The Decline of Christianity in Europe
The twentieth century was a time of great flux and anxiety in Europe as the supremacy of Christianity in Europe was being challenged by the fronts of biblical criticism, and evolution. According to Rev, Andrew Greeley, a social sciences professor at the University of Chicago, belief in God has increased in Russia and Hungary and decreased in Britain, the Netherlands, western Germany and France. Atheism thrives in eastern Germany, Russia, The Czech Republic and France. Interestingly though, most European countries report denominational affiliation.
According to Dr Greeley, there was a time when people were more religious than they are now. Secularizers like to point to the decline as evidence that religion no longer matters. This is not true. Religion in a given country is affected by history, social structure and culture; and its affects on them. English historians recently have argued that Henry VIII was the first secularizer in that he replaced a religious society with an established church. With that in mind, what one sees in Great Britain could represent the endgame of Anglicanism.
A culture without religion is bound for a future of chaos and loss of morality. Western academics have accepted the sociologists secularization thesis that asserts that intellectual advances and economic modernization leads people and nations past a need for faith, to a more enlightened and more secular mode of life (Greeley). Europe’s ongoing and increasing contempt for organized religion has been their prime example, while the growth of Christianity in countries such as Nigeria and China have been dismissed as a primitive stop on the road toward a godless society.
Without a religiously based culture, moral principles cannot be grounded and social organizations cannot be legitimized. A culture that breaks away from authoritative religion and the concept of God breaks away from any possibility of absolute truth. This only leaves a resource of existential relativism, a slippery slope concept that is changing and does not offer a stable foundation for authoritative system of law or morals to be built. Laws without religion command no authority.
Various theories and historical events have played a hand in the decline of Christianity in Europe. Atheism and secularism have been greatly influenced by several of these views including Darwin’s theory of evolution, the study of criticism and Hitler’s application of Armenianism to just name a few. It was no wonder that those individuals who were exposed to these theories of belief were uncertain how to respond and what to believe. Let’s look at how some of these views have impacted the view of Christianity in Europe.
In the twentieth century men like David Strauss denied both the miracles and integrity of the New Testament as well as the deity of Christ, whom he saw as a man who thought He was the Messiah (Cairnes). Jean Astruc divided the book of Genesis into two parts making higher criticism very popular in Europe (Online Encyclopedia). Another perspective of higher criticism was formulated by Johann G Eichorn who laid down the dictum that the Bible was to be read as a human book and tested by human means (This Day in Jewish History).
Two additional believers of criticism are Karl Graf and Julius Wellhausen who developed an elaborate system known as the Graf-Wellhausen theory which stated that sections in which the name Jehovah is used constitute the early document, another part by another author is known as E, still another in Deuteronomy as D, and P. In this fashion the unity of the Pentateuch and its Mosaic authorship are denied (Encyclopedia. com). Hermann S Reismarus went one step further and denied the possibility of biblical miracles and advanced that the New Testament writers were frauds.
Gotthold Lessing argued that the Scriptures served man as a guide during the primitive phase of his religious development but that reason and duty were sufficient guides in more advanced state of religion (Cairnes). Charles Darwin wrote Origin of Species in 1859 that presented a new theory that gave a powerful and persuasive explanation of how the process of evolution works the theory of “natural selection. ” His theory pointed out that creatures are similar to their parents but not identical; there are apparently random minor variations in each generation.
Darwin argued that those individuals that are well suited to their environment survive, prosper and give birth to new individuals that share their characteristics, while those less suited will die out. Any new characteristics with which an individual is born are likely to be passed on if it is useful. Species evolve and develop in a process that is not random, or determined by God, but instead follows natural laws (Towns). The theory of evolution contradicted fundamental Christian beliefs about humanity and sin. In 1871, Darwin published the Descent of Man, in which he argued that human beings evolved naturally from lower creatures tating that not only does life itself follow natural laws but also the human mind and soul are not some supernatural element breathed into the body by God. By eliminating God, Darwin was saying that they evolved from nothing thus eliminating the most important element, God. (Hill). The theory of evolution denied the direct creation of man by God and the greatest damage came from the application of that theory to the development of religion. Darwinism was born. God and the Bible were looked upon as the evolutionary products of man’s religious consciousness, and the books of the Bible were dated accordingly.
The biblical eschatology, in which perfection would come into this world only by the direct intervention of God through the return of Christ, was replaced by the evolutionary view of a world that was being increasingly improved on by human effort. Because man was not guilty through original sin there was no need of Christ as Savior. Germany during Hitler’s reign illustrates the lengths to which people will go when they deny God’s revelation in the Bible, and when they replace revelation with reason and science as the authority for thought and action. The Holocaust fractured many individuals’ beliefs concerning God.
How could a God who claimed to love His people allow so many to be tortured and killed? In the end, a continent was left feeling as though God had abandoned them. In Europe the Roman Catholic Church emerged from World War I with an enhanced prestige that carried it through the troubled period when much of mankind was hoping that there would be an introduction to peace but which proved to be a prelude to an even larger war. During and after World War I Pope Benedict XV repeatedly addressed the world calling to its attention principles for establishing peace.
He used the facilities of his church to alleviate the sufferings from the war through negotiating the exchange of prisoners and civilians in occupied countries, aiding the sick, furthering the repatriation of prisoners of war and the correspondence of prisoners with their families, and promoting the relief of devastated areas (Latourette). The upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century were felt most strongly in Europe. Europe had been the home of much of the optimistic philosophy and theology of the nineteenth century. It had believed that under its leadership humankind would see a brand new day.
Catholicism during the nineteenth century had reacted to this modern world with wholesale condemnation, while Protestant liberalism had practically capitulated before the new age. Therefore when the two world wars and the events surrounding them gave the lie to the hopes and dreams of the nineteenth century, Protestant liberalism was shaken to its very core. During the nineteenth century skepticism and secularism had begun to be common place in France (Greeley). In the twentieth century those areas where Protestantism had been traditionally strong also witnessed a decided increase in skepticism and secularism.
By the middle of the century, it was clear that northern Europe was no longer a stronghold of Protestantism and that other areas of the world had taken the position of leadership in Protestantism that had once belonged to it. Protestantism was sorely lacking in a theology that could help it understand the events of the times, and respond to them. Liberalism with its optimistic view of human nature and capabilities had no word for the situation and held no power to capture the attention of the people.
Scholars in Scandinavia and also in Germany, took a second look at Luther’s theology, and discovered there was much that was not in agreement with the interpretations of the previous century (Gonzalez). Bill Bennett, director of communications for Greater Europe Mission commented in the Christian Post that, “The church to Europeans is seen as an economic and political power representing the religion of the rich world. Europeans have a more formal, ritualistic view of Christianity partially because in its history, a person’s landlord decided whether he would be Catholic or Protestant rather than any personal conviction. (Vu) By understanding the primary objective of missions we can begin to prescribe the change that is necessary to the missionary enterprise in Europe. Missions are not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exist because worship doesn’t. Worship, therefore, is the fuel and goal of missions. Missions begin and end in worship (Piper). We have to recognize that there are cultural barriers (in addition to spiritual ones) that blind people from understanding the gospel. Our task is to find the right way to break through those cultural barriers while addressing the spiritual and theological ones as well (Stetzer & Putman).
While so many of the European church’s challengers over the years have lost steam or died out all together, Europeans have shown little interest in returning to the church. They have found strange new gods in their secular world of modernization. The secularization thesis previously mentioned seems to hold true to a certain degree when applied to European countries. The mission field is closer to home than ever before.