Mission - in Christian soil?

On the formative Christian contribution to British and Western culture


Christian soil - general


‘For me, the vital issue facing the Church in England and the nation is the loss of this country’s long tradition of Christian wisdom which brought to birth the English nation: the loss of wonder and amazement that Jesus Christ has authority over every aspect of our lives and our nation’.

John Sentamu, Archbishop of York


‘Christian theology sheds light on institutions and traditions… So Western society finds itself the heir of political institutions and traditions which it values without having any clear idea why, or to what extent, it values them. Faced with decisions about their future development it has no way of telling what counts as improvement and what as subversion. It cannot tell where “straight ahead” lies, let alone whether it ought to keep on going there.’

Oliver O’Donovan, The Ways of Judgement


The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion... I am not so much concerned with the communion of Christian believers today; I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it... It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian culture could have produced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche.
               …To our Christian heritage we owe many things beside religious faith. Through it we trace the evolution of our arts, through it we have our conception of Roman Law which has done so much to shape the Western World, through it we have our conceptions of private and public morality. And through it we have our common standards of literature, in the literature of Greece and Rome. The Western world has its unity in this heritage, in Christianity and in the ancient civilisations of Greece, Rome, and Israel, from which owing to two thousand years of Christianity.

T. S. Eliot, broadcast talk, 1946


Western Europe


No civilisation, not even that of ancient Greece, has ever undergone such a continuous and profound process of change as Western Europe has done during the last 900 years. It is impossible to explain this fact in purely economic terms by a materialistic interpretation of history. The principle of change has been a spiritual one and the progress of Western civilisation is intimately related to the dynamic ethos of Western Christianity, which has gradually made Western man conscious of his moral responsibility and his duty to change the world’.

Christopher Dawson, The Judgement of the Nations, 1942, pp. 22-24.


The person


…although the person and ‘personal identity’ are widely discussed nowadays as a supreme ideal, nobody seems to recognise that historically as well as existentially the concept of the person is indissolubly bound up with theology…. The person both as a concept and as a lived reality is purely the product of patristic thought. Without this, the deepest meaning of personhood can neither be grasped nor justified.

John Ziozioulas, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, 1985, p.27


Democracy, freedom, tolerance


… the English doctrine of tolerance was established in the 17th century by the kind of people who would abandon their homes for the wilderness rather than agree that the communion table in the village church should be moved to the eastern window. Tolerance in England was a religious doctrine,,, In religious tolerance can also be found the main origins of modern British democracy.. “it is probable”, writes Tawney in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, that democracy owes more to Nonconformity than to any other single movement’.

Michael Polanyi, ‘The English and the Continent’, The Political Quarterly, Oct.-Dec. 1943


The freedoms of civil society (the freedoms of speech, association, etc), as they arose in the West at least, derive ultimately from a Christian provenance, rooted in an assertion of the liberty of the church (libertas ecclesiae). Ernst Troelsch argued as much when he contended that the early church, in demanding to be conceived of as a separate sphere whose authority was derivative from God and conscience before God and not from the state, made its main contribution to social theory to anchor a novum in history: ‘free spaces’ in society that did not derive their legitimacy directly from the state.

John Coleman, S.J., ‘A Limited State and a Vibrant Society: Christianity and Civil Society’,

in Rosenblaum and Post (eds), Civil Society and Government, p. 224.


Academic freedom


Popular belief notwithstanding, the birthplace of academic freedom does not lie in the Age of Reason. Typically modernity would assert that academic freedom arose during the renaissance and Enlightenment… the Enlightenment was far from being a golden age of academic freedom… It is no coincidence that not only the notion of academic freedom but also the idea of the institution of the university itself arose in the High Middle Ages, at a time when the Church enjoyed an extraordinary degree of influence upon European society and culture. Both the idea of the university ands the idea of academic freedom can be called gifts of medieval Christianity to the modern world, albeit in secularised form… where true theology is included in academic life, that is, where truth is being pursued most purely for its own sake, freedom of thought is present…if students are motivated not only by practical, useful intentions but also by the sheer wonder about truth, they are then pursuing a liberal education….The theological way of viewing reality is a pure form of positive, intrinsic, intellectual freedom… Every other form of liberal thought embodies a diminutive form of this kind of freedom.

William J. Hoye, ‘The Religious Roots of Academic Freedom’, Theological Studies, 58, 1997, pp. 409-428




'The flowering of an idea comes when it assumes a structural role that determines what else may be thought. Its origin is never contemporary with its flowering, nor are its organisational implications apparent to the minds that first conceived it. And so, as historians may point out with perfect justice, the eighteenth century was actually formed far less by the 'Enlightenment' ideas that we associate with it than by the older tradition of religion ideas common to Christendom. Modernity-criticism is less history of ideas than 'genealogy'. It is we who find the Enlightenment ideas particularly important, because it is we who have seen them grow to form a matrix within which everything that is to be thought must be thought.'

Oliver O'Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology, 1996, p272]


Social transformation and welfare


Sunday Schools… emerged in the mid 18th-century as much a response to the weekday employment of children and the contrasting dangers of Sunday idleness as to the primary need to provide that saving ability to read the bible that many poor parents were failing to provide… By 1800 there were 200,000 children attending them; by 1851, over ten times that number… No institution of education touched so many children and young people… The provision of weekday schools in England and Wales was increasingly the work of the British & Foreign Schools Society and – especially – the National Society… Educational provision was settled along denominational lines in the 1830’s.

Edward Royle, ‘Evangelicals and Education’, in John Wolffe (ed), Evangelical Faith and Public Zeal.


few Victorians, and assuredly no religious Victorians, could doubt the immense impact of evangelical labours: perhaps more than any other single influence, evangelical morality affected all segments of English society… ‘to them is due the suppression of the slave trade in the last generation, to them the abolition of slavery in the present. The reform of personal discipline was affected by their efforts, the criminal law was robbed of its bloodthirsty severity by their aid… In more recent times the population of our factories and our mines may thank the exertions of another Evangelical champion for the investigation into their sufferings, and the improvement of their condition’

Norris Pope, Dickens and Charity; his quote is from W. Conybeare, in the Edinburgh Review, 1853)


I think it is historically true that the biggest social consequences of Christianity have originated in movements which did not begin by aiming at social reform at all. But this is in no way a belittling of the necessity of political action… If the men who came out of the Evangelical Movement – men like Shaftsbury and Wilberforce at one end, and the early leaders of the Trades Union and Co-operative movements on the other – has shrunk from political and social action when it was possible to them, it would not be possible now to speak of the evangelical revival as having transformed English social life.

Lesslie Newbigin, The Kingdom of God and the Idea of Progress, 1941, Lecture IV


Medical care


Those, like Basil (of Caesarea) who ministered to the needy saw their service as a direct expression of their creation faith… (he) neither gained nor expected any personal profit from the venture… (in circa AD 372) using funds solicited from the wealthy, founded what scholars today regard as the first hospital (or infirmary) open to the public on a regular basis. The significance of this event has frequently been pointed out by historians of medicine.. While Basil’s hospital was organised and run by monks, it employed trained physicians and harnessed all of the wisdom of Greek medicine to the Christian vision of a healing ministry. The value thus placed on the medical profession was an important stimulus to the development of medicine, particularly in the medieval Greek, Syrian, and Arabic cultures… Not only does this historical material establish the importance of early Christian faith and practice for the development of western medicine, but it provides as vision of the theological meaning of lay callings like medicine…

Christopher B. Kaiser, ‘The early Christian Belief in Creation: Background for the Origins and Assessment of Modern Western Science’, Horizons of Biblical Theology, 9(2), December 1987


The Universal Declaration of Human Rights


…a remarkable mutation of the old territorial concept of ‘Christendom’ was floated by J. H. Oldham and Jacques Maritain, and then developed by others. Within secular states, an organically related bundle of principles might be established and given statutory constitutional expression , and there should be no limit to their rapid extension to include the whole world. Christians and other – society’s ‘best minds’ – could probably agree upon and define whatever is required to protect human social well-being. The UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 was seen as such a bundle of desiderata. Once these had been established in a regime worldwide, Christian communities would be liberated to live out every aspect of their lives. They would neither expect nor desire any privileges not equally available to other faiths, and there would be no question of coercing ‘the other’, or of self-consciously ‘Christian’ territories. Such an outcome would be the triumph of the public half of Oldham’s missionary vision for ‘Christendom’. What would remain would be the churches’ task of education, persuasion, and exemplification of ‘the Christian way’… the Protestant, Anglican, and, to an extent, Orthodox ecumenical movement contributed enormously to the events that led up to the United Nations General Assembly (in 1948).

John Nurser, For All Peoples and All Nations: Christian Churches and Human Rights, 2005, p.173.




… the method of natural science depends upon the presuppositions which are held about nature, and the presuppositions about nature in turn upon the doctrine of God. Modern natural science could begin only when the modern presuppositions about nature displaced the Greek…; but this displacement itself was possible only when the Christian conception of God had displaced the Pagan, as the object (not merely of unreasoning belief, but) of systematic understanding. To achieve this primary displacement was the work of Medieval theology, which thus laid the foundations both of much else in the modern world which is specifically modern, and of modern natural science.’

M. B. Foster, ‘The Christian Doctrine of Creation and the Rise of Modern Natural Science’, Mind, October 1934


[on the first article of the Creed, ‘Creator of all things, seen and unseen’]: God’s creative choice was for a Christian a rational choice, consistent in all its implications. This made the notion of physical law intrinsically acceptable but also made it underivable from a prior considerations. Since the specific form of rationality was a creative choice, man had to search for its vestiges. The cultivation of experimental method is indeed a tangible witness of science to Christianity. Equally important was the fact that since the choice in question was creative, the activity or motion of its product could be conceived as communicated to it at an absolute beginning. Herein lies the origin of the conceptual advance from the medieval impetus theory to the notion of inertia of classical physics, the first type of physics generating its own further development. The period 1250-1650, in which these developments had taken place, is the period of the only viable birth of science in contrast to its repeated stillbirths in all the other major cultures…it is therefore no mere historical accident that the rise of science in the seventeenth century was a celebration by scientists of a ‘holy alliance’, or mutual witness, between science and Christianity.

Stanley Jaki, ‘Science And Christian Theism: a mutual witness’,

Scottish Journal of Theology 32, 1979, pp.563-70, p. 568.


The arts


We are dealing with a tradition, understandings and assumptions about the world passed on from generation to generation, adopted, rejected, questioned, and adjusted – but not lost. Our is the first generation in over a millennium in which the Christian traditions is for some readers of English literature terra incognita, uncharted territory….. The great majority of writers throughout the history of English literature… worked with the Christian view that God revealed himself supremely in Jesus Christ, as he is described in the New Testament, and that Christ is the fulfilment of the Law, the Prophets, and the writings of the Hebrew Scriptures…

Paul Cavill, Heather Ward et al., Christian Tradition in English Literature, 2007, pp. 13, 417.


It was Christianity… which gave the occasion and the inspiration, if not the precise form, for the painting of Christian Europe. The sacred figures and scenes which offered the first invitation and the first subject to this art gathered around the figure of the Incarnate God in Jesus Christ. Painting sprang from the desire to give form to the object of the supreme passion – which was not the man Jesus so much as the God who, by incarnation as a man, had made humanity immortal.


(referring to the inwardness of music): I have previously described this inwardness as one of the defining marks of the (arts) which rose to their maturity under Christian and spiritual influence, and which, even in their secularised forms, exhibit, deep in their structure, this original type and note’.

P. T. Forsyth, Christ on Parnassus, 1911, p. 131 and p 199.


Contemporary blindness or disparagement towards Christian heritage


'historically speaking, the environment is covered with the marks of past efforts to Christianise our culture and our civilisation…. (however) the atheist… thinks that the great works of Christian culture are great in spite of their Christian substance and inspiration and in no degree because of their Christian substance and inspiration… You will certainly not hear our secularised contemporaries say of you or me: 'Oh Yes, he's a Christian. Like Bach and Milton, like Leonardo and Raphael, like the people who built our cathedrals and gave us our first schools: he's one of those'.3

Harry Blamires, Meat Not Milk, 1988, p. 172.


Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) is ‘the most famous survivor in history… his popularity was instant and undying…but the single most important fact about this boy’s adventure book is that it is not a boys adventure book at all. It is, rather, a grown-up tale of a man’s discovery of himself, civilization, and God… Robinson Crusoe’s spiritual depths are evident to all who read it unabridged…. my students are struck by the power of Robinson’s conversion.. In just this way – as a manual of conversion and guide to the good life... was Robinson understood for centuries… but (in my local library) almost all of them proved to be abridgements… every single one showed the same bleak pattern, the evisceration form the text of almost every scrap or shred of religion….  It is not difficult to see in the strange saga of Robinson Crusoe a parable of our own condition. We are all Robinsons, cut off from the mainland of religious tradition, shipwrecked on the shoals of secularism. Our culture as a whole has suffered the dame fate as Defoe’s book; a systematic purgation of religious content.’

Philip Zaleski, ‘The Strange Shipwreck of Robinson Crusoe’, First Things, May 1995


'nowhere at all is the voice of that 50 per cent who apparently want their children to experience something of the Christian faith that is their heritage but are no longer willing to pass on that faith in any institutionalised form, or interested enough to make representations to the (Scottish) Executive…we should be clear that we now urgently need, as a society, to find ways of expressing Britain’s mainstream Christian inheritance that reflect its cultural and historical importance to a majority of British citizens, without denying that most of us now live our lives according to a set of values - justice, integrity, compassion - which are both more secular and more universal than those associated with strict traditional Christianity.

For if we feel we have no culture of our own, or that we have lost touch with it over two generations of breakneck social change, then we are bound to feel threatened by others who seem more certain of who they are…

But if we can begin to see the powerful moral connections between the tradition in which we were raised and the way we live now, and to pass that story on to our children and grandchildren, then we may find ourselves more confident of who we are and where we came from; and therefore better able to enter into a real conversation with people of other faiths and traditions.'

Joyce MacMillan, in The Scotsman, 5th March 2005