Johnson: A History of Christianity

July 25, 2011

A History of Christianity
Paul Johnson
(Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1976)

556 p.

These notes originally written 7 November 2005.

Johnson aims to present an historical overview of Christianity from its Jewish beginnings until just a few years before the pontificate of John Paul II. It is the first of Johnson’s books that I have read, and I must say he is a fetching writer with an easy manner and a brisk style. His account dwells primarily, and not inappropriately, on the history of European Christianity, though he devotes a large chapter to the rise of the faith in South America and the United States.

All of the main events are here: the theological and missionary work of Paul, Constantine’s conversion, the Reformation and, in the closing pages, Vatican II. Several of the ‘second-tier’ topics Johnson chooses to discuss are quite fascinating: he gives a valuable overview of the contemporary setting of Jesus’ mission, a very interesting account of Jesuit missionary work in 17th century Japan (and the subsequent brutal suppression of the faith in that country), and — perhaps best of all — he stages a delightful parade of the bizarre sects of ‘Reason’ that briefly flourished in the wake of the Revolution in France. Johnson seems to have been ahead of his time in drawing attention to the potential consequences of the rapid spread of Christianity in Africa.

However it should be said that the tone throughout the book is fairly consistently negative. Johnson is himself a Catholic, and considering that most of Christian history is Catholic history, perhaps he feared that too approving an account would draw criticism for being partial and patronizing. If that was his fear, he certainly succeeded brilliantly in deflecting any such criticism, but I think the book suffers as a result. When the Church argues on theological grounds he suggests that it is slightly out of touch, but when it advances other arguments it is worldly and inauthentic; when Catholics do not condemn Nazism to Johnson’s satisfaction they are condemned, but when Lutherans do the same they are excused (after all, they didn’t have a ‘tradition of opposition to the state’); when the Pope refuses to compromise he is portrayed as domineering and antidemocratic, but when he does compromise he is a ‘weak autocrat’. Johnson reserves most of his ire for ‘Augustinianism’, ‘triumphalism’, and ‘mechanical Christianity’, whatever that is. I found the concentrated dour tone a bit much after a while. He added a diminutive epilogue in what was apparently an attempt to redress this misbalance, but it is a case of too little too late.

Overall, then, a grumpy read from a fine historian.

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