Europe and the Rise of Christianity

I am reading Europe and the Faith (1920) by Hilaire Belloc. It is perhaps his best known work and in some ways his most controversial. The reason for this should be obvious from the title. Belloc reiterates his thesis throughout the narrative: “The Church is Europe: and Europe is The Church.” Even by pre-modernist standards this would seem to be a blatantly ethnocentric statement. The conservative Catholic novelist Evelyn Waugh objected to it. But in extenuation it should be noted that Belloc wrote in an era of intense nationalism, racialism and secularism. In opposition to these trends he believed that what was truly great about European culture after the Fall of Rome either originated with or was preserved by Christianity (specifically the Latin Church).

Belloc was a trailblazer. He makes no pretense of “objectivity” in the modern, noncommittal sense of that term. His views are boldly put and sometimes they are just plain wrong. Other writers have since provided more nuance and a more “ecumenical” approach, though they have not set the world on fire quite the way Belloc did.

One may disagree with certain interpretations such as his repeated denial that the influx of barbarian and Germanic culture had any positive impact on European society. Catholic historian Christopher Dawson certainly felt otherwise. But again one has to understand that Belloc was reacting against those who sought to discredit Catholicism as a force for good.  If I can give an example of just one of the very striking arguments that Belloc makes in Europe and the Faith, I would say it is his counter to the thesis which holds that prior to the establishment of a “Constantinian” Church in the early 300s—seen as authoritarian, hierarchical, rigidly sacramental and dogmatic—that there was a “simpler and purer” Christianity. He does this using one of his favorite methods of comparative history coupled with a sound understanding of original sources.

All of the main features of the Church that are taken as typically post-apostolic or Medieval were described in detail in the writings of Tertullian (c. 160-225). After weighing the evidence and comparing the possible development of Christianity with similar intellectual developments in the two centuries leading up to his own time, Belloc convincingly argues that characteristics of the later “corrupt” Church simply could not have been imposed on millions of people without protest if they were indeed flagrantly different from the Church of the first century.

There would have been, says Belloc, enough elderly Christian leaders still alive in the late second century who had been mentored by men who were disciples of the very first apostles. In addition, though most early religious documents are lost to us now, there are enough fragments attesting to the perennial features of Christianity—e.g., the writings of Justin Martyr or the epistles of Ignatius of Antioch—which make it highly unlikely that a spiritual usurpation would have come about in so rapid a manner.

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