The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw a massive change in economics and intellectual culture, centered on Europe, but rapidly affecting the entire world.
A significant part of that massive change was the fact that it was centered on Europe, a point that I thought was well made by Donald Herreld in his Great Courses lectures on economic history. At no time in prior world history had Europe come to stand in such a position of dominance. By the end of the period, the European states–fractured and warring states, in no way unified in their goals–were unquestionably the military and scientific rulers of the planet. It had never been that way before. In prior centuries, India, China, the Muslim states, or pre-Muslim Persia and Egypt had been peers or obvious superiors to any European state, even unified Rome.
The effects of this on Christian thought should not be understated. In the early centuries, Christian thinkers were continuously occupied with apologetics, the laying out of arguments for the intellectual credibility of Christianity as opposed to the other philosophical traditions at large in the Mediterranean and wider world. Even after Constantine, pagan thought gave ground only slowly. Persian thought remained non-Christian, and Persia remained a political and intellectual rival to Rome, all the way up to the Muslim explosion of the seventh century.
In the medieval era, Christians were in constant tension with Muslims, intellectually as well as politically and in the most basic tenets of faith in God. Thomas Aquinas was hardly alone in dedicating considerable time to his Contra Gentiles, a set of arguments for an intellectual outlook fully consistent with orthodox, catholic Christianity as opposed to the intellectual traditions forged from ancient philosophy within the culture of the early centuries of Islam.
Yet by the thirteenth century, things were already changing. The Crusades marked the beginning of the military counterattack by Christendom against Muslim states, as uneven as that would be. Although the Turks remained dangerous foes into the seventeenth century, and came close in the sixteenth to wreaking tremendous havoc in the Mediterranean, they were no longer serious intellectual rivals of Italians, Spaniards, and Northern Europeans.
Precisely because there were no longer perceived to be serious intellectual rivals to European, Christian thinkers, I would propose that various ridiculous ideas reached the height of fashionability, and have left distorted schools of Christian thought in their wake down to the present. They did not start in the sixteenth or even fifteenth century, nor did they completely rule the scene even in that period, but they flourished and bore the largest share of their bad fruit then. I mean ideas like:
- The Christian scriptures are to be taken as literally [read: simplistically] as possible.
- God’s will is entirely “sovereign” [read: arbitrary] and people are chosen for salvation or damnation essentially at random.
- Human beings are entirely corrupt and hateful…
- …except for a very few people who actually respond to God’s grace, or
- …entirely, and “salvation” is just a matter of God choosing to ignore this fact for certain people.
- In any case, everyone outside the Christian Church is definitely a moral zero.
- God is basically interested in the public statement of adherence to some doctrine of salvation through Jesus of Nazareth and not in human beings choosing to do good for one another.
I am certainly a Roman Catholic, and I look with horror back at many of the doctrines of the first Protestants, but it is most assuredly true that many Catholics at the time followed them or even led them down these very paths. I think that other Catholics felt driven to express themselves in similar language or else risk losing their audience.
In the centuries since, members of these same Christian societies began to be so scandalized by these ideas that they rebelled against Christianity–really, the distorted version of it where these ideas are so prominent, but in their minds, that was all Christianity was.