Where did “secularism” come from? Are secular values at war with Christianity?
The late venerable statesman for Protestant evangelical Christianity, J. I. Packer, remarked that the greatest threat to evangelical faith today comes not from the so-called “religious” world, such as the revival of a resurgent Roman Catholicism, bent on undercutting the principles of the Reformation. Neither does it come from an amalgamation of Eastern religiosity, as in the New Age Movement, and perhaps not even from Islam, despite its rapid growth. Rather, the “Great Tradition” of Christianity, the triad of evangelical Protestantism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodoxy, share a common adversary: a relentless and pervasive secularism. The various strands of Christianity have their profound differences, but they all face together a common challenge: Secularism is the acid that corrodes Christian belief.
Originally, the English word “secularize” came into use during the period of the Protestant Reformation, when lands owned by the church were confiscated and placed in the hands of the state. To make something secular in the 16th century was not an attack on Christianity, but rather, a means of empowering the state to limit the influence and power of the Roman Catholic Church.
But what drives the ethical and worldview imperatives of a secular view of reality in the 21st century? Today, many contend that secularism owes its origins to classical, ancient Greece, only to be pushed aside by the rise of the Christian church, in the Roman empire. Centuries later, by at least the 18th century, secularism was revived through the narrative of Enlightenment, with the triumph of a scientific approach to the world, over and against the superstitious outlook of Christianity, whereby slavery was eventually eradicated, human rights celebrated, and the shackles of repressive sexual restrictions removed…. so the story goes.
Tom Holland, a leading popular historian from the U.K., who has written top-notch histories of the ancient world, once embraced this dominant, contemporary secular perspective (this Tom Holland is not to be confused with the Spiderman actor!). Holland had grown up in the Church of England, but his fascination with dinosaurs as a child triggered his eventual move away from the Christian faith towards atheism. Sunday School depictions of Adam and Eve running around with dinosaurs, merely a few thousand years ago, effectively caused this young boy to doubt his tender faith in the God of the Bible. The glamorous romanticism of the ancient Greeks caught his imagination instead, which has inspired his writing career.
Yet years later, Holland’s latest book, Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, dismantled his own earlier thesis, of a secular view of the world superseding Christianity. Now Holland believes, despite the loud appeals otherwise, that it is Christianity that has made the modern world what it is. Christians should take notice of Tom Holland’s revisionist perspective of history, as he has given us a helpful framework for understanding where the Christian church is, in this current cultural moment, resulting from decades of social change.
The Christian roots of our growing secular world has created a crisis, that few secular intellectual elites have been willing to accept, up until recently. A liberal secularism embraces human rights, the equal dignity of all persons (except, apparently, in the case of the unborn), a desire to rid the world of poverty, and the responsibility to care for the weak and the sick. But as Holland makes his case in Dominion, these are all essentially Christian values, an embarrassment for those who wish to see orthodox Christian faith cast upon the dung heap of forgotten human history.
Dominion is equally a fascinating, entertaining read, as well as being a deeply and intellectually stimulating read, that fills the mind with challenges. The thesis being proposed in Dominion, that of a self-confessed secularist critiquing secularism, deserves a careful in-depth review, which I will currently explore.
A Secular Creed… Rooted in Christian Values
I found a good example of this secular outlook on a recent trip to the Outer Banks, North Carolina. On a bike ride, as I was listening to the audiobook version of Tom Holland’s Dominion, I came across the above sign, rising above a bush in someone’s suburbanite yard. It is the perfect picture of what all Christians, whether they be Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or evangelical Protestant, face when trying to share their faith with secular-minded neighbors.
Many Christians recite affirmations of belief, like the Nicene Creed, but the above sign is like a secular version of a Christian creed. Such standard beliefs of our secular world are proudly displayed, “WE BELIEVE… BLACK LIVES MATTER… NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL… LOVE IS LOVE … Women’s Rights Are Human Rights… SCIENCE IS REAL… WATER IS LIFE… Injustice Anywhere Is a Threat to Justice Everywhere.”
Granted, there are many Christians who would confidently agree with each one of these statements, and never bat an eye. Taken at face value, why would any Christian object? Why would this creed be “secular?” Affirming such a creed is a moral “no-brainer,” is it not? Is not such a creed consistent with the ethics of Jesus?
Yet there are a great number of Christians as well who would never put up such a sign in their yard. Take a closer look. Such Christians would conclude that at least one or more of these statements above, upon closer examination, peeling back the layers of rhetoric, ironically run counter to Christian beliefs. I mean, yes, of course, the Christian believes that “Black Lives Matter.” But does this mean Christians should uncritically support the organization, “BlackLivesMatter.com“, with their openly Neo-Marxist rhetoric? Most orthodox-minded Christians I know would say absolutely not! Furthermore, I would dare say that the likelihood that this suburbanite family, proudly displaying this sign in their front yard, is attending a conservative Christian church is very, very slim.
This secular creed might be adopted by some Christians, but this is probably not the intent. The intent of this creed is meant as a rebuke, a stinging judgment against those who stand in the way of realizing these beliefs to be true, from the perspective of the sign owner. Among those who are the target of such judgment are those Christians who hesitate to jump fully onboard with all of the sentiments associated with such a creed.
The condemnation of racism, the welcoming of the immigrant, support for human rights, etc. are all founded upon a Christian worldview, according to Tom Holland. Even the whole concept of “secular,” that eventually crept into the English language, has Christian theological roots to it, traced back to Saint Augustine. Augustine sought to contrast the “secular” elements of mortal human existence, things that change from generation to generation, with the never-changing, eternal subject of his famous treatise, The City of God. Nevertheless, the growing secularism movement today is actively engaged in trying to sever the Christian roots once associated with these eternally transcendent values.
The Greco-Roman classical world never upheld such values, nor the animist pagan world of pre-Christian Europe. Trivially, neither Hinduism nor Buddhism contributed much, as they were largely unknown to the West, except in more recent times. Tom Holland appeals to Friedrich Nietzsche to make his case, as Nietzsche, who was no friend of Christian orthodoxy, admitted that without Christianity, all we are left with is the will to power and no moral absolutes.
Does this sound familiar to anyone?
An Historical Overview of How Christianity Produced Our Secular World
Tom Holland takes us on a journey through history, to show how the two-thousand year progression of Christian practice and thought have left an indelible mark on secularism, despite attempts by activist-minded secularists to marginalize Christianity, in nearly all of its forms. Dominion is worth the reading, if for no other reason, that Tom Holland provides the readers with an array of fascinating insights into how certain facets of Christian history and doctrine unknowingly undergird the very values that secular society holds so dearly.
For example, in Dominion, I learned that Cardinal Thomas Cajetan, a leading Roman Catholic intellectual in the early 16th century, who interrogated the upstart Martin Luther, was ironically quite progressive in an area not directly addressed by the Reformation. Cajetan surely lost his composure in dealing with Luther’s denunciations of indulgences and the papacy at Augsburg. But Cajetan was also known as an opponent of the practice of enslaving the Indians in the Americas, stating that “On a living human being, so long as he is held in slavery, violence is continually inflicted.”
Nuggets of intriguing observations like these pepper the pages of Dominion. Nevertheless, it is the essential thesis behind Dominion that makes Tom Holland’s work so important.
As the author observes, the secular world clings to the belief that human rights are essential to human existence. It is just a part of the world we live in. Nevertheless, we have acquired that belief today from the teaching of Genesis, that acknowledges that we are all created in the image of God. Secularists are then left with a tension, as those secular advocates of human rights, who are intent on undermining the Christian narrative of the Garden of Eden, are simultaneously struggling in vain to find a moral basis for such human rights, devoid of any Biblical claim.
The long story of how Christianity eventually led to the now, near universal condemnation of slavery is evidence of Christianity’s influence on our secular world. According to Tom Holland, Christians always viewed slavery to be wrong, just as they viewed disease and poverty to be wrong, as consequences of the Fall of Adam.
To the orthodox Christian, a theological fault laid behind Gregory of Nyssa’s advocacy of universalism, based on certain easily misunderstood statements by the Apostle Paul, possibly indicating that all shall be saved in the end. Most Christians today reject this doctrine of universalism. Nevertheless, it was this universalist theological impulse that compelled Gregory to condemn slavery. As a leading church father of the 4th century, Gregory of Nyssa had been highly influenced by the great 2nd century church father, Origen, taking Origen’s insights into seeing God becoming man in Christ, and applying that towards seeing God being revealed through the glory of man. For Gregory of Nyssa, if Christians are not to enslave other Christians, and if all peoples will be made Christians in the end, then human slavery has no place in God’s universe.
No other thinker earlier than Gregory of Nyssa rejected the institution of slavery like this. No Roman pagan. No Greek classicist. No one. It was this ancient Christian who first sought to fully eradicate slavery as a social norm.
In his review of Tom Holland’s book, Tim O’Neill quotes from a sermon by Gregory of Nyssa, as to how being created in the image of God makes the acceptance of slavery among Christians to be an impossibility:
- “What price did you put on rationality? How many obols [a Greek coin] did you reckon the equivalent of the likeness of God? How many staters [another ancient Greek coin] did you get for selling the being shaped by God? ‘God said, let us make man in our own image and likeness’ (Gen 1:26). If he is in the likeness of God, and rules the whole earth, and has been granted authority over everything on earth from God, who is his buyer, tell me? Who is his seller?”
True, Gregory of Nyssa’s plea to end slavery would not reach its climax until the 19th century. Nevertheless, Tom Holland links the 18th and 19th century abolitionist movement ultimately back to the Christian faith, and not to any other source.
From Abolitionism to “Wokeness”
Tom Holland sees that this history behind abolitionism was eventually responsible for every reform movement since then, meant to deliver the oppressed from the hands of the oppressor. Ironically, this ethical value, traced back to the deliverance of the Israelite slaves from the hand of Pharaoh during the Exodus, is what drives contemporary movements like feminism, #MeToo, gay rights, and transgender rights. It is just that not everyone in these movements are willing to accept, or are even aware, that this Christian value is at the background of these movements. Such truth is often lost when various elements of these “rights” movements find such opposition from traditionally, orthodox-minded Christians, when such “rights” movements threaten other aspects of Christian values.
Here is a case study: The “woke” movement, catapulted in the popular mind most recently, has a curious mixture of Christian ideas at its core. “Wokeness,” a play on the concept of “spiritual awakening,” had it roots in postmodern academia, over the past thirty-some odd years. But whereas the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, was thoroughly Christian, in the most orthodox sense, today’s “woke” movement, driven by rather ideological commitments to “critical race theory,” has largely departed from its Christian roots.
In the 1960s, that generation of hippies rebelled against the Augustinian notion of original sin to embrace a new form of Pelagianism. Pelagius was the primary theological opponent of the 5th century Saint Augustine. Augustine believed that humans were throughly degraded by the power of sin, without exception, whereas Pelagius believed that through the exertion of the will, a person can free themselves from sin, and attain perfection. Tom Holland notes that Augustine’s view of original sin is highly democratic, pushing back against a kind of moral elitism favored by Pelagius.
According to Tom Holland (expressed succinctly in this YouTube interview), this revulsion against Augustine’s original sin and embrace of Pelagian perfectionism, coupled with the Exodus theme of deliverance from oppression, is what characterizes the “woke” movement, along with the critical theory and intersectionality ideology that undergirds the movement today. As a result, you have a web of oppressed classes that ironically claims for themselves a kind of moral elitism. If you are not a member of that web of oppressed classes, then you are inherently complicit with whatever sin is being exposed, whether that be racism, sexism, etc.
To put it bluntly, in this worldview, if you are a white, male (.etc…. add the other “oppressive” categories), you are inherently racist, and there is not a darn thing you can do about it. Nor can anyone else even help you get better, or otherwise find improvement. Forgiveness is impossible. All you can do is ally yourself with the oppressed as their advocate, and fatalistically accept your miserable moral state.
Coupled with this worldview perspective is an inherently contradictory view of human sexuality and gender. As Douglas Murray argues persuasively in The Madness of Crowds, we have become accustomed in the culture at large at viewing “sexual orientation” as an essentially immutable characteristic, whereby a person’s sexual attraction to someone of the same gender is absolutely fixed. No exceptions! To allow someone to try to change their sexual orientation would be rejected as immoral. Yet at the same time, anyone can choose to identify with being of another gender, other than that given by birth, making gender an essentially mutable characteristic. We are thus encouraged to celebrate this, or otherwise penalized if someone questions the exercise of such choice. The flatly contradictory nature of these two positions passes largely unnoticed. As a result, we have taken rather complex issues regarding gender and sexual identity, out of the realm of personal care and theological reflection, and politicized them.
Genesis teaches that being created “male and female” is essential to being created “in the image of God.” But today’s revolution in understanding sexuality and gender seeks to blur that understanding, just as “critical race theory” seeks to push back against Martin Luther King’s Christian vision of a “colorblind” society.
This perverse thought system cuts completely against the grain of historic, orthodox Christianity, and the intolerance that goes hand-in-hand with it is destructive to Western civilization, and a growing number of secularists are seeing that this is going on. For example, James Lindsay, co-author of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why This Harms Everybody, put it like this when defining “critical theory,” that fundamental intellectual principle behind being “woke”: “In one sentence, Critical Theory is the belief that society is rotten to the core, that your life actually sucks even though you don’t know it, and that you must be brainwashed or filled with evil motives if you disagree.”
The historical and theological insight that Holland offers is incredibly helpful in understanding this current cultural hegemony. Tom Holland basically identifies “woke-ism” as a type of Christian heresy, the 21st century equivalent of Pelagianism. I am convinced that he is totally correct here. This new “woke” belief system replaces traditional faith with the aggressive politics of the Far Left. It is Pelagianism dressed in the garb of secularism…. and it is aimed at displacing historic, orthodox Christianity.
Is the World Becoming More and More Secular?
I am conflicted by one particular question that surfaces in reading Dominion. Is the world really becoming more and more secular?
In the Western world, we might observe that the continued advance of secularism seems almost unstoppable. I look back on a day when “Blue Laws” in my native state of Virginia, that kept certain businesses closed on Sundays, were to some extent the norm, even in the 1970s. No such “Blue Laws” exist in Virginia anymore. The idea that “Blue Laws” will ever return seems highly improbable.
However, if I follow Tom Holland’s thesis, we simply can not escape the pervasive influence of Christianity in Western culture. Enforcement of Sunday “Blue Laws” maybe no more, but we still have the concept of the “weekend,” when even most government offices are closed. Chik-fil-A remains closed on Sundays, but that does not appear to work against the restaurant chain’s ever increasing popularity. Government enforcement of Christian norms and ethics is evidently in decline, but this does not necessarily imply that Christian practices are automatically receding with it.
Some even argue that the compulsive drive towards secularism is in reality a myth. In many ways, our world is becoming more religious, not less. The secularism of Europe, that has outpaced its advances in America, has been undermined by the growth of Islam within its borders. Though I do not recall Tom Holland ever saying this, I would imagine that he would acknowledge that Islam would never have arisen had it not been for Christianity.
What then does account for this supposed advance of secularism? Is it the rise of science? After all, we in the West are all consumers of technology, and our use of that technology would not have been possible without the advances of modern science. Furthermore, that consumption of technology impacts the way we live, think, and in the age of social media, how we converse with others, in ways that would horrify Christians of past generations. In our increasingly polarized society, it is increasingly becoming more difficult to be a Christian.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about Dominion was reading Tom Holland’s brief biographical portraits, in order to advance his thesis. There are tales about the 4th century St. Martin, with his famous cape, and how sainthood veneration developed during the medieval period; the story of the 8th century West Saxon missionary Boniface, who died for his faith; and the telling of how German machine gunner and artist Otto Dix survived the Somme, one of the most murderous battles of the First World War. But one particular example sticks out, from Holland’s chapter on “Science,” though I did find it disturbing when I first read it. Nevertheless, I found a lesson to be learned here, that brought me back to Tom Holland’s central thesis. Here is the beginning of the chapter:
- 1876: THE JUDITH RIVER
As dry thunder rumbles over the Montana badlands, Edward Drinker Cope tosses & moans in his sleep, so unsettled by the dinosaurs he has been excavating by day that they come to visit him in his sleep, “tossing him in the air, trampling him.”
Edward Drinker Cope was a pioneering American paleontologist, who in the days following George Armstrong Custer’s disastrous defeat, at the Battle of Little Big Horn, made his way out to Montana, to dig around for dinosaur bones. Cope had grown up in a very devout Quaker family, where he was taught a very “literal” view of the early chapters of Genesis. His reading of Genesis in the Quaker home of his youth had no room for dinosaur fossils.
It was not just the thought of dinosaurs attacking him in his sleep, that gave him nightmares. It was also doubts about his faith in a Creator. Though he never completely abandoned his faith in God, a simplistic reading of the Bible was no longer an option for him. For Cope, he grew to accept that science gave a more sure understanding of the world than did the revelation of Scripture.
Unfortunately, Holland only tells part of the story in Dominion. Being disturbed by Tom Holland’s mini-portrait of Cope, and never having had any knowledge of Cope before, I took a glance at the Wikipedia entry for Edward Drinker Cope. Despite his contributions to paleontology, Cope’s biography includes some rather unsavory elements of his life story, including at least one escapade of marital infidelity, his racist views towards African Americans, and in having an opposition to woman’s suffrage.
Even on a professional level, Cope was involved in a petty feud with fellow paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh, whom Cope once considered a friend. Cope and Marsh competed with one another, in what science historians call the “Bone Wars,” where the two men would scour the American West, looking for new dinosaur species, in an effort to best the other researcher to see who could make the most scientific discoveries, in order to make the biggest splash in the eastern U.S. newspapers. The two men even resorted to such unethical practices as dynamiting their dig sites, after doing their own digs, in order to prevent the other paleontologist from making further discoveries. It was not beneath either man to hire thugs to steal the other man’s dinosaur finds, spying on one another, and bribing workers, activities that led to the ultimate social and financial ruin of both men. Such less than glamorous behavior was unreported by Tom Holland, in Dominion, thus severely complicating the narrative of Cope as a hero of science, who rose above the superstitions of the biblicism of his youth. To his credit though, Tom Holland acknowledges that even some of the best paleontologists, even today, are devout evangelical Christians, who see no inherent conflict between science and their Christian faith.
Embracing a scientific outlook on life had not inherently made Cope a better person. Despite what one may think about the “science vs. the Bible” debate, Cope’s life was a reminder that even with the advances that science has given us, science does not answer every question and dilemma of the human heart. This brought me back to reconsider Tom Holland’s central thesis: Even the most moral atheist among us is unconsciously dependent, to a certain extent, upon a Christian view of morality to guide their lives, and condemn their behavior, when needed. Cope doubted a Creator, but he could not escape those fundamental ideas taught in early Genesis, that we as humans are created in the image of God, whose purpose is the bear witness to the truth and character of that Creator.
At the core of Christian belief is an embrace of mystery. Think about it: Does the doctrine of the Triune nature of God make rational sense? From a materialistic worldview, where science is thought to contain all of the answers, the notion of one God in three persons sounds like pure nonsense. But what if reality is to be imagined the other way around? What if the doctrine of the Trinity gives a frame upon which we can see the world as it really is? The desire for absolute certainty undergirds much that characterizes a purely secular approach to life. Yet what if embracing a Christian imagination helps us to make sense of those things, for which certainty always seems elusive? In such a Christian worldview, science and spiritual faith are not to be viewed as enemies, but rather as partners in the discovery of truth.
Traditional religiosity appears to be fading in the West, but new forms of religiosity have risen up in the vacuum to take its place. For example, Holland writes persuasively that J.R.R. Tolkien, a devout Roman Catholic, wrote the most popular work of fiction in the 20th century. Though Middle Earth has no explicit Christianity detailed in the pages of the The Lord of the Rings, the cosmic battle between the forces of good and evil, a theme that is embedded through the whole of the Bible, emerged in Tolkien’s writings as a paradigm in which to view the horrors of the 20th century. It was Tolkien’s Catholicism that gave him the imaginative tools that has enabled several generations of Westerners to appreciate the breadth of his work, and see echoes of the themes in The Lord of the Rings on display in the modern world.
The power of the ring, a small yet precious token, could be used to destroy Middle Earth, by the forces of Sauron. Does not the ring conjure up the power of the atom, that was harnessed in the 20th century to bring about the end of World War II, and usher in the darkness of the nuclear arms race, threatening the annihilation of our world? Secularism may have tried to banish a Christian view of Satan as a personal reality to the premodern past, but we can not seem to escape the “Satanic” horrors of Hiroshima, Chernobyl, “weapons of mass destruction,” and the continued threat of terrorism that haunt us today. We may have reduced Satan to a comic book character, but the specter of nuclear annihilation, and even of biological warfare in the age of pandemic, is no less “Satanic.”
Consider how the tiny, microscopic coronavirus of COVID-19 spreads fear in our day and age, just as Tolkien’s ring does in The Lord of the Rings, just as the diabolical presence of Satan does in the Bible. Christians can not see Satan, but they know that Satan is real. Tolkien’s ring made the one who wears the ring invisible, but the power of the ring is undoubtedly real. COVID-19 is difficult to see and detect, but that does not make its presence any less deadly, threatening, and real.
Another quick example: A “religious” mindset, where the concept of “religious” itself is a Christian invention, has been secularized into the form of politics. Political parties today have effectively replaced the religious denominations of the past, but they are no less “religious” than their “religious” predecessors. We just use more secularized language to talk about it.
Tom Holland’s prose left me with much to ponder.
The Higher Critical View of the Apostle Paul
As an evangelical Christian reader of Holland, I was particularly struck with Holland’s emphasis on the Apostle Paul, as the great statesman of Christianity. Much of what we consider to be the core ideas of the Christian faith, ranging from the doctrine of original sin, to the twin concepts of saving faith and grace, to the liberty of conscience, are articulated by this Jewish man from Taursus, who started out as a persecutor of Christians, only to become the most influential author of the New Testament.
And yet, here is where Tom Holland still buys into too much of a skeptical liberalism. Holland’s portrait of Paul seems hampered by a description of Paul read through the lens of contemporary “higher criticism” of the Bible. The liberal Protestant tradition, that started in the 19th century sought to give us a “scientific” way of reading the Bible, still dominates the academic world. But such “higher criticism” has failed to sufficiently to rid liberalism of its own subjective, and ultimately “unscientific” biases that cripple today’s secularism project.
For example, Holland follows the standard critical categorization of Paul’s thirteen letters, where only seven of the letters are authentic, and the other six are later forgeries, that got inserted into the New Testament canon (see my earlier Veracity post for more details). While much of liberal academia and mainline Protestantism accepts this conclusion, scientific certainty regarding the authorship of the Pauline letters continues to remain elusive. But this has not prevented advocates of “higher criticism” from forming a new narrative that cuts at the heart of Christian orthodoxy.
From the seven authentic letters of Paul, including Galatians, Holland sees that Paul is won over by a vision of spirituality grounded in having faith in Christ, and not by clinging to the Jewish law. For in Christ, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, and no male nor female, envisioning a radical, liberty-based egalitarianism.
Nevertheless, Paul sees the limits of such a radical message of faith as belief in Christ, by the libertine behaviors found in the church of Corinth. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul is scandalized by a report of outright incest in the Corinthian church, and he urges that while all things are lawful, not all things are beneficial for the community. Paul then falls back on his more traditional Jewish roots, by insisting that man is the head of woman, thus reinforcing more traditional, hierarchial patterns of family relations. He allows for women to pray and prophesy in church, but only if they cover their heads. Otherwise, women are to remain silent. The liberating message of the Gospel only goes so far, for Paul.
Furthermore, Holland follows the typical liberal view that the six other letters of Paul, such as 1 Timothy, set out to drastically domesticate Paul’s revolutionary ideas. The early church realized that the radical message of Paul turned out to be a bit too radical, for those who followed in Paul’s wake. A letter like 1 Timothy was therefore forged by someone perhaps in the mid-2nd century, who claimed to be writing in the name of Paul, in order to pull way back on the liberating message of Paul’s more authentic letters. In contradiction with the “real” Paul, who enthusiastically supports women in church leadership, such as in Romans 16, the pseudepigraphic Paul who wrote 1 Timothy insists on highly structured roles for church organization, and forbidding women from exercising leadership in the church.
One particular verse disturbs many secularists and even many Christians alike, in 1 Timothy 2:12, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.” Many see this as a blatant contradiction of a central verse found in one of Paul’s undisputed letters, in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” (But is it, really?)
As this “historical critical” narrative continues, Colossians and Ephesians, were also most probably forgeries claiming to be rooted in Paul. Attempting to associate the voice of the author with that of the famous Apostle Paul, both letters recite traditional Roman household codes, reinforcing the husband’s dominance over the wife in the home, and perpetuating the acceptance of slavery as a social norm. Even if Paul had actually written these letters, it shows all the more a vacillating apostle at work.
Tom Holland summarized this narrative several years ago in an essay for The Guardian. It is this type of narrative of the Apostle Paul, though reflecting a standard critical perspective held by liberals today, that simultaneously both honors and denigrates Paul and the testimony of the early church. On the one hand, the radical message of Paul is given its rightful place. The Gospel is a message of liberation. Ethnocentrism, misogyny, and slavery wither under the crushing pen of the authentic Paul.
Yet this narrative also suggests an unsettled Paul, who at times steps on the brakes of his revolutionary teaching, rushing back to the safety of his Jewish sensibilities, when it looks like things are getting out of control. This reading of Paul undermines the consistency of the nature of his apostolic calling, as given to him by Christ Jesus himself. It portrays a Paul who at times zealously promotes the core message of the Gospel, while at other times being unsure and unclear about how that message coherently relates to his Jewish roots, to the Hebrew Scriptures, and to the compatible social norms advocated by the Stoic philosophers of the Greco-Roman world.
To put it another way, Tom Holland’s Apostle Paul unleashes a radical revolution of love, liberty, and freedom, but who comes to sense that this revolution has gotten a bit away from him. I would liken this portrait of Paul to someone who is frantically trying to stuff the genie back into the bottle, after having already opened the bottle, and pouring out its contents freely.
This Paul comes across as quite different from a view of Paul held among conservative, orthodox Christians, that of a resolute Paul, who without losing some of the idiosyncrasies and frailties of his personality, lived up to the calling placed upon him along the road to Damascus by the Lord Jesus, to faithfully present a coherent Gospel message to the Gentiles. The Gospel is liberation, indeed, but the Gospel also elevates the proper ordering of human relations and those moral boundaries that truly reflect God’s immutable character. Such order hearkens back to the teachings grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures themselves, illustrating a continuity between the Old and New Testaments, rather than a discontinuity. Without such continuity, it is very easy to conclude that the New Testament was proclaiming a completely new faith, breaking totally away from Judaism, instead of a faith that saw itself as the completion of what God started with Old Testament Israel.
However, if we emphasize discontinuity, we risk breaking the link between God as revealed in the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) and the God as revealed in Christ in the New. The classic expression of this is the false dichotomy of pitting the Old Testament God of justice and order against the New Testament God of love, and then having God of love defeating the God of justice and order.
Yet why set a God of love up against a God of justice and order? Historic Christian orthodoxy has a vision of God’s love that is coherent with a vision of God’s justice. But in this narrative of theological liberalism, God’s love contradicts and supersedes God’s justice.
Far more damaging, Holland’s narrative furthermore casts a shadow over the sense of Scripture as being a consistent vehicle of God’s revelation, thereby giving into a rather impious view of the New Testament. It makes you wonder if this is truly God’s Word, or not. For why would the early church permit letters, forgeries written in the name of Paul, to be placed into the New Testament canon? Is this not deception? Who does one trust, the testimony of the early church that consistently ascribes the letters with Paul’s name attached to them as being truly authored by Paul, or the modern analysis of liberal scholars who remain skeptical of the supernatural character of the divine inspiration of the Bible?
Make no mistake about what I am saying here. The analysis of the Pauline (and supposedly pseudo-Pauline) writings that Tom Holland summarizes is quite in line with the scholarly liberal critical consensus, that has emerged over the past couple of hundred years. If the liberal critical consensus is correct, then it would vastly undermine much of what we consider to be the content of historical, orthodox Christianity, particularly when it comes to the teachings of Christian morality, gender, and sexual ethics. Yet in Tom Holland’s defense, he is a careful enough historian to realize that definitive judgments concerning a great deal of ancient history, including that of early Christianity, are provisional to varying degrees.
More conservative, and quite capable Christian scholars still have confidence in more traditional appreciations of the great Apostle Paul. Such scholars discover a Paul who is less unsettled, and whose views of women actually challenged the Greco-Roman, patriarchal status quo of his day, while honoring the God created distinctions between male and female, without bending to the socially constructionist gender ideologies of the 21st century.
There is a divine order between male and female, but contrary to the culture of Paul’s day, women were encouraged to learn and study God’s Word, and not simply look to their husbands for understanding. There is still sufficient evidence to believe that Paul actually wrote all thirteen of his letters, as we find in the New Testament. Unfortunately, you would never learn that from reading Dominion.
While Tom Holland does not question his own particular “historical critical” reading of Paul, read through a liberal lens, he does address the more systemic issues, that uncovers the deep cracks within the supposed secure foundations of modern and post-modern, liberal, secular thought. Christian tradition and Scripture lay buried underneath those cracks. Like an experienced miner, following those cracks to find the seams of precious minerals, the gifted skill set of Tom Holland, to offer incisive historical analysis, is put on display. Simply put, our secular world owes more to ultimately Christian values than our Western culture has been willing to admit. Dominion, despite some disturbing criticisms like I have noted, is a thoroughly learned, sparkling, and educational read.
Tom Holland: A Liberal Who Has Lost His Faith in Liberalism
In a podcast interview for the book, Tom Holland makes the startling admission, wholly consistent with the narrative described in Dominion, that he is “a liberal who [has] lost his faith” in liberalism. Holland likens his loss of a “secular faith” with that of an orthodox Christian who has lost their faith in Christianity, just worked out in a different way. Holland sees only three ways forward in today’s crisis in liberal secularism, but he is unsure as to where things will eventually go. The most vocal atheistic critics of Holland, such as Jesus-Mythicist and Internet favorite Richard Carrier, or the more formidable A.C. Grayling, inevitably hope for the first of these three ways:
- Perhaps Holland’s thesis, built on the insights of Nietzsche, is wrong: Secularism does not need Christianity to endure. Like a rocket ship trying to leave earth’s atmosphere, secularism will shed its booster rockets, otherwise known as Christianity, and secularism will fly off on new adventures, no longer bound by gravity. Put another way, secularism will find its own way to successfully rid itself of Christianity and eventually discover a more solid basis for the values that secularism holds dear.
- Or, Nietzsche will be proven right, and without Christianity, the Christian values that support secularism will ultimately decay and crumble, and the secular mind of the West will succumb to a kind of fascism, whereby the desire to protect the weak and vulnerable will disappear, among other things.
- Or, people will realize that secularism will not succeed, and therefore, we must cling to Christian belief, even if it means settling down for a watered-down version of it.
Tom Holland is really a secularist who nevertheless still wants to be a Christian. He just is having trouble seeing how that might work. Holland is not alone. Some of the most creative thinkers today harken back to Holland’s longing for “something” more than what today’s secularism provides, and they see this “something” as connected to Christian faith. Some of these names come to mind: Jordan Peterson, Brett Weinstein, Dave Rubin, Douglas Murray, just to name a few.
I can imagine here a Tom Holland, who when not scheduled to play cricket, will attend a Church of England service, along with their readings of Scripture and recitation of creeds. He will sing the hymns, not because he really believes what he is singing, but because he sees no better alternative. “If only it were really true!,” he might say to himself.
Nevertheless, Tom Holland will still sing the hymns.
An Historic, Orthodox Christian Path Forward for the Tom Holland’s of Our Day
I would offer that a fourth possibility exists, that Holland neglects, in that a hunger for the truth as found in the Christian Scriptures will show the weaknesses in secularized thinking, that will usher in a revival of genuine, orthodox Christian spirituality, a greater confidence in Scripture, and a heart-felt faith. It is in this sense that J. I. Packer was right to identify secularism as the greatest threat today to the Christian faith. But it is a threat that can be met with an even greater confidence in a more vibrant, exhilarating alternatively vision of reality, grounded in the truth of the Crucified and Resurrected Christ.
The triumph of secularism in our day is hampered by its own hypocrisy. Secularism champions human rights, but at the expense of not protecting the lives of the unborn. Secularism champions a society free from traditional cultural restraints regarding gender, but it does so at the expense of denying the fundamental distinction between male and female. Nevertheless, the Christian faith, despite various missteps along the way in church history, has for 2,000 years served as the ground for all of these values, including human rights, the right to life for the unborn, upholding the value of women, and honoring the distinction between male and female.
Tom Holland’s revisionist thesis in Dominion puts him in an odd place. But he is not alone in that quandary. There are many in our world who remain skeptical of much of what passes as orthodox Christian faith today. Certain elements of Christianity today have an ugly fascist strand wound about them, that horrifies the Tom Hollands among us. Many hold such “fundamentalism” at arms length. At the same time, these very same “friendly Christian” skeptics see how the attempt to completely divorce secularism from its ultimate Christian roots will lead to something far worse, if left completely unchecked. Though not “religious” themselves, they are rightly bothered by how more ideological commitments to secularism are rapidly threatening religious freedom, and will ultimately deny all freedom of speech and freedom of conscience, if not resisted. How then should one live?
To answer that, Christians of all stripes, evangelical Protestant, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, have an opportunity to step in and offer a vision of reality that more coherently counters the rootless narrative of secularism, with the transforming message of the Gospel. Will the church rise to the challenge meet it?
I am left thinking again and again about the ideas and thesis that Tom Holland presents in Dominion. It is a hefty book but works well as an audiobook. Christians should read Dominion, if for no other reason than to understand how an sympathetic outsider to Christianity looks upon our faith, and gain an appreciation for why a gifted intellectual like a Tom Holland finds it difficult to completely embrace that faith.
A quick note regarding other reviews of Dominion. To quote New York City pastor Tim Keller, who agrees with the challenge presented by Dominion, “The bottom line is this—it is hard to overstate the importance of Tom Holland’s book.” Ed Simon, a contributor for the Los Angeles Review of Books, commends Tom Holland’s book as well, from a less-than-evangelical perspective, but is clearly alerted to Holland’s concerns. A careful reading by Christians of Tom Holland’s Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Made the World would go a long way towards helping the church to meet the challenge of secularism.