Christianity went through several serious times of crisis in Europe during the 20th century. The World Wars, the rise of Communism, the increasing secularism, and the later fall of many of the Communist states all contributed to a complicated relationship between Church and State. The Church adjusted its views toward social activism and charity many times. Gonzalez takes us on an interesting walk through the 20th century in Europe.
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Reformation to the Present Day. Revised and Updated ed. Vol. 2. New York: HarperCollins, 2010b. Kindle Electronic Edition.
Chapter 35, “Crisis at the Center: Protestantism in Europe” Loc. 7133-7385.
The World Wars in the first half of the 20th century had a very strong effect on Christianity in Europe, along with all of European society. Gonzalez points to the sense of disillusionment which arose from the certainty of missionary work and colonialism as a force for good (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7139). Protestant efforts to avoid the wars or work reconciliation had failed. Gonzalez discusses Karl Barth (1886-1965) as giving the “most significant theological response” of the time (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7161). Disillusioned by the failure of liberal social programs, Barth turned to biblical exposition, writing a groundbreaking Commentary on Romans in 1916 (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7177). The transcendence of God and the eschatological nature of Christ’s kingdom were primary concepts in his writing. Over the next two decades he refined his views and concluded that the Bible both showed questions to ask and gave sound answers to those questions (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7216). Barth’s views became foundational to resisting Nazi ideas of human perfectibility (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7238).
While Barth was continuing his work in Switzerland, Bonhoeffer used similar ideas to resist Hitler’s government, eventually being imprisoned and serving as a chaplain to prisoners and guards in a concentration camp (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7261).
After World War II Soviet control was established throughout much of Eastern and central Europe (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7276). Christianity was seen as the enemy of the Communist rule, causing conflict. On some fronts there were attempts to reconcile Christianity with the social plans of communism, while some drew sharp distinctions (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7295). The idea of an eschatological hope as the foundation of Christianity became popular (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7314).
Gonzalez notes that secularization increased in the West after World War II, with very small minorities retaining involvement in Christianity (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7320). Liberal theological moves to “demythologize” the Christian faith may have contributed to this trend (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7329).
By the end of the 20th century Gonzalez sees a growing attitude that the form of Modernity found in the Enlightenment was becoming obsolete (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7344). The fall of communism opened the door to new types of relationships among Christians and between Church and State. Churches emerged from oppression with surprising strength (Gonzalez 2010b, Loc. 7374). Yet secularism was widely accepted among the populations of Europe.
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