A History of Christianity
by Paul Johnson
Atheneum, 560 pp., $13.95
Paul the Traveller
by Ernle Bradford
Macmillan, 238 pp., $9.95
Will Christianity survive the year 2000 as a major religion of mankind? Two generations ago such a question would have been outrageous. On the one hand, Fortress Vatican presided over by the saintly Pius X, on the other, the great missionary conference held in Edinburgh in 1910 each in its own way marked the triumphant progress of the religion of Western man. Well might the American Methodist John Raleigh Mott prophesy the evangelization of the world in a single generation. Even in 1938, on the eve of the Second World War, my predecessor as Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Glasgow, Rev. John Foster, described the missionary conference at Tamebaram in south India as one of the milestones along the road toward the Christianization of the world.
Today such ideals, and the myths that sustained them, have faded. Under the combined pressures of human disasters on an unimaginable scale, successive scientific revolutions, and the standardization and secularization of society the world over, the old certainties of the Christian faith have steadily been eroded. If the major Churches edge closer together, their movement too often resembles sheep huddling before a storm. Theirs has become unity for the sake of survival, not the alliance of advancing and optimistic creeds. The “Nadir of Triumphalism” that has succeeded the end of the Second World War is still with us.
All this is brilliantly, if somberly and sometimes even wrongheadedly, told by Paul Johnson. His is a tour de force, one of the most ambitious surveys of the history of Christianity ever attempted and perhaps the most radical. In eight sections, which show a great range of reading and a knowledge that is never made tedious, he tells the story of the rise, greatness, and decline of Christianity; how the “Mitred Lords and Crowned Ikons” of the tenth century become the “almost chosen peoples” of the Reformation era, the triumphant missionaries of the nineteenth century, only to fail within his own lifetime. Characteristically, the story opens with the Jerusalem Council of 49.
In the author’s view this, and not even Pentecost or presumably the Crucifixion, was the decisive moment in the early history of Christianity. Had the surviving followers of Jesus of Nazareth prevailed over Paul and compelled converts to Christianity to be circumcised, then the teachings of Jesus would have become nothing more than the hallmark of a Jewish sect doomed to be submerged eventually into the mainstream of the ancient creed. Paul, if he did not win, went his own way, and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 ended the prospect of an emergence of a rival Jewish-Christian faith led by the followers of Jesus’ brother, James.
Christianity, then, is primarily Paul’s interpretation of Jesus, the worship of the pre-existent son of God, whom he identified with the historical Jesus. The latter does indeed exist for the author as much as he did for Paul, though in the few pages devoted to him one may wonder why it was his resurrection that …