The Division of Christendom and its Consequences


In the 16th century religion came to be regarded as one among a number of competing interests — a limited department of life, which had no jurisdiction over the rest. And as it lost its universal authority, it lost its universal vision; it became sectionalized and rationalized with the rest of European life.

The ancient unity of Christendom fell asunder into a mass of warring sects, which were so absorbed in their internecine feuds that they were hardly conscious of their loss of spiritual vision and social authority. In Catholic Europe, it is true, the Church maintained its universal claims and its absolute metaphysical principles, but there also it was gradually extruded from the control of social and intellectual life, and forced to concentrate itself on the inner defenses of the altar and the cloister. By the nineteenth century the forces of secularism and "anti-clericalism" were everywhere triumphant, and the new Latin democracies seemed bent on the creation of a purely "lay" culture, which should eliminate the last traces of religious influence from the national life.

But it is in Northern Europe that we can most clearly trace the disintegrating effects of modern culture within Christianity itself. Here Catholicism was replaced by a new conception of Christianity that gave free scope to the centrifugal tendencies of the Western mind. Protestantism eliminated the metaphysical element in the Christian tradition. It abolished asceticism and monasticism; it subordinated contemplation to action and the intelligence to the will. God was no longer conceived as the Super-essential Being, from Whom the created universe receives all that it has of reality and intelligibility, but as a "magnified non-natural man, who likes and dislikes, knows and decrees, just as a man, only on a scale immensely transcending anything of which we have experience."1

The Divine as a Hostile Power

It is true that Luther's own religious experience was both genuine and profound, but it was not the positive intuition of the contemplative; it was a dark and tormented sense of man's utter helplessness and of the otherness of the Divine Power. For his discarding of the intellectual element in religion had brought his mind back, as it were, to the religious attitude of primitive man who sees the Divine as an unknown and hostile power from which he recoils in terror. "Yea," he writes,

God is more terrible and frightful than the Devil, for he dealeth with us and bringeth us to ruin with power, smiteth and hammereth us and payeth no heed to us. "In His majesty He is a consuming fire." For there from can no man refrain; if he thinketh on God aright his heart in his body is stricken with terror. . . . Yea, as soon as he heareth God named he is filled with trepidation and fear.2
But Luther's personal attitude is decidedly abnormal and nonrepresentative; the normal Protestant religious experience is of the milder and more emotional type represented by pietism and revivalism. Here faith is no longer conceived as a super-rational knowledge founded on the Divine Reason, but as a subjective conviction of one's own conversion and justification, and in place of the spiritual ecstasy of the mystic, who realizes his own nothingness, we have the self-conscious attitude of the pietist, who is intensely preoccupied with his own feelings and with the moral state of his neighbor. And this substitution of the ideal of pietism for those of asceticism and mysticism eventually led to the weakening and discrediting of the ethical ideals of Christianity, just as sectarianism undermined its social authority. However unjust may be the popular caricature of the pietist as a snuffling hypocrite of the type of Tribulation Wholesome or Zeal-of-the-Land Busy or Mr. Chadband, there can be no doubt that Puritan and Evangelical pietism succeeded in making religion supremely unattractive in a way that medieval asceticism had never done.

An Arbitrary Subjective Basis

And, at the same time, the divorce of dogma at once from ecclesiastical tradition and from philosophy eventually left it helpless before rationalist criticism. It is true that nothing could have been further from the intention of the Reformers. In fact, it was the very vehemence of their conviction of the absolute transcendence and incomprehensibility of the Divine action that led them to reject alike the supernatural authority of the Church and the natural rights of human intelligence, and to fall back on the testimony of personal experience and the infallible authority of Scripture. But, though they succeeded in erecting on these foundations a system of dogma more rigid and more exclusive than that which it replaced, the whole dogmatic edifice rested on an arbitrary subjective basis and had no internal coherence or consistency. It incorporated a great part of the traditional patristic and scholastic theology, which really formed an organic element of the Catholic tradition that it professed to reject. Hence, as Harnack has shown, the work of the Reformation was confused and incomplete, and produced at first merely an impoverished version of traditional Catholicism. It required a long process of criticism and historical inquiry before the kernel of Protestant doctrine could be freed from its husk of traditional dogma.

With the advance of historical scholarship in the nineteenth century, it finally became clear that the dogmatic tradition of Christianity could not be separated from its ecclesiastical and sacramental elements. Catholicism was not, as the Reformers believed, the result of the apostasy of the medieval Papacy; it was a continuous process of organic development which is as old as Christianity itself. And so the modern Protestant scholar, who admitted that Christianity and Catholicism were identical down to the age of the Reformation, that "the Christianity of the apostolic age is itself incipient Catholicism, and that the Catholicizing of Christianity begins immediately after the death of Jesus," was forced to reject the Reformation compromise. He was left with the choice of two alternatives — either to deny the organic unity of the whole development and to view Christianity as mere syncretism — "a varying compound of some of the best and some of the worst elements of Paganism and Judaism, molded in practice by the innate character of certain peoples of the Western world,"3 as Huxley puts it — or else to go back behind the early Church, behind even the New Testament, to the original purity of the gospel of Jesus.

Faith Cancels Dogma Leads to Moral Pragmatism

This second alternative is the Liberal Protestant solution, and it is the logical conclusion of the appeal of the Reformers from the Church to the Bible and of their attempt to set up an abstract ideal of primitive Christianity against the historic reality of the Catholic Church. In the moral teaching of the Gospel and in the personality of "the historical Jesus" the Liberal Protestants believed that they had at last found a firm basis for a faith that should be purely ethical and religious without any contamination of metaphysics or theological speculation. This is what Harnack means when he says that the work of the Reformation is only completed when faith cancels dogma, and that the Reformation is the end of dogma as the Gospel was the end of the Law. The divorce of dogma from intelligence that was inaugurated by the Reformers consummates itself in the dissolution of dogma itself in the interests of that moral pragmatism which is the essence of modern Protestantism. Christianity, it is said, is not a creed but a life; its sole criterion is the moral and social activity that it generates. And thus religion loses all contact with absolute truth and becomes merely an emotional justification for a certain standard of behavior.

But this intensely subjective attitude to religion is no less inconsistent with a genuinely historical understanding of the Gospels than it is with theology or metaphysics. Liberal Protestantism selects those elements in the Gospel which appeal to the modern liberal mind, and disregards or rejects the uncompromising supernaturalism on which the ethical teaching of Jesus rests. It condemned the Catholic tradition for replacing the historical Jesus by a metaphysical abstraction — the incarnation of a Divine hypostasis — while its own interpretation was nothing but an ethical abstraction — the incarnation of the ideals of liberal humanitarianism.

It was inevitable that the one-sidedness of the Liberal Protestant solution should produce a corresponding reaction, and at the beginning of this century advanced criticism turned abruptly to the opposite extreme. The eschatological school was inspired by a justifiable distrust of the Liberal tendency to interpret the life of Jesus in terms of modern thought and sentiment, and they were consequently led to depreciate the ethical elements in the Gospel and to accentuate its catastrophic and apocalyptic character. In Dean Inge's words, "They stripped the figure of Jesus of all the attributes with which the devotion of centuries had invested it and have left us with a mild specimen of the Mahdi type, an apocalyptic dreamer whose message consisted essentially of predictions about the approaching catastrophic 'end of the age,' predictions which of course came to nothing."

The Historical Jesus Disappears

Thus we are left with two contradictory solutions, neither of which affords any basis for an explanation of the emergence of Christianity in the form in which it is known to history. Hence it is not surprising that those, like Loisy, who have followed the path of criticism to its extreme conclusion, should have ended in the despairing skepticism of a completely negative theory of religious syncretism. But even in this final stage there is no finality. All the resources of comparative religion are at the disposal of the critic, and the figure of the historical Jesus disappears in an ever-changing mist of Oriental myths and Hellenistic mystery religions. Neo-Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Iranian soteriology, the mystery religions, Mandaeanism: in each of them some scholar has found the key to the origins of Christianity, and each successive solution is equally convincing or unconvincing, for in this phantom world all things are shadows, and the shadows change their shape as the spectator changes his position.

We may well ask how it is that the relatively simple story of the birth of Christianity, concerning which, moreover, we possess fuller and more authentic documents than in the case of any other of the world religions, should have become involved in such a web of sophistication and misplaced ingenuity. And it would be incomprehensible were it not that the whole development has been conditioned from the outset by a series of a priori prejudices. The most obvious of them is the anti-metaphysical prejudice to which I referred in the last chapter — the refusal to admit the objective and autonomous character of religion and of spiritual reality, and the affirmation that everything in the world is of the same color, as Renan puts it, and that there is no free spiritual principle in the universe apart from the will of man. Hence it becomes necessary not only to eliminate every supernatural element in the Gospel and in the history of the Church, but, furthermore, to deny the essential originality and spontaneity of Christianity and to explain it away as a composite development derived from elements that were already in existence.

This prejudice has had an incalculable influence on the modern mind, since it could invoke the prestige of "science," that is to say, the dogmatic conception of scientific materialism. But its influence might have been limited to rationalist circles had it not been reinforced by a second prejudice, which was based on religious preconceptions. This was the Protestant conviction that a vital breach had intervened between the Gospel of Jesus and the Faith of the Church. The reformers, it is true, placed this breach as late as the Middle Ages, but, as we have seen, the growth of historical knowledge gradually increased the antiquity of the Catholic development until its origins became actually coterminous with the foundation of Christianity as an organized religion. Thus the way is laid open for the acceptance of the rationalist explanation of Christian origins, excluding only the person of Jesus and an ethical abstraction of His teaching, which are preserved as an isolated and unrelated ideal of spiritual religion that is to inspire the religious life of modern men.

An Unhistorical Via Media

The moral earnestness and erudition of the advocates of this view have caused its fundamental illogicality and its unhistorical character to be overlooked, and even at the present day it enjoys enormous prestige, for it offers a via media between traditional Christianity and pure rationalism that appeals both to the Christian who has lost his faith in the dogmatic teaching of the Church and to the rationalist who has preserved a sense of religious values. It has recently found a distinguished adherent in Mr. Middleton Murry, who bases his own theory of religious naturalism on the personality and the religious ideal of Jesus. But Mr. Murry, at least, is more logical or more honest than his predecessors in that he does not claim the name of Christianity for his new religious ideal. On the contrary, he explicitly recognizes the inseparable connection between the Christian religion and the Christian Church. "There is not," he writes,

and never will be any reconciliation between Christianity and the experimental method. Christianity is the great Church and nothing else is Christianity. To call anything else Christianity is to plunge into confusion and chaos; and it is an insult to Christianity. Christianity is a great thing, not a little one; one thing not many things; a rich thing not a poor thing; a majestic thing not a thing of shreds and patches. Christianity is Christianity at its noblest, truest, and most comprehensive, and that is the Catholic Church. If you desire to be a Christian, join it.4

But when we have reached this point there is no longer any reason for one who is not under the influence of rationalist or Protestant prejudices to refuse to admit that the historic faith and life of the Church were founded on the life and gospel of the historic Jesus. It is, in fact, only so that we can account for the creative originality of the Christian religion. A great spiritual unity like Christianity cannot be the accidental product of a series of misunderstandings. It must have had its origin in some great spiritual force; and where is this to be found if not in the life of that Person whom even the rationalist admits to have been the greatest and most original religious genius in the history of humanity?

And as soon as we set aside these a priori conceptions and approach the study of Christian origins with an open mind, the vital relation between the Church and the teaching of Jesus at once becomes manifest.


  1. Matthew Arnold, St. Paul and Protestantism, p. 14.
  2. Quoted by R. Otto in The Idea of the Holy, pp. 102-103.
  3. T. H. Huxley, Essays, v., p. 142.
  4. J. Middleton Murry, God, p. 229.



Dawson, Christopher. “The Division of Christendom and its Consequences.” Christianity and the New Age (1985 edition), pp. 60-72.

Reprinted by permission of Julian Philip Scott, grandson of Christopher Dawson.


Christopher Dawson (1889-1970) was most likely the most penetrating student of the relationship of religion and culture who has ever written. "Every culture," he wrote, "is like a plant. It must have its roots in the earth, and for sunlight it needs to be open to the spiritual. At the present moment we are busy cutting its roots and shutting out all light from above." In order to address this situation, he proposed the study of Christian culture. He believed this study to be essential to the secularist and Christian alike, because it is the key to the understanding of the historical development of Western civilization. His lucid analysis of the driving forces of world history, as well as his championing of the contributions of the Christian faith to the achievements of European culture, won him many admirers, including T. S. Eliot and Arnold Toynbee.

Christopher Dawson wrote twenty-two books. Among those currently available are Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, The Making of Europe, Medieval Essays, Dynamics of World History, and Progress and Religion. Also available is A Historian and His World: A Life of Christopher Dawson written by Christopher Dawson's daughter, the late Christina Scott. All works by Christopher Dawson © Julian Philip Scott, 2003.

Copyright © 1985 Julian Philip Scott

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