“The greatest story ever told.”
The scandal of the Gospel message, as the Apostle Paul so starkly framed it, is from a human standpoint, “an offense,” “foolishness,” a “stumbling block,” and “folly.” Just how unthinkable that an instrument of degradation and torture, a method of death that was used to demonstrate the utter worthlessness of the person hanging naked and ignored, would metamorphose into a symbol of victory is nothing less than miraculous. For Paul to call out the cross as reason to glory in, or boast about1 would seem to be a ludicrous claim that marked him as a madman. However, more than two thousand years following Jesus’ crucifixion, the power of Christ’s cross, inseparable from His resurrection, not only provided the means of salvation to believers but has been the cornerstone of the transformation of the entire world.
Indeed, one may even say that the Christian faith, with 2.5 billion adherents, or almost one-third of the world’s population with followers in every nation on earth, has achieved much of the results Jesus called his followers to pursue in His Great Commission: “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”2
The New Testament is clear that Jesus is the sovereign Ruler over the nations and that His dominion is unchallenged as “He is the head over every power and authority.”3 Undoubtedly any book that would seek to chronicle the extensive dominion that has been achieved would be a massive undertaking and require an author with extensive knowledge of world history before Christ so there would be a way to tell this fascinating story in the requisite context of how “the greatest story ever told” plays out. Providentially, one might think, this is exactly what you find in “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World.”
“Dominion,” at almost 550 pages, takes a comprehensive look at how faith in Jesus Christ, through His death on a cross, and the claims which this particular method of death made upon His followers, has turned the entire world upside-down for the better. The author, Tom Holland, is a highly-regarded British writer who has previously focused primarily on ancient and medieval history and it pays off in this sweeping narrative of Christian expansion through the centuries. It turns out that over the past 2,000 years Christian thought has not only permeated every sphere, but dominates the historical record and defines the modern understanding of human action and events, even by the adherents of rival religions, or by those who claim no religion at all.
The book begins with a well-researched chronicle of the origins of crucifixion, beginning some 500 years prior to Jesus’ birth, which is crucial to understanding the miraculous nature of the cross becoming the symbol of freedom and self-sacrificing service. Mr. Holland makes note that Jesus’ death on the cross is an undisputed historical fact and then moves on to show specifically why His crucifixion as a method of death has made all the earth-shaking changes for the good of all humanity possible. As a bonus, he is an excellent writer who provides a riveting account of world events shaped by the cross as a meaning-packed symbol of Jesus’ death.
And “Dominion” leaves no doubt that the cross is truly shocking, beginning with its powerful narrative of the origins of crucifixion, a form of punishment and death that is so gruesome and outside the bounds of what a human being should be subjected to that no one claimed its origins or even spoke about it. That a man could die this type of death and then be worshiped as God is so amazing in itself that, while cringing at the vivid depiction of crucifixion as an inhuman reality, I found myself contemplating the mysterious ways of God, His unfathomable love and His sovereign control over human events. To transform a mechanism of death that testified to the utter contempt for the one exposed, the worthlessness of the weak and defenseless, into the most powerful symbol of life, love and self-sacrifice that continues to extend its reach, is the amazing story told in “Dominion.”
Until Jesus’ death on the cross divinity was “for victors, and heroes, and kings. Its measure was the power to torture one’s enemies, not to suffer it oneself…That a man who had himself been crucified might be hailed as a god could not help but be seen by people everywhere across the Roman world as scandalous, obscene, grotesque.” And for the Jews, it was even more repellent. “This conviction, that a crucified criminal might somehow be a part of the identity of the one God of Israel” was blasphemy and the height of absurdity. As the apostle Paul correctly observed, it “was foolishness to the Greek and a stumbling block to the Jew.”
Even for Christians, who, like Paul, embraced and gloried in the cross, there were limits to how they would portray it. So horrific was this method of torture that it took more than 400 years after Jesus’ death for artists to find it an acceptable theme and even then it was “sanctified.” “In Christ’s agonies had been the index of His defeat of evil. This was why, triumphant even on the implement of His torture, He was never shown as suffering pain. His expression was one of serenity.”
But the cursed nature of the cross was the very thing that undergird the faith. Jesus had “suffered the death of a slave, not struggling against it but submitting willingly to the lash,” and;
If Paul did not stint, in a province adorned with monuments to Caesar, in hammering home the full horror and humiliation of Jesus’ death, then it was because, without the crucifixion, he would have had no gospel to proclaim. Christ, by making himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a slave, had plumbed the depths to which only the lowers, the poorest, the most persecuted and abused of mortals were confined. If Paul could not leave the sheer wonder of this alone, if he risked everything to proclaim it to strangers likely to find it disgusting, or lunatic, or both, then that was because he had been brought by his vision of the risen Jesus to gaze directly into what it meant for him and for all the world. That Christ—whose participation in the divine sovereignty over space and time he seems never to have doubted—had become human, and suffered death on the ultimate instrument of torture, was precisely the measure of Paul’s understanding of God: the He was love. The world stood transformed as a result.
Mr. Holland proceeds to tell how the willingness of Christ to suffer and die a cursed death out of love for mankind, accepting pain and humiliation to himself of the deepest nature, would provide the foundation stone on which an entirely new and improved world-order would be built upon. Every human, not simply the rich and powerful, was now extremely valuable. The rich, rather than despise and take advantage of the poor, were to use their wealth to care for them. Those in positions of authority and power were to serve the weak and disadvantaged, rather than be served by them. The first were to become last and the last first. A paragraph that most powerfully sums up this amazing paradigm-shift comes in the fifth chapter (Charity) of “Dominion”:
A concern for the downtrodden could not merely be summoned into existence out of nothing. The logic that inspired two wealthy and educated men such as Basil and Gregory to devote their lives to the poor derived from the very fundamentals of their faith. ‘Do not despise these people in their abjection; do not think they merit no respect.’ So Gregory urged. ‘Reflect on who they are, and you will understand their dignity; they have taken upon them the person of our Saviour. For he, the compassionate, has given them his own person.’ Gregory, more clearly than anyone before him, traced the implications of Christ’s choice to live and die as one of the poor to its logical conclusion. Dignity, which no philosopher had ever taught might be possessed by the stinking, toiling masses, was for all. There was no human existence so wretched, none so despised or vulnerable, that it did not bear witness to the image of God. Divine love for the outcast and derelict demanded that mortals love them too.
Mr. Holland fills his book with examples of men and women who throughout the centuries willingly sacrifice great power, wealth, even their lives, to serve the poor, the sick, the outcast, driven by the message of Christ’s cross. No matter the hardship— the physical demands were great and the danger constant, Christian missionaries joyfully undertook Jesus’ command to “go and make disciples of all nations.” Venturing into savage areas where demons were worshipped and human sacrifice abounded, monks understood that “all the world was theirs to illumine with the blaze of Christ.” Many of them had been delivered from vicious and barbaric lives and cultures of death themselves and “as vividly as anyone, they understood what it was to be born again. ‘The old has gone, the new has come!’” The message of the greatness of God’s love would cover the earth as the waters cover the sea, and it would do so no matter the personal sacrifice. Missionaries weighed the cost of carrying the cross of Christ and counted their lives as nothing for the privilege of to do so.
Mr. Holland has taken the time to understand the stunning nature of what has taken place and, more importantly, give due credit to the power of the Christian faith, not only in overthrowing an existing worldview but empowering and sustaining the creation of something wholly new: The ongoing establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” “Dominion” is in effect the story of a mustard seed growing into a tree where the branches cover the earth and all beasts and birds find cover. Mr. Holland provides an excellent Christian interpretation of history and the benefits that it has brought to all people and nations, whether they confess Christ or not.
Indeed, one of the first things you realize as you move through his account is his treatment of Christians. Unlike so many authors today, Mr. Holland doesn’t impute evil motives into the hearts of people he’s writing about. That doesn’t mean he glosses over their faults, failures and hypocrisy, but that he sees them as imperfect men and women truly grappling with their faith. This is most evident in his portrayal of emperors and kings such as Constantine, who perhaps started out as politically motivated to confess Christ, and complained of questions and fights over doctrine defining His Nature, but “it was dawning on Constantine that these questions might be naive. The issues of who Christ had truly been, in what way He could have been both human and divine, and how the Trinity was best defined, were hardly idle ones, after all. How could God properly be worshipped, and His approval for Rome’s rule of the world thereby be assured, if His very nature was in dispute?” Constantine took the faith seriously, as well as how to act as what he believed to be his elevation as a God-ordained ruler.
Likewise Charlemagne. A Christian king who is often vilified for his forced baptism of the pagan German tribes is treated fairly, even as the author points out the savageness of his actions. Charlemagne spent years trying to maintain treaties with the Saxons, only to have those agreements broken as soon as the ink was dry. His forced baptism produced bloody results, with 4,500 prisoners beheaded in one day. But Charlemagne was doing his best to obey Christ and brought in a brilliant Christian scholar who strongly opposed his policy to advise him. Persuasion, not force, was God’s way, he said, and Charlemagne, rescinded the law. The reader may be surprised to learn that Charlemagne “enjoyed nothing more than discussing theology with Alcuin” and that the king “had full confidence in his advisor” and knew that his “commitment to the creation of a properly Christian people was absolute.”
Mr. Holland makes sure to include the powerful account of Charlemagne’s creation of an entire system of monasteries that were given the mission of wiping out illiteracy and teaching everyone in his kingdom how to read the Bible. The king was the first to make the Bible accessible to the masses, bringing innovative features to the project. “Capital letters were deployed to signal the start of new sentences. For the first time, a single stroke like a lightning-flash was introduced to indicate doubt: the question mark. Each compendium of scripture, so one monk declared, was ‘a library beyond compare.’” Charlemagne’s edict meant that “Even the meanest peasant scratching a living beside the dankest wood had to be provided with ready access to Christian instruction…Increasingly, in the depths of the Frankish countryside, there was no aspect of existence that Christian teaching did not touch.”
Perhaps just as importantly, churchmen are also treated as real people of real faith, rather than the caricatures employed by many historians today. The author gives us a much fuller account of Galileo and the Church, and the reality is that the church, far from being anti-science, not only created the environment for scientific discovery to take place, but helped push new findings forward. The real problem in pursuing new ideas, according to Kitty Furguson, who has a magnificent account of this in her book, “Measuring the Universe,” was one we’re familiar with today. “[T]he most outspoken and dogmatic reactions came not from churchmen but from conservative astronomers in the universities, who continued to insist that the authority of Aristotle and Ptolemy must not be questioned. Why bother to observe nature or look through a telescope when the ancients had already given the answers?”4 The “scientific” consensus held to a non-Christian paradigm. The Church fought back against that type of thinking. No doubt Pope Urban VIII made ill-advised decisions, but they were based on personal vendettas, not faith vs. science face-offs, and you can find the saga covered in the 14th chapter of Dominion.
One other event deserves to be highlighted if only because it reminds us of what is even manifest in political leaders even today—how important the church and her leaders were/are in challenging imperial authority and forcing kings and heads of state to take account the Church’s sovereignty. Then and now, when sin and wrong are confronted by church leaders, politicians and rulers will go to incredible lengths to stay in the good graces of the Church and hold onto at least a vestige of ecclesiastic favor. That event, a battle between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV, played out in 1076 when the king attempted to depose the pope because Gregory refused to accept that the king had the right to install bishops. As Mr. Holland pointedly describes it, this was “a momentous step: for this—prohibiting kings from poking their noses into the business of the Church—had struck at the very heart of how the world was ordered.”
The king issued a proclamation: “Let another sit upon Saint Peter’s throne.” Gregory not only defied the king, but issued a response that brought the ruler to his knees before him. Literally. Pope Gregory “declared that Henry was ‘bound with the chain of anathema and excommunicated from the Church. His subjects were absolved of all their oaths of loyalty to him. Henry himself, as a tyrant and an enemy of God, was deposed. The impact of this pronouncement proved devastating. Henry’s authority went into meltdown.”
To such straits was his authority reduced that he settled on a desperate gambit. Crossing the Alps in the dead of winter, he headed for Canossa, a castle in the northern Apennines where he knew that Gregory was staying. For three days, ‘barefoot, and clad in wool, the heir of Constantine and Charlemagne stood shivering before the gates of the castle’s innermost wall. Finally, ordering the gates unbarred, and summoning Henry into his presence, Gregory absolved the penitent with a kiss. ‘The king of Rome, rather than being honored as a universal monarch, had been treated instead as merely a human being—a creature molded out of clay.
Pastor’s and church leaders who believe that the Church is no longer an important institution with the ability to bestow or withdraw legitimacy on rulers should take note of those politicians who, when facing simply the ban on receiving Communion, not full excommunication itself, will go to great lengths to make sure they find a priest or bishop willing to grant public approval—even if not so far as to change their actual behavior. For example, as a confessing Catholic, Nancy Pelosi must adhere to the Church’s teaching on abortion, that it is the unlawful taking of human life and a violation of God’s law. At one point, confronted by her political and national position advocating for abortion she faced a potential ban in her home diocese from the Lord’s Table. Alarmed by the situation, she, like Henry, sought out the Pope to make sure she could continue at the Table.
Unfortunately, this was not a Henry/Gregory moment. The politician did not repent and yet the pope, while mentioning to her what a grave sin abortion supposedly is, bestowed a high profile award for other areas of work Mrs. Pelosi undertook as a politician, essentially relegating the legal murder of children to an unimportant decision left to the individual conscience. Church acquiescence for worldly praise. But the point remains that the Church is truly God’s embassy on earth and when she regains her confidence it will again be true that “many nations will come and say, Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the temple of the God of Jacob. He will teach us His ways, so that we may walk in His paths.”5
The scope of Mr. Holland’s story covers kings, rulers, scholars, craftsmen and churchmen from around the world and through the present, which includes an excellent section on China and her great and ancient civilization, the Reformation and Enlightenment, Darwin’s theory of evolution and its ramifications, and the Abolition movement that miraculously took hold throughout the world as the Christian faith defined it as “a crime against humanity” even as Islamic leaders stated that “any ban on slavery would be ‘against our religion’…The owning of slaves was licensed by the Qur’an, by the example of Muhammad himself, and by the Sunna, that great corpus of Islamic traditions and practices. Who, then, were Christians to demand its abolition?” But demand—and achieve—it Christians did and the dominion of the cross was extended.
The book includes a section on the elevation of women to equality with men, culminating in the Christian roots of the present-day “#MeToo” movement. Again, the author credits the Apostle Paul and the Christian faith with creating a culture that required the free consent of the weaker vessel, and actually taught that it should be within the bounds of a loving marriage. Brute strength and positions of power could not justify the penetration of a woman against her will.
Implicit in #MeToo was the same call to sexual continence that had reverberated throughout the Church’s history. Protestors who marched in the red cloaks of handmaids were summoning men to exercise control over their lusts just as the Puritans had done. Appetites that had been hail by enthusiasts for sexual liberation as Dionysiac stood condemned once again as predatory and violent. The human body was not an object, not a commodity to be used by the rich and powerful as and when they pleased. Two thousand years of Christian sexual morality had resulted in men as well as women widely taking this for granted. Had it not, then #MeToo would have had no force.
The reader will find insights into the Christian origins of our calendar, the notion of human rights (“that all men had been created equal, and endowed with an inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, were not remotely self-evident truths”), the roots of the responses to devastating natural catastrophes, the current immigration debates and many other contemporary events thoughtful and challenging.
It’s important to note a short summary of Holland’s own spiritual and intellectual journey to place his account in perspective. While his father was an atheist, his mother was a devout Anglican who taught him the Bible from his earliest years. While becoming skeptical prior to college, before completing his Ph.D. at Oxford University he had become an unbeliever. However, as he studied and wrote histories on ancient civilizations he found,
[t]hat my belief in God had faded over the course of my teenage years did not mean that I had ceased to be Christian. For a millennium and more, the civilization into which I had been born was Christendom. Assumptions that I had grown up with—about how a society should properly be organised, and the principles that it should uphold—were not bred of classical antiquity, still less of ‘human nature’, but very distinctively of that civilisation’s Christian past.
So while he now considers himself “thoroughly and proudly Christian,” it appears to me that this is more to identify culturally as a Christian, understanding, accepting and consciously participating, even rejoicing in the benefits of a world made new rather than making a statement of faith in the Resurrection and Lordship of Christ. If I am right about that, and it’s very possible my assessment is incorrect, it would explain two significant issues that will stand out for evangelical and Pentecostal readers.
First, while Mr. Holland accurately and fairly turns to the Apostle Paul’s writings, granting them the force they indeed have of upending the world’s power structures, including, if not especially, in the realm of sexual behavior. But I think it fair to say he understands Paul not as writing under the infallible inspiration of the Holy Spirit, but rather a man of his own time with prejudices and perhaps apprehensions of fully pursuing the ramifications of his own teaching. He highlights Paul’s writings on the status and equality of women and the idea that slavery should be abolished, but rather than wrestle as the Church has always done with difficult passages that seem counter to these, seems too quick to dismiss Paul as simply being unable to fathom where his teaching would lead and perhaps being at war with himself in some of his letters. Mr. Holland is not a theologian, and I know he is reflecting a large segment of modern theological positions when he frames Paul in the way he does. However it is important for Christians to keep in sight the Apostle Peter’s Spirit-led admonition to those who fail to appreciate the source and authority of Paul’s writings.
“Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability.”
To add one more important thought to this particular concern, Holland seems to indicate, though never directly state, that homosexuality—indeed, the entire sexually deviant smorgasbord of “LBGQT” falls within the parameters of acceptable Christian behavior, and at some point will be understood as compatible and in perfect harmony with the Christian message of “Love and do as you will.” This despite Mr. Holland’s powerful argument that Paul was unafraid to confront the overwhelming acceptance of virtually every sexual perversion of his day, including the gruesome transgenderism that was on open display in Galatia.
The Apostle’s condemnation of sex outside of marriage and his insistence that it must be between a consenting man and woman was to play the fool, as Mr. Holland so clearly and admiringly shows. The Cross of Christ demanded that a man love his wife the way Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her. The cross made service, sacrifice and love the centerpiece of sexual relationships, and its demands were anathema to the world powers in Paul’s day. “Sex was nothing if not an exercise in power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile.”
Paul’s direct teaching on sexuality, which included condemnation of homosexuality, transgenderism and even those who were effeminate, completely changed how the entire world viewed sex and was transformed for good, as the #MeToo movement actually demonstrated. It was, as Mr. Holland again correctly notes, deeply rooted in Old Testament scripture. But this was also the New Testament ethic as Jesus’ confirmation of God’s creation purposes concerning marriage highlights and “natural law” affirmed, and Paul, writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, establishes the sexual standards in the New Testament. As pre-Christian assumptions concerning sexuality have taken an elevated place in our current culture it is important to ground this in Biblical truth, not popular trends.
A second area readers will want to keep in mind is throughout the book there is the implication that Christian teaching historically created an unbridgeable chasm between God’s law in the Old Testament and Christ’s (and Paul’s) New Testament gospel. While a popular axiom throughout academia today, in reality, our law system, especially that of Christendom, is built solidly on a strong understanding of the Old Testament law as interpreted now in Christ. As highly regarded legal scholar Harold J. Berman points out in his book “Law and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition,” while the Judaic law wasn’t considered binding or necessary for salvation, “the Biblical law (though not the rabbinic law) was binding in another sense, that is, as a revelation of the moral standards that God had set from man. ‘The Law is sacred,’ St. Paul wrote to the Church at Rome, ‘and what it command is sacred, just and good’ (Rom 7:12). This meant that Christian should internalize the Biblical law, should believe in their hearts the truths it embodied, and should do good out of faith and hope and love rather than because of legal command or sanctions.”
Ironically, Anselm’s theology on Atonement, which was conceived and developed between 1050 and 1150 AD, placed the cross and Christ’s death as a significant act separate from the resurrection for the first time—the very model of ‘cross as symbol’ that Mr. Holland sees transforming the world—led to the development of an entire legal system, or as Berman put it, “Anselm’s theology is a theology of law.” Anselm’s theory of Atonement dealt with all manner of legal principles surrounding justice, mercy, merit, restitution and much more, while the Eastern church never developed these theories which it “considered legalistic.”
Old Testament Biblical law would go on to form the basis for what we now call tort law. Unfortunately, the full impact of how “church law set an example for city law and for commercial law” would take an entire book to unpack, and my mentioning this is more about pointing out how important re-learning this history is as opposed to disagreeing with Mr. Holland and neither one of my quibbles take away from the sagacity of the book. “Dominion” is a majestic work that is unique in its focus and scope even as it builds upon the work of earlier scholars and historians and I am thankful he applied his great talent to the growth and power of the kingdom of God.
The victory of Christ and the spread of the Christian faith has been the subject of many excellent histories. Christopher Dawson6 made monumental contributions in this area, while Rodney Stark7 and many others, including, or perhaps, even, Daniel Boorstin,8 have written well-documented and powerful accounts of the Christian faith’s historical growth, influence and accomplishments.
Will Durant includes entire volumes on the unstoppable march of Christ’s kingdom in his Story of Civilization series, beginning with volume three, Caesar and Christ. Near the end of the volume, Durant concludes that
There is no greater drama in human record than the sight of a few Christians, scorned or oppressed by a succession of emperors, bearing all trials with a fierce tenacity, multiplying quietly, building order while their enemies generated chaos, fighting the sword with the word, brutality with hope, and at last defeating the strongest star that history has known. Caesar and Christ had met in the arena, and Christ had won.
However in terms of historical scope and focus on one particular aspect of the faith, that of the crucifixion of Jesus and the Cross’s role in its victorious transformational power over every area of life, Tom Holland’s book, “Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World” is perhaps the most important work that has been written in years. Not only should every Christian pastor and theologian read the book, but with a vast majority of believers lacking in or misinformed of our amazing history that church leaders should get this into the hands of every member. It may have been imperceptible, but Christ, through His work on the Cross, has taken dominion of the entire world. In the words of Issac Watts (1719):
Joy to the World; the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King!
Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing.
Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields & floods, rocks, hills & plains
Repeat the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make his blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love.
1 Galatians 6:14
2 Matthew 28:18-19
3 Colossians 2:10
4 Kitty Furguson, Measuring the Universe: Chapter 3, page 95.
5 Micah 4:2
6 While long neglected by Protestants, Christopher Dawson is one of the most important and best writers on the subject of Christ and His powerful movement upon the nations. His Christian worldview and powerful historical accounts should be read by all Christians.
7 The Rise of Christianity. The Victory of Reason. Cities of God.
8 Chapters in both The Creators and The Discoverers.