Was Medieval Christendom Christian?

Elijah Mvundura January/February 2021

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World by Tom Holland, Basic Books, 2019. 624 Pages. 
A #1 Christian church history book on Amazon.

The only recorded encounter of Jesus with Greeks was shortly before His crucifixion. As John 12:20, 21 tells us, some Greeks asked through Philip to see Jesus. We are not told why or what they asked Him, but verses 23-25 says, “Jesus replied, ‘The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds” (NIV)1 and added in verses 31, 32: “Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (NIV). Commenting in verse 33, John said, “He said this to show the kind of death he was going to die” (NIV), the death on the cross.

Certainly the Greeks didn’t understand Jesus’ response, because neither did His Jewish audience nor His disciples, who understood only after the Resurrection, and only through illumination by the Holy Spirit. As the apostle Paul discovered, Jesus’ death on the cross, that “emblem of suffering and shame” at the heart of the gospel, was “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Greeks” (1 Corinthians 1:23, NIV). 

And yet paradoxically this Evangelion, the gospel of “the crucified God,” so incomprehensible to Greek reason and repugnant to Jewish monotheism—indeed, whose very absurdity seemed designed to provoke universal rejection—mastered the Roman Empire and effected, in Nietzsche’s famous phrase, the greatest transvaluation of values in world history. The story of this transvaluation has been told many times; but Tom Holland retells it in Dominion, and, as many reviewers have said, very interestingly, showing how all reform movements in Western history up to the Me Too movement, are a flowering of the moral revolution seeded by the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. 

What makes Holland’s retelling so interesting is that he focuses on key figures from antiquity to our modern present who impressed Christian values on the world. And the key figure in the transmission is Paul. “By preaching the primacy of love” in social relations and God’s partiality for “the low and despised in the world,” and equality of all in Christ, he upturned the Roman hierarchy, and set Christianity on its world-transforming career. Holland graphically describes the gross immoralities and cruel oppression of the Roman Empire, to show the deep-seated cultural practices and forces that Christianity upturned. Then Augustine could say in the fourth century, that “all are astonished to see the entire human race converging on the Crucified One, from emperors down to beggars.” 

But in Part II: Christendom, Holland notes that “the original, unsettling radicalism of Paul’s own message had been diluted” by social and political realities, enabling construction of the foundation of modern civilization. Thus, when the Roman Empire collapsed in the West; bishops in many cities (e.g., Gregory the Great in Rome) and clerics in monasteries filled the political vacuum. Author Holland rushes through this crucial foundational period and covers three centuries from 754 to 1076 (the Dark Ages) in 20 pages. Yet all the corruptions and tensions of medieval Christendom, which increased in scope and intensity until they sparked the Protestant Reformation, giving birth to our modern world, were sown during the Dark Ages.

Precisely it was during the Dark Ages that clerics replaced pagan elites at the top of the Roman hierarchy, that the church fully inherited the Roman legal-administrative-coercive apparatus and legitimized it with the famous forgeries—the Donation of Constantine and False Decretals; that the church absorbed pagan rituals, folklores, and magic, radically changing Christian faith and life. Holland overlooks all these radical changes; yet they beg the question as to whether medieval society was Christian. As some medievalists have contended, medieval texts show that outside of the minuscule clerical elite, the great mass of medieval folk “were at best only superficially Christianized; Christian faith and practice first took hold among the European masses during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation.”2

To be sure, the conclusion that medieval society was “superficially Christian” was first reached by some medieval Christians, the so-called heretics. Indeed, as Holland himself noted: heretics’ “charge . . . was customarily the same: that unworthy priests . . . were polluted, tarnished, corrupted; that they were not truly Christian” (italics supplied). Yet oblivious to this theologically correct indictment, Holland writes, from the viewpoint of medieval clerics that “heresy had to be rooted out.” He even adopts their demonizing language: “The great serpent of heresy . . . had begun to shake its coils again.” But theologically this is wrong, and “historically it is evidently false,” as R. I. Moore showed in The Origins of European Dissent.3 

Orthodoxy has never reigned unchallenged. Reproof, protest, dissent, criticism, is inscribed in the DNA of biblical faith. The very charges of being unworthy divine representatives, of depravity and hypocrisy that heretics leveled at medieval clerics, the prophets and Jesus leveled at the religious leaders of their day. As Jesus Himself said in Mark 7:6-8: “Isaiah was right when he prophesied about you hypocrites; as it is written: ‘These people honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. They worship me in vain; their teachings are merely human rules.’ You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions” (NIV). 

This charge of letting go of God’s commandments and holding to human traditions must also be directed at the medieval Papacy. Because, as Moore rightly noted in The Formation of a Persecuting Society, “those who denied the necessity of infant baptism, of the sanctification of matrimony, intercession for souls in purgatory, of regular attendance at mass and confession to priests, were not rebelling against ancestral patterns of faith and practice. Whatever the theology of the matter, these were innovations in the daily life of the faithful that throughout the period [eleventh century], were gradually being pressed upon the priesthood and its flocks by the . . . papacy.”4 

Holland doesn’t specifically mention these religious innovations, but notes that “Gregory VII’s ambitions for the papacy were of a momentously original order. [Instead of deferring to canons of church councils] . . . he was more than ready to introduce innovations of his own.” By missing the religious innovations, Holland missed the real significance of papal innovations: that they “let go the commandments of God” and the gospel. As such, the charges of heresy actually apply to the Papacy. After all, the doctrines of those condemned of heresy, as Moore noted, “amounted to a simple literal adherence to the precepts of the New Testament, especially the Gospels and Apostles, which made them sceptical of some of the teaching and claims of the church.”5

And the claims that Gregory VII made in Dictatus Papae are radical and heretical. To cite only four: “all princes shall kiss the feet of the Pope alone”—angels refused human homage (Revelation 19:10). “His name alone [the pope] shall be spoken in the churches”—displaced Jesus. That he can “depose emperors”—only God can depose or set up kings (Daniel 2:21), and that “the Roman Church has never erred. Nor will it err, to all eternity”—Paul’s pastoral letters and the letters to the seven churches in the book of Revelation shows that the church errs. To say otherwise is to arrogate an attribute—infallibility—exclusive to God. Indeed, the universal supremacy in religion and in politics claimed by the Dictatus Papae, no king, priest, prophet, or apostle ever claimed them in the Bible. It belongs to God alone.

Holland calls Gregory VII a reformer, who set the West “upon a distinctive course of its own” by freeing the church from the control of the Empire, which resulted in “the distinction between religio and the saeculum, between the sacred and profane.” Evidentially this is false. History clearly shows that the aim of the medieval Papacy was supremacy in both religio and the saeculum. As Miri Rubin observed, papal reforms from the eleventh century with the Eucharist at the center were vigorously advanced at “a time when popes were attempting to enforce claims of primacy and universality, against regional political powers and local liturgical forms.”6 And the result was an all-embracing sacramental system that mixed religio and the saeculum, the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, in other words, an enchanted universe.

Holland uncritically acclaims the “miracles” and rituals that buttressed papal supremacy and generated this enchanted universe. But from a biblical standpoint an enchanted universe is a deformation. “Christ did not enchant men,” as W. H. Auden said, “He demanded that they believe in Him.”7 And this entailed breaking off from the realm of appearances. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed,” said Jesus in John 20:29, NIV. Indeed, as a religion of the book, Christianity is intrinsically designed to effect a break with the realm of appearances. Reading is a solitary activity. It alienates, detaches one from the external world, transports one into the world within the book. In the case of the Bible, read, believed, and lived, it transports one inwardly or spiritually into the “body of Christ”; radically changes one’s life in relation to the world so that one is in the world, but “not of the world” (John 17:16, NIV). 

In purely structural terms being “not of the world” or being “in Christ” (Romans 8:1, NIV) implies distinctions between the sacred and the profane, the natural and the supernatural, the religious and the political, for “the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, NIV), “that old serpent, called the Devil and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world” (Revelation 12:9, KJV). And the crux of the distinctions is to protect from deception, from confusing Satan, “the prince of this world” (John 16:11, NIV), with the true God. “For Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light” (2 Corinthians 11:14, NIV) . 

And against Satan’s deceptions and masquerades, as Jesus showed in the three temptations, protection is in the Word of God. But in another major deformation, medieval Christendom shifted protection from the Word of God to the priest’s ritual action: the devil was said to be allergic to holy water, was repelled by the sign of the cross. Embellished in art, drama, and liturgy, this ritualization produced an image of the devil, at once comical and monstrous. In an irony that has escaped notice, this ritualization went hand in hand with demonization of Jews and heretics, that they were in a confederacy with the devil to destroy Christian society by every diabolical means, and therefore they had to be exterminated. 

And the exterminators, or “warrior pilgrims,” as Holland nonchalantly called them, were “well-suited to the ambitions of the Papacy,” he added in a section subtitled “A Great and Holy War.” But he curiously failed to notice that in the New Testament: the war between good and evil, Christ and Satan is spiritual, fought in the heart. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against . . . spiritual forces of evil” (Ephesians 6:12, NIV). That’s why, “though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (2 Corinthians 10:3, NIV). In other words, to fight with “weapons of the world” against “flesh and blood” is a diabolical deformation of the gospel. Such a war is neither holy nor Christian. “Strictly speaking, this comes under . . . paganism, for since the gospel never sets up any national religion, holy war is impossible among Christians,” as Rousseau rightly noted.8 

Indeed, the militarism of the medieval papacy is a Roman legacy. Thomas Hobbes’ famous remark “that the Papacy is no other than the ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof”9 was not a mere gibe. After all, the pope assumed the title of the Roman high priest: Pontifex Maximus. And Holland himself notes that the papal “court, in an echo of the building where the Roman Senate had once met, was known as the ‘Curia.’ Yet the pope was no Caesar,” he says. True. But in a direct negation of Christ’s Word (Matthew 22:21) the bishop of Rome joined in the Papacy the things of Caesar and the things of God. Yet he still called himself the “Vicar of Christ,” even as he deformed the Church, the “body of Christ,” by corrupting it with militarism and political fanaticism.

Indeed, as Holland himself noted: “the church that had emerged from the Gregorian reformatio was . . . an institution of a kind never before witnessed.” It was, he wrote, “a supreme paradox: that the church, by rendering itself free of the secular, had itself become a state. And a very novel kind of state.” But this novelty notwithstanding, Holland ironically traced it “back to . . . Paul . . . the surest basis for the papacy’s claim to a universal authority,” and even asserts, “The order defined by the Roman church was one that consciously set itself against primordial customs rooted in the sump of paganism.” But again, historically this is evidently false. Holland should have consulted the work of Peter Brown and Ramsay MacMullen, distinguished historians of late antiquity. About paganism they conclusively showed that “the triumph of the church was not one of obliteration but of widening embrace and assimilation.”10 

This embrace and assimilation of pagan elements—Greek, Roman, and Germanic—is of vital importance, because, as Jean Seznec showed, it ensured “the survival of the pagan gods,”11 a survival that Nietzsche also noted and gleefully celebrated, as “so diabolically divine” because “Christianity would thereby have been abolished!” but then, he dolefully added, “Luther went to Rome.”12 Holland cites Luther’s polemic that the Roman church “had seduced Christians into paganism and idolatry.” But he overlooks Luther’s “theology of the cross,” a curious oversight indeed, given that the front jacket cover of Dominion has an imposing image of Christ on the cross, and begins with a graphic description of crucifixion as a method of execution. 

But after that the cross disappears from Dominion. Holland never explains precisely how it transformed the world. And it’s because he explains everything materialistically, in terms of concrete events, ideas, or unique individuals. The agency of the Holy Spirit, so central in New Testament Christianity, is unnoticed. Had he noticed, Dominion would have been a very different book. For it was through the Holy Spirit that the early Christians experienced the resurrected Christ and imitated His humility and self-sacrificing love epitomized by His death on the cross. Again, it’s through the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit that the martyrs endured persecution and death under the Roman Empire. “Everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12, NIV). 

 If Holland had told the Christian revolution from the perspective of the experience of the cross, it would have been from the martyrs through the heretics to Luther’s “theology of the cross,” instead of through Constantine, bishop of Rome, to medieval Papacy. To be sure, Jesus Himself drew a scarlet line “from the blood of [righteous] Abel to the blood of Zechariah” (Luke 11:51, NIV), and predicted in John 16:2 that a “time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (NIV), and warned, “They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them” (Matthew 7:15, 16, NIV). And the fruit of the medieval popes—unbridled avarice, venality, power politics, immorality, burning heretics, antisemitism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, magical religion—fits the bill of the “ferocious wolves” predicted by Jesus. 

“The exercise of force is contrary to the principles of God’s government; He desires only the service of love; and love cannot be commanded; it cannot be won by force or authority.”13 “A ‘truth’ that must use violence to secure its existence cannot be truth. Rather the truth that moves the sun and the stars is that which is so sure of its power that it refuses to compel . . . by force. Rather it relies on the slow, hard, and seemingly unrewarding work of witness, a witness which it trusts to prevail even in a fragmented and violent world.”14 

This witness, encapsulated in the “theology of the cross,” and expressed in the self-accusing confession “I am a sinner” and commitment to fight evil in one’s life, is the crux of the Christian moral revolution. Precisely by turning to self the accusing finger that had been pointed at another, confession engendered what the theologian Krister Stendahl called “the introspective conscience of the West,” and thus shattered the “scapegoat mechanism,” the primordial, universal human practice to make oneself appear good by falsely accusing others. It was a radical departure from “the old path that the wicked have trod” (Job 22:15, NIV)—so radical that Paul said it meant death and a new life. “For we know that our old self was crucified with [Christ] (Romans 6:6, NIV). “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, NIV).

People kill themselves in many ways, but never by crucifixion. That’s done by another. “Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit” (John 3:6, NIV). Spiritually, the impossibility of crucifying oneself and producing a new life; or, put differently, the ability of God alone to do it is what is expressed in the Protestant credo of sola gratia, by grace alone. It’s precisely the sola, the alone, that raised the ire of the medieval Papacy, because it excluded all the sacramental-liturgical and Platonic-Aristotelian additions to the gospel upon which its power and authority was based. In short, the ire was provoked by politics. 

Indeed, politics is the clue to the Counter-Reformation and the modern Papacy. “Whatever the doctrinal differences the structural one remains the most intractable. As before Luther, Rome still plays politics and claims secular and spiritual dominance . . . a church that is a state and a state that is a church,” as this magazine’s editor has often noted.15 This unchristian amalgam, we must recall, was the specific target of Voltaire’s rallying cry Ecrasez l’infame (crush the infamy); and also of the anticlericalism, radical atheism, and dechristianization of the French Revolution, which set the modern world against Christianity, even as it is, in Holland’s words, “still utterly saturated by Christian concepts and assumptions.” 

This paradox of our modern world—Christian roots and yet a secular and unchristian culture—forms the last part of Dominion. Equality, freedom, love, social justice, human dignity, concern for victims and the weak—all these values that have animated modern revolutions and reform movements are a flowering of the gospel, as Holland rightly showed. But they trust human power and reason to bring about change and perfection, just as medieval Christendom trusted in sacraments. That’s why they have all failed, and catastrophically. For as Jesus said: “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5, NIV). 

This “nothing,” which requires faith alone, because Jesus did everything on the cross, is very offensive to human pride. Indeed, even those who first accepted the gospel were vexed by “the offense of the cross” (Galatians 5:11, NIV). They shrunk from it, sought to temper the abject self-denial and humility it demanded. In a way the history of Christianity is a history of tempering, diluting, or outright eliminating “the offense of the cross.” Here Protestantism is just as guilty as Catholicism. Elimination of the “offense of the cross” is what enabled Christian values and ideas to become cultural artifacts in the building of Western civilization. 

But a Christianity without the “offense of the cross” isn’t Christian. One wonders how modern Christianity would react to another recovery of the “theology of the cross”!

Bible texts credited to NIV are from the Holy Bible, New International Version. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

2 John Van Engen, “The Christian Middle Ages as an Historiographical Problem,” American Historical Review 91, no. 3 (June 1986): 521.

3 R. I. Moore, The Origins of European Dissent (Basel, Switzerland: Blackwell Publishers, 1985), p. 3.

4 R. I. Moore, The Formation of Persecuting Society (Basel, Switzerland: Blackwell Publishers, 1987), p. 71. 

5 Ibid., p. 17.

6 Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge University Press, 1991), p. 12. 

7 W. H. Auden, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (New York: Viking Press, 1970), p. 150.

8 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract, ed. Maurice Cranston (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), p. 185.

9 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Michael Oakeshott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1962), p. 543.

10 Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth and Eighth Centuries (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1997), p. 159.

11 Jean Seznec, The Survival of the Pagan Gods: The Mythological Tradition and Its Place in Renaissance Humanism and Art (Princeton University Press, 1981).

12 Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols/Antichrist, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), pp. 194, 197.

13 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association, 1898, 1940), p. 22.

14 Stanley Hauerwas, The Peaceable Kingdom: A Primer in Christian Ethics (University of Notre Dame, 1983), p. 15.

15 Lincoln E. Steed, “Future Shock,” Liberty, November/December 2017, p. 2. 

Article Author: Elijah Mvundura

Elijah Mvundura writes from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. He has graduate degrees in economic history, European history, and education.