in modern European history when secularism and Christianity clashed, the most renowned was probably the Kulturkampf in nineteenth-century Germany, in which the newly united German empire took drastic steps to curb the cultural and political status of the Roman Catholic Church. Although most of those steps were in fact eventually reversed, the Kulturkampf has come to symbolize a pattern widespread throughout Europe.

The case of the Kulturkampf suggests another closely related phenomenon that has also been a major force in redefining the place of Christianity in modern European culture, the dominance of nationalism. The nineteenth century, the "great century" of Christian missions, was as well the century of nationalist expansion into the European colonial empires. As the custodian of nationality and the patron of the national cultures of Christian Europe, Christianity had long maintained a dual role in fostering and yet restraining the devotion to the nation. Now that such devotion was assuming the proportions of a principal rival to the church for the deepest loyalties of European populations, this dual role meant that Christianity sometimes expressed itself in national terms so exclusive as to obscure its universal significance. One of the most frequent arenas for the clash between Christianity and national aspirations has been the effort of national governments to control the governance of the church within their own territories on such questions as episcopal appointments: Gallicanism was the effort by French ecclesiastics and statesmen to assert what were taken to be the historic rights of the church in France against the centralized ultramontane authority of the papacy. The most notorious expression of national religion came in the program of the German Christians in Nazi Germany, who identified the Christian gospel with Germanic ideology and Aryan purity.

As the supreme expression of nationalistic devotion, modern warfare has also been the ultimate test of Christianity's relation to European culture. From Augustine and Thomas Aquinas had come the definition of just war, which Christianity applied, with greater or lesser appropriateness, to modern European wars from the Thirty Years' War to World War II. Church leaders in European nations on both sides during those wars invoked the blessing of the same Christian God not only on the individuals who fought but also on the nationalist cause for which they fought. The same church leaders, however, often reminded their nations of the moral demands of a humanity beyond the nation, and in the efforts for peace and reconstruction after a war Christianity has often played a constructive role. The archbishop of Uppsala, Nathan Söderblom (18661931), received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1930 for his work after World War I. In the aftermath of the invention of nuclear weapons, Christianity in Europejoined then by both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism elsewheretook the lead in the task of rethinking the very notion of just war. It was also from Christianity in Europe that there came the reminder of what Pope John Paul II called "the common Christian roots of the nations of Europe" and the summons to find in those roots a vision of the continuing relation between Christianity and European culture. Thus, in a sense quite different from Belloc's own, the thesis that "Europe is the faith, and the faith is Europe" has continued to find support.

See Also

Crusades; Enlightenment, The; Humanism; Modernism, article on Christian Modernism; Monasticism, article on Christian Monasticism; New Religious Movements, article on New Religious Movements in Europe; Papacy; Reformation; Scholasticism.


Bainton, Roland H. The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. New ed. Foreword by Jaroslav Pelikan. Boston, 1985. Deceptively clear yet complex and profound, a splendid introduction to the subject, with bibliographies that carry the reader to the next level.

Cambridge Medieval History. 8 vols. Cambridge, 19111936. There is no volume of this comprehensive work without direct relevance to the understanding of the history of Christianity in Europe.

Cambridge Modern History. 13 vols. Cambridge, 19021912. Antiquated though it is in both methodology and facts, this remains the most useful account of the entire story. Its very quaintness makes its discussions of Christianity especially helpful.

Chadwick, Owen. The Reformation. The Pelican History of the Church, vol. 3. Baltimore, 1964. Together with the other volumes of the series listed below (Cragg, Neill, Southern, and Vidler), the best place for the English reader to begin.

Cragg, Gerald R. The Church and the Age of Reason, 16481789. Baltimore, 1960. Remarkably free of animus, a thoughtful and provocative reading of the Enlightenment.

Fliche, Augustin, and Victor Martin, eds. Histoire de l'Église, depuis les origines jusqu'à nos jours. 21 vols. Paris, 19351964. Each volume of this learned set provides information and insight; Émile Amann's L'époque carolingienne (Paris, 1937), the sixth volume, stands alone as an account of the Carolingian period and its aftermath.

Latourette, K. S. A History of the Expansion of Christianity. 7 vols. New York, 19371945. As Stephen Neill (see below) has said, "It is baffling to his successors that, when we think we have made some specially bright discovery of our own, we nearly always find that he has been there before us."

Neill, Stephen C. A History of Christian Missions. Baltimore, 1964. European without being Eurocentric, it puts European Christianity into a world context.

Nichols, James. History of Christianity, 16501950. New York, 1956. As its title suggests, this volume makes "secularization" its central theme.

Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition : A History of the Development of Doctrine. 4 vols. Chicago, 19711984. Not exclusively, but primarily, European in its focus.

Southern, Richard W. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Harmondsworth, 1970. Unlike most histories of medieval Christianity, Southern's narrative concentrates on society and culture in the Middle Ages.

Vidler, Alec. The Church in an Age of Revolution. Baltimore, 1961. A judicious selection of persons and events to interpret the history of Christianity, especially in Europe, during the past two centuries.

Wand, J. W. C. A History of the Modern Church from 1500 to the Present Day. London, 1946. An interesting contrast to the viewpoint set forth by other volumes in this bibliography.

New Sources

Hastings, Adrian. History of English Christianity. London, 1991.

Phillips, Paul T. A Kingdom on Earth: Anglo-American Social Christianity, 18801940. University Park, Pa., 1996.

Jaroslav Pelikan (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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