Western civilization is the historical product of Christianity. Without Christianity, the development of the West would have been radically different. Of course, secular humanism and various intermediary philosophies have contributed greatly to the growth and shape of Western institutions since about 1660, but without the impact of Christian thought and culture, the foundations of Western secular humanism would not have been laid. It is impossible to think of Western culture without considering the historical impact of Christianity.
Most Protestants understand this fact. Yet at the same time, they have a tendency to denigrate the cultural accomplishments of the Roman Catholic Church in the medieval era. It is as if Protestants think that Western culture sprang up overnight in response to Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses on the wall. But when we consider the savagery that faced the Irish missionaries in the sixth and seventh centuries, we all should become aware of the vast impact pre-Reformation Christianity had on Europe. In fact, without that impact, there would never have been a Europe. There would have been nothing more than pagan, fragmented tribes of primitive savages, with only an occasional raid from the Norsemen to bring “advanced” pagan culture into their lives.
There is little reason to believe that the level of formal Christian education was very great in pre-Reformation times. Without literacy and the printing press, written European culture was the possession of a tiny elite. What literacy that did exist prior to the eleventh century did so primarily in the monasteries, especially in Ireland. The knowledge of Christ and His work was overwhelmingly verbal, ritualistic, and visual, in the form of statues and architecture, with some painting. The fables, legends, hymns, Bible stories, and reworked pagan myths were mixed together in a complex form, with great regional and linguistic variations, to produce what we classify vaguely as medieval civilization. But it was a civilization. It was not primitive. The cultural shambles left by Rome, after Rome had disintegrated, was reworked by Christians to become a full-fledged culture. (See, for example, William Carroll Bark’s Origins of the Medieval World and Friedrich Heer’s The Medieval World, both available in inexpensive paperbacks.)
The question then arises: How was it that pre-Reformation of theological awareness was so minimal? How could it be that religion could build up a new, thriving civilization, if the level theological awareness was so minimal? How could it be that the confused mixtures of paganism, Bible stories, myths, relics, and all the other fragments of medieval Christianity could create the foundation, region by region, of a totally new civilization?
It was primarily the rule of biblical law, not the influence of architecture, paintings, or even hymns, that reshaped European life prior to the Reformation. It was the restraining influence of law — family law, church law, business law, and civil law — that provided the West with a new vision. Rushdoony writes of the progress of law after the sixth century:
Roman law now continued in its development, but it became progressively an expression of Biblical law. Justinian’s Institutes (with the Digest, Code, and Novels, a part of the Corpus Juris Civilis) clearly reflects what is now called “natural law,” but that concept was now becoming something other than Roman law had known it. . . . Natural law became a form of Christian heresy and ascribed to nature the legislative powers and absolute laws which were clearly borrowed from the God of Scripture. Thus, both Roman law and natural law became so thoroughly Christianized with the centuries that no Roman would have recognized them. Even where the wording of ancient Roman laws was retained, a new content and interpretation rendered the ancient meaning remote and barren (“Notes on the Law in Western Society,” The Institutes of Biblical Law [Nutley, New Jersey: Craig Press, 1973], pp. 786-87).
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