Christianity - Dogma Takes Over

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Some Christians in the West believe that Christianity is a special guarantor of, or prerequisite for, democracy and individual freedom. In theory it might be true. But looking at history, for the vast majority of the time it has not been the case in practice. Individual freedoms that were gained by the Greeks and partly by the Romans, disappeared when the church came to power and democracy was neither discussed nor practised.

Christianity's background

The first Christian communities arose among Jews in Jesus' homeland, Judaea, while the country was occupied by Rome. From Judaea, the new religion spread to Jews in other parts of the Roman Empire, where non-Jews were also converted. In particular, it was the oppressed in society, mainly women and slaves, who were excited about the new Judaeo-Christian religion that regarded all people as equal. Over time, as Jews disappeared out of Christianity or identified themselves simply as being Christians, Christianity came to stand on its own feet.

The Roman Empire, especially Rome itself, was a multicultural, multi-ethnic melting pot, and one of the things that held the empire together was worship of the emperor. Cicero and Seneca's insistence on the republic, and that power should not be deified, had failed.

For most inhabitants of the Roman Empire, one god more or less didn't matter much, but for Jews and Christians, worshipping the emperor too was inconceivable. At the same time, slaves being regarded as equal was a provocation for the Romans. This meant that Jews and Christians were often persecuted in the Roman Empire. Conversion to Christianity was often connected with danger to both life and limb. There is therefore no doubt that, for the early Christians, being converted was definitely a matter of individual choice.

During the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Christianity steadily won more followers and even people in the higher ranks of society were being converted.

Around 300, Christianity had gained a foothold in the circles of power, enabling the status of Christianity to change. Christianity was no longer seen as a threat to the empire and in 313, the pagan Roman emperor, Constantine the Great, established religious freedom for all in the Roman Empire. It thus became formally legal to be a Christian. The decision was quite pragmatic; the more gods the Roman citizens were free to worship, the more gods would presumably be favourable to Constantine and the Romans!

Religious freedom did not last long though.

The true faith and thought

Christians were increasingly to be found in positions of power in Rome and, in 380, Emperor Theodosius I issued "The Milanese Ordinance", which banned all religions other than Christianity. In 391, he further issued the new "Theodosian decrees against paganism", whereby everyone was forced to become Christian and in which he gave orders that all pagan temples in the Roman Empire were to be destroyed. Among these was the Serapeum temple at Alexandria in Egypt.

The Serapeum had a connection to the Library of Alexandria, which was the largest library of antiquity. In its heyday, it had 700,000 scrolls with texts by Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics and many other ancient philosophers, writers and scientists. Many of the authors were people whom we today only know by hearsay because the library contained the only copies of their texts. The library consisted of several buildings and was set on fire on several occasions. One of these was as a result of Theodosius' decree, when substantial numbers of the library's irreplaceable texts were destroyed forever.

In 440, Leo the Great became bishop of Rome and thereafter the church had the sole right to define what people were allowed to think and believe. Despite internal strife and constant power struggles with kings and princes, the church acquired a lot of power in most of Europe. The church went on a witch-hunt, not only of heretics and non-believers, but also of all writings that did not support Christian doctrine.


The only Christian "science " in the Middle Ages was scholasticism. It was, like Plato's philosophy, an attempt through contemplation to find a way through to the system that lay behind the sensed world, but now in the light of what was written in the Bible. Specifically, scholastics could get time to pass by devising "evidence" of God's existence, speculating how long Paradise was in one direction, and then in the other direction, or demonstrating how women are sub-human. Neither scholasticism nor much else of the church's so-called science of the Middle Ages has since been used outside of Christianity's own scheme of things.

Scholasticism produced a beautiful mystical tradition and a lot of poetry and music, and the building of cathedrals created great engineering. In addition, the monasteries performed a great deal of social work and served as hospitals, as well as spreading new agricultural techniques and crops throughout Europe. But the church suppressed all who thought or believed otherwise, and even Christians were declared heretics if they did not believe and think exactly how the church defined the faith.

The first universities

The first university in the Christian territories was created by Theodosius II in 425 in Constantinople (aka Byzantium; present day Istanbul), where such subjects as law, medicine, philosophy, geometry, music and rhetoric were taught. The inhabitants of Constantinople/Byzantium were definitely among the best educated of that time, and a much larger proportion of the population could read and write here than elsewhere.

Universities were also established in Salerno and Bulgaria in the 9th century. The University of Salerno was especially renowned far and wide for its medical knowledge.

So altogether there were three places where universities existed throughout the Middle Ages. However, they didn't set the intellectual agenda, because they were subject to church dogma like everyone else.

1,000 years of intellectual stagnation

Between the 5th and 15th centuries, when the church had most power in Europe, science came to a standstill, the individual vanished from art and philosophy, and technology stagnated. At the same time, there was only one human role model, one educational ideal, namely Jesus.

Compared to what the Greeks had created in 200 years and the Romans in 400 years, it is striking that the church had so much power and so much money and yet virtually no ideas were generated which have subsequently been used outside of Christianity. In the 1,000 years there were between the church father Augustine (354-430) and the humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536), the church produced only two theologians whose philosophical thinking has found application outside Christian theology.

Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) was a theologian and philosopher, and his thoughts on common sense, law and ethics were extensively studied in his own time and in the centuries after his death. Among other things, his thoughts on the relationship between natural law and religious law were ground-breaking. Nowadays though, he is only of interest to theologians.

William of Ockham (1285-1349) was also a theologian and philosopher, best known for "Occam's razor". "The razor" is the principle that one should always choose the simplest hypothesis that fits the facts; one should not assume more things than necessary. Or to put it simpler: When studying a case, one should choose the simplest explanation as one's conclusion.

Ockham's second claim to fame is his belief that the Bible had more authority than the Pope, which in 1328 led to his condemnation and excommunication by the church.

"Occam's razor" is a recognized scientific principle to this day.

Those who contradicted the church

As shown in the later chapter on Humanism and the Renaissance, from the 13th century onwards, there were thinkers whose ideas paved the way for some of the foundations of democracy. Common to these thinkers though is that their starting point was not in theology, and that they had their freedom of expression limited by the church. Two are highlighted here who, though remaining in the church, were nonetheless unable to publish their thoughts freely:

Roger Bacon (1214-1294) studied Aristotelian philosophy at Oxford and later taught at the University of Paris, which was the intellectual stronghold of the time. He was one of Europe's first defenders of scientific method, which involves testing hypotheses in reality instead of through contemplation. In 1256, he joined the Franciscan monastic order, which meant that, thanks entirely to his personal connection with the Pope, he was able to continue publishing.

Boetius of Dacia (Bo of Denmark) also lived in the 13th century, but his dates of birth and death are unknown. Like Bacon, he taught philosophy in Paris. Among the conclusions he reached are the impossibility of creation out of nothing and that there could be no resurrection of the dead.

Common to Bacon and Boetius was the conviction that philosophy had to follow its own path, even if it contradicted religion. Both of them based their thinking on Aristotle and were inspired by the Arab philosopher Ibn Rushd/Averroes (1126-1198).

Law and justice

The Romans regarded legislation as a science, but as Rome's economic and political power base crumbled and the church took power in Rome, jurisprudence also crumbled. From the middle of the 3rd century onwards, the legal situation in Europe became a mixture of inherited Roman law, Germanic law, and canon (biblical) law. Germanic law was based largely on ancient customs; canon law was the law that was taken from the first five books of the Old Testament (the Pentateuch). Nowhere was there a community with proper justice, as local princes and bishops fought for power and the law was decided by their relative power relationships.

Universities were established in Bologna in 1088, in Paris in 1150, and in Padua in 1222, and all three places were well-known for their law schools. However, discussion was to a large degree about religious law with its connections to scholasticism, and it was not until 1399 that the law faculty at Padua was divided into secular and religious law.

From the 12th century, Christian territories gradually began evolving into something that resembled communities founded on the rule of law. However, legislation was still a mix of secular and religious law.


Christianity is based on a series of teachings, known as dogma. Dogma defines what the true faith is. To the extent that the church had power in Europe, Christian dogma determined what people were allowed to think and believe. In such a situation, it is impossible to express yourself freely, and thus any political influence by those who think differently than what dogma says you should disappears.

Next chapter: The Reformation - the Faith Divided