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The History of Christianity--Book Review
By J.S. Bradford
Last edited: Friday, March 15, 2013
Posted: Saturday, January 14, 2012



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The History of Christianity by Paul Johnson, published in 1976 by Simon & Schuster/Atheneum (USA).

 

Open this book to any page—select any paragraph at random—and you will be the beneficiary of an enlightening experience.  
 
The History of Christianity begins with the early influences of the Essenes at Qumran who developed a sacred meal of bread and wine, as well as other ceremonies, from Temple influences. We learn that John the Baptist was an Essene monk. The critical influence of Paul in preserving Christianity is recognized but, Johnson opines, what insured the survival of Christianity was not Paul but the destruction of Jerusalem.
 
After the collapse of Jerusalem in A.D.70, the central organization of the Church disappeared. Worship was unorganized and there was no distinction between a clerical class and laity. Many spoke in tongues and all expected the parousia soon.      
  
Much of our knowledge of early Christian history comes from the writings of Eusebius of Caesarea in the fourth century. We learn of the influence of Marcion and his emphasis on the teachings of Paul and his rejection of the Old Testament. It was Montanus, a charismatic, whose support of women in ecclesiastical roles in A.D. 170, drove the orthodoxy to ban the ministry to women. In his tract On Baptism and the Veiling of Virgins, Tertullian “emphatically denied that women could exercise any ministerial functions.”  
   
Origen created the science of biblical theology through his early research of original Judaic sources during the middle of the third century. From his research, he constructed First Principles, a Christian text interpreting every aspect of the world. His contemporary, Cyprian of Carthage, established the rules and discipline to comply with Origen’s philosophical teachings. It was Cyprian who defined the Mother Church as one, undivided, and catholic.
 
This brings us to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge outside Rome in 313, where Constantine defeated Maxentius. The resulting Edict of Milan declared that the cult of Christians should be tolerated. By the time of the anti-Christian Julian in the mid fourth century, the Church had become rich and Julian attempted to restrict the fiscal privileges of the Church.
 
Defending itself from the “injurious” possession of wealth and riches indirectly led to the power of the clergy to remit “injury.” This, in turn, led to the concept of penance. The privilege of the bishops to remit sins, and then all ordained clergy, completed the division between clergy and laity, and, as Johnson tells us, the Church became divided by ruled and the rulers.
 
The author tells us that, “The use of money to manipulate crowds of slaves and poor people in a specific doctrinal direction had been one of the earliest features of Christianity.” As a consequence, Christianity became, “a crude form of popular democracy.” This enabled the Church to attack paganism and heresies. By the end of the fourth century, the Church had become the predominate religion in the Roman Empire.
 
We learn that Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 373-97, was a major Pontifical force in solidifying the growing power of the Church. He established the protocol of the daily mass and special ceremonies to honor the saints and he developed the cult of relics. Ambrose promoted celibacy as a virtue and viewed marriage as an impediment to ordination.
 
Johnson characterizes Augustine, born in 354, as the “dark genius” of imperial Christianity. Although City of God and Confessions continue to be recognized in the modern era, Augustine was a militant ideologue who did not accept discourse. He believed in total submission to orthodoxy and the use of force in pursuit of Christian unity. Johnson says that next to Paul, “he did more to shape Christianity than any other human being.”   
 
One of the key events in the history of the West took place in the year 800 at the Lateran Palace when Pope Leo III denied the authority of Constantinople by placing a crown on the head of Charlemagne. Papal supremacy and patrimony were the intended consequences. This led to economic advancements including Monasticism which promoted improvements in agriculture and the creation of libraries, becoming the “universities of the dark ages.”  
 
The Church becomes involved in the First Crusade in 1095. Johnson provides an objective overview of the origins, abuses and failings of the Crusades, but also tells us that “it is an oversimplification to see the Crusades simply as a confrontation between Europe and the Moslem East.” 
 
During the twelfth century, a change gradually took place in which the image of the Church became increasingly financial and legal rather than spiritual.  In 1216, perhaps to reaffirm control, the Church made confession compulsory for all adult Christians. The issue of penance became critical to the promise of salvation and would, in time, lead to the abuses of indulgences. But that conflict would follow the creation of the cathedrals which became “vainglory” shrines for the collection and funding of relics.
 
Inevitably we arrive at the scene of Luther nailing his ninety-five theses on the door of Wittenberg Castle. His act was undertaken as a protest against the sale of indulgences to finance the building of St. Peter’s. Luther was an Evangelist who believed that the just shall live by faith. But he was not the only reformer. We learn of the deeds of Zwingli and Calvin. At roughly the same time, but for different motivations, Henry VIII was destroying the old medieval Church in England.
 
In response, Ignatius Loyola established the Society of Jesus in the 1530s while in Spain the Inquisition was proceeding at full force. Eventually, the pendulum swung the other way and de-Christianization commenced with full fury. The Jesuits lost their power and priests were now included among the casualties.  
 
The author emphasizes the impact of the Great Awakening on the American Revolution, notes the Gnostic influences upon Mormonism, comments on the Quakers recognition that slavery was intrinsically wrong, and recognizes the bravery of the Jehovah’s Witnesses in their opposition to Nazism. In 1962, we witness John XXIII set in motion the reforms of Vatican II in an ultimately disappointing effort to transfer power within the Church.
 
In summary, the author recognizes the disappointments of Christianity but asks us to ponder how much more horrific the history of the world would have been without it?
     
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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