Posted by: dacalu | 15 September 2011

Note on Christendom

I’ve been reading “The Case for God” by Karen Armstrong, a book I’m really enjoying. It presents particular interpretations of history as history, which can be frustrating, but by and large it provides an excellent survey of how we’ve looked at God through the last 3000 years. As I was reading, it occurred to me that the concept of “Christendom” has been overused.

For some time now, it has been popular to think of Christendom, that monolithic, or at least coherent blend of church and government that united Europe in a single identity for most of the last two millenia. The story says that in the beginning, Christianity was a wonderful idea that got horribly corrupted when Constantine made it an official religion of the Roman Empire. The marriage of government and religion yoked Christian theology and practice to the Partriarchy and the aristocracy and it was not until after World War II that this began to be disentangled. Some mourn the lost of a comprehensive worldview where people had similar morals and perspectives. They also miss the time when Christianity was the dominant culture. Others rejoice at the new multiplicity of perspectives and the freedom of theology from political and social norms.

I don’t doubt that the rise of post-modernism represents a real shift in what it means to be a Christian. As a name for 19th century Christianity, Christendom makes sense. It represents the kind of thinking with which Protestant first world countries could divide up the third world into mission regions – Methodists do mission to islands X and Y, Lutherans get country Z. Increasingly, however, I don’t see this as in any way related to the theology in which the Pope aspired to be the Prince of the Princes of Men, the ruler of Europe in the Renaissance. They both have something to do with dominion and power, certainly, but in radically different ways. Neither really corresponds to Imperial power in the late (Western) Roman Empire or the Byzantine Empire.

I’ve heard professors refer to “classical theology” or “traditional theology” as all the theology between Augustine and CS Lewis. (Some in favor, some against.) I’ve heard others talk of the “end of Christendom” as though the church suddenly faced something it hadn’t dealt with for over a thousand years – the separation of church and popular culture. It’s a beautiful narrative, and it makes us feel particularly special living in this time of great change, but I’m not convinced it’s at all historically accurate.

The early church changed radically when Constantine became sole emperor of Rome. The church, with imperial patronage, became an agent for order in the empire. It was in some ways subordinated to imperial authority. In 325, the Council of Nicea was called to define orthodoxy so that all Christians could agree on a single set of beliefs. Hence, the Nicene Creed. This model with emperor supreme and church contributing to his divinely ordained (and militarily maintained) order would survive in Byzantium for 1000 years, but it did not survive in the West. Even at the beginning, it never represented all of Christianity. It only represented Christianity in the Empire. Christians east of the Roman Empire objected to the findings of this strictly Roman gathering. Many of their descendents still subscribe to the Council of Seleucia-Ctesiphon, the capital of the Sassanid Empire which ruled in the Middle East. The majority of the eastern Christians would convert to Islam 3 centuries later, but there were many Christians beyond the reach of Nicea and Rome.

The Roman hegemony was a lovely idea, but it never really stuck. By the 6th century, the western empire had fallen and Latin Christians from western Europe began to drift away from Greek Christians around the eastern Mediterranean. They disagreed about the Nicene Creed and they disagreed about which councils counted as authoritative. Above all, they disagreed with Rome over the authority of the Patriarch of Rome, the Pope. Four other Patriarchs held authority in the church (Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem). The Byzantine empire was regularly at war with Latin powers for the last half of the first millennium. There was no unified Christendom.

Charlemagne made a move in this direction around 800. He did unify western Europe with Latin liturgy and Germanic theology, but his influence never reached Spain, England, or Eastern Europe, much less Byzantium or the East. Like in the (Western) Roman Empire, the church served as a unifying force, but this time it was unifying cultural identity rather than providing social services, so represented a different take on culture, government, and church as one. The people of Europe constantly had in front of them alternative models from Byzantium, England, al Andalus (Islamic Spain), and memories of Rome and Germanic tribal society.

Nearer the turn of the millennium, we see a move toward unifying Europe politically under the Church. Parallel attempts are made by the (feudal military) aristocracy and the (hierarchical militant) church hierarchy to bring the continent into order. On the one hand, the church provided an escape from local warlords and suppressed violence (as in the peace and truce of God movements). On the other, the church tried to impose Roman power over local interests (as in benefit of clergy and tax exemptions). Often the two systems intertwined (as with the orders of knights militant, lords bishop, and monastic lands). Christendom at this time was not a single ideology – though perhaps they shared a single cosmology. It was two competing notions of government, with emperor (Holy Roman this time) and pope as epitomes of their respective systems. Both suppressed anyone who tried to find a third option, but other options arose anyway. Universities, mendicant orders, guilds, and banking all demonstrate attempts to flow power around the church and the aristocracy.

The Crusades, one of the favored examples of “Christendom” seem to me to be an attempt by the church to get all the knights out of Europe so that the priests could rule more effectively. It was also a great chance to extend to the power of Western Christianity, but when push came to shove, it did so at the expense, not of Islam, but of Byzantine Christianity. In 1204, the crusaders sacked Constantinople itself. How does that represent hegemony or Christian unity? The crusaders brought back knowledge of Eastern culture that profoundly changed how Europeans looked at the world.

(Roman) Church power increased during the Renaissance, but only by suppressing alternatives. The conciliar movement tried to limit the power of Rome by vesting final authorities in international councils of bishops. Popes struggled for authority with Roman patricians in 10th century, German Emperors in the 11th and 12th and French Kings and the 14th. All of this before the reformers and Protestants. To say that people did not consider alternative power structures or that there was a single dominant theology is simply to ignore history.

Christendom is a peculiarly modern story about one dominant Christian paradigm. It can be used to justify such hegemony (as some modern Roman Catholics and Fundamentalists would wish) or as an excuse to dismiss the history of Christianity from 325 to 1500 or even 1900 (as some modern Protestants would wish). I don’t really see it though. There was never a time of great cultural hegemony in Europe, at least not for more than a century at a time. We have always lived with cross cultural communication and attempts to standardize (or fight standardization).

I take great hope from that. The church muddles on in the midst of conflict and confusion. I hope we can learn from the many times throughout history when our worldviews have been challenged – by other Christian worldviews, by encounters with Islam and even non-monotheistic systems. Maybe it happens faster now, but it’s not new.

“There is no new thing under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9



  1. Lucas,
    Really liked this. Have you read any of Philip Jenkins’ books? I read 2 of them this year: The Lost History of Christianity and Jesus Wars. Both deal with aspects of Eastern Christianity that I hadn’t known about. Really good reads. Another one that’s good on Western Christianity is Tom Holland’s Forge of Christendom.


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