The Decline of Christianity in Europe

Introduction

Things in life deteriorate that’s just the way life goes. The brand new car your neighbor purchased ten years ago is beginning to show signs of age. When it comes to the process of deterioration we can very easily see the signs that it has begun, especially when it takes place on material items. But, my question for you is how easy is it to recognize when it is disguised? Your very own body may be feeling the effects of arthritis or some other disease; and how many people actually see it?

The same can be said of relationships, they can appear healthy and fruitful from the outside but the root is decaying. There are plenty of other examples that can be used in this scenario, but what is one place that has hidden its decay well until recently? The churches of Europe, have been in a drastic down swing over the last century. This is not to say that every country in Europe is having a massive collapse, some countries are thriving while others are dwindling out of existence at an alarming rate. One author makes the statement, “…unless long-stable trends are reversed, major British denominations will cease to exist by 2030.”[1]

Some of the hardest things to track in life are the intangibles. There are people on both sides of the argument that want to say that the church in Europe is no worse for the wear, while others say that it may soon reach its demise. There are several factors that may hold some truth to it meeting its demise; they include the church and state being tied together, the enlightenment, and the rise of secularism.

The Tie That Binds

The state that Christianity in Europe is in today did not happen overnight, it was a process that has taken numerous years to reach this point. Sadly enough it all pretty much started back when Constantine became the ruler of the empire. Lutzer says, “With Constantine in power, Christianity was no longer a sect within the empire but became synonymous with the empire. One would now be a Christian by simply being born into the empire, not necessarily by having personal faith in Christ.”[2] By not allowing there to be a separation of the church and state, and calling all people in the empire “Christian”, the numbers would not reflect an accurate account of true believers in the church.

History has proven that when a leader of any country is given ecclesiastical rule it can do great harm to the church. Because he or she pushes their agenda of what they feel should be the majority and there is no room for growth or change. Collin Hansen in his article European Christianity’s “Failure to Thrive” says, “Rome’s fall, Constantinople‘s forsaking, and Christendom’s eventual collapse during the Reformation era’s wars of religion reveal the perils of uniting the church so closely with temporal earthly regimes. Bluntly put, the church that lives by state power, dies by state power—its fortunes are too closely tied to political vicissitudes.”[3]

The Age of Reason

If the separation of the church from the state was the beginning, the Enlightenment was the next step in the gradual demise of European Christianity. Living centuries after the Enlightenment has taken place we may not understand what it is being described. To break it down it is made up of “…two things: rejection of biblical and ecclesiastical authority, and unlimited trust in human reason. Neither of these was a new idea on the scene of history: both were also typical of the Renaissance and humanism.”[4] Even with learning on the rise amongst the peoples of Europe, and this time would be called the Age of Reason it did not spread at a rapid rate. Shelley says, “The term should not suggest that every blacksmith and village priest suddenly assumed the airs of an intellectual. Many Christians lived and died in the faith of their fathers, totally unconscious that a new age had dawned. But the outlook and direction of Europe had changed.”[5]

One of the hot beds for this change was France, and one of the captains at large was John Locke. He would go on to espouse his beliefs of God and that if you could not prove it, it should not be trusted. On top of that “… many Enlightenment thinkers repudiated all religion, including Christianity, as superstitious. They thought that religion needed to be replaced with a rational system of ethics.”[6] While it may seem that anything dealing with God has come under attack during that time, Shelley says that: “Curiously enough, atheism was not at all fashionable in this “polite society.” Most of the prominent “infidels” who ridiculed Christianity during the eighteenth century believed in a “Supreme Being” but regarded it superstitious to hold that he interfered with the world-machine. This belief was called deism.”[7] Two of the biggest challengers to the work of God were Voltaire and Kant. Voltaire was not an atheist as many today try to assert he was a deist and has been known to have said, “That if God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent one.”[8] Kant, however, would take that sentiment and go further saying, “…you do not know for certain that God exists, but you live as if He does!”[9]

Unfortunately, this type of thinking would even penetrate into the church and effect the way the gospel would be presented. Apparently “Many Reformed ministers were influenced by these ideas and preached sermons that resembled lectures on Greek mythology, Roman history, contemporary science—sermons that aimed at the glorification of man and human knowledge.”[10] Deism would deal a hearty blow to the church which would lead into a future of theological liberalism that began to eat at the heart of the Christian faith; they would accomplish this by questioning the validity of the New Testament. However, this revolution would not stop there.

“Liberal theology next began a quest for the historical Jesus. Its theologians asked, since we cannot trust the New Testament, what is the ground on which we can build our understanding of Jesus? Rudolf Bultmann (1884–1976) called for the “demythologizing” of the Gospels, the peeling off of the husks, to find the kernel of truth. That Jesus existed, Bultmann argued, is about all that can be claimed as certain. The antisupernaturalism of the Enlightenment reached its peak with Bultmann.”[11]

Recent History

The Enlightenment has forever altered the way Europeans and some other parts of the world view religion. It has been said that “Over the years France has exemplified the convergence of academic skepticism and popular unrest that has produced empty church pews across the continent.”[12] With people groups of Europe wishing to keep their “spirituality” separate from other aspects of their life, they have perpetuated the idea of secularism and in turn sped up the rate of decline in the church. Bruce says that: “The proportion of people claiming Christian beliefs is considerably higher than the proportion of people who actively support the Christian churches, but those data show a steady decline in the popularity of Christian beliefs that shadows the decline in church adherence.”[13]

I would chose to argue that while people have become disenfranchised with the church it has nothing to do with the body as a whole but the social pressures they chose to adhere to. We can either choose to worship God as he tells us to or we can chose a form of idolatry that suits us best. “If one form of religion declines, another should take its place.”[14] Religion can be made up of any type of worship you wish to offer to anything you declare worthy of it. In Europe, the religion of Islam has had a rather rapid rise, while atheism has also grown. With the church failing to evangelize the people, the good news is not going out and new converts are not able to bolster the numbers inside the church.[15]

Conclusion

Christianity in Europe at one time appeared to be thriving because of its ties to the government not realizing that very relationship would begin to usher in its demise. Along with the Enlightenment that puffed men up and took upon themselves roles of judge against God and his word. While Europe has been a detriment to itself in terms of Christianity, the rest of the body of Christ that can see what is happening needs to rise up and take a firmer stance to bring back this member that we may become one whole. If we sit back and watch Christianity deteriorate in Europe without a care, what may happen next? When the church you attend or Christianity as a whole in your city, state, or country begins to vanish, will you sit idly by?

Bibliography

Bruce, Steve. “Christianity in Britain, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 62, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 191-203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2011).

Cross, F. L. and Elizabeth A. Livingstone. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. 3rd ed. rev. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Eckman, James P. Exploring Church History. Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002.

Greeley, Andrew M. “Religious Decline in Europe?.” America 190, no. 7 (March 2004): 16-18. Military & Government Collection, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2011).

Hansen, Collin. “European Christianity’s “Failure to Thrive”.” Christianity Today Library. August 8, 2008. http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/news/2003/jul18.html (accessed September 9, 2011).

Hill, Jonathan. Zondervan Handbook to the History of Christianity. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006.

Lutzer, Erwin. The Doctrines That Divide. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998.

Shelley, Bruce L. Church History in Plain Language. Nashville: Nelson, 1995.

Timmer, John. “Dutch Calvinism. (2), Eighteenth-century decline.” Reformed Journal 28, no. 4 (April 1, 1978): 23-26. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 9, 2011).


[1]Steve Bruce, “Christianity in Britain, R.I.P.” Sociology of Religion 62, no. 2 (June 1, 2001): 191-203. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 8, 2011) 191 .

[2] Erwin Lutzer, The Doctrines That Divide. (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 1998) 122.

[3]Collin Hansen,. “European Christianity’s “Failure to Thrive”.” Christianity Today Library. August 8, 2008. http://www.ctlibrary.com/ch/news/2003/jul18.html (accessed September 9, 2011)2.

[4] John Timmer, “Dutch Calvinism. (2), Eighteenth-century decline.” Reformed Journal 28, no. 4 (April 1, 1978): 23-26. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed September 9, 2011) 24.

[5] Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language. (Nashville: Nelson, 1995) 314.

[6] James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2002), 72.

[7] Shelley, Church, 316.

[8] Ibid, 317.

[9] Eckman, Exploring, 74.

[10] Timmer, Dutch, 25.

[11] Eckman, Exploring, 75.

[12] Hansen, European, 1.

[13] Bruce, Christianity, 201.

[14] Ibid,192.

[15] Here is a link to the current Pope admitting there was not enough evangelization during is generation. http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2011/08/29/my-generation-did-not-evangelise-enough-says-pope/

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