Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

In A History of Christianity, Paul Johnson, an English Catholic who has written prolifically on many political and religious subjects, gives his readers a comprehensive and accessible narrative of the Christian religion from its earliest days to the late twentieth century. Published in the mid-1970’s, A History of Christianity was written at a time when Johnson was shifting his political focus from left to right. A political liberal during the 1950’s and 1960’s, he later moved to the right, insisting that the biblical account of nature is literally true. However, in the 1970’s, he wrote an admiring biography of the liberal Pope John XXIII at about the same time as his publication of A History of Christianity.

In his prologue, Johnson acknowledges his religious beliefs but claims that faith is not incompatible with the demand that historians be as objective as possible, and A History of Christianity is not a work of special pleading for the Christian revelation. If it has a bias, it is a concentration on the story of the Roman Catholic Church, at times at the expense of the Protestant tradition, and it particularly ignores the role of Orthodox Christianity. Nevertheless, Johnson handles this long and complex subject brilliantly. Not doubting the divinity of Christ, Johnson discusses the scholarly challenge of accessing the historical Jesus given the paucity of contemporary sources. Arguing that the teachings of Jesus are more glimpses and insights than a code of dogma and doctrine, Johnson places Christ in the context of the imperial Roman world, a divided Jewish community, and a Hellenistic civilization of competing mystery religions.

Like most historians of early Christianity, Johnson sees Paul, whom he describes as the first pure Christian, as the pivotal figure, who made explicit what Jesus had left implicit. Pauline Christianity, however, with its universalist message, might have lost out to Judaic Christianity if it had not been for the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 c.e., after which the center of Christianity shifted to the city of Rome. The author offers an excellent discussion of the numerous Christian sects and heresies that bedeviled Christianity in its early centuries and its eventual triumph in the fourth century under the emperor Constantine. By the end of that century, with Saint Ambrose and Saint Augustine, the Church in the West had become an appendage of the state—or perhaps the reverse, becoming increasingly institutionalized and regimented.

During the early Middle Ages, it was the Roman Church...

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Christian Themes

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Given its subject, A History of Christianity invariably encompasses most if not all of the themes found in Christianity’s two-millennium history. However, Johnson discusses two themes that have been periodically manifest over the centuries. First, he contrasts the ideas and influences of two of the key figures of the early church, Saint Paul and Saint Augustine. Johnson argues that Paul, in his radical universalism, broke away from the domination of a single community (Judaism or Jewish Christianity) and a rigid code of laws. Conversely, Augustine was the “dark genius” of the church-state alliance that came into existence after Constantine, becoming the architect of medieval Christianity and willing to use the institutional power of the state and the Church to enforce conformity. Where Paul claims that “there cannot be Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free man, but Christ is all, and in all” (Colossians 3:11), Augustine argues for an exclusive “city of God” superior to the city of man, a total Christian society, based on compulsion, justifying the use of coercion and torture against heretics and nonbelievers.

The other theme that permeates A History of Christianity is the theme of Christianity triumphant. The late medieval Catholic Church was an example, as was Protestant Christianity in the nineteenth century. This triumphalism not only occurred in matters of theology but also encompassed institutional power as well as assumptions of racial and cultural superiority. As Johnson notes, however, actions lead to reactions, as the Protestant Reformation reduced the “catholic” pretensions of the Roman Church, the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment brought into doubt the Protestant reliance upon the Bible, and the world wars of the twentieth century ended confidence about the inevitability of worldwide Christian progress.


(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Frend, W. H. C. “Christians vs. Christians.” New York Review of Books 23 (August 5, 1976). A major review of Johnson’s A History of Christianity, which Frend describes as both ambitious and radical.

Johnson, Paul. The Quest for God. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Revealing for Johnson’s own religious beliefs.

Weisberg, Jacob. “The Courtly Contrarian.” The New York Times, March 15, 1998. An insightful and fascinating interview of Johnson.