The European Roots of American Christianity

The history and architecture of European churches may actually be baggage

“Maybe European Christianity isn’t all that we Europhilic Christians in the U.S. make it out to be. It sure has more history, better architecture, and civilizational presence. But freed from all the baggage of Christendom, perhaps Christianity is better off. That’s not an expression of American Christian exceptionalism. Nor is it an assertion that American Christianity is somehow independent from Europe’s churches.”

 

As I walked around Rome this morning I could well understand the appeal of Roman Catholicism to Christians in the U.S. who desire a faith more profound than James Dobson’s or even Tim Keller’s. (TKNY’s historical vibe does not seem to be any older than 1990s New York, despite the comparisons of him to C. S. Lewis.) Heck, part of the appeal to me of Reformed Protestantism was that it situated me in a set of debates and a system of Christian reflection and ministry that went well beyond 1938 — the year my parents’ Baptist congregation started (we had no clue about Roger William and Rhode Island). So with Zwingli and Bucer I get almost five hundred years of tradition (or records, anyway). And for a U.S. Presbyterian who just spent a week in Edinburgh, arguably one of the most beautiful cities in the world with a population of less than 600,000, to walk through the streets and read through the archives and be reminded of arguments and assertions that still hold sway in some American communions sure beats following a trail that ends in some recent odd American locale.

Even so, with Rome, you get a lot more and a lot more grandeur, and if you are simply in the who’s-got-the-oldest-church-cornerstone mode, Rome beats Geneva and Edinburgh (though the latter has more polish than Rome which seems to suffer, along with Istanbul, from being too old; when you get used to having ruins around, you may also become accustomed to a place being a tad disheveled). Still, I’m not sure how Rome beats Jerusalem or Antakya except that western Europe has more cultural cache in the U.S. than Asia Minor (Turkey).

Amid these reflections on Europhilia, David Robertson came to the rescue to keep European Christianity real:

Put any group of Christians together and you will get a wide variety of opinions – some of them contradictory. That is particularly true when we are trying to assess the state of the Church in Europe today. On the one hand there are the doom and gloom merchants, the Jeremiahs, full of facts and figures about numbers and visions of the past, pointing out that the church is dying and we are all “doomed, doomed”. On the other there are the “God is doing a new and greater thing” brigade, the revivalists who are also full of facts and figures but their visions are visions of the future. They assure us on the basis of what is happening in a couple of churches, and a dream that they had that victory is just around the corner, revival is on its way and all we have to do is help their ministry. Isn’t it strange how both the “realists” and the “revivalists” seem to be able to justify their own ministeries because of their prophecies? We are told that we need to support the realists because only in that way will the remnant hang on until the Lord returns. On the other hand we had better support the revivalists because we don’t want to miss out on the revival.

So maybe European Christianity isn’t all that we Europhilic Christians in the U.S. make it out to be. It sure has more history, better architecture, and civilizational presence. But freed from all the baggage of Christendom, perhaps Christianity is better off. That’s not an expression of American Christian exceptionalism. Nor is it an assertion that American Christianity is somehow independent from Europe’s churches. Unmoored from Europe’s tragedies and buoyed by America’s can-do (Pelagian) spirit, mixed with a blasphemous belief in the nation’s divine purpose, American Christianity (Protestant and Roman Catholic) has no room to gloat (even though we usually gloat in spades). At the same time, returning to Europe and its Christian ways won’t do either.

D. G. Hart is an elder in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, serving on the session of Calvary OPC in Glenside, Pennsylvania. This article appeared on his blog, and is used with permission.