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On Christian Theology: An Introduction


The Nature and Content of Theology
Sources of Christianity
         “The Waning of the Influence of the Enlightenment”
          Verifiability of Religious and Scientific Propositions
          Irrationality and the Protorational
History of Christianity
    The Quarrelsomeness of Christianity
     Establishment of Doctrines
Christian Doctrines
    Irreconcilability of Doctrines
         The Evolution of Orthodoxy and Heresy
          The Theological Concept of Heresy
“Application to Life” of Christianity
    Violence in Christianity
    The Church and Women
     Christian Theology and Science
         “The Copernican and Galilean Controversies”
          Calvin as the Godfather of Science
          “The Darwinian Controversy and the Nature of Humanity”
          The Scientific Pronouncements of Christianity
In Conclusion: The Falsity of Christian Theology

Christian Theology: An Introduction is a well-known textbook by theology professor Alister McGrath of King’s College, London. Its popularity can be attributed in part to its clarity of writing and presentation, its comprehensiveness, and its balance when presenting conflicting opinions within Christianity. Even non-Christians who would like to know what serious students of Christianity are being taught should find it of interest. In fact, reading the latest (5th) edition (McGrath, 2011) from the standpoint of an unbeliever resulted in many observations, some of which I report in the present essay. This essay is by no means intended to be a complete book review. It deals only with a few important topics whose treatment I find incomplete and misleading, and addresses only subjects raised by McGrath himself.

The Nature and Content of Theology

McGrath offers as an approximate definition of theology “‘the systematic study of the ideas of a religion,’ including their sources, historical development, mutual relationship, and their application to life” (p. 101). These elements presumably are in addition to the content of the ideas themselves.[1]

In the comments below, I follow McGrath’s sequence of four components, but replace the category of mutual relations with observations on Christian doctrines themselves. Remarks about some aspects of Christian history are incorporated in other sections where appropriate.

Sources of Christianity

McGrath lists four sources of Christianity: The Bible (“Scripture”), tradition, reason, and religious experience (p. 101, 120).[2] The present essay does not comment on the last of these.


Besides being the principal source of Christian theology, the Bible is the ultimate arbiter of all of that theology. Concepts from any other source must accord with the Bible (or at least with the interpretation of the Bible being used in the situation at hand). Christian tradition is rooted in the Bible because many of the concepts proposed as traditions are supposedly based on undocumented statements or acts by the Apostles, and these men are identified by the Bible. Hence the validity and correctness of the anthology known as the Bible determine the validity and correctness of Christian theology.

No unaltered manuscript of any book of the Bible survives, and the supposed copies that are available differ in their texts. (This state of affairs is perhaps surprising if these books are addressed to humankind by God.) A problem thus arises: Which sources are to be used to prepare a text that most accurately reproduces the original? At present most theologians accept as the best Greek texts of the New Testament the latest revisions of the Nestle-Aland and United Bible Societies editions. These are based on a version published in 1881 after having been slowly cobbled together by Brooke Westcott (the Anglican Bishop of Durham) and Cambridge theologian Fenton Hort. These two scholars primarily used two 4th century Egyptian manuscripts, the “Sinaiaticus” and the “Vaticanus.” But the texts of these two manuscripts often differ, and many scholars and theologians believe that other sources[3] are more accurate versions of the original texts.[4] However, ultimately there is no way of knowing how closely any extant text corresponds to its original autograph. To assert that any present Greek text of the New Testament is an error-free reproduction of the original requires the postulation of a string of miraculous interventions during the transmission of the text. McGrath does not mention these or any other problems related to the sources of current versions of the Bible.

McGrath’s list of the books of the Bible (p. 124) is that of the Protestant Bible. He makes no mention of the fact that the Roman Catholic Bible contains seven additional books (as well as additional parts of Esther and Daniel), noting only that the 16th-century Roman Catholic Council of Trent defined the Old Testament as containing works found in the Greek and Latin (as well as the Hebrew) Bibles (p. 123).[5]

With respect to which books belong in the biblical canon, McGrath avers that the books that were selected were “religious writings … regarded as normative,” “works that were seen as having universal relevance and authority,” and “documents that already enjoyed universal usage and approbation throughout the Christian world” (p. 127).[6] He adds that “a popular consensus appears to have emerged within the churches by the middle of the third century over the core elements of what we now call the ‘New Testament'” (p. 127). These statements are simplifications of the facts. There has never been “universal usage and approbation,” and only partial “consensus,” regarding the books judged canonical (Cassels, 1879, vol. 1, p. 296, 407; Cassels, 1879, vol. 2, pp. 79-143; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 229-246; Harnack, 1893, pp. 212-216; Thiry, 1823, pp. 3-5, 11). Disputes about the content of Scripture continued (McDonald, 2011, pp. 4-6, 36-38) long after Athanasius in 367 CE made a list “which identifies the 27 canonical books of the New Testament, as we now know it” (p. 13). In the 16th century Martin Luther rejected ten books as apocryphal (i.e., not canonical), soon to be followed by other Protestants, while the Roman Catholic Church simultaneously revised its Bible by ejecting three books.

Most Christians, including those whose read McGrath’s book, are unaware that the Bible contains only a rather small part of the extant records of words attributed to Jesus and events associated with him (McCabe, 1926a, pp. 8-9; Miller, 2010). (And the Bible constitutes a smaller fraction still of the totality of such material written in the formative period of Christianity, much of which has probably been lost or destroyed. What became of the “many accounts handed down by eyewitnesses” referred to in Luke 1:1?). Much of this noncanonical material accords with the character of Jesus presented in the Gospels (although sometimes with different emphases), and the events related are no less probable than some written in the New Testament. It may be that the selection of which old books were to be regarded as divinely inspired may have been influenced by regional and personal rivalries and disputes, just as the documented selection of doctrines by the Church councils was (p. 13). (See Establishment of Doctrines in the History of Christianity section below for more information on these rivalries.) In his presentation of the issues here and throughout the book, McGrath whitewashes the controversy and discord that existed, making Christianity appear much more convivial than it actually was.

The text of the Bible has been subject to errors in transcription and translation, to alteration, and to loss (pp. 40-41; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 215-227; Ehrman, 2011; McDonald, 2011, pp. 9-14, 17-30, 34-36, 59-70, 253-254; Wheless, 1930, pp. 172-237).[7] Already at the end of the 4th century CE, these problems were reported by Jerome, who remarked: “There are almost as many forms of texts as there are copies.” He noted “mistakes introduced by inaccurate translators,… blundering alterations of confident but ignorant critics,” and material “inserted or changed by copyists more asleep than awake” (Jerome, 1893b). McGrath mentions the importance of errors in Jerome’s own Latin Vulgate translation of the Bible to 15th- and 16th-century Christianity (p. 40-41) and points out some misleading renderings in present-day translations (p. 445). “Theology,” he writes, “could not be permitted to base itself upon translation mistakes!” But in the course of a more than 17-page discussion of Scripture (pp. 120-137), he never acknowledges the alterations of biblical texts demonstrated by scholars. Elsewhere he barely mentions what we know to be corruptions of the Bible, but without admitting the existence of the corruptions (p. 301, 310). One would think that students of Christian theology ought to know, for example, that the Bible was rewritten in places (by altering, inserting, or deleting text) to support sectarian doctrines, to harmonize previously discordant texts, and to support doctrines developed after the original writing (Cassels, 1879, vol. 1, p. 314, 323, 396, 411; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 215-227; Ehrman, 2011; McDonald, 2011, pp. 9-14, 17-20).

McGrath cites Matthew 28:18-20 as evidence that “since the time of the New Testament … Christians were baptized in the name of ‘the Father, Son and Holy Spirit'” (p. 229). But many scholars believe that this phrase was added to the original text of Matthew; in other words, it appears to be a forgery. (For evidence that it was interpolated, see http://www.biblicalunitarian.com/verses/matthew-28-19 and http://www.onenesspentecostal.com/matt2819-willis.htm). Should theology “be permitted to base itself upon” corrupted texts?


In the Christian Church a “tradition” is an innovation that in time became sufficiently approved by the priesthood that it could no longer be suppressed. For the most part, there are two kinds of such traditions: adoptions or adaptations of pagan rituals, stories, persons, and names (Flint, 1992; Walter, 2006), and inventions of doctrines.

The religious services of primitive Christian societies can be reconstructed from the scanty information available on them (Coulange, 1927, pp. 9-41; McCabe, 1943, pp. 19-20). But one could not gather any inkling of their form from the Christian services that have been conducted for centuries. In primitive Christian societies people gathered for communal prayers, readings from whatever works the group regarded as inspired (the Bible itself was unavailable since it would not be constructed for centuries to come), and a meal. They probably also discussed the needs and problems of the congregation. Whatever leadership was present was vested in one or a few persons selected for their knowledge of the religion, their ability to lead, and their ability to serve as examples of probity and benevolence. Women may have played as prominent a role as men; certainly they were not excluded from all important tasks as they were after there was an official Church.

In primitive Christian societies there was no liturgy: no standard hymn of praise (Gloria), no recital of a creed, no standard acclamation (Sanctus), and no Eucharist (Communion). The liturgy evolved slowly once there was a Church to serve as the authority on the conduct of worship. The shared meal developed into the Eucharist, a ritual commemorating Jesus’ death that became the centerpiece of the present Roman mass. The Eucharist did not exist before the 3rd century (Coulange, 1927).

Many accretions to Christianity have no basis in the Bible. Some of these, such as a hierarchical priesthood and buildings dedicated to religious rites, probably were inevitable for any organization of the religious activities of numerous believers. For smaller scale additions to the primitive gathering, the general explanation is simple: they were adopted from pagan religions (McCabe, 1926b, pp. 39-52; McCabe, 1943, pp. 6-9, 20-25). As Joseph McCabe noted: “The Church did not so much suppress paganism as take its place” (McCabe, 1926b, p. 40). Altars, vestments, statues, consecrated purifying water, incense, the veneration of Jesus’ mother, and retired, ascetic, unisexual societies—”the primitive communities would have thought them an outrage to the memory of Jesus” (McCabe, 1926b, p. 41). Borrowing of pagan ideas and practices continued through the first millennium of the Common Era (Flint, 1992; McCabe, 1926a, pp. 44-54; Walter, 2006).

Traditions based upon wholly invented ideas include the entire body of doctrines regarding Mary, the mother of Jesus (McDonald, 2011, pp. 367-375), and many details of the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus (McDonald, 2011, pp. 375-382).

Whenever a novel ritual or doctrine took hold, after a while it was justified as a “tradition.” And the chain of a tradition was imagined to extend back through the clergy to the Apostles and thence to Jesus himself, although in the Bible Jesus had no intention of founding a church and was indifferent, if not opposed, to priesthood and rites (McCabe, 1943, pp. 18-19). Tradition is thus mostly an alleged justification for things for which no demonstrable Christly justification can be found.


“The waning of the influence of the Enlightenment”

McGrath seems to miss no opportunity to comment on “the waning of the Enlightenment” (p. 129), “the waning of the influence of the Enlightenment” (p. 69, 141), “the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism” (p. 257), “the general collapse of confidence in the Enlightenment world view” (p. 314), “growing disenchantment with the Enlightenment world view” (p. 325), and similar themes (pp. 70, 92, 145-46, 297, 299). He repeatedly attributes to the Enlightenment ideas and views that are now rejected or discredited at least by some (p. 74, 90, 92, 93, 111, 134, 146, 325, 335).

One wonders if McGrath is one of the many Christians who wish the Enlightenment had never happened. Christians have good reason to hate the Enlightenment. One of its major aspects was the displacement of Christianity as the principal intellectual concern of Western civilization. Instead of expounding, analyzing, speculating about, and quarreling over religious texts, and being obliged to relate in some way any matter whatsoever to religion, intelligent people now applied reason—used in the manner of Newton and other scientists—to all institutions and ways of thinking.

The Enlightenment destroyed most of the political power of the churches. It showed that public religion is not necessary for the security of a government and for public order; the allegation that it is had been used since the 4th century to justify an alliance of an intolerant Church with repressive governments. Christians could no longer impose upon an entire population the profession of belief in their religion (usually, in their particular sect). They were deprived, too, of most of their access to the public purse to fund religious projects. Christians also lost the ability to control intellectual activity and determine what people could say, write, or read, and could no longer make criticism of their religion a crime.

The Enlightenment gave rise to non-Christian theism in the West, ranging from some versions of deism to contemporary “spiritual but not religious” notions. This has weakened Christianity more than any heresy ever did (unless one is a Roman Catholic, in which case Protestantism was more damaging). Furthermore, nontheism, even professed disbelief in God, ceased to be a crime. And as the liberty and social justice arising from the Enlightenment have made people secure (most obviously in Western Europe), the personal and societal need for religion has decreased (Paul, 2009). (The greatly diminished role of Christianity is noted by McGrath [p. 72, 88, 110], but he offers no explanation of it beyond “secular assumptions”[8] and “secular ideologies” [p. 104].)

McGrath presents the Enlightenment as a religious phenomenon and ignores its other aspects.[9] It was not, however, merely a rational and unsuperstitious attitude toward religious beliefs. It was “a single highly integrated intellectual and cultural movement” (Israel, 2001, p. v), and though it began among intellectuals, its principle that a better society could be developed by using reason and abandoning old, irrational, and oppressive ideas spread through the upper and middle classes.

The author’s principal interest in the Enlightenment is that it questioned, challenged, and led to the modification of ideas that had prevailed in Christianity for some 1400 years (pp. 67-69, 75, 80, 84, 103, 110-111, 129, 134, 136-137, 141, 154, 164, 187, 203, 258-259, 267, 291, 295-301, 309-310, 313, 317-318, 321-322, 324, 329, 333-335, 342, 427-428, 451).[10] “The Enlightenment set the parameters for future Christian discussion, not just of the nature but also of the plausibility of its theological heritage” (p. 297; cf. pp. 111-112).

Since the Enlightenment there has been great activity in Christian theology, with much original thought, that probably exceeds the activity of any period since the creation of traditional Christian doctrine during the patristic era. This productivity is a result of how the Enlightenment “set the parameters,” first by its principle that it is essential to reason about any matter—including theology—and develop new ideas, and second because the Enlightenment loosening of control by repressive governments and churches enabled theologians to present their ideas without restraint.[11] McGrath does not acknowledge the debt that his subject, and theologians including himself, owe to the Enlightenment.

McGrath defines “rationalism” as a religious concept: “exclusive reliance upon human reason alone, and a refusal to allow any weight to be given to divine revelation” (p. 145; cf. p. 143). (At one point he also mentions as an element of rationalism the idea that “reason possessed an ability to judge the truth of religions” [145]). He locates the origin of this idea in deism: “Deism … laid the foundations for this form of rationalism in religion” (p. 143); “enlightenment rationalism … is often considered to be the final flowering of the bud of English Deism” (p. 144).[12] He depicts “rationalism,” so defined, as the theology of the Enlightenment (p. 67):

Enlightenment rationalism … upheld the sovereignty of unaided human reason, arguing that human reason was capable of establishing all that it was necessary to know about religion without recourse to the idea of “revelation.” (p. 145)

In the textbook, “rationalism” usually is preceded by “Enlightenment.” McGrath tends to equate the Enlightenment itself with this theological principle.

The skepticism about revelation expressed by David Hume and Voltaire (p. 69), however, was only one aspect of Enlightenment philosophy. That philosophy also included the strongly theistic ideas of Leibniz (p. 69), who wrote, “reason cannot teach us the details, reserved to Revelation, of the great future” (Leibniz, 1951, §16). It also incorporated the rational defense of Christianity by John Locke (p. 67, 144), who discussed revelation in book 4, chapter 18 of An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, and who, in The Reasonableness of Christianity, stated that revelation had been essential for knowledge of God (Locke, 1824). The principal philosopher of the Enlightenment was Spinoza (Israel, 2001), who believed in revelation (Spinoza, 1951, pp. 13-42).[13]

McGrath gives the impression that “Enlightenment rationalism” was a uniquely mischievous theological concept. It was, however, only an instance of the historical fact acknowledged by him (pp. 105, 107-8, 115-116, 314, 322, 327-328, 335, 337, 340 43, 351, 375, 377) and abundantly illustrated by his book that in the evolution of theology, each stage is directed by the intellectual and social environment of the time (and place) (p. 9, 16, 29, 68-70, 76, 78-80, 82-85, 116-118, 150-151, 162, 164, 172-179, 186-187, 205-209, 214, 219-220, 270, 273-274, 276, 278, 283, 285, 292, 302, 329-330, 372-374, 378-379, 388-390, 393, 418, 433-434, 437, 440-443, 451, 453-454). Christianity adopted ideas of the Enlightenment: divine “providence expressed itself as progress” and was exercised by “an orderly, natural-law God” (Turner, 1985, pp. 40-43).

Theology is a creature of history and theologians accommodate themselves to their eras. An obvious recent instance of this is that as Western culture has become less superstitious, theology has become less superstitious; for example, many Christians today would disagree with the idea that belief in witchcraft is essential to the religion (Calvin, 1583, p. 671; Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, pp. 1-11). (Hence the “ferocious lunacy” of “the witchcraft craze … could not survive in the cooler and more rational climate of the Enlightenment” [Armstrong, 1987, p. 116].)

McGrath provides another example: theologians, by eisegesis of the Bible, particularly of Genesis, pretend that it supports “fundamental ecological principles” (pp. 222-223). Now, Christian doctrine maintains that the universe was made for the benefit of humankind. God commanded humankind to “subdue” the earth and “have dominion over … every living thing” (Genesis 1:28), and “delivered into the hand” of humans “every moving thing that liveth,” so that “the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon” them (Genesis 9:2-3). It has been argued, quite reasonably, that this set of beliefs “[legitimates] a highly exploitative attitude.” McGrath, however, characterizes that argument as “seriously flawed.” Why? Because one can construe domination “in terms of ‘stewardship,’ no matter what kind of interpretation might be placed on the word in a secular context”! This assertion is followed by four biblical “ecological principles,” each of which imposes an ecological interpretation upon biblical notions that are innocent of such a viewpoint. McGrath notes that the Church “recognized” a putative ecological role of Christianity only in 1986. The entire discussion is an instance of the behavior described by Mark Twain: “The world has corrected the Bible. The Church never corrects it; and also never fails to drop in at the tail of the procession—and take the credit of the correction” (Twain, 2009, p. 149).[14]

With respect to McGrath’s allegation of “the waning of the influence of the Enlightenment,” it is of course true that many of the ideas of the 18th century have been superseded or abandoned. These include the belief that religion can be deduced by the use of reason (p. 67, 143, 267), which can be regarded as one component of the hope that people could discover “natural laws,” similar to those of science, that would enable humankind to understand social systems such as politics and economics. The idea that Western rationality is a universal human character also has been abandoned (p. 146, 299, 325).[15] It is not only these philosophical ideas about reason[16], but many scientific and social ideas of the 18th century as well, that are no longer regarded as correct. (It should be noted that these ideas have largely been abandoned because the Enlightenment principle of rational inquiry has been applied to them.)

The significance of an intellectual movement, however, is determined by which of its concepts persist, not which of them are eventually superseded or abandoned. McGrath’s textbook is replete with instances of theological concepts that no longer enjoy currency, but he does not proffer these as evidence that Christianity is waning. The fact is that the Enlightenment changed the thinking of the Western world—and thus the entire world—more than anything else since the end of antiquity:

The Enlightenment … not only attacked and severed the roots of traditional European culture in the sacred, magic, kingship, and hierarchy, secularizing all institutions and ideas, but (intellectually and to a degree in practice) effectively demolished all legitimation of monarchy, aristocracy, woman’s subordination to man, ecclesiastical authority, and slavery, replacing these with the principles of universality, equality, and democracy. This implies the Enlightenment was of a different order of importance for understanding the rise of the modern world than the Reformation and Renaissance. (Israel, 2001, pp. vi-vii)

Enlightenment ideals have grown stronger during the 19th and 20th centuries, spreading into parts of the world where political and religious despotism still reign. In particular, the principle that the claims of religion can be judged by reason, and the rejection of credulousness about alleged divine revelation as the basis for one’s world view, have not only persisted but become more prevalent now than during the Enlightenment. Such ideas have “waned” only in the sense that they no longer are fashionable in books addressing theology, as they were in the theological works of Edward Herbert and John Locke cited by McGrath (pp. 143-144).

Finally, one should note that it is to the political and ecclesiastical effects of the Enlightenment that McGrath owes his freedom to discuss in print, in a neutral manner, numerous conflicting ideas about Christianity without being censored, fined, imprisoned, mutilated, tortured, or executed.

Verifiability of Religious and Scientific Propositions

McGrath criticizes 20th-century empiricism’s denial of meaning to metaphysical and religious statements (pp. 177-178). He alleges that the principle that propositions have no cognitive content if they cannot be verified (or falsified) by anything in experience excludes scientific as well as metaphysical statements. With respect to falsification, he writes: “The demand for something which incontestably falsifies a theory (often stated in terms of a ‘crucial experiment’) is actually unrealistic in the natural sciences—a point famously demonstrated by the French philosopher and physicist Pierre Duhem.” This misrepresents Duhem and is misleading. McGrath presumably is referring to chapter 6, §3 of Duhem’s The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. The physicist’s point is this: “Experimental contradiction [of alternative hypotheses] does not have the power to transform a physical hypothesis into an indisputable truth; in order to confer this power on it, it would be necessary to enumerate completely the various hypotheses which may cover a determinate group of phenomena; but the physicist is never sure he has exhausted all the imaginable assumptions” (Duhem, 1981, p. 190).[17] Observations cannot require a person to devise only a single explanatory theory; this in no way negates the possibility of falsification of any theory.

The key words in McGrath’s and Duhem’s remarks, respectively, are “incontestably” and “indisputable.” These are part of the vocabulary of the theologian, not the scientist. Experiments do not create faith, but they have the power to provide such strong evidence that no scientist continues to uphold the theory that the experiment contradicts. An example in physics that took place during the early part of Duhem’s own career was the Michelson-Morley experiment, which “eliminated the concept of a motionless, measurable ether” (Encyclopedia Americana, International Ed., 1970, s.v. “Michelson, Albert Abraham”). This can reasonably be called a “crucial experiment.”

Moreover, Duhem’s comment is not about “natural science” in its entirety but only about physics. He states that in “sciences still close to their origins … where the experimenter reasons directly on the facts by a method which is only common sense brought to greater attentiveness but where mathematical theory has not yet introduced its symbolic representations,” “the comparison between the deductions of a theory and the facts of experiment is subject to very simple rules” (Duhem, 1981, p. 180). He gives as an example what could be described as a “crucial experiment” in physiology.

The discussion of positivism’s principles of verification bypasses the fact that the principles of science and of religion for attributing truth to propositions are incompatible. McGrath and Duhem (a devout Roman Catholic) are both adherents of an authoritarian system of thought in which “truth” is a matter of credulity, being attributed on the ground of concordance with some sectarian interpretation of a set of ancient books (and doctrines derived therefrom). Science attributes factuality on the basis of objective evidence. Neither theologians nor physicists have been able to adduce evidence supporting hypotheses of extramundane beings, hypotheses on which Christianity is based.

Irrationality and the Protorational

McGrath points out that the irrational element in human life contradicts the rational one that includes science (p. 261, 325). But it was science itself that recognized and described the roles of nonrational influences and irrational thought in daily life (p. 325). Theology did not acknowledge the irrational until science led the way. In fact, Christian theology has persistently claimed that its doctrines have been disclosed by an omniscient, rational deity, and that they accord with reason (p. 34, 38, 143). Often it has asserted that some doctrines (especially the existence of the Christian God) are deducible by reason alone (Catechism, 1995, §36-37).

If Christianity looked too closely at the irrational and protorational, it would confront the fact that its narratives and rituals are a Greco-Levantine expression of common mythic notions of humankind, which can be interpreted as residues of children’s explanations of the world. These shared ideas include a creating deity, a provident deity, an ancestral couple, a great deluge, mutilation of the genitalia, the sacrifice of a divine person for the good of the community, ritually eating the body and drinking the blood of the human sacrifice, a dying and reviving god, the immortal god-man as messiah, the magical identity of a name (such as logos) with the thing named (consider Acts 4:12; 1 Corinthians 1:2), and the magical power of the name of a divinity (Campbell, 1970, pp. 78-118; Frazer, 1961, pp. 111-112, 163-201, 181-82, 259-65; La Barre, 1970, pp. 222-223, 254, 268-273, 561, 564-567; McCabe, 1993).[18]

With respect to the last two, early Christians were given to using Jesus’ name as an incantation (Celsus, 1987, p. 53, 118; Wheless, 1930, p. 153). Clerical witch hunters assured people that “sacred words help not only to protect, but also to cure those who are bewitched…. The surest protection for places, men, or animals are the words of the triumphal title of our Saviour, if they be written in four places in the form of a cross” (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, p. 92). McGrath’s book gives no hint of such Christian superstition.

In a chapter on the relationship of Christianity to other religions, McGrath devotes three-quarters of a page to the subject of “religion and myth” (p. 432; cf. pp. 310-311). He writes only about Mircea Eliade’s concepts of the sacred and of myths. Nowhere does he mention the relation between Christianity and primitive religion.[19] Nor does he acknowledge the connections between Christian ideas and those of other religions from antiquity. Like other Christians, he maintains the illusion that Christian concepts are original, even unique, when in fact they are neither (Carpenter, 1920, chapter 13; Celsus, 1987, pp. 55-60, 91-101; Greenberg, 2000; Lea, 1932, pp. 13-31; McCabe, 1914; McCabe, 1943; McCabe, 1993; McDonald, 2011, pp. 136-138, 147, 150-177; Paine, 1882, pp. 8-11; Thayer, 1881, pp. 74-117; Wheless, 1930, pp. 140-142, 149-157, 162-171).

History of Christianity

Christianity is an historical religion and must be judged historically.

      —G. W. Foote and J. M. Wheeler, Crimes of Christianity

The Quarrelsomeness of Christianity

The Christian religion … from its foundation has been incessantly agitated by quarrels, divisions, animosities, troubles, and paroxysms of fury.

      —Paul H. Thiry, Critical Examination of the Life of St. Paul

I have often wondered, that persons who make a boast of professing the Christian religion, namely, love, joy, peace, temperance, and charity to all men, should quarrel with such rancorous animosity, and display daily towards one another such bitter hatred, that this, rather than the virtues they claim, is the readiest criterion of their faith.

      —Benedict de Spinoza, A Theologico-Political Treatise

Intellectual honesty seems to demand that a textbook on the history of Christianity acknowledge the prominence of the extreme contentiousness of Christianity since its beginning. McGrath grants that “it seems to be a general rule of the development of Christian doctrine that development is occasioned by controversy” (p. 378), but he does not elaborate.

The New Testament demonstrates the disharmony between Jesus’ followers at the earliest time for which we have records (Acts 15:36-40; Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 5:11; 2 Corinthians 11:4-6; Galatians 1:6-9, 2:4; 2 Peter 2:1-2, 20, 3:16; 1 John 2:18-19; 2 John 7, 10-11; 3 John 9-10; Jude). The Acts of the Apostles papers over (Cassels, 1879, vol. 3, pp. 53-54, 64, 70-91, 111-112) the intense disagreements between Jesus’ disciples in Jerusalem and the intruder and innovator Paul (1 Corinthians 1:11-12; Galatians 2:11-21; Cassels, 1879, vol. 2, pp. 34-37; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 182-185; Maccoby, 1986, pp. 129-133, 139-171; MacDonald, 2011, pp. 122-123, 128-29). From the earliest stages of Christianity one finds disputing sects (Cassels, 1879, vol. 2, pp. 41-159; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 91-202; Ehrman, 2011, pp. 17-19; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 3-4; Harnack, 1893, pp. 166-192, 332-334, 363-376; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 42-57, 69-73; Lea, 1932, pp. 13-31, 47-52; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 78-112). In many cases the sectarians do not merely disagree with all the other sects, but express their disagreement in bitter, insulting, and hate-filled language, with calls for killing those who oppose them.

It has been the practice of all Christian commentators on the Bible, and of all Christian priests and preachers, to impose the Bible on the world as a mass of truth, and as the word of God; they have disputed and wrangled and anathematized each other about the supposable meaning of particular parts and passages therein; one has said and insisted that such a passage meant such a thing; another that it meant directly the contrary; and a third, that it means neither one nor the other, but something different from both; and this they call understanding the Bible. (Paine, 1882, p. 61)

This contentiousness was acknowledged (and deplored) by early Christians (Eusebius, 1890, 8:1; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 24-28) and noted by pagan observers of the new religion (Celsus, 1987, pp. 7, 90-91; Julian, 1809, p. 62; Ammianus Marcellinus, book 22, chapter 5; book 27, chapter 3).

Among other things, one of the most persistent aspects of Christianity’s quarrelsomeness (Gaddis, 2005, p. 37) was the rivalry for the bishopric (i.e., office of the bishop) of Rome. It became manifest early in the 3rd century (McCabe, 1916, pp. 1-18). It accompanied the Roman See’s increasing claim of primacy over other bishoprics and thus the entire Church (McCabe, 1916, pp. 19-37). Ecclesiastical pretension culminated in “increasing identification of the person and possessions of the pope with those of Christ” (Housley, 1999, p. 47). The Roman bishops came to demand not just religious but also absolute—dictatorial—temporal authority (Housley, 1999, p. 49; McDonald, 2011, pp. 207-218). Until the modern era, a vacancy in this office often called forth quarrels, accusations, bitterness, bribery, violence, and schism. The zeal for acquisition of the papacy often was not pious, but financially motivated. For long intervals the throne was occupied by men worthy of the gallows rather than the tiara (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 122-139; McCabe, 1946, pp. 17-20, 71-77, 103-109, 145-149, 178-185, 200-219; McCabe, 1983, pp. 145-151; McDonald, 2011, pp. 219-233). Some of them are still revered today by members of the most numerous sect of Christians (i.e., Roman Catholics).

Whenever McGrath mentions past and present quarrels (or debates or disagreements) about theology (pp. 31-32, 43, 48, 51-53, 64, 79, 90-91, 109-111, 131, 134-142, 163-170, 188-190, 211-212, 214-215, 219-220, 226, 228-229, 231, 240, 244-246, 262, 264, 269, 270, 274-277 284-286, 289-291, 302-313, 317-318, 324-325, 329-331, 333-335, 337, 339, 342-346, 358-370, 374, 386, 397, 407-408, 415-420, 423, 436, 439-442, 453, 458-463), he gives no more than hints (pp. 60, 167, 277, 280, 317, 335, 363, 399, 418, 439-440) of how often they are intense, rancorous, and divisive (MacDonald, 2011, pp. 124-127, 177-197). McGrath also never discloses the opposition—sometimes angry—with which many theologians and clerics responded to the works of authors whom he discusses, including Hobbes (p. 144), Descartes (p. 418), Locke (p. 144, 321), Spinoza (p. 201), Newton (p. 212), Reimarus (pp. 300-301), Hume (p. 69, 177, 187), Thiry (d’Holbach) (p. 428), Feuerbach (p. 150-151), and David Strauss (p. 310). (Many instances of such responses are reported in Jonathan Israel’s book).

Sectarian hatred continues today with undiminished intensity. The secular state, however, generally prevents the violent expressions of religious hatred that were common in the past.

Establishment of Doctrines

Jesus gave the world no new religion. His simple creed was at the time common in Judaism as well as all over the Greco-Roman world. A new religion began when Paul fitted the death of Jesus into the Messianic frame of later Judaism and connected it with the penalty of original sin. It was still a comparatively simple religion.

      —Joseph McCabe, The Evolution of Christian Doctrine

Fourth-century church history appears to the modern student as a tangled mess of doctrinal controversies, schisms, councils, disputed episcopal elections, and riots.

      —Michael Gaddis, There is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ

The essential specific doctrines of Christianity—the divinity of Jesus, the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Eucharist, the sacrificial and redemptive character of Jesus’ death, and the Resurrection—were all invented after Jesus’ life, and were all disputed during the early decades, even centuries, of the new religion (Ehrman, 2011, pp. 3-16; McCabe, 1926b; McDonald, 2011, pp. 95-189; Priestley, 1871).

McGrath states that “theological development of the early church was generally a response to public debates” (p. 228). (Compare that to Wheless, 1930, p. 190). He summarizes the later Patristic period thus:

Theologians … were able to address a series of issues of major importance to the consolidation of the emerging theological consensus within the churches. Establishing that consensus involved extensive debate and a painful learning process, in which the church discovered that it had to come to terms with disagreements and continuing tensions. (p. 9)

McGrath thus acknowledges the existence of dissent during the formative period of Christianity, and also—indirectly—that the eventual orthodox doctrines of the religion were not present from the outset but were developed over time. But he never gives a unified presentation of the evolutionary history of doctrine during the early centuries of Christianity. He discloses that “landmarks and standards” “emerged gradually” during the Patristic period (pp. 9-10), and that the hypotheses of Jesus’ divinity, the Trinity, and original sin were initially not consentaneous doctrines (pp. 16-19). He devotes eight pages to “areas of theology [that] were explored with particular vigor” in the time of the fathers (pp. 12-20), expanding on these issues later in the book. At times he notes the fact (or some details) of historical development of important doctrines (pp. 224, 228-230, 236, 239-244, 265-266, 273-282, 320-326, 355-358, 401-405, 407, 420-421, 459).

Which opinions about doctrines became orthodox (official) was determined largely by a few ecumenical councils (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 323-324; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 35-37; MacMullen, 2006, p. 2)[20], but McGrath devotes only two paragraphs to these councils (on the Council of Nicea) (p. 17) plus a few additional sentences (p. 217, 266, 284). Michael Gaddis characterizes the councils from the time of the First Council of Ephesus in 431 thus: “The Christian church … headed into a long period of schism and division, an ecclesiastical ‘civil war’ waged through successive ecumenical councils” (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 283). The decisions of the councils were influenced, if not determined, by nonspiritual circumstances such as divisions of language, imperial favor or disfavor, regional rivalries involving patriarchates and sees, personal rivalries and animosities between bishops (p. 377; Gaddis, 2005, pp. 74-75, 283-322; Harnack, 1893, pp. 280-304; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 22-25, 57-62, 75-101; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 70-73, 82-84, 115), and the limited comprehension on the part of many of the participants of the abstruse theological details being debated (Gaddis, 2005, p. 292; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 62-66; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 10-11, 24-40, 114). Philip Jenkins concludes: “In the controversies of the fifth and sixth centuries, the outcome was shaped not by obviously religious dimensions but by factors that seem quite extraneous…. What mattered were the interests and obsessions of rival emperors and queens, the role of competing ecclesiastical princes and their churches, and the empire’s military successes or failures against particular barbarian nations” (Jenkins, 2010, p. xiv).

Disorder, bribery, forgery, rancor, intimidation, and violence were common features of the councils (Harnack, 1893, pp. 253-266; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 27-29, 131-226; McCabe, 1946, pp. 32-36; McDonald, 2011, pp. 78-80, 183-189; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 56-66, 78-112, 116-17; Wheless, 1930, p. 345). McDonald notes that “what is now generally called orthodoxy is really whichever line historically came out on top, often by politicking, threats, deception, brute force, or the whim of an emperor” (McDonald, 2011, p. 194).

McGrath remarks that the Council of “Chalcedon’s decision to insist upon the two natures of Christ, while accepting a plurality of interpretations regarding their relation, reflects the political situation of the period” (p. 284; cf. Gaddis, 2005, pp. 309-322; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 199-203; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 83-104). Otherwise, none of these worldly, unspiritual aspects of the councils are imparted to his readers.

Christian Doctrines

Irreconcilability of Doctrines

Since the inception of Christianity there has been internal disagreement about its elements, even the fundamental ones. This was unavoidable because its doctrines are based upon interpretations of texts whose meaning at times is imprecise or unclear (as McGrath acknowledges, albeit rarely [p. 132]). McGrath notes the formal existence in the Middle Age of four different styles of biblical interpretation (p. 132) (which ensured that the cleric or theologian could extract from the text whatever supposable meaning was needed for the situation at hand).[21] Another basis of theology for many Christians is unwritten traditions that have been subject to the vagaries of oral transmission (pp. 137-141). Beginning with the hypothesis of an incorporeal, extramundane being that can be neither imagined, nor described—except perhaps in a very imperfect way (pp. 153-155, 167-168, 188-189, 234-235, 246)—the religion has generated a number of doctrines that, it is acknowledged (pp. 153, 188, 234-235, 266, 277), cannot be fully understood and are “mysteries.” Like the texts, the doctrines themselves are subject to manifold interpretations. Lack of agreement about the ideas of Christianity is ensured by these characters.

With respect to only a few topics of current controversy in Christianity, however, does McGrath not foresee an end to disagreements (p. 249, 294, 417, 443, 459). For the most part he does not acknowledge that the doctrinal conflicts that he describes are irreconcilable disputes. He tries to offset this fact by stating that “perhaps the greatest weakness within Christian theology is its reluctance to recognize that models are complementary, rather than mutually exclusive” (p. 155; cf. p. 212). He writes about differing “approaches” (p. 89, 118, 127, 188, 243, 247, 249, 285, 325, 349, 385, 392, 407, 421, 432, 435), “models” (pp. 118-119, 128, 142, 153, 154, 168, 212, 221, 227, 284, 337, 342), “positions” (p. 118, 358, 421, 452), “aspects or dimensions” (p. 154), “views” (p. 118), “images” (p. 325), “categories of response” (p. 372), “variety of intellectual approaches” (p. 314), and “the richness and the variety of Christian thinking” (p. 346; cf. p. 212).

But irreconcilable disagreement exists within Christianity over the basis of the authority of the Bible (pp. 123, 127-128), the principles for interpreting the Bible (pp. 130-135, 372-374), the role of tradition in determining doctrine (pp. 137-142), the nature of revelation (pp. 153-158, 286-287), the nature of faith (p. 360, 364), the ability to conceive of God (pp. 164, 188-189), the nature of the Trinity (pp. 234-238, 247-261), the nature of Jesus (pp. 273-285, 289, 299-308), the nature of salvation (pp. 317-318, 322-331, 339-340, 358-365), the scope of salvation (pp. 20, 344-346, 365-371, 435-443), the nature and sequence of events at the end of the world (pp. 455-456, 460-461), the condition of resurrected persons (pp. 461-463), the nature and number of rituals deemed sacraments (pp. 39, 404-405, 407-408), the validity of baptizing infants (pp. 420-423), the nature of the Eucharist (pp. 414-420), the nature of the Church (pp. 381-390, 399), the role of the bishop of Rome (pp. 377-378), and the theological character of Mary the mother of Jesus (pp. 39-40).

The diverse opinions about these topics are not “models” that can be reconciled, harmonized, or treated by agreement to disagree. Christianity always has been (and probably always will be) a divisive institution not only with respect to non-Christians, but among Christians. Proponents of the conflicting views often assert that their opponents have “an inadequate or inauthentic form of Christian faith,” which is the definition of heresy proposed by McGrath (p. 114).


It is power or weakness which makes orthodoxians or heretics: the last are always those who have not power to make their opinions current.

      —Paul H. Thiry, Critical Examination of the Life of St. Paul

Heresy is a theological concept that has played a major role in Christianity, so one would expect that it would receive appropriate attention in a book about Christian theology. As McGrath states, “The notion of ‘heresy’ is and remains of genuine theological importance” (p. 113). He notes that he has written a book on the subject (p. 115) and that “some of the false teachings which arose in the early period of the church’s history are in circulation once more” (p. 121). (It might be more accurate to say that many unorthodox ideas have always been present, but until modern times could not be expressed publicly because of religious oppression.) In this last context McGrath does not, however, disclose the horror, opprobrium, and disdain with which conservative theologians view large areas of contemporary Christianity (MacArthur, 2010; Van Til, 1967).

Despite the importance of heresy, McGrath devotes only two pages (pp. 113-115) to “Orthodoxy and Heresy.” Elsewhere he mentions the concept of heresy only rarely (p. 56, 206, 273, 396, 406) and sometimes only in the form of titles of documents (p. 10, 64, 365). The term does not occur in his discussion of the “controversies” over the ideas of Apollinarius (p. 17, 278), Donatus (pp. 18, 378-381, 405-407), Pelagius (pp. 18-20, 351-355), Marcion (pp. 124-125), and Nestorius (pp. 279-280)—whose ideas were conceived by antagonistic contemporaries as heresies. He states that to Arius “the notion of a changeable God seemed heretical” (p. 275), but does not disclose that Arius was labeled a heretic (pp. 16-17, 274-277).[22] He notes that the Council of Nicea engaged in a “polemic against the Arians” (p. 15), but never reveals that it and other councils dealt not just with defining or clarifying doctrines, but were much concerned with denouncing and accursing as heretics—item by item—those who adhered to views that the council rejected (Gaddis, 2005, p. 299; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 131-226; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 78-112). The only indication that McGrath gives of this is mention of the “condemnation” by some of the Church councils of various ideas (pp. 16, 20, 363-364, 405, 408).[23]

Evolution of Orthodoxy and Heresy

McGrath seems to adhere to

the “classical” view of orthodoxy and heresy…. For this view, “orthodoxy” … represents the teachings advocated by Jesus and his apostles, spread throughout the world by Christians of the first generation, and attested by the vast majority of believers in all periods. Those who claim to be Christians but who deny any point of this teaching, or who modify it in any way, represent “heresy” … because they have willfully chosen to misrepresent or deny the truth. (Ehrman, 2011, p. 6)

This is the version of history that the Church itself has asserted since the time of the Apostle Paul (pp. 13, 52, 137-138). It may still be regnant in the seminaries to which McGrath’s book is directed. But, as McDonald states, “the idea that there is a single straight trunk to the great tree of Christianity [392] is untenable” (McDonald, 2011, p. 196; cf. McDonald, 2011, pp. 177-197).

McGrath’s discussion of the historical aspects of heresy is limited to a half-page exposition of the ideas of historian Walter Bauer. He writes: “Bauer’s hostility to the idea of doctrinal norms reflects his conviction that these were a late development in Christianity” (p. 113). He concludes that “Bauer’s account has been subjected to devastating criticism in recent years, and it is uncertain whether it has a viable future” (p. 113).

By contrast, Michael Gaddis writes that on the subject of orthodoxy and heresy, “Bauer … is fundamental” (Gaddis, 2005, p. 71n9). Bart Ehrman regards Bauer’s book as “possibly the most significant book on early Christianity written in modern times” (Ehrman, 2011, p. 7; Ehrman, 2003, p. 173). He states that the common opinion among scholars is “that despite the clear shortcomings of his study, Bauer’s intuitions were right…. What later came to be known as orthodoxy was simply one among a number of competing interpretations of Christianity in the early period. It was neither a self-evident interpretation nor an original apostolic view” (Ehrman, 2011, p. 9; Ehrman, 2003, p. 176; cf. Thiry, 1823, p. 4).[24] And, as Henry Lea remarks, “Those who held commanding positions in the Church and could enforce their opinions were necessarily orthodox; those who were weaker became heterodox” (Lea, 1922, p. 211).

McGrath’s section on “historical aspects” of heresy begins with the statement: “The ideas of ‘orthodoxy’ and ‘heresy’ are especially associated with the early church.” But this is a falsehood. The importance attached to activity against heresy by the medieval Church is shown in numerous ecclesiastical declarations and documents dealing with this subject (Lea, 1993, pp. 1-13). Beginning in the 12th century, the identification and elimination of suspected heretics became, stepwise, the principal activity of the Western Christian Church. This assessment is based on the following facts.

First, the Church committed enormous resources to combating perceived heresy. An extensive organization for the purpose of finding and eradicating heretics, the Inquisition, was developed by the Papacy during the 12th and 13th centuries (Lea, 1922; Lea, 1993; McCabe, 1946, pp. 165-166; Pinker, 2011, pp. 129-132, 141-143; Rowe, 1970). Pope Gregory IX appointed monks to prosecute heresy in parts of Italy, and in 1231 issued a decree specifying the punishments for heresy and requiring everyone who knew of heresy to report it (Lea, 1993, pp. 21-24). In 1252 Innocent IV addressed to the governments in Italy a bull to “establish machinery for systematic persecution [of heretics] as an integral part of the social edifice in every city and every state” (Lea, 1993, p. 33).[25] The papal command supplanted all local laws. Similar machinery was created throughout Europe by other means (Lea, 1993, pp. 36-38). In 1265 Urban IV “rendered the Inquisition virtually supreme in all lands” by abrogating all laws “which impeded the freest exercise of the powers of the Inquisition” (Lea, 1993, pp. 47, 79-80). By acts of Gregory X in 1273 the Inquisition “was considered a permanent part of the machinery of the Church” (Lea, 1993, p. 31). It continued to exercise power and claim victims until well into the 19th century.

Many clerics—monks of the Dominican and Franciscan orders—were diverted from their previous missions to serve this new organization. Large numbers of laypersons also were permanently employed by the Inquisition (Lea, 1993, p. 33, 61, 65, 74, 77).

Second, a new legal system with new principles was devised for the prosecution of alleged heretics. The Church had earlier adopted the Roman judicial principle of a proceeding in which evidence for and against the accusation was weighed (Lea, 1993, pp. 5-6, 95, 126-127, 139). The Inquisition replaced this with a secret inquest (Lea, 1993, p. 102). In this tribunal the accuser had no need to demonstrate the truth of his accusation (Lea, 1993, p. 103). Judicial torture had been forbidden by canon law, but in 1252 the Inquisition was authorized to use it (Lea, 1993, pp. 34, 117-18). Moreover, mere suspicion of heresy was made a crime (Lea, 1993, pp. 129-130).

By contrast, the inquisitors “were practically relieved from all supervision and responsibility” (Lea, 1993, pp. 39-45, 136). The ordinary jurisdiction of the officials of monastic orders over members of the order was weakened or abolished for inquisitor monks (Lea, 1993, pp. 40-43). Inquisitors could disregard the advice of legal and ecclesiastical experts (Lea, 1993, pp. 86-87). After 1256, they could absolve one another and their employees for crimes that they committed (Lea, 1993, p. 39, 77, 118, 177).

Third, substantial amounts of public and private secular resources were requisitioned to support the Inquisition. The entire population was required to be committed to its service (Lea, 1993, p. 21, 36, 45). The particular services of individuals (such as lawyers and notaries) could be requisitioned at any time, regardless of their existing duties and obligations (Lea, 1993, pp. 38, 74, 84-86), and failure to serve was a crime. Secular governments at all levels were required to participate in the persecution of alleged heretics, under compulsion if necessary (Lea, 1993, pp. 16-20, 33-38, 69, 81-82).

Fourth, the Church made the pursuit and punishment of heretics a uniquely intrusive activity. Private confession to inquisitive priests of acts and thoughts displeasing to the clergy intruded the Church into the most personal and private aspects of every individual’s life. But ordinary priests were forbidden to absolve their penitents of heresy (Lea, 1993, p. 158), and the supposed secrecy of the confessional was violated for the purpose of subjecting heretics to the Inquisition (Lea, 1993, p. 133). For the first time in history, having disapproved thoughts was made a crime (Lea, 1993, pp. 92-93, 95-97). The bonds of love and trust were violated, and people were forced to denounce their parents, children, siblings, and spouses, as well as their friends and neighbors (Lea, 1993, pp. 69, 105, 127-128). Entire populations were required to appear before and answer the questions of inquisitors (Lea, 1993, p. 87, 95). Persons thought to be concealing information could be tortured to make them reveal it (Lea, 1993, pp. 121-122, 132-133). Everyone’s home was subject to search (Lea, 1993, p. 12, 83). The entire population was required to attend public events in which the accused confessed and were sentenced (Lea, 1993, pp. 88-89).

One reason for this enormous effort was that the Inquisition became a means of meeting certain important needs of the Church. Maintaining its huge income was one of its principal concerns, and the search for and prosecution of heretics was a substantial source of revenue (Lea, 1993, pp. 167-177; McCabe, 1946, pp. 166-167). The Church was in constant need of resources to conduct crusades against the Turks in Palestine. The Inquisition provided soldiers by compelling, as a penance, a “pilgrimage” with a crusading army (Lea, 1993, pp. 162-163).

The Church’s overriding goal was to acquire control over both society and individuals so that every resource would be available to serve its own purposes, and so that there would be no opposition to it of any kind. And within the Church, the Papacy sought total control over local churches (Lea, 1993, p. 15, 44, 47). The Inquisition was the main agency for pursuit of these goals. Accusation of heresy or of abetting heresy was the major means of suppressing or destroying all theological, political, and intellectual activity and ideas perceived as opposed to the Church. Such accusations (and threats of accusation) were used to oppress individuals, organizations, rulers, and governments. With respect to society and culture, the Inquisition is arguably the most important institution created by Christianity during its 2000-year history.

Someone who acquired his knowledge of Christian theology from McGrath’s textbook and then studied its history in more detail would be astounded to discover how the concept of heresy dominated Christianity from its beginning until the modern era. McGrath ends his section on the history of heresy thus:

Historically, it is clear that early Christian communities were engaged in a quest for authenticity, which involved exploring various ways of conceptualizing and expressing the core themes of faith. It is beyond doubt that some early attempts to do this were rejected by later generations. This, however, seems to have little to do with power or authority, and more to do with the need to find the best way of expressing the core themes of faith. (p. 113)

By limiting his purview to the early stage of Christianity, McGrath evades having to confront the religion’s increasingly horrendous record of dealing with heretics in later times. But even with respect to the early period, the paragraph just quoted is misleadingly incomplete and untrue.

In the “quest for authenticity,” disputation and intolerance began with the New Testament (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 Timothy 1:3-7, 4:1-3; Titus 1:10-16, 3:9; Jude 4-16; Revelation 2:6, 14-16, 20-23). By the second century CE, “conceptualizing the core themes of faith” had as a result that “men believed with the most fervid conviction that their adversaries were not Christians because they differed on some unimportant fragment of ritual or discipline” (Lea, 1922, p. 210). When one looks at lists of the books by early Christians, it is remarkable how many of them are titled Against … (the name of an individual). The reader is never told how “exploring various ways of conceptualizing and expressing the core themes of faith” was contentious, divisive, often violent, internecine, marked by personal animosity, and influenced by political meddling and intimidation. Moreover, McGrath’s book gives no clue of how the “quest for authenticity” was conducted by the oppression and murder of innumerable persons whose Christianity was deemed “inauthentic” by those who had power (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 25-31; Lea, 1922, pp. 209-242; Wheless, 1930, pp. 307-317).

“Rejected by later generations”? The fight against heresy was directed against contemporaries (Ehrman, 2003, pp. 91-157, 181-227; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 20-23; Lea, 1922, pp. 210-233; Lea, 1932, pp. 313-327; Wheless, 1930, pp. 307-317). In the early centuries of the Church, specific current conflicts about the natures of God and Jesus were supposed to be resolved by many of the synods. But “in fact councils were as likely to exacerbate conflict as they were to resolve it” (Gaddis, 2005, p. 74), and the strife lasted for generations (Jenkins, 2010).

“Little to do with power or authority”? The contrary is abundantly documented. As Ehrman writes, “Looked at in sociohistorical terms, orthodoxy and heresy are concerned as much with struggles over power as with debates over ideas” (Ehrman, 2011, p. 14). Lea remarks that “wealth and power have charms even for bishop and priest” (Lea, 1922, p. 211), and Adolf Harnack states that “personal differences arose at a time when the ambition and power of the ecclesiastics could finally reckon upon the highest gratification” (Harnack, 1893, p. 254). “The religious conflicts of the fourth century,” Gaddis writes, “were driven partly by theological controversy, partly by personal ambition” (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 73-74; cf. Gaddis, 2005, p. 160). Jenkins shows how “throughout the fifth century, the outcome of church debates depended absolutely on gaining the favor of the imperial family” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 101). The sanguinary conflicts between adherents of different sects, and diverse violent feuds among bishops (Eusebius, 1890, 8:1; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 25-34; Gaddis, 2005, pp. 268-282; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 75-101; MacMullen, 2006, pp. 56-66; Ammianus Marcellinus, book 27, chapter 3), were efforts to acquire power—imperial power, regional power, or local power—the power to impose one’s beliefs upon others. The fact that “issues of power were disguised in theological terms” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 79) does not alter their character.

Finally, it is inhumane, degrading, and revolting to suggest that the many thousands of persons accused of heresy and deprived of goods or freedom, tortured, and/or killed (often with diabolical cruelty) were the victims of “finding the best way of expressing the core themes of faith”!

The Theological Concept of Heresy

McGrath’s discussion of the theological concept of heresy (based on the theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher) (pp. 113-115) restricts it to “an inadequate grasp of the doctrine of redemption.” This does not, however, indicate the “the richness and the variety of Christian thinking” (p. 346) about the matter.

McGrath names five 2nd- and 3rd-century theologians who “deserve to be singled out for special mention” (pp. 10-11).[26] He states that Justin was “concerned to defend Christianity”; that Irenaeus “is noted especially for his vigorous defense of Christian orthodoxy” and that “his most significant work” is Against Heresies; and that Tertullian “defended the unity of the Old and New Testaments.” He does not acknowledge that most of the individuals named were heresiologists who “devote[d] prodigious amount of energy to refuting individuals and groups that propound[ed] unpalatable ideas” (Ehrman, 2011, p. 10). Similarly, he reports Origen’s beliefs in “the lesser divinity of the Son” and that “every creature—including both humanity and Satan—will be saved,” but he does not reveal that all of these men held doctrines that eventually were rejected as heretical (McDonald, 2011, pp. 74-76). Tertullian left the orthodox Church to embrace the heretical sect of Montanism.[27] The long-dead Origen was condemned (with other deceased theologians) by the Second Council of Constantinople in 553 CE (McDonald, 2011, p. 76; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 37, 250-251). (Harnack concluded that being branding as a heretic was the usual outcome for early theologians when the much-altered doctrines of later times were imposed on their ideas [Harnack, 1893, p. 6, 202; cf. Ehrman, 2003, pp. 154-156, 253-254; Gaddis, 2005, p. 280].)

McGrath’s discussion also ignores the self-righteousness, indignation, anger, and intolerance that characterize statements about heresy and heretics during most of the history of Christianity (an early example is Acts 5:18-23). As Ehrman notes:

The surviving sources are permeated with … a kind of spirited intolerance of contrary views, matched only by that shown to nonbelieving Jews and pagans…. As far back in fact as our earliest sources go, we find Christians castigating others who similarly claim the name but differently interpret their religion. Furthermore, all of the intolerant parties appear certain of their own interpretations, which means among other things that every group understood itself to be orthodox … and every other group to be heretical. (Ehrman, 2011, p. 13)

Lea adds that “accusations … are customarily disseminated when it becomes necessary to invest schismatics with odium” (Lea, 1932, p. 41).

Only once does McGrath’s book reveal a tiny bit of the actual feelings of many Christians about those with whom they disagreed, quoting the 16th-century Anabaptist theologian Sebastian Franck’s characterization of some Church fathers as “foolish” and “apostles of Antichrist” (p. 141).

In fact, McGrath’s citations of the Anabaptists’ references to opponents being apostles of the Antichrist (p. 141, 384) are the only places where McGrath reveals the exceedingly common theological tactic of attributing ideas with which one disagrees to the influence of Satan. As described by Elaine Pagels (Pagels, 1995), in Jesus’ time some Jewish sects had modified, if not replaced, monotheism with a dualism in which a powerful evil spirit opposed the deity—a notion those sects had acquired from the Babylonians and Persians (but which has never been a part of mainstream Judaism). Paul and the writers of the Gospels adopted this dualism as a weapon with which to impugn those with whom they disagreed, crediting the concept of the Devil to Jesus (Matthew 13:38-9; Mark 4:15; Luke 8:12; 2 Corinthians 11:14). Christians thus developed the combative tactic of demonizing one’s opponents and have used it ever since (see, for example, Calvin 1892, col. 677; Housley, 2002, pp. 131-159). Disagreement is regarded not as a difference of opinion, but as a manifestation of ultimate evil. This in turn was used to justify merciless violence against persons perceived to be adversaries (see the heading “Persecution” in the following section).

“Application to Life” of Christianity

Violence in Christianity

If the Christian believe in a cruel religion, believe in it with all his heart, it will make him cruel.

      —Thomas Thayer, The Origin and History of the Doctrine of Endless Punishment (1855)

What are we to make of the fact we strive to conceal our cruelty and savagery under the name of religion and commit the crime of ungodliness under the name of godliness?

      —Anonymous, On Bad Teachers (5th century CE) (Cited in Gaddis, 2005, p. 282.)

McGrath devotes a page (pp. 335-336) to René Girard’s theory that in primitive communities rivalry (resulting from what in ordinary language would be called envy) can lead to violence, and that this violence is controlled by a communal ritual of sacrifice. McGrath twists this idea into the construct that the violence that “characterizes” the “human situation” is ended by Jesus’ death: “An act of violence leads to a community which is characterized by its emphasis on reconciliation and peace … a nonviolent community—the church” (p. 336).

This characterization of the Christian Church is simply false. Since its beginning, Christianity has been intrinsically violent. Jesus is said to have advocated and practiced violence (Matthew 21:18-19; Mark 11:13-16; Luke 14:23, 19:45). From its earliest days Christians perceived and described their religion and its adherents as causes of dissension and disorder (Acts 7:57-8, 13:50, 14:4-5, 19, 16:19-23, 17:5-8, 13, 18:12-13, 28-40, 21:27-36, 23:7-10), and of injury and death (Acts 5:1-10, 12:19, 23, 13:9-11, 18:17, 19:13-16). Its doctrines were created by a process characterized by verbal and physical violence (see History of Christianity above). Once Christianity was established as a state religion, it spread itself by oppression, persecution, and warfare. It maintained itself for a millennium and a half by the same means (see Persecution below). From the time that the religion became legal, violence has been an institutional, formal, and continual activity of Christianity (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 88-116; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 1-47, 140-215; Gaddis, 2005; Housley, 1999; 2002; Lea, 1922; McDonald, 2011, pp. 459-460; Pinker, 2011, pp. 139-144; Thayer, 1881, pp. 207-225; Wheless, 1930, pp. 307-320).

Christian violence was not the aberrant behavior of individuals acting against the principles of the diverse Churches (although the history of Christianity is replete with individual brutality [Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 122-139; McCabe, 1946]). Violence was intrinsic to the Churches as institutions, and it was urged, justified, and defended by their theologians.[28] This institutional savagery was stopped only after some 1500 years by the Churches’ loss of political power due to the Enlightenment, which allowed humanitarian ideas to be disseminated (Pinker, 2011, pp. 168-188). Statements by McGrath and others that the Churches were not violent reflect a tactic wherein the Churches “have sought to obliterate the evidence of their behaviour, substituting sympathetic histories with their members as heroes” (McDonald, 2011, p. 460). History, however, justifies McCabe’s remark that “The principles on which the Inquisition was founded are still part of the Church’s teaching; and if it were possible to conceive a return of the ecclesiastical supremacy of former days, there is little doubt that the same policy would be urged” (McCabe, 1942, p. 246; cf. McDonald, 2011, pp. 460-461).


Christianity’s new access to political and economic power meant that disputes within the Christian community could lead to as much bloodshed as had any previous conflict with pagans, with the added complication that those who carried out violent persecution might now call themselves Christians.

      —Michael Gaddis, There Is No Crime for Those Who Have Christ

Almost the only persecution that McGrath mentions is that inflicted on Christians by the Roman state (p. 8, 11, 18, 116, 379, 391, 401, 405, 409). His only general statement with respect to persecution by Christians is “the Christian church has frequently fallen into the temptation of suppressing its opponents, inside and outside its ranks” (p. 113). This description fails to acknowledge that the Church was not merely tempted but engaged, after it acquired political power in the 4th century, in sustained and vigorous “suppression.” This was in fact one of its principal activities for 1500 years. But McGrath’s sole mention of Christian persecution is “the public burning of Thomas Cranmer at Oxford in 1556” (p. 49) (an execution of a Protestant for the benefit of the Roman Catholic Church).[29]

From the outset, Christians have attempted to justify their animosity toward unbelievers by depicting them as evil. Only 18 verses into the Epistles, the author begins to describe unbelievers as wicked, foolish, sexually impure, lustful, sexually perverted, evil, and greedy. They are “full of envy, murder, debate, deceit, malignity; whisperers, backbiters, haters of God, despiteful, proud, boasters, inventors of evil things, … covenantbreakers, without natural affection, implacable, unmerciful” (Romans 1:29-31). This kind of invective, also directed against Christians whose beliefs differed from those of the writer, continues throughout the Epistles (Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 4:17-19, 22; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; 2 Timothy 3:1-8; 1 Peter 4:3; 2 Peter 2:10-21; Jude 4-16). This insolent, unjust, and uncharitable attitude remains a fundamental concept of many Christians today (Lewis, 1944, pp. 163, 168-169; MacArthur, 2001, p. 15, 17, 19, 25, 32, 43; Van Til, 1967, p. 49, 54, 104, 209). (Indeed, it is often combined with the indefensible notion that the only plausible source of ethical principles is the Christian deity [Lewis, 1944, pp. 17-39; Van Til, 1967, p. 60]). It has been used continuously to excuse oppression and persecution.

During the earliest periods of Christianity, its adherents were persecuted, primarily because their refusal to participate in official religious observances was perceived as a danger to the security of the nation: the favor of the gods was thought necessary for the preservation of the Roman state and of society itself (Celsus, 1987, pp. 44, 117, 124-126; Gaddis, 2005, pp. 30-34).[30] Contemporaneous and later Christians greatly exaggerated when creating their accounts of these persecutions (McCabe, 1926a). Ever since Christians have used the rhetoric of being victims of persecution to justify their own violence (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 92-94, 158-162, 179-181, 192-196; Housley, 1999, p. 62).

As soon as the Church allied itself with the political power of the Roman state under the Emperor Constantine in 313 CE, it began persecuting unbelievers. Christians were favored over pagans, pagans were forced to convert to Christianity, and the cultural artifacts of paganism—its priesthoods, rituals, temples, art and writings—were progressively destroyed (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 17-19; Wheless, 1930, pp. 302-307, 317-320). The persecution increased after Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the state religion in 380 (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 31-42; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 26, 122-124; McCabe, 1946, pp. 29-31). Pagans were prevented from teaching by the closure of their schools of philosophy and by the murder of their intellectuals (McCabe, 1946, pp. 31-32).

The Christian Gospels progressively characterized ordinary Jews—as distinguished from Jews who accepted Jesus as the Messiah—as evil (Pagels, 1995). Oppression of and episodic violence against Jews have been a hallmark of Christianity since early in its history (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 140-172; Jenkins, 2010, pp. 26, 120-121; Pinker, 2011, pp. 138, 141-142).

Today most persons think that the Christian Crusades were directed against Muslims in the Levant (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 173-219). The principal crusading activity by the Church, however, was aimed at European non-Christian religions and non-Roman Christian sects: paganism, Catharism, the Waldensian church, and Orthodox Christianity (Pinker, 2011, pp. 139-141; Wheless, 1930, pp. 318-319). It also conducted crusades against Christian states that opposed its political policies (Housley, 1999). One of the principal fiscal activities of the Church for some 400 years was collecting and disbursing funds for war (Housley, 1999, pp. 173-251).

McGrath does not mention the Inquisition. It is discussed above in the section on heresy.

The Reformation revived the internecine sectarian combativeness of the first centuries of Christianity, and Protestants tortured and killed other, “heretical” Protestants (such as Anabaptists [p. 384]) as zealously as Roman Catholics tortured and killed all kinds of Protestants as heretics. McGrath mentions the occurrence of the Wars of Religion (p. 43, 67), but provides no information about them. These conflicts were unusual in both their ferocity and their duration (Housley, 2002; Pinker, 2011, pp. 142-143, 230-231).

At present it is not unusual for American Christians to act violently against persons who protest their illegal activities on behalf of their religion (such as using public schools for proselyting), or who do not share their belief that human zygotes and embryos are citizens. (A compilation of one area of contemporary violence is at http://www. prochoice.org/about_abortion/violence/history_violence.html.)

All of this cruelty and violence was and is an expression of, and has been excused by, Christian theology (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 181, 194-199; Housley, 1999, pp. 35-70; Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, pp. 1-21, 66-96; Lea, 1922, pp. 214-215, 222, 224, 226, 229-230, 238-241; Wheless, 1930, pp. 296-298).

The Church and Women

From the very earliest days of humanity virginity was consecrated by Paradise.

      —Jerome, Against Jovinianus

All wickedness is but little to the wickedness of a woman.

      —Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger, Malleus Maleficarum

A major concern of Christianity throughout its history has been to control the sexual behavior of its adherents. In general, it has viewed sexuality as vile: “natural love … ought not to be called love at all, but a foul and loathsome passion” (Philoxenus, 1894, p. 505). Lifelong abstention from coitus has been regarded as peculiarly virtuous, and particularly appropriate for women, and is to be vigorously promoted by the Church (1 Corinthians 7:1, 8; Revelation 14:3-4; Armstrong, 1987, pp. 1-51; Ehrman, 2003, pp. 40-41, 44-46; Gaddis, 2005, pp. 84-86, 168; Jerome, 1893a, book 1; Sullivan, 2006, pp. 5-34, 117-18). From early on the Church attempted to regulate the sexual activity of those adherents whose “weakness” or “lack of self-control” (1 Corinthians 7:5) forced them to engage in it. The only activity approved was coitus with a single person acceptable to the Church as a sexual partner. An allowable couple was enjoined to copulate only with the intention of causing pregnancy. Even then, they were forbidden to couple on days that had religious significance. Masturbation, coitus outside a religiously sanctioned pairing, contraception[31], abortion, and homosexual activity were prohibited.

The ancient Israelites regarded coitus as incompatible with religious observance (Exodus 19:15). One can write an entire history of the Christian Church from the standpoint of its (largely unsuccessful) attempts to prevent sexual behavior by its clergy (Lea, 1932; McCabe 1946, pp. 104-106; cf. Foote & Wheeler, 1887, p. 119).[32]

Behavior and clothing thought to incite sexual thoughts were perceived as wicked and were forbidden. Speech, writing, and art thought conducive to erotic ideas were regarded as vile and prohibited. These prohibitions were enforced by criminal penalties including torture, mutilation, and execution. (They did not, however, prevent people of both sexes from giving vent to their sexual feelings as expressions of Christianity [Armstrong, 1987, pp. 150-152].)

The concern (if not obsession) with sexual behavior has made exhortations, admonitions, and threats about such behavior common and prominent elements of the Church’s address to the world. Avoidance of disfavored sexual acts has often been treated as the most salient aspect of morality; as a result, when people hear the word “immoral” they commonly think not of abuse of another human being, but of disapproved (but mostly nonabusive) sexual activity.

McGrath’s book doesn’t say a word about all of this (theologically justified) intrusive and repressive activity by the Church. His readers are given no inkling of the immense psychological and social harm that has been attributed to Christian theology’s opinions about sexuality (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 64-68, 120-125; Gage, 1893; McDonald, 2011, pp. 454-455; Stanton, 1901; Sullivan, 2006, pp. 18, 22, 27-34, 40).

The negative attitude of Christianity toward sexuality was inextricably bound with the oppression of women. In his two-page discussion of feminism (pp. 88-89, but augmented on pp. 197-199, 260-261, and 336-337), McGrath observes that “a number of post-Christian feminists … argue that Christianity … is biased against women,” and that

feminism has come into conflict with Christianity (as it has with most religions) on account of the perception that religions treat women as second-rate human beings, both in terms of the roles that those religions allocate to women, and the manner in which they are understood to image God. (p. 88)

With respect to the roles that Christianity allocates to women, McGrath says nothing. Women, by contrast, have had much to say on this subject, beginning a century before the writers he cites (Rose, 2008, pp. 62-64, 114-120, 135-144; Gage, 1893; McCabe, 1908, Introduction; Stanton, 1901). Karen Armstrong makes the case that Christianity created the “sex war” in the West:

In the West men declared war on women and excluded them from their world. The good woman was one who was independent of men and lived in a sealed-off female world. The atmosphere between the sexes was hostile. (Armstrong, 1987, p. 250)

In discussing “sex and gender conflicts in the early church,” April DeConick presents evidence that in the early Church

although women were present and active historically, their authentic story has been forgotten. It is nowhere to be found in the Church’s main narrative. Even more dismaying is the evidence that the authentic memories of women in the early church were intentionally replaced with misogynist narratives that grew out of misogynist interpretations of events and select scriptures. But most dismaying is the fact that the misogynist narrative was made sacred or holy, so that it rather than the authentic narrative, became Christianity’s truth. A bogus, yet sacralized, representation of our past has been used to control and subject half of the Christian population to the other half, affecting the real lives of men and women at the altar and in the bedroom for 2,000 years. (DeConick, 2011, p. 147)

Ehrman discusses the evidence that the passage in 1 Corinthians that says women should be silent in church (14:34-35) was an addition to the text—that is, a forgery—and that 1 Timothy, with its view of women as subordinate (2:12-15), is a forgery in its entirety (Ehrman, 2003, p. 38). He remarks that “Paul, and his churches, may have been more open to women and their leadership roles than people have traditionally thought” (Ehrman, 2003, pp. 37-39; cf. Anonymous, 2010; Lea, 1932, pp. 39-40).

Regarding women’s ability to represent God, McGrath cites Thomas Aquinas’ description of women as “misbegotten” (p. 89).[33] (Elsewhere [p. 350] he quotes the Apostle Paul’s statement that “man … is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man” [1 Corinthians 11:7] and Augustine’s belief that when woman “is assigned as a help-mate, a function that pertains to her alone, then she is not the image of God; but as far as the man is concerned, he is by himself alone the image of God” [On the Trinity, book 12, chapter 7, §10].) McGrath states that

the maleness of Christ has sometimes been used as the theological foundation for the belief that only the male human may adequately image God, or that only males provide appropriate role models or analogies for God…. It has been argued, on the basis of the maleness of Christ, that the norm of humanity is the male, with the female being somehow a second-rate, or less than ideal, human being. (p. 89)

Contrary to the authors he quotes, McGrath asserts (without citing any specific text) that “most biblical interpreters of the early church took it as granted that both male and female were bearers of the divine image” (p. 350). DeConick, however, describes

an early Christian tradition that expressed the ideal state of Adam as a state of “becoming male”…. The Christians noticed that according to Genesis 1.27, the androgynous male-female image that God created was called “man” and identified as “him”…. The Christians also noticed that according to Genesis 2.22, woman was taken out of Adam’s side. It did not take them too long to conclude that the female had been concealed inside the male…. It was further concluded that redemption meant that Eve had to reenter Adam, to rejoin him or “become male” (DeConick, 2011, pp. 78-79; cf. DeConick, 2011, p. 135; Armstrong, 1987, pp. 129-136; Ehrman, 2003, p. 64; Gage, 1893, p. 51).

McGrath provides no other reasons why there might be a “perception” that Christianity “treat[s] women as second-rate human beings” or an “argument” that its “traditional theological formulations” “are often patriarchal … and sexist” (p. 88).[34] It is difficult to understand how the subject of women and Christianity can be broached while completely ignoring the systematic misogyny of the religion since its early days (McCabe, 1908). The New Testament and the writings of the Church fathers proclaim three intertwined doctrines:

First, women are responsible—in a way that men are not—for the existence of sin (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 53-55; DeConick, 2011, pp. 122-123; Gage, 1893, pp. 150-151). 1 Timothy 2:13-14 states:

Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner.

Tertullian adds:

Do you not know that you are an Eve? The sentence of God on this sex of yours lives in this age: the guilt must of necessity live too. You are the devil’s gateway: you are the unsealer of that tree: you are the first deserter of the divine law: you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert—that is, death—even the Son of God had to die. (Tertullian, 1886a, book 1, chapter 1)

Second, as St. Augustine proclaimed, sexual desire is a consequence of The Fall:

Far be it, then, from us to suppose that our first parents in Paradise felt that lust which caused them afterwards to blush and hide their nakedness, or that by its means they should have fulfilled the benediction of God, “Increase and multiply and replenish the earth.” (Augustine, 1886, 14:21)

The man, then, would have sown the seed, and the woman received it, as need required, the generative organs being moved by the will, not excited by lust…. Man … might very well have enjoyed absolute power over his members … for it was not difficult for God to form him so that what is now moved in his body only by lust should have been moved only at will. (Augustine, 1886, 14:24)

From this it follows, as the Anglican Church expresses it, “that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin” (Articles, 2004). (cf. DeConick, 2011, pp. 85-86; Gage, 1893, p. 49; Sullivan, 2006, p. 10.)

Third, Tertullian speaks for early Christianity when he maintains that women as a sex and as individuals are culpable of a fundamental form of sin because they arouse sexual thoughts in men (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 54-61; DeConick, 2011, p. 123):

In the eyes of perfect, that is, Christian, modesty, [carnal] desire of one’s self [on the part of others] is not only not to be desired, but even execrated, by you … because we ought not open a way to temptations, which, by their instancy, sometimes achieve [a wickedness] which God expels from them who are His…. Why are we a [source of] danger to our neighbour? Why do we import concupiscence into our neighbour?… For that other, as soon as he has felt concupiscence after your beauty, and has mentally already committed [the deed] which his concupiscence pointed to, perishes; and you have made the sword which destroys him…. Even natural grace must be obliterated by concealment and negligence, as … dangerous to the glances of [the beholder’s] eyes. (Bracketed words added by translator.) (Tertullian, 1886a, book 2, chapter 2)

Under the influence of these doctrines, women were systematically expelled and thereafter excluded from all important offices that they had occupied in the nascent Church (DeConick, 2011, pp. 63-73, 111-123; Gage, 1893, pp. 50-51; Lea, 1932, pp. 39-40; McCabe, 1908, p. 28, 32). To acquire respect from the Church, women were forced to adopt unnatural roles that often were both mentally and physically injurious (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 117-258; Ehrman, 2003, p. 46; McCabe, 1908, pp. 39-40).[35] Institutional misogyny continues to be common in Christian churches (DeConick, 2011, pp. 149-152); it is acknowledged and decried by both conservative and progressive Christians (Grady, 2006; Spong, 1991, pp. 5-7, 100-101).

One major result of the attitude of the Church toward women is described by Armstrong: “The Witch Hunts brought together all the buried sexual fears that had been developing in the Christian West…. The Witch Hunts were a religious phenomenon and were engineered by the Church and supported … by the beliefs of devout people…. The Witch Hunts were purely the product of Christian zeal” (Armstrong, 1987, pp. 88-90). Heinrich Kramer and James Sprenger were inquisitor monks and witch hunters of the 15th century. They asked themselves “Why a greater number of witches is found in the fragile feminine sex than among men”? Their answer: “All witchcraft comes from carnal lust, which is in women insatiable…. Wherefore for the sake of fulfilling their lusts they consort even with devils” (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, p. 41, 47; cf. Armstrong, 1987, p. 111).

McGrath never addresses the “application to life” of these antisexual and misogynic theological ideas. What then is his response to feminism’s “challenge to traditional theological formulations [which] it is argued, are often patriarchal … and sexist” (p. 88)? He accepts “the need to reappraise the Christian past, giving honor and recognition to a large group of faithful women, whose practice, defense, and proclamation of their faith had hitherto passed unnoticed by much of the Christian church and its (mainly male) historians” (p. 88). That is all. Acknowledging that there were devout women who acquiesced in the Church’s treatment of women and nevertheless were willing to advance the cause of Christianity (pp. 26, 199, 332-333, 341, 344, 386) does not seem an adequate response to Christian misogyny. It brings to mind the diatribe against women of Kramer and Sprenger, in which the few examples of virtuous women are women who notoriously aided the purposes of the Church (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, pp. 43-48). It will not answer the tens of thousands of women who were burned alive as an expression of Christian theology’s conviction that female sexuality is evil.[36]

Christian Theology and Science

“The Copernican and Galilean controversies” (pp. 54-56)

McGrath’s treatment of the Church’s condemnation of Galileo in 1633 seems evasive.

As understood and supported by Galileo, Copernicus’ heliocentric theory of the organization of the universe was not obviously better than the old Ptolemaic theory. Because of the incorrect premise that the orbits of the planets are circular, that heliocentric theory had its own problems, and like its predecessor it left some features unexplained. In Galileo’s day it was reasonable for an astronomer or intelligent layperson not to abandon the geocentric theory that had provided a mostly satisfactory explanation of astronomical observations for over 1300 years.

McGrath describes the theologians’ (and clergy’s) attitude toward Copernicus’ revelations as “difficulty coping with the new approach” because they “had become so familiar with reading the text of the Bible through geocentric spectacles” (p. 55). But was the idea that the earth is not the stationary center of the universe actually new to theologians? Cardinal Nikolaus Cryfftz (1400?-1464), better known as Nicholas of Cusa, was highly regarded by his contemporaries, including Popes Eugene IV and Nicholas V. Publication of a complete edition of his works began soon after his death, and two more editions appeared during the following century. His most famous work was On Learned Ignorance (De Docta Ignorantia), published in 1439-1440. Among its many metaphysical speculations, one finds the following:

The earth, which cannot be the center, cannot be devoid of all motion. Indeed, it is even necessary that the earth be moved…. Just as the earth is not the center of the world [universe], so the sphere of fixed stars is not its circumference.

If someone were on the earth but beneath the north pole [of the heavens] and someone else were at the north pole [of the heavens], then just as to the one on the earth it would appear that the pole is at the zenith, so to the one at the pole it would appear that the center is at the zenith…. And at whichever [of these] anyone would be, he would believe himself to be at the center. (Bracketed text in the second paragraph added by the translator.) (Nicholas of Cusa, 1985, book 2, chapter 11)

It is not credible that these ideas escaped the attention of the clerical readers of On Learned Ignorance; Copernicus and Galileo were acquainted with Nicholas’ book. One finds no record, however, of anyone having accused Nicholas of heresy. What caused the different response to Galileo? One obvious difference is that Nicholas’ denial of geocentricism and of the immobility of the earth was a small part of a dense metaphysical treatise and did not constitute a free-standing theory of the solar system. Another difference is that Cardinal Nicholas was a respected cleric and not a layperson.

In asserting that the reaction of the Church to Galileo was a matter of outmoded custom, McGrath fails to recognize a fundamental distinction between naturalistic and spiritualistic theories about the nature of the universe. Ptolemy’s theory, which may be called naturalistic geocentricism, was based upon observation. Human beings are not aware of movements of the earth, and all the celestial bodies appear to be revolving around the earth; therefore a reasonable hypothesis, supported by evidence, is that the earth is a stationary center around which the celestial bodies are in motion. If the clerics of the 17th century had just held this theory, then they would have had no difficulty abandoning it when additional observation showed it to be untenable.

But the clerics held instead a theologically altered derivative of Ptolemy’s theory, a theological geocentricism. The foundation of this theory was not observation, but supposed accord with doctrines. On this theory the central position of the earth was not just an observed fact, but was explained by the ideas that (1) humankind is the ultimate purpose of the entire universe and (2) the principal events in the history of the universe—those having to do with the carnality of God—must have taken place at the very center of the universe (McDonald, 2011, pp. 407-408). It was this theological theory that the Church would not abandon; and the evidence against the naturalistic theory was deemed irrelevant to the theological theory and thus could be disregarded, denied, or denounced as the work of Satan.

McGrath denies that the controversy about Copernicus was an instance of science versus religion (p. 55). The Church, however, asserted that Ptolemy’s theory was correct, and thus that Copernicus’ and Galileo’s was necessarily wrong, and it did so solely for the reason of conformity to “the accepted way of interpreting the Bible,” with its “apparently geocentric outlook” (p. 193) (McCabe, 1946, pp. 224-225; McDonald, 2011, pp. 410-411). The explanation of nature by observation and reason—that is, science—was regarded as totally subordinate to the explanation of nature by the interpretation of texts believed to be of extramundane provenance—that is, religion. The argument is perfectly analogous to the one McGrath describes as a manifestation of “the warfare of science and theology”: “[this view] regards the biblical material as presenting a valid and objective account of the origins and development of humanity…. For this reason, it says that theories of evolution are incorrect” (p. 170).

The fact is that Christianity (before, during, and after the time of Copernicus) told everyone under its authority that attempts to increase humankind’s knowledge by studying the universe and drawing conclusions from those observations had to be limited by the opinions (or spectacles) of the clergy, and it enforced this restriction with severe penalties (Draper, 1875; McDonald, 2011, pp. 405-444; White, 1896).

McGrath writes that it was a “misfortune” and “sad” (p. 56) that Galileo’s views were condemned when the issue was not their correctness, but “the correct interpretation of the Bible” and concerns about “heresy” (that is, about religious beliefs). By the same kind of reasoning, the execution of Jesus (whose innocence his judge is depicted as acknowledging) was validated by legitimate Roman fears of mob disorder and of religiously inspired insurrection. It was an understandable “misfortune” and merely “sad.” McGrath evades the fact that the Church did not just disagree with Galileo. It threatened him, restricted his freedom of inquiry and speech, and did the same to every person who agreed with him on the subject of astronomy. (It also confined Galileo.) To describe this behavior as “unfortunate” is pusillanimous and demeaning of human dignity. It was wicked.[37]

Calvin as the godfather of science (pp. 193-194)

McGrath claims for the theologian Jean Calvin a foundational role in the development of science from the 16th century on.[38] First, Calvin “encouraged the scientific study of nature” by his view that “the physical world and the human body testify to the wisdom and character of God” (cf. p. 160). Second, he “eliminated a significant obstacle to the development of the natural sciences” by insisting “that not all biblical statements concerning God or the world were to be taken literally,” because “in revelation … God accommodates to the capacities of the human mind” (p. 192). Calvin is said to have presented a “discussion of the relationship between scientific findings and statements of the Bible,” but no specific text is cited.

With respect to the first point, the idea that nature “testifies to the wisdom and character of God” is found in ancient Judaism and has always been a commonplace of Christian doctrine (Psalm 19:1; Romans 1:20). Long before Calvin, human anatomy and physiology were brought into the service of theology, chiefly by means of supposed parallels with the cosmos (Maimonides, 1904, part 1, chapter 72) and by use of the spiritualistic concept of different “powers” of the soul (or different kinds of souls) to explain the functioning of the viscera, movement, sensation, and mentation (Aquinas, part 1, questions 78-79). Calvin continued both of these ideas (Calvin, 1845, 1:5, §3, 4).

Calvin allowed that “knowledge is good in itself” (Calvin, 1848, chapter 8, §1). The sciences, he wrote, are “of the greatest advantage as helps in common life” (Calvin, 1848, chapter 8, §1), and astronomy “is very useful to be known” (Calvin, 1847, §16). But all such statements by him are restricted by the requirement that every act must be done in the context of religion. Astronomy is useful because “it unfolds the admirable wisdom of God” (Calvin, 1847, §16). Without “piety … its only foundation,” knowledge “becomes empty and useless…. It is not so much knowledge, as an empty notion of it” (Calvin, 1848, chapter 8, §1). “Power of intellect … is, in the sight of God, fleeting and vain whenever it is not based on a solid foundation of [religious] truth” (Calvin, 1845, 2:2, §16). Human reason must be “subdued to the obedience of faith” (Calvin, 1845, 1:14, §2).

McGrath converts what was a theological permission to conduct scientific investigation into the alleged reason for such investigation. Calvin allowed his followers to study nature so long as their ultimate reason for doing so was to support religion.

Calvin’s views about the “advantage” of science have not been maintained by his followers. McGrath discusses recent objections by adherents of the Calvinist Reformed Church to the concept of knowing God through nature (pp. 164-168, 169)[39] and remarks that such objections “[tend] to create at least a disinterest in the natural sciences.” He never mentions the Reformed “concept of the counsel of God according to which all things in the created world are regulated” (Van Til, 1967, p. 100). “In the view of many historians of science,” McGrath states in another context, “this approach to divine causality … is unhelpful to the development of the natural sciences” (p. 213).

Regarding the second point offered by McGrath, nonliteral interpretation of the Bible was practiced in Judaism before Christianity existed, occurs in the New Testament (Galatians 4:24), and was found in Christian theology by the second century (pp. 130-133). By his concurrence with this procedure (pp. 192-193), Calvin did not “eliminate” biblical literalism as an obstacle to science even within the sects that follow his teachings. The theology now prevalent in the Reformed Church (at least in North America) is that of Cornelius Van Til, who, like the churchmen who condemned Galileo, regards science as subservient to religion (Van Til 108, 154-55, 170-75). Calvin’s present-day followers insist on the literal truth of the creation myths of Genesis and denounce those who hold contrary views as evil (MacArthur, 2001;[40]; Van Til, 1967, pp. 211-212).

Calvin’s opinions about the universe were determined by his adherence to theological geocentricism and included the common misbeliefs and superstitions of his time. For example:

  1. Calvin believed the creation story in Genesis and declared that contrary ideas “insult the Creator” (White, 1896, vol. 1, pp. 8, 26-27). Hence he thought that the world was made in six (sidereal) days less than 6,000 years ago (Calvin, 1845, 1:14, §1,2).
  2. He was “very strict in … adherence to the exact letter of Scripture” regarding the “conception of the universe as a sort of house, with heaven as its upper story and the [flat] earth as its ground floor” (White, 1896, vol. 1, pp. 96-98).
  3. Calvin seems to have been familiar with the concept of the heliocentric solar system, if not with the book of Copernicus itself. In his Commentary on Genesis, Calvin condemned “all who asserted that the earth is not at the center of the universe” (White, 1896, vol. 1, p. 127).[41] He stated that the idea of a moving earth is held by

fantastics, who have a spirit of bitterness and of contradiction, to find fault with everything and to pervert the order of nature. We shall see some of them so frenzied, not only in religion, but to show everywhere that they have a monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth that moves and that it turns. When we see such minds, it is indeed necessary to say that the devil has possessed them. (Calvin, 1892, col. 677)

  1. One of the grounds for the conviction and execution by Calvin’s theocracy in Geneva of his opponent Servetus was that the latter had produced “an edition of Ptolemy’s Geography, in which Judea was spoken of, not as ‘a land flowing with milk and honey,’ but, in strict accordance with the truth, as, in the main, meagre, barren, and inhospitable”—a contradiction of the Bible that “grievously outraged the Holy Ghost” (White, 1896, vol. 1, pp. 112-113).
  2. Calvin stated that Christians should be less tolerant of witchcraft than of murder (Calvin, 1583, p. 671).

The allegation that this man made “major contributions to the appreciation and development of the natural sciences” seems ludicrous.

“The Darwinian controversy and the nature of humanity” (pp. 371-374)

McGrath’s use of Darwinism to describe the theory of biological evolution exemplifies an ancient and common Christian combative tactic. Since the vitriolic doctrinal disputes of the early centuries of Christianity, disliked doctrines have often been labeled with the name of the putative (sometimes imaginary) originator (p. 351; Ehrman, 2003, p. 99; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, p. 22; Gaddis, 2005, p. 72n11, 271; Lea, 1932, p. 16; McDonald, 2011, p. 189; MacMullen, 2006, p. 39); “and once something was an ism, it presumably represented that person’s twisted and peculiar view” (Jenkins, 2010, p. 67). Darwinism makes a theory to which many persons have contributed evidence, so that its factuality is now well demonstrated, sound like the notion of a single person. It ignores the fact that, although his essential concept is correct, Darwin’s ideas have been extensively modified and his theory has been greatly expanded.[42] (Using this procedure of naming a large body of thought after a seminal person, modern astronomy could be called Copernicanism. McGrath’s own textbook could be called The Theology of Jesusism.)

McGrath describes the theory of biological evolution as “provisional” (p. 374). The theory, however, is 150 years old—older than Copernicus’ heliocentric theory was when Galileo defended it. It is supported by a vast amount of interlocking and accordant evidence from the fields of paleontology, anatomy, physiology, embryology, immunology, genetics, complex systems, and other disciplines. It is difficult to find anyone who understands the theory and who questions it, other than persons whose religious beliefs it offends; this is true even when the opposition to the theory is expressed in scientific or other nonreligious terms.

McGrath also describes the theory of evolution as “open to modification, correction, development, or even ultimate abandonment” (p. 374). These are characters of any scientific theory, and the theory of evolution has already been enlarged and extensively revised since Darwin promulgated it. But—to make an analogy with other disciplines—the theory of evolution is not like the postulation of a hypothetical substance to explain a restricted set of observations, such as phlogiston, interstellar ether, soul (or “life force” and other supposed agents of vitality), or habitual grace (p. 356). It is analogous to atomic theory: it accords with, explains, and relates a large number of disparate facts. Like atomic theory, the theory of evolution has a permanent status more than “the received scientific wisdom of our age” (p. 374), and it is unlikely to be abandoned. Evolution is the most important organizing principle in biology, and its role there extends into all activities dealing with organisms, including medicine, pharmacology, farming, breeding, pisciculture, fishing, fermentation of foods, forestry, conservation, treatment of waste materials, and the work of ecologists.

As he does with the Enlightenment, McGrath construes the concept of Darwinian evolution as a religious phenomenon (p. 73, 82, 168), ignoring its cultural importance. Anyone familiar with Western thought since Darwin is aware of the manner in which the concept of evolution informs disciplines other than biology, including astronomy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, linguistics, economics, and philosophy (including ethics) (Appleman, 2000, pp. 387-524).[43] McGrath ignores the importance of the concept of evolution in cosmogony and geology (where, as in biology, it conflicts with biblical literalism). The existence of religion can be explained by evolution (Boyer, 2001; Dawkins, 2007, pp. 190-240; Dennett, 2007; Guthrie, 1993; Lewis-Williams, 2010; McCabe, 1918); these diverse theories are, to use McGrath’s words, “complementary, rather than mutually exclusive” (p. 155). But in his discussion of “approaches” to the nature of religion (p. 426-435), McGrath does not mention the existence of these evolutionary, materialistic, scientific explanations. (He does discuss some explanations of religion as a psychological or social phenomenon [pp. 71, 150-151, 335-336, 428-432].)[44]

The origin of new types by natural selection is not just a theory about living organisms. It is a regularity or “law” of nature, observed wherever reproduction by a member of a variable population is determined by its interaction with the environment. Darwin’s principle is used in the design of artifacts and systems in many fields including aeronautics, cybernetics, engineering, telecommunications, decision-making, visual art, and music.[45]

In his discussion of “Darwinism” McGrath states that “the natural sciences, including the various Darwinian paradigms, are patient of atheist, theist and agnostic interpretations and accommodations—but demand and necessitate none of them” (p. 373).[46] The important fact, however, is not that theists can “interpret and accommodate” the theory of evolution and other products of science, but that science itself assumes a “purely material [nontheistic] universe” because “so far this is all that is needed” for a “model … proposed to describe the data” (Stenger, 2009, pp. 64-65). Hence the four “categories of response” to the theory of evolution listed by McGrath are “interpretations and accommodations,” but none of them is relevant—in a scientific sense—to the theory because they all postulate immaterial spirits who, while they can be objects of belief, cannot be objects of observation or subject to evidence obtained by observation. Science itself cannot be spiritualized or “religionized,” and when it is carried out by devout scientists (of whom there have been many), their religious interpretations of what they and other scientists learn are not science.[47]

McGrath asks the reader to view the theory of evolution in the light of the evolutionary history of science:

A scientific theory … may be the received scientific wisdom of our age; no study of the history of science would be unwise enough to suggest that it is necessarily, and possibly uniquely, immune to the process of radical theory change that has characterized scientific advance in the past. (p. 374)

But one could just as easily state that “a religious doctrine may be the received religious wisdom of our age; no study of the history of religion would be unwise enough to suggest that it is necessarily, and possibly uniquely, immune to the process of radical doctrinal change that has characterized religion in the past” (examples at Jenkins, 2010, pp. 267-278)—a process documented, albeit understated, in McGrath’s textbook.

The Scientific Pronouncements of Christianity

Each of the topics discussed in this section of the present essay demonstrates the fact that Christianity makes many statements that purport to be facts about the universe (Lewis-Williams, 2010, pp. 10, 64-65, 130, 162-164, 286-288). It makes statements about cosmogony, astronomy, geology, biology, anthropology, and physiology—almost all of which are demonstrably false. For each of these subjects, the dissemination and acceptance of the facts discovered by science have been opposed and hindered by theologians and clerics. Christianity’s rule for determining “truth” is conformity to the particular sect’s interpretations of ancient texts, in which the conception of nature is mythical. “Truth” is prescribed by an authority, which authority is accepted as an act of credulity. Christianity therefore is necessarily in disagreement with the rule that belief should be accorded to a proposition in proportion to the evidence supporting it, which is the principle of science.[48] McGrath ignores the epistemological distinction between credulousness (for example, “belief in God is … a basic belief—that is, something which is self-evident” [165]) and evidentiary reasoning—the difference that explains why people agree about the facts of science but dispute endlessly and unavailingly about the notions of religions.

In Conclusion: The Falsity of Christian Theology

From the viewpoint of a non-Christian, Christian Theology seems to omit exposition, or even mention, of large and important topics. The present essay has addressed but a few of these (for example, it has only alluded to the pernicious effects of Christian theology on social progress [McCabe, 1907; McCabe, 1927; McCabe, 1935; McCabe, 1946; Wheless, 1930, pp. 321-376] and in government and politics [Hedges, 2008; McDonald, 2011, pp. 447-451, 456-459; Shipley, 1927; Thiry, 1895, §143-152, 172-174; Wheless, 1930, pp. xxxi-xxxv]).

Should not studious Christians who will depend upon biblical texts for their understanding and exposition of the religion know about the difficulties and uncertainties surrounding those texts?

Christians cannot avoid the topic of sexuality and sexual roles. Should not persons beginning to study the religion have a basic understanding of how it has addressed this subject, how it has affected the sexual behavior of its adherents, and how it has not accepted equality of women and men?

Science and religion have been and remain in conflict, not because scientists dislike religion, but because theologians and clerics insist on applying to the real world the principle of credulousness for according factuality to propositions. Some students using McGrath’s textbook may choose to behave in this manner, but they ought to have a clear understanding of the principles about which they are making choices.

One may ask: what are the reasons why these topics are avoided? Restrictions on available space might be offered as an excuse. But McGrath devotes 11 pages to presentation of the opinions of the theologian Karl Barth; are those more important than the subjects proposed here?

The probable reason for these selective silences is that, in order to be popular and therefore purchased, a textbook (especially about a subject as rife with disagreement as Christian theology) must not only avoid favoritism, but also overt or implicit criticism of the readers’ opinions. For example, if McGrath gave a unified presentation of the evolutionary history of doctrine during the early centuries of Christianity, he would astonish, and might dismay, students who have been led to believe that the doctrines of their sect are explicitly and clearly expressed in the New Testament. And one should not expect him to address such historical issues as Christianity’s suppression of intellectual, artistic, civil, and social liberty; its treatment of dissident opinions as crimes justifying imprisonment, torture, and judicial murder; or the roles of the religion in promoting wars among Christians, justifying the conquest by Christians of non-Christians (as in crusades and colonialism), and upholding repressive governments. All these, however, were excused by Christian theology and alleged to be approved or even demanded by God’s revelation of himself.

By making his text blandly inoffensive, McGrath ignores matters that lie close to the heart of Christianity. This treatment impairs both understanding the religion and assessment of its role in the contemporary world. A reader with no other information about Christianity and its effect on history would come away from this book with a highly distorted image of the religion.

These considerations, and the evidence of McGrath’s textbook, suggest that the purpose of teaching Christian theology is to maintain a set of fictions, such as:

  • Christianity was founded by Jesus of Nazareth.
  • Christianity promulgates doctrines taught by Jesus.
  • These doctrines have been maintained and disseminated in the form intended by Jesus, first by the Apostles and then by the Christian Church.
  • The New Testament is the set of books initially and solely accepted by Christians as divinely inspired.
  • The texts of the New Testament have been preserved in an essentially unchanged form since they were written.
  • Although incidents of disharmony and ill will have occurred within the Church, they have been exceptions, not the rule.
  • The spread of Christianity was the result of peaceful proselyting.
  • The institution of Christianity opposes and rejects violence.
  • The institution of Christianity is opposed to war and promotes peace.

To these can be added a set of social fictions that the Church adopted in response to the Enlightenment:

  • The institution of Christianity promotes justice.
  • The institution of Christianity seeks to eliminate poverty.
  • The institution of Christianity opposes authoritarian government.
  • The institution of Christianity promotes education (the impartation of knowledge, as distinct from indoctrination).

Then there is the ethical and social fiction that Christianity and Christians have generally been benevolent and gentle. Suppose one were to write an “Introduction to Naziism” as follows:

Naziism was founded by Adolf Hitler (1889-1945). As a young man he fought for his country, Germany, in a losing war, following which the victors imposed punitive conditions on the nation, even changing its boundaries and splitting it into two parts. Inspired by his deep patriotism, Hitler chose as his life’s mission to restore the confidence and dignity of his countrymen.

As regards his nation, Hitler had a vision of all the German people—united by heredity, history, and language—forming a single country, instead of being divided by artificial national boundaries. With respect to economics, he rejected capitalism because it put the interests of individuals above those of the nation, and rejected communism because it subordinated the people to the state. For the individual, Hitler advocated putting the good of the people as a whole ahead of personal gain, hard work in an honest and socially useful job, respect for the patriot and the worker, and traditional sexual morality.

To try to achieve his goals, Hitler founded his own National Socialist German Workers’ (abbreviated Nazi) Party and led it until his death. An effective orator, he reminded his audiences of the times when the German people were self-sufficient, proud and respected, and inspired them to believe that they could be so once again. He gradually persuaded more and more of his countrymen to adopt his vision. He was not afraid to oppose powerful interests that he found detrimental to the welfare of the nation, including wealthy industrialists and bankers, and the major newspapers. He and his party were persecuted, Hitler himself being imprisoned for a time. But his ideas eventually prevailed and he was appointed Chancellor of Germany in 1933.

Hitler sought and found allies among the nations of Europe. And, whereas other European countries perceived Asia as a place to colonize, Hitler concluded an alliance with Japan in which the independence and interests of that nation were recognized. He addressed countries opposed to Germany by diplomacy, and concluded agreements with states as diverse as Great Britain, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, and the Vatican State.

The hostility of other nations, however, culminated in war. Despite great patriotic effort, Germany was defeated once again. Hitler died during the final days of the war. The victors reviled Hitler and his party, denounced the principles of Naziism, and forbade people to proclaim those principles publicly—contrary to the victors’ self-proclaimed advocacy of free speech!

This is true—as far as it goes. One can simply refrain from mentioning the racism, bigotry, intolerance, violence, despotism, militarism, aggressiveness, self-centeredness, bad faith, cronyism, and other characters that made Naziism vile from its beginning. One can phrase statements so as to conceal the actual character of ideas and acts. This is not, however, an honest exposition of its history and doctrines. And by ignoring all the evil effects of those doctrines, it divorces its facts from reality.

The principle of ignoring and minimizing negative facts can be found throughout Christian Theology: An Introduction. Christians who base their perception of their religion on this work are adopting a viewpoint that is comfortable and self-satisfying, but incomplete and less than honest. McGrath remarks that “most individuals studying Christian theology do so with a view to ordination” (p. 112). It seems that divines nowadays are being taught to view their calling through spectacles that, by means of complacent ignorance, render invisible the specters that haunt their churches, theological libraries, and seminaries.


[1] Thomas Paine’s succinct definition is, “Theology … is the study of human opinions and of human fancies concerning God. It is not the study of God himself in the works that he has made, but in the works or writings that man has made” (Paine, 1882, p. 29).

[2] McGrath dismisses the Jewish origin of Christianity with the remark that originally “Christianity saw itself as a continuation and development of Judaism” (p. 4). Judaism is not included in the index to his book. But “the first Christians were only reformed Jews; this is clearly the only idea we can form of Christianity, such as it was taught by Jesus Christ himself” (Thiry, 1823, p. 6; cf. Cassels, 1879, vol. 3, pp. 114-145; McDonald, 2011, pp. 95-115). When Ernestine Potowski (later Ernestine Rose), having quit Judaism, was asked to become a Christian she responded, “I have not abandoned the trunk in order to attach myself to the branches” (Rose, 2008, p. 4). The apostasy of Jews who embraced Christianity (Celsus, 1987, pp. 60-69; Thiry, 1823, pp. 2, 7, 15-16, 20, 25, 32, 37, 42-45) was the work of the Apostle Paul, who should be regarded as the real founder of Christianity (Cassels, 1879, vol. 3, pp. 567-568; Maccoby, 1986, pp. 184-205; McDonald, 2011, pp. 116-129; Thiry, 1823, pp. 6, 28-29, 35-36, 57). Christianity is not the religion of Jesus—that was Judaism.

[3] Beside the Egyptian or Alexandrian, one can discern two other “families” of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament: the Byzantine or Antiochean, and the Western or Syro-Latin (manuscripts in Old Syriac and Old Latin). The first printed edition of the New Testament in Greek appeared in 1516, having been compiled by Desiderius Erasmus; it was based on the Byzantine group. This was the principal source of the King James translation.

[4] Many reasons are given for these preferences. Undoubtedly the most unusual is the suggestion that the Byzantine version is better because Westcott and Hort were in communication with demons (Stringer, 2001).

[5] The facts are more complex. During the early part of the Common Era, Jews did not agree on what books constituted Scripture. This was reflected in Christian disputes about what belonged in the canon (McDonald, 2011, pp. 3-4), illustrated by the different opinions of Origen, Jerome, and Julius Africanus. Among the Roman books that Protestants rejected as canonical and placed in the Apocrypha, 1 Maccabees, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), and parts of Baruch were written in Hebrew, Judith “almost certainly was written in Hebrew,” while Tobit was written in Aramaic and also existed in Hebrew (New American Bible, 1971, p. 461, 477, 507, 749, 925). Hence it is a simplification to state that the Apocrypha “consisted of works found in the Greek and Latin Bibles but not in the Hebrew Bible” [italics added] (p. 123). See Harper’s Bible Dictionary, s.v. “Apocrypha.”

[6] Among works that meet this description were a number that at the time were regarded as holy scripture but later lost that status (Cassels, 1879, vol. 1, pp. 218-219, 233-234, 252-253, 294-295, 419, 458-459; Cassels, 1879, vol. 2, pp. 163-168; cf. the General Epistle of Jude, which cites The Book of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses [6-15]), some whose contents are now perceived as heretical and absurd, and some forged books (Ehrman, 2003, pp. 203-215; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 64-83; Middleton, 1749, pp. 26-27; Wheless, 1930, pp. 91-122).

[7] “The idea or belief of a word of God existing in print, or in writing, or in speech, is inconsistent in itself, for reasons already assigned. These reasons, among many others, are the want of an universal language; the mutability of language; the errors to which translations are subject; the possibility of totally suppressing such a word; the probability of altering it, or of fabricating the whole, and imposing it upon the world” (Paine, 1882, pp. 55-56).

Books that contended with those of the present Bible for places in the canon, theological works written before the Enlightenment, and other documents bearing on religion also have been subject to errors in transcription and translation, alteration, and loss, as well as to suppression and destruction; and some of them are forgeries (Ehrman, 2003, pp. 13-46; Foote & Wheeler, 1887, pp. 64-83; McDonald, 2011, pp. 247-251; Wheless, 1930). MacMullen remarks, “It is the rule across time that the record of controversies will survive or not at the pleasure of the winners” (MacMullen, 2006, p. 8; cf. McGrath, 2011, p. 274).

[8] No examples are cited, but what McGrath has in mind is perhaps shown by his characterization of the idea that miracles are impossible as a “presupposition” and an “a priori assumption” (p. 310). This contradicts his own discussion of the arguments against miraculousness (pp. 296-297), which presentation could be greatly augmented (Cassels, 1879, vol. 1, pp. 1-211; Huxley, 1893; Middleton, 1749; Spinoza, 1951, pp. 81-97).

[9] McGrath notes, without expressing the idea explicitly, that the Enlightenment was manifested not only by the questions posed by intellectuals but also by a change in the way educated people thought, replacing unquestioning credulousness with a requirement for evidence before assenting to propositions (p. 296, 324, 342, 428).

[10] He does note that unspecified “intellectual revolutions” displaced Aristotelian ideas from a dominant role in Western culture after the end of the 17th century (p. 176).

[11] Moreover, Israel remarks that the “traditionalist counter-offensive” to the Enlightenment “generated a major reorganization and revitalization of traditional structures of … belief” (Israel, 2001, p. 7).

[12] Israel, however, writes that the English deists “played little part in establishing or formulating the main themes of the Radical Enlightenment, and also had relatively little influence within the wider context of the European Radical Enlightenment before the 1720s” (Israel, 2001, p. 627).

[13] Conventional ideas about the theology of the deists and other Enlightenment thinkers are being criticized by Joseph Waligore (Waligore, n.d.), who presents evidence of these persons’ piety and Christianity.

[14] Twain’s remark refers to slavery. Here are two of many other instances. “The [women’s] movement throve, and then Christian accounts of the evolution of woman’s position and her debt to Christianity began to appear” (McCabe, 1998, p. 27; cf. McCabe, 1908, pp. 50-59). The Encyclical Rerum novarum of 1891 later was falsely alleged to have made “‘revolutionary’ concessions to labour … [that] ‘astounded the world’ and inspired all later legislation” (McCabe, 1946, pp. 266-267).

[15] Many Christian sects and individuals, however, persist in averring the parallel religious notions of “natural human religiosity” (pp. 83, 110, 148-149, 433), universal “knowledge of” or “belief in” the Christian God (pp. 334, 437-438; Van Til, 1967, pp. 42, 90, 151-153), or “universal presence of the [Trinitarian] Holy Spirit” (p. 434)—ideas that some theologians themselves discount (pp. 433-434).

[16] One rationalist belief that has been discarded is that the rules of mathematics and logic are self-evident, a priori “truths” that are universal. They are now recognized as human conventions, and Euclid’s geometry and Aristotle’s logic are no longer thought to be valid in all possible worlds. Theologians nevertheless continue to cite these nonexistent “universal truths” as proof that there is a creator deity.

[17] Duhem’s presentation is open to criticism. The model he uses is the properties of light, and he poses the question as “Is light particles or waves?” This is, so to speak, a question of classification, and it presupposes an answer of the form “either a or b.” The experimental questions, however, are, “Does light have properties of particles?” and “Does light have properties of waves?” The answer to both questions is “yes.”

[18] Harnack remarks, “that Christianity is for both classes,—religion for the common man … and religion for the thinking mind,—Origen recognized as its superiority over all other religions and systems. The Christian religion is the only religion which is also truth in mythical form” (Harnack, 1893, p. 155).

[19] McGrath does describe Emile Durkheim’s concept of totemism (pp. 431-432), but he relates it to political “religions” and not to Christianity.

[20] McDonald notes, “instead of doctrine being determined by valid councils, the validity of a council is determined by the subsequent popularity of its rulings. The assignment of authority is thus circular, and flexible” (McDonald, 2011, p. 80).

[21] Long before this time, allegorical-metaphorical interpretation had attained, in the works of Jerome (Eusebius Hieronymus) (died in 420 CE), a height of preposterousness never surpassed afterward (for example, Jerome 1893a, 1:30). Arguments for and against this kind of interpretation were the basis of early 18th-century attacks on the Church of England by Anthony Collins (Collins, 1724) and Thomas Woolston (Woolston, 1727-1729), who provide many absurd examples.

[22] McGrath never reveals that Arius’s ideas were for a time dominant in the Church.

[23] The use of condemned to translate anathema is euphemistic; the word means something accursed. See Council of Trent, 1848, pp. 54-55.

[24] Bauer’s insight was long anticipated by others. For example, writing in 1749, Conyers Middleton cites the 17th-century theologian William Chillingworth in remarking, “absurdities were taught by the Fathers of those ages [after the Apostolic Fathers], not as their private opinions onely [sic], but as doctrines of the Universal Church, derived immediately from the Apostles, and held so necessary that those, who held the contrary, were hardly considered, as real Christians” (Middleton 51). Thiry in 1770 observed that “in the earliest period of the church,” “all the different sects consider themselves as orthodox, and have treated their adversaries as heretics” (Thiry 1823, 3-4).

[25] One of the contributions of Augustine of Hippo to Christian theology was his advocacy of punishment of heretics by the state, which provided the theological basis of the Inquisition (Rowe, 1970). He also regarded judicial torture, even torturing an innocent person to death, as necessary and sinless (The City of God, 19:6).

[26] Wheless’s (Wheless, 1930, pp. 140-151) and McDonald’s (McDonald, 2011, pp. 74-76), sketches of these men make a revealing contrast to those of McGrath, as do Middleton’s discussion of the veracity and judgment of several of them (Middleton, 1749, pp. 26-71) and Thiry’s description of their character and behavior (Thiry, 1823, pp. 8-9).

[27] Tertullian continued to write polemics after he became a Montanist. Replying to orthodox Christians who criticized the Montanists’ severe dietary restrictions, he remarks that “lasciviousness and voluptuousness” are “appendages of appetite,” and tells the critics “your young men sleep with their sisters” (Tertullian, 1886b, chapter 17). Foote and Wheeler interpret this as a report of what he had observed before quitting the orthodox church (Foote & Wheeler, 1887, p. 6).

[28] From the middle of the 4th century the Church began “denying that [it] … bore any responsibility for actions carried out by the secular authorities” against those whom the Church opposed (Gaddis, 2005, p. 108). In particular, it denied responsibility for killing persons accused of religious “crimes” and transferred to civil authorities to be executed. This assertion is simply a lie (Lea, 1993, pp. 230-237; Wheless, 1930, pp. 307-317).

[29] 85% of the way through the body of his book, McGrath acknowledges that the Christian Church as an institution has been and is “sinful” (p. 394). A reader ignorant of the history of the Church would have acquired no idea whatsoever from the book as to what the author is referring.

[30] The Romans were thus doing what Christians have been attempting to write into the American Constitution for generations (Jacoby, 2004, pp. 105-106, 351-352; Shipley, 1927, pp. 25-28): avowing dependence of their country and government on divine power.

[31] Heinsohn suggests that the rationale of the witch hunts by Christians during the 15th to 18th centuries was to eliminate knowledge and practice of contraception (Heinsohn & Steiger, 2004). “The Canonists … say that it is witchcraft … when a woman is prevented from conceiving” (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, p. 66).

[32] Lea demonstrates that one motive of this imposition was the retention of Church income, and preservation and increase of Church property, which otherwise were usurped by clergy for their families (Lea, 1932).

[33] “As regards the individual nature, woman is defective and misbegotten, for the active force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex; while the production of woman comes from a defect in the active force or from some material indisposition, or even from some external influence” (Summa Theologica IV, part 1, question 92, §1,2). The notion of woman as “defective” was a justification for the witch hunts: “There was a defect in the formation of the first woman, since she was formed from a bent rib, that is, a rib of the breast, which is bent as it were in a contrary direction to a man. And since through this defect she is an imperfect animal, she always deceives” (Kramer & Sprenger, 1971, p. 44).

[34] McGrath might look at 1 Corinthians 11:8-9, Ephesians 5:22-24, and Colossians 3:18.

[35] One notable risk is that during some cycles of sectarian Christian violence, among the laity the consecrated virgins were singled out for particularly brutal treatment including denudation, beating, whipping, torture, and rape (Gaddis, 2005, pp. 83-86; McCabe, 1946, pp. 13-15).

[36] The Bible requires burning women for particular acts (Leviticus 21:9).

[37] “It is the moral duty of man to obtain every possible evidence that the structure of the heavens, or any other part of creation affords, with respect to systems of religion. But this, the supporters or partisans of the Christian system, as if dreading the result, incessantly opposed, and not only rejected the sciences, but persecuted the professors” (Paine, 1882, p. 37).

[38] McGrath also avers, “Calvinism is still one of the most potent and significant intellectual movements in human history” (p. 57). This seems an extraordinary judgment. Calvin’s ideas did not extend beyond theology, and even there their influence outside western Europe and northern North America is small to negligible. Only about 4% of nominal Christians are adherents of the Calvinist Reformed churches https://adherents.com/; Patheos: Library). McGrath has written a biography of Calvin. Perhaps this theologian is a personal favorite.

[39] It is worth remarking that these disavowals ignore the most obvious objection: all Calvin’s assertions of evidence of God in the universe are mere constructions, and there is in fact no such intrinsic evidence (Stenger, 2007, pp. 21-75, 113-168, 227-241). Calvin interprets what he sees in terms of cultural and personal opinions.

[40] For a statement of the Calvinist beliefs of this author see http://www.tms.edu/, headings “About” and “Statement of faith.”

[41] On this subject, White’s book contains an error, acquired from his source: in his denunciation, Calvin did not (as White states) mention Copernicus. The matter has been reviewed by several authors including Dan Bye (Bye, 2007).

[42] McGrath objects to this use of an individual’s name to denote the work of many persons when it is applied to a fellow theologian: “The term ‘Calvinism’ is often used to refer to the religious ideas of the Reformed Church…. This practice is now generally discouraged. It is becoming increasingly clear that later sixteenth-century Reformed theology draws on sources other than the ideas of Calvin himself. To refer to later sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Reformed thought as ‘Calvinist’ implies that it is essentially the thought of Calvin—and it is now generally agreed that Calvin’s ideas were modified subtly by his successors” (McGrath, 2011, p. 48; cf. McGrath, 2011, p. 466). (McGrath himself, however, uses Calvinism to denote doctrines of Calvin’s successors [McGrath, 2011, pp. 367-368].)

[43] McGrath himself uses evolution in the sense made popular by Herbert Spencer and Darwin (p. 9, 126, 168, 219, 330, 391, 431). See The Oxford English Dictionary, s.v. “Evolution,” I.6.c to I.9.

[44] Prior to the 20th century, the most comprehensive psychological explanation was that of Ludwig Feuerbach, whom McGrath dismisses as an “atheist German philosopher” (p. 150). Onfray, however, carefully considering the matter, notes that Feuerbach does not explicitly deny the existence of God, although he identifies the concept as a human fiction (Onfray, 2007, p. 31).

McGrath’s attempts to diminish the effectiveness of Feuerbach’s critique of Christianity are unsuccessful. He alleges that Feuerbach’s analysis “lose[s] much of its force when dealing with nontheistic religions” (p. 151) (a matter that is irrelevant to the philosopher’s critique of Christianity). Feuerbach did focus on the Christian religion of his society, but his principles of analysis can be extended to any system of belief in immaterial, human-like beings. Such systems correspond to the definition of religion apparently preferred by McGrath (p. 427). Feuerbach’s critique also is not vitiated by assertions that the content of statements made by certain people has been revealed to them by spirits, nor by allegations, unsubstantiated by valid historical evidence, of the historicity of Jesus or of any avatar of a deity (“a divine encounter with humanity from outside”) (p. 151). These supposed debilitations are underlain by belief in the Christian deity, which belief still is subject to Feuerbach’s interpretation. The existence of beliefs in particular public events does not alter the subjective character of belief itself.

[45] World Wide Web sites discussing and illustrating these applications are Complexity and Artificial Life Research Concept for Self-Organizing Systems, http://www.calresco.org, and Principia Cybernetica Web, http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/.

[46] For a refutation of this notion see Lewis-Williams, 2010, pp. 285-289.

[47] McGrath asserts a similarity between science and religion because both require a concept of “unobservable entities” (pp. 178-179). Likewise, astronomy and astrology both study the stars, develop theories, and make predictions, but the objective validity of astronomy in no way diminishes the falsity and superstitious character of astrology. And the existence of the “unobservable” entities studied by science is supported by objective evidence and is not merely a matter of credulousness.

[48] Celsus (around 177 CE) remarks that a favorite expression of Christian teachers is, “Do not ask questions, just believe!” and offers a version of the evidentiary principle as an idea that “Christians would do well to heed” (Celsus, 1987, p. 54).


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