- Go back to your very first essays here to see if reading this book fulfilled some or all of your expectations. What were the strengths and weaknesses of this book in relation to your expectations from the start?
- Provide one (no more than two if need be) area or moment of Church history as told by MacCulloch that was most interesting for you or changed your perspective of Christianity.
- Finally, how has your faith been affected after having read through Church history? What lingering questions or thoughts do you still have?
- This book did explain other branches of Christianity that I did not know of. Unfortunately, there was a lot of negative things that the “church” had done that I didn’t know about. It was very shocking to see how politically involved it was even very recently such as the involvement of fascist Italy with the creation of the Vatican or how the Russian Orthodox Church helped Stalin’s legitimacy.
- Regarding India and England with the attempted forced conversion of the Hindus. Amazingly, there were some who felt it wasn’t God’s will to change the existing religion of a people which is different than godless heathens.
- I would say how humbling it is that so many felt so strongly about things that today would be thought wrong or trivial. This is important when dealing with those who don’t agree with our beliefs.
This book exceeded my expectations, although I did not really have prior expectations per se. I knew a good exposure to Church history was imperative and desired. This book was highly recommended by seemingly knowledgeable and trustworthy sources, both personal and public. I would and do recommend it wholeheartedly even if I do not agree with it all. It is a subject we ALL need to be familiar with whether in the Church or not, novice or pro. My recommendation stems from its strengths.
STRENGTHS and WEAKNESSES
The book is comprehensive and very well written. For me it ‘connected the dots’ and ‘put meat on the bones’ of my previously sketchy knowledge and understanding of Church. I was wowed by its beginning/introduction in its desire to discuss Church history before ‘AD’. It clearly showed the impact and importance of Hellenism and Judaism, something I was not aware of before.
Personally for me, it ‘condensed’ time. I used to think I had very little in common with people of the past. They seemed so far away and surely so much has changed. But the present and the future are derived from the past. While technology has made seemingly quantum leaps, we still grapple with the ideas and practices of the past and look back to these forerunners for definition and help. It is sort of a surreal feeling for me but I do not feel the gigantic chasm between myself and people 300, 700 and even more than 1000 years ago as once I did.
I also must mention that MacCulloch does not seem to whitewash the history. He presents the good and the bad by letting history show accurately and to not let be obscured by ‘spin’.
In summation, I have a much better feel and insight into the connection of historical ideas and events in Church history. My biggest take away is a better feel of how it all ‘hangs together’. Two thousand years seems a lot shorter than it used to and I feel a genuine affinity with the people of the past.
The weakness I see in the book is that at times the author displays his biases in presentation which the beginner especially needs to be aware of. I believe disappointment with the Church’s non-acceptance of his homosexuality has given him a grudge and therefore, an axe to grind. I quickly add that in most discussions, he does an extremely credible job, but there are instances which I have noted in some previous essays, where his biases show. These may be readily rectified by reading other Church history literature also.
The most interesting Church period for me remains the time between 100-300 AD. It seems as though right after the time of the Apostles and First Witnesses that a curtain descends obscuring Church history and when it rises, say just prior to Constantine, we see a seemingly ‘new’ or radically different Church- a Church that is more structured, more dogmatic, more hierarchical and more controlled by the upper echelons (‘the 1 per cent’). It seems a mysterious period for lack of good information. I still question such items as: Who were these ‘Church Fathers’? Where did they come from? What was their agenda? I want and need to study this period more.
This book has not ‘shaken my faith’. I actually feel surer of it and more confident in it. History does not equal Christianity. The bad my Church has done makes me sad and mad, while the good it has done makes me proud and inspired.
I believe that Church history shows the gracious love of our God. The Church continues to be His people even if flawed. For me, as with the First Witnesses, the Church is the ‘Called-Out Ones’. These are those who possess God’s free gift of His Holy Spirit. Paul in his letters calls these ‘Saints’. Church structure is one of belief and action, not dogma and hierarchy. It depends on what God gives, not what a man does or desires.
In concluding MacCulloch’s Christianity, I come full circle. My last question is exactly the same as my first: Is this the history of the TRUE Church? I refer you back to one of my earliest essays for discussion. As mentioned in no. 4 above, whom and/or what is the ‘Church’ is the critical question.
An unexpected outcome of reading Church history from ‘start to finish’ is that it has given me a new perspective on the so called ‘Last Days’. I refer you to my previous essays. Also, the mirror of Church history has seriously motivated me to speak out and take action on items that are obviously wrong in its actions.
In the last 50 or 100 years New Testament research has unremittingly and successfully addressed itself to the task of elucidating for us what was known as the ‘Ecclesia’ in primitive Christianity- so very different from what is today called the church both in Roman and Protestant camps…This insight – which an unprejudiced study of the New Testament and the crying need of the church have helped us to reach – may be expressed as follows: the New Testament ‘Ecclesia,’ the fellowship of Jesus Christ, is a pure communion of persons and has nothing to do with the character of an institution about it; it is therefore misleading to identify any single one of the historically developed churches, which are all marked by an institutional character, with the true Christian communion.
– Emil Brunner, 20th Century Swiss Theologian
Why is it that we Christians can follow the same rituals every Sunday without ever noticing that they are at odds with the New Testament? The incredible power of tradition has something to do with it. As we have explored in the past, the church has often been influenced by the surrounding culture, seemingly unaware of its negative effects, such as her heretical teachings about the person and divinity of Jesus Christ. But in an effort to combat those threats, it has moved away from the organic structure that God wrote into the church’s DNA.
But there is something else, something more fundamental that most Christians are completely unaware of. It concerns our New Testament. The problem is not in what the New Testament says. The problem is in how we approach it.
The approach most commonly used among contemporary Christians when studying the Bible is called “proof texting.” The origin of proof texting goes back to the late 1590s and was systematized according to the rules of Aristotelian logic. The Protestant scholastics held that not only is the Scripture the Word of God, but every part of it is the Word of God in and of itself, irrespective of context. This set the stage for the idea that if we lift a verse out of the Bible, it is true in its own right and can be used to prove a doctrine or a practice.
When John Nelson Darby emerged in the mid-1800s, he built a theology based on this approach. Darby raised proof texting to an art form. In fact, it was Darby who gave fundamentalist and evangelical Christians a good deal of their presently accepted teachings. All of them are built on the proof-texting method. Proof texting, then, became the common way that we contemporary Christians approach the Bible.
As a result, we Christians rarely, if ever, get to see the New Testament as a whole. Rather, we are served up a dish of fragmented thoughts that are drawn together by means of fallen human logic. The fruit of this approach is that we have strayed far afield from the principles of the New Testament church. In order to fully understand how Christianity evolved over the years, it is crucial that we first trace the theological history of the church; the four main actors of theological thought are: Episcopal, monastic, scholastic and seminarian. Let’s briefly examine each one:
Episcopal. Theology in the third to fifth century was called Episcopal because the leading theologians of the day were bishops. This system was marked by the training of bishops and priests on how to perform the various rituals and liturgies of the church.
Monastic. The monastic stage of theological education was tied to the ascetic and mystical life. It was taught by monks living in monastic communities and later cathedral schools. Monastic schools were founded in the third century and these schools sent out missionaries to uncharted territories after the fourth century. During this stage, the Eastern church fathers became steeped in Platonic thought. They held to the misguided view that Plato and Aristotle were schoolmasters whose techniques could be used to bring men to Christ. Though they did not intend to lead people astray, their heavy reliance on these pagan philosophers severely diluted the Christian faith.
Since many of the church fathers in the first millennium were pagan philosophers and orators prior to their conversions, the Christian faith soon began to take on a philosophical bent. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 AD), one of the most influential Christian teachers of the 2nd century, believed that philosophy was God’s revelation to the Greeks. He claimed that Socrates, Plato, and others had the same standing for the Gentiles as Moses had for the Jews.
After 200 AD, Alexandria became the intellectual capital of the Christian world as it had been for the Greeks. A special school was formed there in 180 AD and this school was the equivalent of a theological college. In Alexandria, the institutional study of Christian doctrine began. Origen (185 – 254 AD), one of the school’s early and most influential teachers, was deeply influenced by pagan philosophy. He was a colleague of Plotinus, the father of Neoplatonism, and drew much from his teaching. According to Neoplatonic thought, an individual must ascend through different stages of purification in order to attain to oneness with God. Such an idea is still very prevalent in Catholic thought. Origen was the first to organize key theological concepts into a systematic theology.
Of this period, historian Will Durant has observed: “The gap between philosophy and religion was closing, and reason for a thousand years consented to be the handmaiden of theology.” Author Edwin Hatch echoes these thoughts by saying, “Within a century and a half after Christianity and philosophy first came into closest contact, the ideas and methods of philosophy had flowed in such mass into Christianity, and filled so large a place in it, as to have made it no less a philosophy than a religion.”
Following Origen’s death, Christian schools gradually disappeared. Theological education reverted back to the episcopal form. Bishops were trained by personal contact with other bishops. The sum and substance of clerical training and learning at this time was the study of Gregory the Great’s pastoral theology. Gregory taught bishops how to be good pastors. By the mid-eighth century, bishops’ schools were founded. In the 10th century, cathedrals began sponsoring their own schools.
Scholastic. The third component of theological education owes much to the culture of the university. By 1200 AD, a number of cathedral schools had evolved into universities. For example, the University of Bologna in Italy was the first university to appear. The University of Paris followed shortly after along with Oxford University in England.
The University of Paris became the philosophical and theological center of the world at that time. It would also later become the seed of the Protestant seminary. Higher education was the domain of the clergy and the scholar was viewed as the guardian of ancient wisdom. In fact, the present-day university grew from the bishops’ responsibility to provide clerical training. Theology was regarded as the “Queen of Sciences” in the university. From the mid-12th century to the end of the 14th century, approximately 70 universities were established throughout Europe. (The history of university degrees is quite interesting. People who passed academic standards were called masters. Lawyers were the first to be called doctors. Doctor simply means “one who teaches.” It comes from doctrina which means “learning.” A doctor then is a master who teaches. Eager students who wanted recognition were called bachelors.)
Contemporary theology cut its teeth on the abstractions of Greek philosophy. University academics adopted an Aristotelian model of thinking that centered on rational knowledge and logic. The dominating drive in scholastic theology was the assimilation and communication of knowledge. For this reason the Western church has always been fond of creedal formulations, doctrinal statements, and other bloodless abstractions.
One of the most influential professors in the shaping of contemporary theology was Peter Abelard (1079 – 1142 AD). Abelard is partly responsible for giving us modern theology. His teaching set the table and prepared the menu for scholastic philosophers like Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274 AD).
Distinguished by Abelard, the school of Paris emerged as the model for all universities to follow. Abelard applied Aristotelian logic to revealed truth, though even he understood the tension between the two: “I do not wish to be a philosopher, if that means I contradict St. Paul; I do not wish to be a disciple of Aristotle, if that means I separate myself from Christ.” He also gave the word “theology” the meaning it has today. Before him, theology simply meant to describe pagan beliefs.
Taking his cue from Aristotle, Abelard mastered the pagan philosophical art of dialectic debate, the logical disputation of truth. He applied this art to the Scriptures. Christian theological education never recovered from Abelard’s influence. Athens is still in its bloodstream. Aristotle, Abelard and later Aquinas all believed that reason was the gateway to divine truth. So from its beginnings, Western university education involved the fusion of pagan and Christian elements.
Martin Luther said it perfectly in one of his writings, “What else are the universities other than places for training youth in Greek glory.” Although Luther himself was a university man, his critique was aimed at the practice of teaching Aristotelian logic at the university level.
Seminarian. Seminary theology grew out of the scholastic theology that was taught in the universities. As we have seen, this theology was based on Aristotle’s philosophical system. Seminary theology was dedicated to the training of professional ministers. Its goal was to produce seminary-trained religious specialists. It taught the theology of the professionally qualified minister. This type of theology prevails in the contemporary seminaries.
One of the greatest theologians of the 20th century, Karl Barth, reacted against the idea that theological education should be relegated to an elite class of professional orators. He wrote, “Theology is not a private reserve of theologians. It is not a private affair of professors….Nor is it a private affair of pastors…..Theology is a matter for the church….The term ‘laity’ is one of the worst in the vocabulary of religion and ought to be banished from Christian conversation.”
Concerning the seminary, it could be said that Peter Abelard laid the egg and Thomas Aquinas hatched it. Aquinas had the greatest influence on contemporary theological training. In 1879, his work was endorsed by a papal bull as an authentic expression of doctrine to be studied by all students of theology. Aquinas’s main thesis was that God is known through human reason. He “preferred the intellect to the heart as the organ for arriving at truth.” Thus, the more highly trained people’s reason and intellect, the better they will know God. Aquinas borrowed this idea from Aristotle and that is the underlying assumption of many, if not most contemporary seminaries.
The teaching of the New Testament is that God is Spirit, and as such. He is known by revelation or spiritual insight to one’s own human spirit. Reason and intellect can cause us to know about God. They help us to communicate what we know, but they fall short in giving us spiritual revelation. The intellect is not the gateway for knowing the Lord deeply. Neither are emotions. In the words of A. W. Tozer: “Divine truth is of the nature of spirit and for that reason can be received only by spiritual revelation….God’s thoughts belong to the world of spirit, man’s to the world of intellect, and while spirit can embrace intellect, the human intellect can never comprehend spirit….Man by reason cannot know God; he can only know about God….Man’s reason is a fine instrument and useful within its field. It was not given as an organ by which to know God.”
In short, extensive Bible knowledge, a high-powered intellect, and razor-sharp reasoning skills do not automatically produce spiritual men and women who know Jesus Christ profoundly and who can impart a life-giving revelation of Him to others. This, by the way, is the basis of spiritual ministry. It is the heart which perceives God, and not the reason.
Today, both Protestants and Catholics draw upon Aquinas’s work, using his outline for their theological studies. Aquinas’s crowning work, Summa Theologica (The Sum of All Theology), is the model used in virtually all theological classes today, whether Protestant or Catholic. Consider the order in which Aquinas’s theology is laid out:”
The Divine Government
The Last End
Now compare this outline to a typical systematic theology textbook used in a variety of Protestant seminaries:
Unity and Trinity
The Origin and Character of Man
Eschatology: The Final State
Without a doubt, Aquinas is the father of contemporary theology. His influence spread to the Protestant seminaries through the Protestant scholastics. The tragedy is that Aquinas relied so completely on Aristotle’s method of logic-chopping when he expounded on holy writ. In the word of Will Durant, “The power of the Church was still adequate to secure, through Thomas Aquinas and others, the transmogrification (transformation) of Aristotle into a medieval theologian.” Aquinas also quotes from another pagan philosopher profusely through his Summa Theologica. Regardless of how much we wish to deny it, contemporary theology is a blending of Christian thought and pagan philosophy.
So in summary, we have four stages of theological education: episcopal, the theology of the bishops; monastic, the theology of the monks; scholastic, the theology of the professor; and seminarian, the theology of the professional minister. Each stage of Christian thought is and always has been highly intellectual and study driven. As products of the Reformation, we are taught to be rationalistic and very theoretical in our approach to the Christian faith.
Now let’s go back to our understanding of the Bible. If you grew up in an Orthodox or Evangelical environment, then you are often taught to approach the Bible in one of eight ways:
- You look for verses that inspire you. Upon finding such verses, you either highlight, memorize, meditate upon, or put them on your computer monitor or cellphone screen or refrigerator door.
- You look for verses that tell you what God has promised so that you can confess it in faith and thereby obligate the Lord to do what you want.
- You look for verses that tell you what God commands you to do.
- You look for verses that you can quote to scare the Devil out of his wits or resist him in the hour of temptation.
- You look for verses that will prove your particular doctrine so that you can slice and dice your theological sparring partner into biblical ribbons. Because of the proof-texting method, a vast wasteland of Christianity behaves as if the mere citation of some random, decontextualized verse of Scripture ends all discussion on virtually any subject.
- You look for verses in the Bible to control and/or correct others.
- You look for verses that “preach” well and make good sermon material. This is an ongoing addiction for many pastors who preach and teach.
- You sometimes close your eyes, flip open the Bible randomly, stick your finger on a page, read what the text says, and then take what you have read as a personal “word” from the Lord.
Take careful look again at the list I presented above. Which of these approaches have you used? Look again. Notice how each is highly individualistic. All of them put you, the individual Christian, at the center. Each approach ignores the fact that most of the New Testament was written to corporate bodies of people (churches), not to individuals in wholly different language and frame of reference. But that is not all. Each of these approaches is built on isolated proof-texting. Each treats the New Testament like a manual and blinds us to its real message. It is no wonder what we can approvingly nod our heads at paid pastors, the Sunday morning order of worship, sermons, church buildings, choirs, worship teams, seminaries, and a passive congregation without wincing.
We have been taught to approach the Bible like a jigsaw puzzle. Most of us have never been told the entire story that lies behind the letters that Paul, Peter, James, John, and Jude wrote. We have been taught chapters and verses, not the historical context. For instance, have you ever been given the story behind Paul’s letter to the Galatians? Before nodding, see if you can answer these questions off the top of your head: Who were the Galatians? What were their primary issues? When and why did Paul write to them? What happened just before he wrote it? What provoked him to write the letter? And where in Acts do you find the historical context for this letter? All of these background matters are indispensible for understanding what our New Testament is about. Without them, we simply cannot understand the Bible clearly or properly.
One scholar put it this way, “The arrangement of the letters of Paul in the New Testament is in general that of their length. When we rearrange them into their chronological order, fitting them as far as possible into their life-setting within the record of the Acts of the Apostles they begin to yield up more of their treasure; they become self-explanatory, to a greater extent than when this background is ignored.”
Another writes, “If future editions of the New Testament want to aid rather than hinder a reader’s understanding of the New Testament, it should be realized that the time is ripe to cause both the verse and chapter divisions to disappear from the text and to be put on the margin in as inconspicuous a place as possible. Every effort must be made to print the text in a way which makes it possible for the units which the author himself had in mind to become apparent.”
You could call this method of studying the New Testament the “clipboard approach.” If you are familiar with computers, you are aware of the clipboard component. If you happen to be on a word processor, you may cut and paste a piece of text via the clipboard. The clipboard allows you to cut a sentence from one document and paste it into another. Pastors, seminarians, and laymen alike have been conditioned by the clipboard approach when studying the Bible. This is how we justify our man-made, encased traditions and pass them off as biblical. It is why we routinely miss what the early church was like whenever we open up our New Testaments. We see only verses. We do not see the whole picture.
The effect of the clipboard approach is tragic. It has produced a raft of present-day churches that have no scriptural basis upon which to exist. We speak of the institutional church as we know it today. But more importantly, it has generated scores of mechanical and spiritually dead “small groups” or community gatherings within the institutional church that are lifeless, colorless, and sterile.
The church of Jesus Christ cannot be simply started or formed. It cannot be welded together. There is no blueprint or model that we can tease out of the New Testament by extracting verses and trying to imitate them mechanically. The church of Jesus Christ is a biological, living entity. It is fluid, organic, and spontaneous; therefore, it must be born.
We do well to pay attention to the way that churches were raised up in the first century. I believe that Scripture holds for us enduring principles on this score. If you count all the churches mentioned in the New Testament, you’ll find about thirty five. Every one of them was either planted or aided by a traveling church planter who preached only Christ. There are no exceptions. The church was raised up as a result of the apostolic presentation of Jesus Christ.
There are more verses to back this principle up than there are for meeting up homes or church buildings. There are more verses to back that up than there are for open, participatory meetings. There are more verses to back that up than there are for taking a collection on Sunday morning. The book of Acts is a record of churches being planted by extra-local workers in Judaea, South Galatia, Macedonia, Achaia, Asia Minor, and Rome. The epistles are letters written by apostolic workers to churches in crises, to individuals, and to those they were training for spiritual ministry. The principle of the extra-local church planter dominates the New Testament. And as we have seen, there is much more Scripture to support this practice than there is for all the unscriptural things we do in the contemporary church, including hiring a pastor. The pattern of extra-local workers planting and helping a church pervades the entire New Testament. It is one that is deeply rooted in divine principle.
One of the things I wrote in my first essay about my expectations going into MacCulloch’s book was to discover how “a relatively insignificant, marginal cult [Christianity] expanded to become one of the most influential movements and institutions in history.” A naïve, yet standard “Christianized” answer might be that it was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit for Christianity to spread all over the world (or by other ‘supernatural’ means), yet now I would give great pause to such knee-jerk responses. Instead, I now see that, in order to survive and thrive, the Church had to be saavy and mix in with the rich and the powerful. Just as people, institutions, and nations have done in the past to stay ahead, you needed money and power to gain and maintain influence over others. And to maintain that power, the sad reality is that it almost always means that people will get hurt, or in most cases, killed during the process. This is no different with the Church as a whole. So the Church is more ‘down-to-earth’ or influenced by ‘earthly’ things than many are lead to believe. One might even be justified in saying that the Church has employed Machiavellian ways to keep and hold onto power. Many Christians may hold onto a highly idealized/spiritualized view of the Church that follows Jesus’ ways, but reading church history will show the Church has done many, many un-Christlike things in its history. Many church-goers will be very uncomfortable with this fact, and I admit that this may be a gross oversimplification of the historical specifics, but an over-spiritualized approach will not suffice either.
I had also stated before starting this book that I hoped to ‘tie’ the disparate events of history together, because my knowledge of Church history had been very disjointed and filled with gaps; for instance, I knew things here and there about the Reformation and its conflicts with the Catholic Church, but I did not know how it fit in with the greater picture of European history. In another example, I learned that much of the seeds of the Enlightenment and the decline of religion and the Church were planted in 1492 with the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain. Through that background knowledge, I understood the fermenting sense of discontent people had with the Church that eventually gave rise to atheism among many intellectuals and other groups during that time. Also, to see the mass conversion of the native population in the Americas (particularly South America) to the Catholic faith as a part of the Counter-Reformation helped to ‘tie’ things together as well. Also, I am now more aware of why Europe has become so secularized, much of it having to do with the corruption of the Church in its involvement with various political states and the realities of having gone through two devastating world wars.
One of the strengths of MacCulloch’s book is that he covered, or tried to cover, the vast spectrum of various Christian traditions. The eastern Church was an area I was almost completely ignorant about previous to reading MacCulloch, so I was very pleased that he gave ample attention and detail to the various eastern churches such as the Syriac, Coptic, and Orthodox Churches. Hardly ever do churches in the West ever once mention eastern Christianity or theology, so I am glad that MacCulloch went into these traditions. Many Western churches are so adamant that their interpretation of the Bible or tradition is the TRUE and ONLY way as God had intended, but now being exposed to the beliefs and history of the eastern Church have exposed the naïveté of the ‘Western-only’, exclusivist way. Like any other tradition or religion, the beliefs and doctrines of Christianity and the Church have evolved (and continue to evolve) over time, and any notion of a ‘static’ faith has been wiped away. Beliefs and doctrines change, get discarded, or get standardized based on the needs of its era. More so, they are products and reflections of the era these doctrines were formulated in.
That being said, I have very little bad reflections about MacCulloch’s book as a whole. Of course, he cannot go into every single occurrence in Church history, like the Byzantine Church/Empire’s presence in northern Africa which I would have liked to explore a bit more in-depth, but I understand that that was not a focus of his to begin with.
One chapter of the book that completely changed my way of thinking about Christianity was Chapter 6: “The Imperial Church (300 – 451)”. In that chapter MacCulloch writes:
Because of the death of the Eastern Emperor, Valens, around 378, the western Roman emperor, Gratian, sent the newly elected emperor Theodosius I to take his place. He had no sympathies for the Arians and convened the Council at Constantinople in 381 and the Nicaean (misleadingly known as Nicene) Creed would be definitively vindicated and become the standard model more or less. (loc. 4350)
Amazing! Had there been an emperor on the throne who was sympathetic toward the Arians or another Christology for that matter, that would have completely affected the course of Church doctrine (or even world history). If the Church had adopted a divine-less or less-than divine view of Christ, church services would have been very different I believe. Was it coincidence that this happened? We would have liked that these councils and doctrines have been formulated objectively or in a ‘divinely’ guided manner, but it is hard to say that that was the case. Add to the fact that the Roman Empire steered virtually every other Church Council to enforce its own political aims and agendas was quite an eye-opener as well. And if you disagreed with official Roman policy in terms of church doctrine, they would hunt you down and kill you for heresy more or less. That is a legacy that the Church has inherited and passed down for the last two millennia, where the Church has brutally persecuted others (mainly those in the minority or the disenfranchised) all in the name of faith. One truth that reading church history has taught me is that the greatest threat to Christians aren’t atheists, militant Muslims, fascists, Communists, or evolutionists. No. It’s other Christians. The frequency to which Christians have murdered one another because of differences in opinion on doctrines and dogma throughout centuries has been staggering. The sense of tribalism among Christians is still strong till this day, though we do not resort to mass violence as much on each other.
Having read MacCulloch has had a sobering affect on my faith. Coming face-to-face with the darker moments of the Church’s past has made me more sensitive to criticisms against other faiths or groups when they engage in violence. When I see or read about the atrocities committed by ISIS on others, though I am appalled, I am always reminded that the Church’s past has been just as brutal and violent, and that many had done so in the name of Christ. So I am less apt to rush into judgment of one faith or ethical system being superior over another. Like any other faith system, Christianity has evolved and still continues to evolve.
Finally, the pressing over-arching theological question I have had while reading MacCulloch is whether or not God has been in omniscient, omnipotent control over all aspects of the spread of Christianity. Do I detect or see an all-encompassing divine plan or purpose that is being enfolded and God-directed? After having gone through my first in-depth look into church history, I would tentatively say that I do not see an overall divine plan or direction by God in church history. I do not discern or detect much of God’s overall intervention in the events of history as we might like to think that He does. He might observe (perhaps at a distance), but it is very hard to detect His direct intervention or steering of events to his will or purpose. If He does or has interfered frequently in history (in the popular Old Testament way of things), then it has come at a great cost most of the time whereby many people had to tremendously suffer and die because of His will. I hold the view of a non-interventionist God where He sovereignly allows people to freely choose the course of action they want to proceed in and He will not (or very, very rarely) intervene in the free will actions and decisions of persons, and reading church history has reinforced this view of God’s action.
Furthermore, the human mind has an innate proclivity to search for purpose or patterns in life. The human mind understand things better through narratives and will stitch memories and life events together to make sense of things, or to find reason or purpose behind things. Many people will conjure up purposes or reasons to things happening because it gives them great comfort or emotional closure. I believe that it gives people great psychological pleasure to believe that God is behind or in direct control over every aspect of history to give it a sense of purpose or provide a meta-narrative, and people can give multiple biblical examples to defend this view, but it is something very hard to reconcile when one takes a strong examination into history. Can we say that it was God’s will for the Roman Empire to become Christian? Perhaps. But can we also be consistent enough to say that God also actively willed the slaughter of countless pagans and other Christian groups deemed ‘heretics’ by the Church? I suspect that not many would implicate God in such acts of brutal, wonton violence. Instead, we would say some obscure thing such as “God allowed it” or that “God permitted it”, but that is skirting the issue altogether in my opinion. My point is that God has allowed a future history that is free and open – free and open to determine our fates and how our histories will be written and remembered – and has determined to keep it that way as we chart our way in this world that He has created.
 Of course, I do not deny that Christianity has done great good for the world as well and there have been numerous examples throughout history where members of the Church have done great acts of charity and self-sacrifice in the name of Christ.