Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years
by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking Adult; first American edition (18 March 2010)
pp. 1147 including Notes, Further Reading and Index
ISBN-10: 0670021261; ISBN-13: 978-0670021260
Review-commentary by Brian Van Hove, S.J.
According to Catholic tradition, faith is a gift. The author’s cultural background is Low-Church or Evangelical Anglicanism. But this is a heritage and not a theological virtue.
Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church in the Theology Faculty, St Cross College, Oxford. Professor MacCulloch proclaims himself a skeptic although he writes with the zeal of an apostate. His is a paradoxical mixture of both skepticism and appreciation of religion, especially Christianity. At times he reveals classical Greek tastes which are benevolently pre-Christian, though he has been shaped by the Enlightenment. His erudition permits him to indulge freely in refined, urbane scoffing. And his erudition is considerable.
Why is this important? Because all writing emerges out of a tradition; no author can be fully original. Perhaps he could have written a shorter work had he not considered the subject a formidable one. In over a thousand pages he writes about Christianity not as a Christopher Dawson (d. 1970) or a Paul Johnson or a Hubert Jedin (d. 1980) or a James Hitchcock who ‒ each of them from within the subject ‒ wrote the history of Christianity and the Church. Nor are these religious historians ever quoted. Anglican (especially Owen and Henry Chadwick) and various, often liberal Christian historians including Richard P. McBrien and Hans Küng do appear among the Further Reading selections beginning on page 1098. John W. O’Malley, Eamon Duffy and John McManners are a few of his more favored historians.
He says that Edward Gibbon, who wrote a celebrated Enlightenment-era history in seven volumes, “had a fine eye for the absurdities and tragedies that result from the profession of religion.” The author does not conceal his preference for secularism. One can say that MacCulloch is a thoughtful post-Enlightenment writer who knows more about Christianity than most Christians, including the clergy. Yet another reason for us to posit that faith is a gift, although we must observe that some without this gift at times strenuously defend the Church and the Christian tradition.
An ironic result of the author’s evenly-applied skepticism is his occasional fairness to Catholic positions. For example, he dropped some Reformation biases for which his ancestors would have fought. What is more, in his 2004 work The Reformation, he argues that there were multiple reformations which came from both Protestants and Catholics. MacCulloch is primarily a Reformation scholar, and surely he enjoys being perceived as a revisionist in his field.
At the same time he writes about Christianity with an irreverence toward religion ‒ any religion ‒ because religion is a problem, not a truth. In fact, religion is not only untrue; it can’t be true. And just as he gives a concession to the Catholics with one hand ‒ as when Catholic Bible translators got it right with the term supersubstantial  and dismissed the prejudicial concept of the Catholic “Dark Ages”  ‒ he usually takes something away with the other hand. For example, he says of Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers: “An absorbing survey of European religion, perhaps a little kind to Roman Catholicism, at least by omission.” 
He is uneasy about the inconsistencies and incoherencies of the church’s development and the formation of its doctrinal orthodoxy. In this matter he is close to a similar uneasiness by his Christian ancestors. Compare Rabbi Daniel E. Polish who says of Judaism: “This is a subject which has been discussed exhaustively in Buber’s Two Types of Faith. Jewish religious understanding seems, as a result, to be much more comfortable with ambiguities, and even internal inconsistencies, than the more creedally rigorous Christian tradition.”
The formation of Catholicism is reduced to mere chance. Catholic Christianity might have been different except for accidents. Here Dr. MacCulloch differs from John Henry Newman’s An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine. For MacCulloch no religious “truth” is true. All one has is the debris of an unpredictable and unstable historical process.
The author goes so far as to assert: “I live with the puzzle of wondering how something so apparently crazy can be so captivating to millions of other members of my species.”  Indeed.
With that, Rowan Williams, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, then says in his personal review: “This book is a landmark in its field, astonishing in its range, compulsively readable, full of insight even for the most jaded professional and of illumination for the interested general reader. It will have few, if any, rivals in the English language. The story is told with unobtrusive stylishness as well as clarity.”
Rowan Williams does include a short list of defects in the work. He mentions that:
“Inevitably there are a few slips in detail. Bishops’ mitres are not borrowed from Roman official costume, but are medieval adaptations of a form of papal headwear; the black death was not referred to by that name until a few centuries later. And there are, equally inevitably, some gaps. I missed, in a very good overview of Ivan the Terrible’s reign, any mention of Metropolitan Philip of Moscow, murdered for his attacks on the tsar’s atrocities and a good example of the fact that eastern Christians were not always as supine as is sometimes claimed in relation to secular authority. If Rembrandt is, as has been said, the greatest Protestant commentator on the Bible, we might have expected more of a nod in his direction. And, most puzzling, Dante does not merit a discussion. In one of the rare passages where there is a hint of textbook cliché, MacCulloch contrasts the ‘self-sufficient divine being’ of Augustine and Aquinas with the personal God of St Francis. Apart from the fact that Aquinas would have seen every page he wrote as seeking to hold the philosophical and the relational or personal together, Dante’s Paradiso sets out what it was like, imaginatively and spiritually, to sense these dimensions of faith as essentially one.”
… and then Williams concludes: “But these are small flaws in a triumphantly executed achievement.”
One flaw not noted by Williams is the thin treatment of Jansenism, the most important “heresy” in Catholic ecclesiastical history between the Council of Trent and the French Revolution [707, 797-799, 801]. MacCulloch does not cite Bruno Neveu, Lucien Ceyssens, Jacques Gres-Gayer, Brian E. Strayer, Jean Mesnard, Jean Orcibal, Jean-Robert Armogathe or René Tavenaux, to name just some prominent scholars of Jansenism and the French seventeenth century. It remains unclear if MacCulloch understands this contentious movement in light of the Ceyssens and post-Ceyssens industry.
In a book as lengthy as this one under review, the author-historian may, until he is caught, get away with sentences and claims which lack enough context or which go unverified. On page 386 we read: “… a Greek visiting Spain was offended when he heard St. James of Compostela referred to as a ‘knight of Christ’… ” MacCulloch cites for this reference Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War: A New History of the Crusades. Still, would this Greek have objected to Psalm 24, “Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle”?
Christian prayer, rooted in Jewish prayer, is fraught with military combat terminology. Would our Greek be so offended by the long tradition of Judaism and Christianity? Is it more the iconography or the abstract concepts of combat and warfare used by the religious tradition? No matter Tyerman’s source, does avoiding terminology such as this really represent the Christian East, and is it wise for a semi-popular work to rely upon and quote from something also semi-popular? It is widely held that before the First Crusade the cult of St. George was more prevalent in the Byzantine East than in the West. The Greeks apparently did not object to this soldier-saint. The Hellespont or Dardanelles was called “The Arm of St. George”.
Since the Enlightenment, certain themes have been developed and deliberately emphasized to discredit Christianity, and one of them is the Galileo affair. MacCulloch devotes only two brief pages to Galileo and his Copernican science. [684, 776] He writes: “Although many Protestants might rage against Copernicans, they did not take action against them as the Roman Inquisition had done in the Galileo case; moreover his treatment did seem all of a piece with the efforts of Europe’s various Inquisitions to ban so much of the creative literature of the previous centuries through their Indexes.” Elsewhere, MacCulloch has written about Galileo.
MacCulloch becomes less fair and more one-sided when he presents these complex questions with an unwarranted oversimplification which approaches the Black Legend theory of Inquisitions. His handling of the Inquisitions would profit from balance and contextualization. The works of Henry Kamen, Geoffrey Parker, and Jocelyn N. Hillgarth are not cited, although happily Edward M. Peters is. Though Galileo and the Inquisitions have been the object of new research in recent years, MacCulloch does not give the reader enough of this history as we lately understand it. His editorial choices are perplexing.
Let us proceed to a topic even more prized by the post-Enlightenment contemporary mind. Nowhere in the index does MacCulloch give us the word “holocaust” or “Shoah,” nor does the word appear under another heading such as “Jews” or “anti-Semitism.” Curiously, the word “holocaust” is used of the 1915-1916 slaughter of the Armenians by the Turks  and the great loss of Irish troops at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 .
The view of the Holocaust during World War II is superficial and misleading. For example, on page 946 we read about the Pope and the Jews; “the Pope only once nerved himself to make a public statement about their [the Jews’] plight, in his Christmas radio broadcast in 1942.” The statement fails to mention that in the preceding August, fifteen hundred Catholic priests and Religious men and women of Jewish heritage, including Edith Stein, were sent to Auschwitz in reprisal for the Dutch Catholic bishops’ pastoral letter condemning the Nazi racial laws. The Pope would have endangered many more lives than the Dutch bishops had he been more explicit that Christmas. The point should be clarified for the non-specialist reader. Research into this question and matters related to the administration and policies of Pius XII by Robert Graham, Pierre Blet, Victor Conzemius, Ludwig Volk, Konrad Repgen, Joseph Bottum, and Eric Silver should be employed. Though on page 1110 he calls the book “a wide sweep of a central topic,” MacCulloch relies narrowly upon Priests, Prelates and People: A History of European Catholicism, 1750 to the Present by Nicholas Atkin and Frank Tallett.
What Anglican Archbishop Williams hyperbolically calls a “triumphantly executed achievement” may fall short. If Diarmaid MacCulloch’s guiding tradition with its consequent editorial choices was less pronounced, the reader would need no caution. But unless Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years is supplemented or revised, it is needlessly biased or incomplete at least on specific issues so dear to the Enlightenment and its heirs the Marxists and Nihilists. This book is so exciting in university circles because the readership in such settings agrees with the negative assessment of the Enlightenment in matters of religion, especially Christianity.
An edited version of this appears in
Homiletic and Pastoral Review, vol. 111, no. 4 (January 2011): 75-77.
 Thus Handel’s Messiah never mentions Mary because George Frederick Handel was a Lutheran. See MacCulloch, Christianity, 789 and 1077, note 40. Music historians say the Colonna family commissioned Handel’s “Salve Regina” first performed in July 1707 in the Church of Santa Maria in Montesanto.
 Hitchcock’s forthcoming History of the Catholic Church may appear in 2011.
 Thomas S. Bokenkotter’s A Concise History of the Catholic Church, often used by liberal professors in American seminaries, is not listed for Further Reading, nor is John Laux’s Church History: A Complete History of the Catholic Church to the Present Day for High School, College and Adult Reading (TAN Books and Publishers, 2009).
 The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788).
 MacCulloch, Christianity, 1101.
 Amen: Faith and the Possibility of Jewish-Christian-Muslim Trialogue, Respondent to the Annual Fall Laurence J. McGinley Lecture; Inaugural Lecture by Patrick J. Ryan SJ, Fordham University, 18 November 2009, 29.
 (1845; 1878). See MacCulloch, Christianity, Notes 58 and 59, pages 1081-1082. Notice the words “sardonic,” “intellectual gymnastics,” and “sneers.” Is this urbane scoffing….?
 Belknap Press of Harvard University Press (28 February 2009).
 MacCulloch, Christianity, 776. The Index of Forbidden Books, affiliated with the Inquisitions, remains a treasured subject of Enlightenment anti-religious writing.
 Ibid., 1069, note 44.
 Ralph McInerny who wrote the Foreword to Edith Stein and Companions, On the Way to Auschwitz, by Paul Hamans, adds: “ In this remarkable book… Hamans has undertaken the onerous task of compiling biographies, often accompanied by photographs, of many of the religious and laity who were rounded up from their various convents and monasteries and homes on the same day as Saint Edith Stein, August 2, 1942; most of them were taken to the Amersfoort concentration camp and from there put on trains to Auschwitz, where the majority, soon after their arrival at the camp, were gassed and buried in a common grave between August 9 and September 30, 1942. They were all Catholic Jews, and their arrest was in retaliation for the letter of the Catholic bishops of the Netherlands that was read from the pulpits of all churches on July 26, 1942.
Over the past few years, in striking contrast to contemporary acknowledgments and the magnificent book of Jewish theologian and historian Pinchas Lapide, many authors have accused the Church of silence during the Nazi persecution of the Jews. None of the counterevidence to this shameful thesis has had any effect on the critics. The experience of Jews in the Netherlands, particularly Catholic Jews, is eloquent witness of what could result from public condemnation of the Nazis. The victims whose stories are included in this book were told that they were rounded up in direct retaliation of the condemnation of the Nazi ‘final solution’ by the Dutch bishops.” See http://www.ignatiusinsight.com/features2010/rmcinerny_edithsteinfrwd_may2010.asp
 I.B.Tauris (26 September 2003).