A History of Christianity by Paul Johnson

Start Your Free Trial

Download A History of Christianity Study Guide

Subscribe Now

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 that preserved civilization in the West, but the claims of the Church, allied with the Frankish monarchs, prohibited compromise with the Byzantine Empire’s Orthodox Christians, a division that became permanent in 1054. In the later Middle Ages, the papacy, with its vast bureaucracy and legal institutions, became the paramount power, reaching its apex under Innocent III’s pontificate (1198-1216). In the early Middle Ages, Johnson argues, the Church represented enlightenment and humane values, but later the papacy came to represent financial extortion and corruption associated with indulgences, simony, and sexual license. Johnson claims that the crusades of the twelfth and thirteen centuries were disastrous for Christianity. Not only was there little attempt to convert the Muslims, but the East’s Orthodox Church also suffered.

By the early sixteenth century, it had become obvious that the medieval goal of an all-encompassing Christian society headed by the papacy was crumbling. Desiderius Erasmus and the New Learning envisioned a return to the early days of Christianity. However, the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther and John Calvin led not only to a new departure but also to the breakup of the medieval paradigm. The author sympathetically admires the Christian humanists such as Erasmus, a third force in the struggle between the Protestant reformers and the Catholic Church’s Counter-Reformation.

(The entire section is 1,432 words.)