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Paul Johnson





It is now almost 2000 years since the birth of Jesus Christ set in motion the chain of events which led to the creation of the Christian faith and its diffusion throughout the world. During these two millennia Christianity has, perhaps, proved more influential in shaping human destiny than any other institutional philosophy, but there are now signs that its period of predominance is drawing to a close, thereby inviting a retrospect and a balance sheet. In this book I have attempted to survey the whole history in one volume. This involves much compression and selection, but it has the advantage of providing new and illuminating perspectives, and of demonstrating how the varied themes of Christianity repeat and modulate themselves through the centuries. It draws on the published results of a vast amount of research which has been conducted during the past twenty years on a number of notable episodes in Christian history, and it aims to present the salient facts as modern scholars see and interpret them.


It is, then, a work of history. You may ask: is it possible to write of Christianity with the requisite degree of historical detachment? In 1913 Ernst Troeltsch argued persuasively that sceptical and critical methods of historical research were incompatible with Christian belief; many historians and most religious sociologists would agree with him. There is, to be sure, an apparent conflict. Christianity is essentially a historical religion. It bases its claims on the historical facts it asserts. If these are demolished it is nothing. Can a Christian, then, examine the truth of these facts with the same objectivity he would display towards any other phenomenon? Can he be expected to dig the grave of his own faith if that is the way his investigations seem to point? In the past, very few Christian scholars have had the courage or the confidence to place the unhampered pursuit of truth before any other consideration. Almost all have drawn the line somewhere. Yet how futile their defensive efforts have proved! How ridiculous their sacrifice of integrity seems in retrospect! We laugh at John Henry Newman because, to protect his students, he kept his copy of The Age of Reason locked up in his safe. And we feel uncomfortable when Bishop Stubbs, once Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, triumphantly records - as he did in a public lecture - his first meeting with the historian John Richard Green: 'I knew by description the sort of man I was to meet: I recognised him as he got into the Wells carriage, holding in his hand a volume of Renan. I said to myself, "If I can hinder, he shall not read that book." We sat opposite and fell immediately into conversation. ... He came to me at Navestock afterwards, and that volume of Renan found its way into my waste-paper basket.' Stubbs had condemned Renan's Vie de Jesus without reading it, and the whole point of his anecdote was that he had persuaded Green to do the same. So one historian corrupted another, and Christianity was shamed in both.


For Christianity, by identifying truth with faith, must teach - and, properly understood, does teach - that any interference with the truth is immoral. A Christian with faith has nothing to fear from the facts; a Christian historian who draws the line limiting the field of enquiry at any point whatsoever, is admitting the limits of his faith. And of course he is also destroying the nature of his religion, which is a progressive revelation of truth. So the Christian, according to my understanding, should not be inhibited in the smallest degree from following the line of truth; indeed, he is positively bound to follow it. He should be, in fact, freer than the non-Christian, who is precommitted by his own rejection. At all events, I have sought to present the facts of Christian history as truthfully and nakedly as I am able, and to leave the rest to the reader.

Iver, Buckinghamshire 1975

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