Christianity and Progress


Christians, we are often told, are the people marooned on the wrong side of history. Critics charge that Christians have time and again buttressed hierarchy against equality, patriarchy against women's rights, absolutism against individualism, and small-minded tradition against broad-minded tolerance. Such notions are far from the truth.

Christians, we are often told, are easy to locate. They are the people marooned on the wrong side of history. Again and again, century after dispiriting century, they have dug in their heels against progress. In politics, the critics charge, a Christian's instinctive allegiance has been with despots and oppressors rather than democrats and liberators, with inquisitors and book burners as opposed to probing minds and pamphleteers. Christians have buttressed hierarchy against equality, patriarchy against women's rights, absolutism against individualism, and small-minded tradition against broad-minded tolerance. The most popular version of this indictment sees the whole of Western history since the fall of Rome as a difficult but increasingly successful struggle to wrest the human spirit from the fetters of the Christian church.

"It's not hard to be hostile to the church," Jane Fonda confided to Oprah. After all, "you can go through history, the Crusades and the inquisitions, and the formal church has a lot to apologize for." Fonda's view of the Christian past is not an uncommon one.

The indictment of Christianity as a reactionary faith usually spares the message of Jesus himself, but turns on the earliest church leaders including Paul, on the church fathers of Late Antiquity, and on the clerics of the Middle Ages. Augustine, the most influential of the patristic writers, is frequently seen as a grim prototype of Torquemada, encouraging church absolutism and the persecution of heretical ideas. The medieval church to which he contributed so much is portrayed as a kind of institutional incubus, sucking liberty and creativity out of Europe for hundreds of years. Every presumed sin of Christianity is seen in distilled form in the medieval West.

This is the viewpoint adopted by high school textbooks, as Paul Gagnon confirmed in his study of the five most-read books. "The Middle Ages, when they are mentioned at all," he concludes, "are dark and stagnant, their people without ideas or curiosity, and interested only in life after the grave." Popular historians and critics echo this attitude. For example, in his review of David Fromkin's sweeping survey of world history, The Way of the World: From the Dawn of Civilization to the Eve of the Twenty-first Century, Richard Bernstein of the New York Times praised the author for dealing "in about half a page with Galileo, Francis Bacon, Rene Descartes and Michel de Montaigne, saying that they were all men of 'skepticism in thought and moderation in action' who helped draw Europe out of 'the long sleep of feudalism.' That is correct, and to be correct is an achievement." The implication is that moving forward required retreating from the medieval faith.

Yet there is a quite different possibility: that the Middle Ages were the incubator for some of our most cherished modern values and institutions, and that the origins of those values and institutions may often be found in an earlier age of the church.

"Both slave and free must equally philosophize, whether male or female in sex ... whether barbarian, Greek, slave, whether an old man, or a boy, or a woman.... And we must admit that the same nature exists in every race, and the same virtue." These remarks by Clement of Alexandria (c. 200) cannot be confused with the views of most educated citizens of the Roman Empire in the third century. The sentiments they express would have been equally unusual, or more so, in the other great civilizations of the time: the various empires stretching across Asia, as well as those in the Americas and in Africa south of the Sahara. Clement spoke with the distinctively universalist tone of a Christian. "I would ask you," he declared, "does it not seem monstrous that you — human beings who are God's own handiwork — should be subjected to another master, and, even worse, serve a tyrant instead of God, the true king?"

This was explosive stuff, and its force rested in its premise: If human beings are all God's own handiwork — and if, moreover, they are made in God's image, as Christians from the early days believed — then it follows that they must be moral equals. And once they are moral equals, the progress associated with Western civilization cannot be far behind. Without belief in moral equality, there would have been little hope for the rise of the Western legal tradition, with its distinctive feature of equality before the law. The recognition of individual rights would scarcely have been possible. Without moral equality, democracy in the modern sense is not even a serf's fugitive dream.

Of course, it was many centuries after the first appearance of Christian communities before practical political philosophers would write, with self-conscious gravity — and a sense that they were expressing the will of God — "we hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal," and then found a nation committed to that principle. It took so long, in part, because it had to be made self-evident that all men are created equal, and that was the work of centuries. Someone could write such a statement in 1776 and expect his readers not to laugh out loud only because of a common culture steeped in the belief that mankind was "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." That culture was a legacy of Western Christendom.

It is not that Christians were the first or only people to insist on the fraternity of mankind and the intrinsic value of each human being. Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius, the second-century Roman emperor, also held that all individuals are equals. Yet there was a grim and cheerless quality about the Stoics, who believed in the suppression of all passions, not just the bad ones, and who touted virtue while denying it had any positive effect. The Stoics never tapped the popular longing for a sense of moral equality in the way Christians did.

Jews of the ancient world put unusual value on human life, and as Elaine Pagels remarks, "Hebrew tradition sometimes reveals a sense of universalism where one might least expect it. Even God's election of Abraham and his progeny includes the promise of a blessing to extend through them to all people, for that famous passage concludes with the words, 'in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."1 For a time, Judaism appeared a candidate to become a world religion, as converts scurried toward its impressive ethics and clear-headed monotheism. Yet in the end, the tribal legacy of Judaism presented obstacles too great for many pagans to overcome — circumcision being only the most obvious. It was Christianity that proved the more powerful lure. Up and down the social ladder, the doctrine of moral equality was to find an ever-expanding home.

How Christian Ethics Transformed the Pagan World

More than two hundred years after the death of Jesus, midway into the third century, Christians were still a small minority in the Roman Empire — no more than 5 percent of the multiethnic throng by the highest estimates, and probably less than half that much. "They were mostly concentrated in the bigger cities, but they were prominent in towns of varying rank and degree," Robin Lane Fox concludes in Pagans and Christians. "Their center of gravity lay with the humbler free classes, not with the slaves, whom they did little to evangelize.... Women of all ranks were conspicuous and there was a notable presence in some churches of women of high status.2

What was it that accounted for this particular social profile, if not Christianity's insistence on the equal value of every soul in God's sight? The apostle Paul had said, "there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus," and his words still resonate two thousand years later. How much more potent they must have seemed in an empire in which social class — from emperor down to slave — was so much more confining, and in which the portion of the population that could be bought and sold like oxen seemed to swell with Rome's stupendous military reach.

How much more inspiring, in particular, the early Christian message must have been to women. To put it plainly, women enjoyed higher status and more autonomy among Christians than among pagans, and could expect better treatment from their husbands. Pagan Roman women were "three times as likely as Christians to have married before age 13," according to the sociologist Rodney Stark.3 Christian women also exercised far more choice in whom they wed, and were less likely to be forced into an abortion (a frequent cause of death for women of the time). The church expected men to remain faithful to their wives, a principle that enjoyed more freedom to choose for themselves whether to remarry, secure in the knowledge that their congregation would look after them if they elected to remain alone. "It is . . . an established fact, taken from simple evidence, that everywhere progress in free choice of a spouse accompanied progress in the spread of Christianity," declares Regine Pernoud.4

Women's status in the church itself was unusually favorable for the times. Wayne Meeks notes that "Both in terms of their position in the larger society and in terms of their participation in the Christian communities ... a number of women broke through the expectations of female roles."5 Paul is often rebuked these days for his offhand acceptance of the fact of slavery and for his allegedly regressive views on the status of women. But in fact what distinguished Paul from his non-Christian contemporaries was not the patriarchal views he sometimes expressed, especially in the admonition "Wives, be subject to your husbands as to the Lord," but rather his repeated emphasis on the obligations of husbands to wives. Thomas Cahill writes that in Paul we find "the only clarion affirmation of sexual equality in the whole of the Bible — and the first one ever to be made in any of the many literatures of our planet."6 A. N. Wilson makes the same point: "In those days, you would have been hard put to find anyone who believed in 'sexual equality' in the modern sense, and the person who comes closest to it is, strangely enough, Paul."7

Paul also demanded that converts of Gentile background enjoy the same status as their brethren of Jewish origin, perhaps thereby sparing the Jesus movement a narrow future as another Jewish sect. This accomplishment is more extraordinary than it might now seem. It meant that the competition between paganism and Christianity, as Robert L. Wilken explains in The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, was something quite unusual: "a debate about a new concept of religion.... The ancients took for granted that religion was indissolubly linked to a particular city or people. Indeed, there was no term for religion in the sense we now use it to refer to ... a voluntary association divorced from ethnic or national identity."8 With Paul leading the way, Christianity would shatter this insular outlook for all time.

The crucial difference between pagans and Christians was not, as is commonly supposed, a belief in many gods versus a belief in one. By the first and second centuries, many pagans had begun to conceive of the major Roman gods as aspects of a unified divinity. This "striving after monotheism," in Henry Chadwick's phrase, also took the form of sun worship and an openness to spiritual imports from the East. But Chadwick points out that "Even after the cults of Isis and the Oriental mystery religions had spread from their original homes, there was curiously little sense of universality about their worship."9 It wasn't the number of their gods that prevented the vast majority of pagans from developing an outlook that transcended town, region, class and sometimes even gender. It was, at least in part, the confining nature of the religious message itself.

To be sure, most early Christians did not hope to transform society to mirror their belief in moral equality. It made as much sense to advocate manned flight as to propose equality before the law in an empire utterly dependent on slaves, with rulers who functioned as a law unto themselves. How could there be moral equality when the emperor was believed to possess something akin to divine powers? Yet even in those early centuries, Christian morality worked like a great shock absorber on everyday life, softening the blows of a frequently pitiless existence and gentling the private realm.

For exhilarating cruelty, few spectacles in human history have surpassed the gladiatorial games. Crowds that included the very best citizens exulted as scores of men, and sometimes many hundreds, slaughtered one another for fleeting fame and honor. Not that they always had much choice in the matter. Elaine Pagels describes the action at the Roman amphitheater in the second century: "The spectators cheered the men who recklessly courted death, and thrilled to the moment of the death blow. The crowd would go wild when a defeated gladiator defiantly thrust out his neck to his antagonist's sword, and they jeered and hooted when a loser bolted in panic."10 Major imperial shows could deploy thousands of pairs of combatants, not to mention all manner of animals and wild beasts — hounds, lions, bears, bulls — battling one another, or humans, to the death.

Christians deplored this entertainment, and not merely because there was always the chance that they might themselves someday wind up as prey. Rather, they were repulsed by the way this spectacle debased human life. When the Emperor Constantine outlawed gladiator games in the fourth century (or attempted to; they flourished for decades afterward), he did so as an affirmation of Christian values.

Even Edward Gibbon — the great eighteenth-century historian whose Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire so provoked pious Christians of his day — had to concede the impressive ethical standards of early Christians. He listed their "pure and austere morals" as the fourth of five reasons for Christianity's remarkable growth before Constantine."11 Yet this is grudging tribute. It hardly does justice to a morality that rejected the casual practice of infanticide and the abandonment of unwanted babies, opposed the exploitation of children for erotic pleasure, elevated the status of women, accepted and broadened the Jewish tradition of concern for the poor (as Ramsay MacMullen tartly observes, "who outside that tradition in the ancient world would have been recorded on his tombstone as a `lover of the poor'?"),12 exalted humility, and tirelessly preached the gifts of charity and love. "Austere" is scant praise indeed for such bedrock beliefs. "Life-affirming" is more like it.

If the amphitheater was the gaudiest manifestation of pagan cruelty the killing of infants, often by abandoning them on the local dung heap, was the saddest. Boys were disposed of when they were deformed; girls when they were inconvenient. The result was a society — not just in Italy but in the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa — in which males outnumbered females by 30 per cent or more. Most families simply refused to raise a second girl. Consider the instructions written by a man named Hilarion to his pregnant wife around the year Jesus was born: "If you are delivered of a child, if it is a boy keep it, if a girl discard it." Such orders were so ordinary, so unexceptional, that they didn't require a single word of justification. Christians, on the other hand, had a starkly different attitude: female infants were to be cherished equally with males as gifts from God.

True, there was great variety among early Christians, such that it is sometimes difficult, in Wayne Meeks's words, "to draw firm boundaries" around their moral beliefs. Yet there is little doubt that within this diversity there existed "a family resemblance of moral traits."13 Moreover, the contrast between pagan and Christian ethics is not only apparent retrospectively to historians; it was emphasized by early converts like Justin Martyr, who rejoiced at the "innumerable multitude who have reformed intemperate habits." And it was noted repeatedly by anti-Christian pagans of the time.

The Emperor Julian ("the Apostate"), whose last-ditch effort to reverse the Christian tide in 360-63 expired at the point of a Persian arrow, admitted that "It is generosity toward non-members, care for the graves of the dead, and pretended holiness of life that have specially fostered the growth of atheism" (a common term for Christianity at the time). Ammianus Marcellinus, the fourth century historian who attributed Roman military setbacks to a failure to satisfy pagan gods, nevertheless described Christianity as a "just and gentle" religion. The satirist Lucian of Samosata (c. 170) knew "that the Christians were unbelievably generous with their money and preferred to be open-handed rather than inquire too closely into the recipients." Even the provincial governor Pliny the Younger, who executed Christians for no reason other than their stubborn profession of faith, acknowledged in a letter to the Emperor Trajan that their behavior appeared above reproach, except of course for their regrettable "superstition." "During the plague in Alexandria," writes Robin Lane Fox, Christians "tended their own sufferers, while the pagans were said to abandon their sick at the first sign of disease; during the siege of the same year, the two Christian leaders contrived to save many old and weak people, Christians first, then pagans, too, later."14 Moreover, "Whereas the corn doles of pagan cities had been confined to citizens, usually to those who were quite well-off, the Christians' charity claimed to be for those who were most in need."15

There is no doubt that Christian charity (about which more later) exercised a powerful pull on converts, and that Christian dedication to the poor, ill, disabled, imprisoned, elderly, widowed and exploited was notable from the outset. Early bishops, for example, were expected to eat one meal a day with the poor. In the larger cities, the church founded orphanages and the forerunners of hospitals. As the Roman Empire spiraled into chaos, the church expanded its philanthropic role until it was virtually the sole recourse of the poor. "St. Gregory is said to have taken his responsibilities so seriously," recounts Christopher Dawson, "that when a single poor man was found dead of hunger in Rome, he abstained from saying Mass as though he were guilty of his death."16

It is not that Christian ethics were entirely original; they were substantially Jewish in derivation, although with distinctive accents such as the command to love one's enemies. And it is possible to exaggerate the moral differences between pagans and Christians; for leading pagan citizens were capable of great acts of giving, if not often to the direct benefit of the poor, then at least to the local community and to their gods. Much of Christian ethics can be found articulated by pagan philosophers.

"Hence the paradox of the rise of Christianity as a moral force in the pagan world," observes Peter Brown.

The rise of Christianity altered profoundly the moral texture of the late Roman world. Yet in moral matters the Christian leaders made almost no innovations. What they did was more crucial. They created a new group, whose exceptional emphasis on solidarity in the face of its own inner tensions ensured that its members would practice what pagan and Jewish moralists had already begun to preach."17

The result was that the ethical differences in practice between the pagan and Christian worlds could be stark. The concepts of mercy and humility were not just unappreciated in pagan culture, they were ridiculed by men of the highest learning. The idea that God put us on earth to love one another — that the duty of charity demolished family and community boundaries — was radically offensive to many wellborn pagans.

Gibbon believed that paganism had lost its religious vigor by the time of Jesus, becoming little more than a facade for vacant materialism. Some modern historians disagree. To Robert Wilken, for example, "the debate between paganism and Christianity in antiquity was at bottom a conflict between two religious visions. The Romans were not less religious than the Christians."18 Yet even if the pagan and Christian outlooks overlapped at points, there was no reconciling the differences. "The Christian principle, 'Love your enemies,' is good," quipped Bertrand Russell, "but the Stoic principle, 'Be indifferent to your friends,' is bad. And the Christian principle does not inculcate calm, but an ardent love even towards the worst of men. There is nothing to be said against it except that it is too difficult for most of us to practice sincerely."19

But beginning in the first century, a swelling parade of men and women announced that they would try.

How Church/State Rivalry Prevented the Total Domination of Either

When Theodosius the Great allowed the Visigoths, in the year 382, to settle within the Roman Empire in return for their promise to fight as allies, he committed one of those slow-moving blunders that take years to ripen into full catastrophe. The emperor had chosen a policy of coexistence rather than confrontation, believing that the barbarians could be contained, neutralized, exploited. Instead, by slow degrees, they and future invaders seized ever larger pieces of the empire, culminating first in the Sack of Rome in 410 and finally in the collapse of the Western Empire in 476.

Yet much as he sought to avoid a showdown with barbarians squatting on his territory, Theodosius was no pacifist. Like his predecessors, he countered challenges to imperial authority with a mailed fist. It was just such an incident that produced one of the defining moments in all of Christian, and indeed Western, history.

The spark was lit in 390 by a mob in Thessalonica that murdered an officer of the garrison. When Theodosius heard of it, he reacted with fury, ordering a wholesale reprisal. Roman troops set upon a large crowd assembled in the circus, and in a breathtaking massacre, slaughtered upwards of seven thousand. In an earlier age, the incident would have ended there. An emperor who wades through the blood of innocents need never glance back unless, that is, he happens to be a nominal Christian and is called to account by the likes of Bishop Ambrose of Milan.

Ambrose had counseled Theodosius against his butchery, and now he threw down the gauntlet: The emperor must repent or the Holy Eucharist would be withheld from him. In his letter of condemnation, Ambrose declared, "There was that done in the city of the Thessalonians of which no similar record exists, which I was not able to prevent happening; which, indeed, I had before said would be most atrocious when I so often petitioned against it." Pointedly noting the biblical example of David's repentance, the bishop then wheeled out his heavy cannon: "I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present. Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so."

It was an act of magnificent valor, but even more memorable for the principle it enshrined: No ruler was above God's law and no churchman might trample on that law in the service of his sovereign. The church's moral authority flowed from God, not the state.

Of course there is no particular reason why even a Christian emperor like Theodosius would necessarily flinch at such a high handed challenge. There must have been a close moment or two as a result. Yet in the end, Theodosius consented to public penance at the cathedral in Milan. Ambrose had risked everything to assert ecclesiastical preeminence in moral judgment. In so doing, he provided an example that would echo through the centuries.

Ambrose and the other stiff-necked clerics who followed would help to check secular authorities in the Christian world from seizing the kind of suffocating, unimpeded power that rulers elsewhere usually enjoyed. They didn't do this because they endorsed a separation of powers in the modern sense. Medieval popes sometimes asserted not only independence but even supremacy over secular lords, and were often willing to exercise civil power when it fell their way. Yet the practical effect of their confrontations with temporal powers would be deeply important for the growth of freedom and the carving out of separate spheres of influence.

This was not Ambrose's first gamble on behalf of church prerogatives. A few years before, during the ascendancy of Valentinian II in the west, Ambrose had defied a direct order by the Empress Justina that he turn over a church to those who professed the Arian creed; he and throngs of supporters held out even after Gothic soldiers were dispatched to seize the basilica. "The counts and tribunes came and urged me to cause the basilica to be quickly surrendered, saying that the Emperor was exercising his rights since everything was under his power," Ambrose explained in a letter. "I answered that if he asked of me what was mine, that is, my land, my money, or whatever of this kind was my own, I would not refuse it, although all that I have belonged to the poor, but that those things which are God's are not subject to the imperial power."

Fortunately for Ambrose, the Goths — who might just as easily pillage as parley — were in no mood for a massacre. The bishop prevailed. Even if he were not a father of the Christian church, he would surely be remembered as one of very few unarmed men in all of Roman history to succeed in forcing more than one emperor to blink.

Although Ambrose lived decades after Constantine's Edict of Milan (A.D. 313), which ended the era of Christian persecution, he proved that church leaders (at least in the west) were not about to forget their past. Three hundred years of anxious, sometimes furtive, existence had molded a psychology of defiance and even contempt for the lordly pretensions of secular powers. This psychology was braced by what Richard Fletcher describes as the "rich Judaic literature of exile which was developed by early Christian writers, "20 and by a Gospel that demanded Christians to distinguish between what they owed Caesar and what they owed God. Church leaders and philosophers who had risked martyrdom before the fourth century — and it was they who mainly had been targeted, not average communicants — were followed by men like Ambrose who maintained the same unchained spirit. "In matters of faith," Ambrose declared, "bishops are wont to be the judges of Christian emperors, not emperors of bishops."

Ambrose was not the most impudent of fourth-century churchmen. Christopher Dawson recounts how when the Emperor Constantius II attempted to meddle in ecclesiastical issues, he was "met with vehement opposition from two quarters: from Athanasius, the great bishop of Alexandria, and from the West, where the doctrine of the independence of the Church was uncompromisingly maintained, above all by St. Hilary and Hosius, the famous bishop of Cordova."21 Hosius let Constantius have it without a speck of reserve:

Remember that you are a mortal man. Fear the day of judgment.... Do not interfere in ecclesiastical affairs, or dictate anything about them to us, but rather learn from us what you ought to believe concerning them. God has given to you the government of the Empire and to us that of the Church. Whosoever dares to impugn your authority, sets himself against the order of God. Take care lest you likewise render yourself guilty of a great crime by usurping the authority of the Church. We are commanded to give unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's. It is not lawful for us to arrogate to ourselves the imperial authority. You also have no power in the ministry of holy things.

As bold as such language was, it lacked a certain intellectual heft. That would be supplied in due course by Augustine (354-429), the great North African bishop of Hippo and, after Paul, the most important Christian philosopher of the first millennium. He wrote The City of God after the Sack of Rome in 410 had staggered the empire's self-confidence, and pagans were interpreting it as the vengeance of their now-neglected gods. Augustine countered with the long view: Empires rise and fall in the natural order of things, but the church's mission stands apart from any passing secular institution. Because the true church endures, it is government's duty to take instruction from religion, not the other way around. This view could reinforce arrogance and absolutism in the church, and eventually it did. Yet Augustine's political theory also provided a basis for ideals of human freedom and individual rights.

Augustine saw that the state often became a ravenous predator, in need of restraint. "Without justice, what then are kingdoms but great robberies?" he asked. "For what are robberies themselves but little kingdoms?" Still, he was not propounding an antigovernment theory. Because of man's fallen nature, he regarded the state as a necessary instrument for maintaining order. "Sinful man hates the equality of all men under God," he explained, "and, as though he were God, loves to impose his own sovereignty upon his fellow men." The state could at least keep these predators at bay — an essential but hardly exalted function.

In effect, Fletcher writes, Augustine "detached the state — any state, but in particular, of course, the Roman state — from the Christian community. Under his hands the Roman empire became theologically neutral."22 By clearly delimiting the role of secular powers, Augustine helped set Western Christendom on a course in which the believer's duties to God (however interpreted) might trump his obligations to the state. It is impossible to understand the West's unique tradition of the dissenting conscience without granting Augustine his due.

The ancients tended to equate an individual's well-being with that of society. It is no wonder that "there seems to be scarcely any discussion of individual liberty as a conscious political ideal (as opposed to its actual existence) in the ancient world," as Isaiah Berlin once noted .23 Yet the concept of the individual is embedded in the biblical emphasis on the sanctity of each life, which reaches its summit in Jesus' final commandment to his apostles that they "love one another as I have loved you." Augustine helped develop the concept of the individual by introducing to Western thought what Charles Taylor calls the "first person standpoint."

Indeed, in his Confessions, a highly personal memoir, Augustine became "the first to make the first-person standpoint fundamental to our search for the truth."24 It is no accident that when the discussion of individual liberty finally breaks into view, it is a gift of Christendom — in no small part because of the bishop of Hippo.

To be sure, Augustine is often burdened with precisely the opposite legacy. As Elaine Pagels observes, "Later in his life Augustine came to endorse, for the church as well as the state, the whole arsenal of secular government that [John] Chrysostom had repudiated-commands, threats, coercion, penalties, and even physical force. "25 Thomas Cahill goes so far as to dub Augustine the "father of the Inquisition" for applauding the persecution of the Donatist heresy in North Africa and then writing "the first Catholic justification for state persecution of those in error: error has no rights; to disbelieve in forced conversions is to deny the power of God; and God must whip the son he receives.... Augustine, the last great man of Roman antiquity, is going over the edge."26

Hardly. There is no doubt that Augustine sowed a number of minefields for later Christians to pick their way through: his somewhat sour attitude toward sex (which in fact was not uncommon among pagan intellectuals of late antiquity), his belief in every individual's predestined fate, his doctrine of original sin with its unnerving implications for those who remained unbaptized through no fault of their own — and his eventual enthusiasm for coercion. But critics who dress him in jack boots do so only by plucking him from his time. While the Roman Empire did tolerate, within limits, a variety of religions, it never embraced religious liberty in the modern sense. The imperial state was, Chadwick remarks, a place "where personal freedom counted for little ... where the secret police ... seemed ubiquitous, and where the screams of those under judicial torture and the gibbets of arbitrary executions were common sounds and sights.27 Christians who lived under pagan emperors had meanwhile nurtured a remarkable commitment to nonviolence. There is apparently no record of their initiating attacks against pagan neighbors. A few, such as Tertullian, actually seemed to have broken through to a deeper conception of religious freedom. "It should be considered absurd," he concluded, "for one person to compel another to honor the gods."

By comparison, Augustine may sound brutal — but he also sounds like a man of his time. "There was religious intolerance all around," Garry Wills notes in his biography of the bishop. "It was not an aberration but the norm. Augustine, however, supplied something that was new — a theory of suppression. It is a sign of the general acceptance of religious intolerance that no one had felt the need to justify it." What is more, Augustine "formed his theory as a matter of conscience, trying to reconcile his own acts with his own values. In the process he mitigated what were harsher measures, gave a didactic restriction to repression, and opposed torture or execution."28

When the Vandals burst into North Africa from Spain in 429, they did not require lessons from Augustine or anyone else in the fine art of repression. Catholic and Donatist alike was tortured and put to the sword. Augustine might have fled, but stayed instead with his flock to face the siege and the inevitable slaughter. He died before Hippo fell, a firsthand witness to the uncertain prospects for the City of Man.

Thanks in part to Augustine, neither church nor state in the West would ever have an easy time absorbing the other. "It is not that the church or the state directly advocated religious freedom or any other freedom," writes Paul Marshall, a professor of philosophy and a senior fellow at Freedom House.

They did not, and often inquisitions were defended. But people in both realms always believed that there should be boundaries, and they struggled over centuries to define them. This meant that the church, whatever its lust for civil control, had always to acknowledge that there were forms of political power which it could and should not exercise. And the state, whatever its drive to dominate, had to acknowledge that there were areas of human life that were beyond its reach.29

David Landes spells out the implications: "Earthly rulers were not free to do as they pleased, and even the Church, God's surrogate on earth, could not flout rights and take at will.... All of this made Europe very different from [other] civilizations around. "30

How Christianity Preserved Civilization and Then Extended It

What does a man contemplate on the road up from Rome to parley with Attila, king of the Huns? Does he dwell on the fate of Milan, Verona or Pavia, all of which were brutalized by the Hun army to the point of civic and economic collapse? Or does he ponder the obliteration of Aquileia, which could hardly be found when Attila was through with it? Aquileia had virtually disappeared — razed, burnt, eliminated.

The road to Rome was open to Attila. What humanitarian arguments could one marshal to persuade a great and pitiless warrior that he should spare an ancient city from fire and sword? We don't know precisely what Pope Leo said to Attila when he appeared before him at Mantua in 452, but whatever the plea was, it seemed to work. Attila pulled back. Or perhaps his timely change of heart had something to do with the plague racing through his army, his imperiled supply lines, or the shortage of food. Whatever the cause of Attila's retreat, he and Pope Leo had set a pattern that would endure for more than five hundred years. Time after time, on their own initiative, the best and bravest of Christian clerics would gamble their lives in attempts to tame the barbarian heart.

Leo himself tried again three years later, when he met the Van dal Gaiseric at the gates of Rome in the hope of deflecting him from wanton destruction. Gaiseric complied, in a manner of speaking. He pillaged Rome with the artful control of a second-story man, while leaving the looted city more or less intact.

In the centuries to come, the contrast between Christian peace maker and barbarian brute would not always be so stark, of course. Sometimes the peacemaker and the brute were kinsmen, even brothers, nominally of the same faith, living side by side in the same kingdom. And sometimes the brute was the Christian leader himself, particularly when coercion offered a shortcut to the otherwise painstaking labor of conversion.

In the waning years of the fourth century, mobs of Christian enthusiasts, aided by recent laws or simply indulged by imperial troops, smashed pagan shrines and closed their temples — as if determined to pay back three hundred years of intermittent repression in the space of a lifetime or two. Long after Constantine, vast reaches of countryside were Christian in little more than name, and the tenacity of primitive folk cults was a recurring scandal. The measures employed by some church messengers, like Martin of Tours in the later fourth century, were hardly more sophisticated than the cults they opposed. Realizing that abstract argument had no chance to win the day, ancient evangelists often resorted to raw proofs of the power of their God. "Miracles, wonders, exorcism, temple-torching and shrine-smashing were in themselves acts of evangelization," explains Fletcher.31

Christian heroism took new forms as the empire collapsed, to be parceled out among various hordes of barbarians, some of the Asian creed (like the Visigoths) and others heathen (Huns, Franks, Angles, Saxons and others who poured into northern and central Europe). As Chadwick recounts, "the task of organizing local resistance often fell in the main to the bishops. One Hun attack on a town in Thrace was resisted only by the energy of the local bishop who placed a huge ballista [a catapult for hurling stones] under the patronage of St. Thomas and then fired it himself to such purpose that he scored a direct hit on the barbarian chief."32 Not every bishop remained at his post, but enough did to ensure that the fate of classical culture in the West soon rested solely in the church's hands, where it would remain for hundreds of years.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Western Christendom was pounded from all sides, with Vikings slamming from the north and west, Muslims from the south, and Magyars from the east. Even during this turmoil, lives of peaceful example were never in short supply. It is difficult to exaggerate the significance of ascetic monks, an import from Asian/African Christianity, on the course of European history. Thomas Cahill has told the best-selling tale of how Irish monks "saved civilization" — a grand claim, yet one surely merited by the facts. Not only did these monks salvage Latin literature from impending oblivion, they scattered across Europe scores of monasteries that restored learning and books to their rightful place. They also reinvigorated the literary spirit and offered to pagan peasants a compelling example of the power of the Christian message.

Cahill disdains the rival Benedictine tradition as "a monasticism of disciplined uniformity, enforced — through floggings, if necessary — by an autocratic abbot."33 This is like scorning a Marine because he failed to enroll at Julliard. What the Benedictines may have lacked in playful irreverence and intellectual audacity (but only in comparison with the Irish monks) they more than made up for in sheer dedication and patient scholarship. "St. Benedict found the world, physical and social, in ruins," John Henry Newman wrote memorably more than a hundred years ago,

and his mission was to restore it in the way not of science, but of nature, not as if setting about to do it, not professing to do it by any set time, or by any rare specific, or by any series of strokes, but so quietly, patiently, gradually, that often till the work was done, it was not known to be doing. It was a restoration rather than visitation, correction or conversion. The new work which he helped to create was a growth rather than a structure. Silent men were observed about the country, or discovered in the forest, digging, clearing and building; and other silent men, not seen, were sitting in the cold cloister, tiring their eyes and keeping their attention on the stretch, while they painfully copied and recopied the manuscripts which they had saved. There was no one who contended or cried out, or drew attention to what was going on, but by degrees the woody swamp became a hermitage, a religious house, a farm, an abbey, a village, a seminary, a school of learning and a city.34

These painstaking efforts of draining, clearing, planting and building came to be — at least in west, north and central Europe — "the prime economic facts of the entire Dark Ages," writes Paul Johnson. "In a sense they determined the whole future history of Europe: they were the foundation of its world primacy. The operation was so huge, and took place over so long a period — nearly a millennium — that no one element in society can claim exclusive credit: it was a collective effort. But it was the monasteries that led the movement and long sustained it."35 It was monasteries, too, that helped give birth to Europe's unrivaled tradition of mechanical and technical invention, from clocks to brewing, from mining to waterpower. Books were only one of many legacies of the monastic movement, if no doubt the most consequential.

Even in early times, to be sure, a few monasteries resembled privileged fraternities more than barracks for the devout. Some bishops, for that matter, luxuriated in feasting, fine clothes and the hunt. "The gap between precept and practice is as old as human moral teaching," Fletcher observes. "It is not, therefore, a difficult matter to assemble evidence for clerical behavior which fell short of the ideal enunciated by rigorists."36 But an ideal may still be important even where it is widely flouted. If nothing else, Christian ideals and ethics functioned like a gravitational force, slowly pulling into their orbit those who repeatedly heard them.

The virtues of charity, patience, humility and love for those outside one's immediate circle are difficult enough to practice even after they have been absorbed into the cultural lifeblood through generations of ethical teaching. Their chances are slimmer still in a world dominated by the warrior spirit and memories of heroic combat, as was still the case throughout the Dark Ages. Indeed, on the northern fringes of what had been the Roman Empire, the religions displaced by Christianity sometimes still involved human sacrifice, and almost always paid homage to a god of war. "Throughout the heathen period in northern Europe there was clear need of a god of war," explains H. R. Ellis Davidson in Gods and Myths of Northern Europe. "The story of the Germanic peoples and the Vikings is one in which local battles, feuds, invasions, and wars on a national scale are the order of the day."37 This is the world, so alien to us today, that Christianity gradually absorbed and transformed.

How Christianity Set the Stage for the Rule of Law

The Middle Ages have become an embarrassment to many Christians, in no small part because of descriptions like this one by Cambridge professor Patrick Collinson:

It is with the twelfth century that we come to the greatest challenge confronting the historically naive Christian who may fondly suppose that his religion has been consistently faithful to the boundless philanthropy of its founder. For it is at this point in history ... that the Christian West, that is to say the Church itself, became what Professor Robert Moore has called a "persecuting society," the exact inversion of a martyr society. That society, often regarded in retrospect as Christianity in a state of religious and social perfection, now became a gross and habitual violator of human rights .38

It is difficult to say who, in this age of apology, might be those naive Christians who still have no inkling of the depressing persecutions of Jews and heretics during the Middle Ages, or the monstrous bloodletting of the Crusades. After all, there are regular reminders of these in mainstream news stories. In 1999, for example, on the 900th anniversary of the crusaders' conquest of Jerusalem, hundreds of Christians were on hand in that ancient city, fresh from a Reconciliation Walk begun in Germany, to apologize to one and all for their ancestors' frightful behavior. If there is ignorance among the faithful, it pertains to dark episodes from other eras, like Charlemagne's merciless conversion of the Saxons in the eighth century, a campaign so brutal that the Nazis would resurrect its memory twelve centuries later in order to justify their anti-Christian policies. But what historically naive Christians mainly fail to appreciate about medieval Christendom are not its moral lapses, but its extraordinary achievements.

They are unlikely to know, for example, that the Middle Ages were the incubator for representative and constitutional government, based on the principle that power must have clearly defined limits. They would perhaps be surprised to discover in this era the growth of enforceable property rights and taxation by consent. They are unlikely to have learned that the diffusion of the Bible's skeptical view of secular power — I Samuel 8 was an especially popular citation — helped to check the ambitions of would-be tyrants. They are probably unaware that the same popes who, to their ever lasting shame, introduced the Inquisition also helped throttle feudal lawlessness and humbled more than one monarch angling for absolute power.

The church's resistance to secular bullies was not merely a means of protecting its own power. Its humanitarian and civilizing mission was meant to benefit directly the mass of peasants as well. The barbarian challenge had largely been thrown back by the end of the tenth century, but habits of lawless pillage and private warfare endured. As David Landes writes, "The tenth and eleventh centuries were filled with baronial brigandage, eventually mitigated by popular, Church supported revulsion and outrage that found expression in mass `peace' assemblies; and from the top down, subdued by stronger central government allied with urban interests."39

These peace assemblies, which in some respects resembled modern mass demonstrations, were instigated in south and central France by local bishops, and they quickly spread. In every locale they were led by clergy. Bishop Fulbert of Chartres declared in his lyrical verses: "The spear is made into a pruning hook and the sword into a plowshare; peace enriches the lowly and impoverishes the proud. Hail, Holy Father, and grant salvation to all who love the quiet of peace."

The church's efforts to rein in the lingering warrior spirit even helped create the code of chivalry. Christopher Dawson explains, "The ancient barbarian motive of personal loyalty to the war leader was reinforced by higher religious motives, so that the knight finally becomes a consecrated person, pledged not only to be faithful to his lord, but to be the defender of the Church, the widow and the orphan.... In this way the knight was detached from his barbarian and pagan background and integrated into the social structure of Christian culture."40

The church also put checks on the greater powers. Medieval popes and bishops of a reformist bent, beginning with Gregory VII in 1073, never stopped badgering princely rulers with reminders of their duties to those who served them. Medieval kings did not usually possess the absolute powers that later monarchs would seize. And since kings were consecrated, it was believed, by God, they were expected to keep their oaths, meet their legal obligations, and recognize the prerogatives of the church. Gregory VII was adamant about this, and his hectoring was vital to what Paul Johnson describes as "the most important political development of the second millennium," the rule of law.41

The church had long been carrying the Roman tradition of law into barbarian backwaters, at first simply by writing down and organizing the customary rules of these illiterate tribes. But even the legalistic civilization of Rome, which guarded private property more successfully than most rival nations, fell far short of the rule of law in the modern sense. For one thing, not everyone was equally subject to the law. The emperor answered to no one. Most residents of the empire were not even citizens, and a huge number were slaves. Although descending from Roman tradition, church canon law under Gregory operated with a different purpose. As Johnson describes it, canon law provided a "refuge for the physically weak and oppressed — not just the clergy themselves but women, children, the poor and the sick — against the rule of force and fear in an age when the armored knight dispensed what law there was. Gregory won some battles, lost others.... But his successors carried on the struggle until churches and monasteries, nunneries and all consecrated ground, at least, were free from arbitrary sword."42

Thomas a Becket (1118-70) for a time even persuaded his fellow English bishops to qualify their traditional oath of obedience to the "ancient customs" of the kingdom. His murder in Canterbury Cathedral so shocked the Christian world that Henry 11, in a replay of Theodosius' humiliation, was forced into public penance. Unlike ancient and modern despots, medieval monarchs lacked either a divine or a legal right to do whatever they pleased.

And while this was by no means solely the church's doing — diffusion of power in western Europe resulted from many factors, including a tough and militant nobility who resisted royal encroachments with their swords — the church clearly played a leading role.

Roots of Capitalism and Popular Consent

The medieval groping toward legal equality was far from complete, but its ultimate significance extended well beyond the treatment of the individual to the shape of the economy itself. Market economies depend upon the secure ownership of property, and property is secure only when the law treats everyone alike. In The Noblest Triumph, Tom Bethell's history of property rights, the author contends that the medieval world was still too highly regulated — thanks in part to the church — to nurture a thriving market economy. But he acknowledges that "something about the Christian teaching was essential to the emergence of the market order; in particular, belief in the underlying equality of human nature.43

Bethell explains, "Just as all were equal in the eyes of God, so it began to be recognized that all should be equal before the law. . . . The feature of law that is most conducive to the modern market system is equality before the law."44

In fact, a great deal more of Christian teaching undoubtedly came into play. A market economy thrives in a culture of invention and creativity. This too was a distinctive gift of the Christian West, which flowered in its first full glory during the medieval era. The Judeo-Christian belief in the dignity of manual labor also played a role. And although Christian culture has had its share of sybarites and showoffs, Christianity itself has always honored humility and modesty — something that cannot be said for either the pagan culture of imperial Rome or the barbarians who engulfed it. Finally, the "emergence of the market order" required a belief in progress and a sense of linear time, both of which achieved their fullest expression in a Christian context. At its core, the idea of progress is an expression of optimism, an embrace of human possibility.

It is no wonder that the first true renaissance in western Europe occurred not in the sixteenth century but in the twelfth, soon after the consolidation of Christian civilization. It was then that scholastic philosophers began their wholesale effort to retrieve and reinterpret the treasures of ancient learning, culminating in the brilliant work of Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century. "One of the curious things about the Middle Ages is that they were original and creative without knowing it," Bertrand Russell once noted. "The scholastics, however they might revere Aristotle, showed more originality than any of the Arabs — more, indeed, than any one since Plotinus, or at any rate since Augustine. In politics as in thought, there was the same distinguished originality."45

In the thirteenth century, representative assemblies became a common feature of civil government. "This probably owed something to the example of the church," concludes Professor Antony Black, "since representative church councils were the obvious and, indeed, the only precedent. "46 Any association between Christianity and early republicanism may seem surprising, given the church's history of alliances with various monarchical thrones. But early Christianity had embraced election of bishops and participatory decision making on a wide scale, even generating "the entirely new idea of a general consensus achievable by representatives of all peoples in an ecumenical council of bishops." If these republican habits had withered during the early Middle Ages, they had not been discarded. The medieval church continued to rely upon representative councils, while religious orders such as the Franciscans held elections and practiced a form of self-governance that required cooperative consent. Thomas Aquinas himself was no friend of either absolute secular power or papal theocracy, actually arguing, according to Black, that "divine law prescribed election."47

Far from being a dead or stagnant time, the Middle Ages must go down as an unusually fertile, creative and even liberating era, on a variety of fronts. And despite periods of almost stupefying turmoil, and leaders of sometimes stunning greed and cynicism, the Middle Ages could and did produce Christians of such unequaled moral example as St. Francis of Assisi, whose boundless love and high spirits made sure that even pigeons were not excluded from his sermons.


  1. Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Vintage Books, 1995), 37.
  2. Robin Lane Fox, Pagans and Christians (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1987), 311.
  3. Rodney Stark, The Rise o f Christianity (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1997), 106.
  4. Regine Pernoud, Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 103.
  5. Wayne A. Meeks, The First Urban Christians: The Social World of the Apostle Paul (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983), 71.
  6. Thomas Cahill, Desire of the Everlasting Hills: The World Before and After Jesus (New York: Doubleday, 1999), 141.
  7. A. N. Wilson, Paul: The Mind of the Apostle (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1997), 140.
  8. Robert L. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 124.
  9. Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (London: Penguin, 1993), 72.
  10. Pagels, The Origin o f Satan, 115.
  11. Quoted in Bertrand Russell, History of Western Philosophy (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1948), 350.
  12. Ramsay MacMullen, Christianizing the Roman Empire, A.D. 100-400 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984), 54.
  13. Wayne Meeks, The Origins of Christian Morality (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993), 2-3.
  14. Fox, Pagans and Christians, 591.
  15. Ibid., 668.
  16. Christopher Dawson, The Making of Europe: An Introduction to the History o f European Unity (London: Sheed & Ward, 1932), 36.
  17. Peter Brown, Late Antiquity (Cambridge, Mass.: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1998), 24.
  18. Wilken, The Christians as the Romans Saw Them, 201.
  19. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 602.
  20. Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York: H. Holt & Co., 1998), 30.
  21. Dawson, The Making of Europe, 42.
  22. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 29.
  23. Isaiah Berlin, Four Essays on Liberty (London: Oxford University Press, 1969), 129.
  24. Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Makings of the Modern Identity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989), 131-33.
  25. Elaine Pagels, Adam, Eve and the Serpent (New York: Random House, 1988), 117.
  26. Thomas Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization (New York: Doubleday, 1995), 65.
  27. Chadwick, The Early Church, 222.
  28. Garry Wills, Saint Augustine (New York: Viking, 1999), 102.
  29. Paul Marshall, "Keeping the Faith: Religion, Freedom, and International Affairs," Imprimis, March 1999, 4.
  30. David S. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty o f Nations: Why Some Are So Rich and Some So Poor (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1998), 35.
  31. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 45.
  32. Chadwick, The Early Church, 248-49.
  33. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization, 181.
  34. Quoted in Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1950), 57.
  35. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (New York: Atheneum, 1987), 149.
  36. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion, 191.
  37. H. R. Ellis Davidson, Gods and Myths of Northern Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 71.
  38. Patrick Collinson, "Religion and Human Rights: The Case of and for Protestantism," in Historical Change and Human Rights: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures, 1994 (New York: Basic Books, 1995), 34.
  39. Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations, 40.
  40. Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, 175.
  41. Paul Johnson, "Laying Down the Law," Wall Street Journal, 10 March 1999.
  42. Ibid.
  43. Tom Bethell, The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity through the Ages (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998), 85.
  44. Ibid., 80.
  45. Russell, History of Western Philosophy, 450.
  46. Antony Black, "Christianity and Republicanism: From St. Cyprian to Rousseau," American Political Science Review, September 1997, 650.
  47. Ibid.




Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett. "Christianity and the Foundation of the West." From Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry (San Francisco, CA: Encounter Books, 2000), 1-23.

Excerpted with permission from the publisher from Christianity on Trial: Arguments Against Anti-Religious Bigotry, by Vincent Carroll and David Shiflett, Encounter Books, San Francisco, California (© 2000).


Vincent Carroll is editor of the editorial pages at the Rocky Mountain News.

He lives in Denver. David C. Shiflett is a freelance writer living in Midlothian, Virginia. He is also author of The America We Deserve (with Donald Trump).

Copyright © 2000 Encounter Books

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