Last month at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge, England I lectured to the Wilberforce Academy, led by Dr. Joseph Boot, on “The Legacy of Christendom.” The expression “legacy of Christendom” could be interpreted to mean that Christianity leaves a legacy called Christendom, which is true. Or it could mean, the legacy that Christendom itself leaves. That latter point is one I want to address. What exactly is the legacy of Christendom? Christendom is not identical to Christianity. Christendom is what a culturally dominant Christianity looks like. It’s possible to have Christianity without Christendom (that’s what we have today, in fact). But it’s not possible to have a full-fledged Christianity for long without Christendom. That is to say that the Christianity of our times is not full-fledged. In losing Christendom, we have lost a particular kind of Christianity.
The legacy of Christendom is much harder to identify than the legacy of Christianity. We know that Christianity has impacted our world in numerous ways. But how has Christendom impacted our world that is no longer Christian? That’s a harder question to answer. Christendom is an entire way of thinking and living socially. That way is gone. But does Christendom still impact our world? I suggest that it does.
We hear the term “post-Christian” a lot these days. I would prefer to use the term post- Christendom. It’s not Christianity that’s behind us, but Christendom. I offer three observations about our post-Christendom world.
First, our post-Christendom world is genuinely apostate. Notice that I didn’t just say that a mass of individuals is apostate. I said our civilization is apostate. This is historically unprecedented. It’s true that civilizations have turned away from God. The Old Testament and the rest of human history are filled with examples of this apostasy. What we have not had examples of is Christian civilization that has entirely turned its back on Christianity. Christendom was established from about the 5th century in the West. It survived until approximately the 18th century, the 19th century in England the United States. It has gradually diminished and is now gone. In other words, we have gone from pre-Christendom, through Christendom, to today’s post-Christendom. We are living in historically unprecedented times.
Lack of Precedent
Second, this means that we lack precise historical precedents for addressing our civilizational apostasy. Some might suggest that we go back and act as the early apostles and prophets did. This approach is both understandable and mistaken. We must always base our actions on the inspired words of the biblical prophets and apostles, but we don’t live in their historical situation. They were living in a pre-Christendom world, not a post-Christendom world. We must adopt their truth, but we need not — and should not — adopt their strategies. We must think very hard about how to re-Christendom (notice I did not say re-Christianize) the world.
The Artifacts That Survive
Third, and finally, because the influence, though not the reality, of Christendom survives, we still enjoy some of the structures of Christendom. They’re usually not evident to us as such. Think only of marriage. Today we’re fighting the redefinition of marriage, and it’s easy to get discouraged at our cultural and legal losses. But let’s remember that it is marriage we are fighting for, and marriage is a divine ordinance. We’re not fighting to establish a divine ordinance; it’s been established from creation. We’re fighting to revive an ordinance that our world simply cannot live without, one woven into its very cosmology. This fact puts our task in a more optimistic light. We can’t ultimately lose the battle for marriage simply because marriage is a divine ordinance woven into the very cosmos itself. We cannot lose the cosmos. Therefore, we cannot lose marriage.
Dr. Peter Jones has ceaselessly reminded us that our culture is shifting from secularism to paganism. We call it neo-paganism, because it’s not precisely the paganism of old. It’s a paganism self-consciously rejecting Christian truth. It’s the paganism abandoning Christendom. It’s post-Christendom paganism. Unbelievers could never simply restore the pagan world. They can only hope to restore a world in which paganism must always look back on Christendom. This means that neo-paganism must always account for, and react against, Christendom.
Think about it this way. The apostles were offering a message sharply contrasting with the message of the ancient pagan world, but we are offering even more. We’re not just offering the contrasting Christian message (the gospel), which is the foundation. We’re offering the contrasting Christian world, civilization, and culture. We’re offering a Christian message to a world that was once Christianized. We’re introducing not just Christianity. We are reintroducing Christendom.
Our civilization was structured by the Christian Faith and the Bible. As much as secularists and neo-pagans may deplore it, they can’t simply unmake it. They hate Christianity so violently not just because they hate its message and claims and demands. They hate it because they know that it creates an entire world that they hate.
Our job, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is to rekindle, recover, and remake that world.