What Dominion is about.
Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, author and broadcaster who has written extensively about the ancient world and the early Middle Ages. His most recent and highly acclaimed book Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind is much broader in scope in that it traces the development of Western thought from the fifth century BC to the present day.
As Holland explains in his Preface, the purpose of this book is ‘to explore how we in the West came to be what we are, and to think the way we do.’ (p. xxiv) The argument that he puts forward is that what has inescapably shaped the Western world is the influence of the Christian faith. As he puts it:
‘To live in a Western country is to live in a society still utterly saturated by Christian Concepts and assumptions. This is no less true for Jews or Muslims than it is for Catholics or Protestants. Two thousand years on from the birth of Christ, it does not require a belief that he rose from the dead to be stamped by the formidable- indeed the inescapable – influence of Christianity. Whether it be the conviction that the workings of conscience are the surest determinants of good law, or that church and state exist as distinct entities, or that polygamy is unacceptable, its trace elements are to be found everywhere in the West. Even to write about it in a Western language is to use words shot through with Christian connotations. Religion, secular, atheist: none of these are neutral all though they derive from the classical past, come freighted with a legacy of Christendom. Fail to appreciate this, and the risk is always of anachronism. The West, increasingly empty though the pews may be, remains firmly moored to its Christian past.’ (p. xxv).
How Dominion is structured.
The book is divided into three main parts.
Part 1 is called ‘Antiquity.’ This starts with two chapters that sketch out the Hellenistic and Jewish backgrounds to the rise of Christianity. The remaining five chapters then trace the history of Western Christianity from Paul’s mission in Galatia in the 50s AD to the defeat of the Muslim army at Poitiers in 732.
Part 2 is called ‘Christendom.’ This traces the history of Western Christianity from the martyrdom of Boniface in Frisia in 754 to the study of astronomy by Galileo in Rome and by Jesuit missionaries in China in the 1630s.
Part 3 is called ‘Modernitas.’ This starts with the story of the radical egalitarian Digger movement in England in the aftermath of the English Civil War and then traces the story of Christianity in the West to the time of the rise of the #MeToo movement in the second decade of this century.
Holland does not attempt a detailed account of the whole history of Western Christianity. What he does instead is chose a selection of individuals and movements and to use these to tell the wider story of the development of Christian thinking and its influence on the Western world.
For example, in chapter V, ‘Charity,’ Holland illustrates the development of Christian thinking about wealth and poverty with reference to the actions and ideas of Julian the Apostate, Martin of Tours, Paulinus of Nola and Augustine of Hippo. For another example, in chapter XV, ‘Spirit’ Holland uses the stories of the Digger movement, the radical Jewish thinker Baruch Spinoza and the Quaker Benjamin Law to introduce the growth of religious toleration and beginning of the campaign for the abolition of slavery. For a third example, in chapter XXI, ‘Woke,’ Holland uses Angela Merkel’s approach to immigration, the attack on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the rise of the #MeToo movement to indicate the continuing influence of Christianity in the modern world.
A Christian assessment of Dominion.
Dominion has been much praised by reviewers and it seems likely that it will be widely influential and will appear on reading lists for those studying the history of Christianity at universities or theological colleges and courses.
Christian readers will find that Dominion is very readable and that it gives them a lot of information of the history of Christianity in the Western world. They will also be in agreement with Holland’s basic argument about the fact that Western civilization is based on Christian ideas and values. Christian apologists have been making this point for years, but now a highly regarded secular scholar is also making it.
However, there are also a number of aspects of the book that are problematic from a Christian perspective.
1. There is the governing assumption, set out in the Preface, that historians have to leave God out of their account of the past. Holland writes:
‘The crucifixion of Jesus, to all those many millions who worship Him as the son of the Lord God, the creator of heaven and earth, was not merely an event in history, but the very pivot on which the cosmos turns. Historians, however, no matter how alert there may be to the potency of this understanding, and to the way in which it has swayed the course of the world’s affairs, are not in the business of debating whether it is actually true. Instead, they study Christianity for what it can reveal, not about God, but about the affairs of humanity. No less than any other aspect of culture and society, beliefs are assumed to be of mortal origin, and shaped by the passage of time. To look to the supernatural for explanations of what happened in the past is to engage in apologetics: a perfectly respectable pursuit, but not history as today, in the modern West, it has come to be understood.’ (p. xxv).
The problem with this argument is that it is simply an appeal to the approach that is now normally taken by the mainstream of the Western academic tradition. For most of Western history the idea that those who think and write about the past have to exclude God and the supernatural from consideration would have appeared ludicrous and Holland gives no reason as to why the prevalent modern approach is to be preferred. All study of the past takes place on the basis of some pre-understanding of what the world is like and there is no good reason why the conviction that God exists and is active in the world should not be the starting point for a historian’s investigation and explanation of the past.
2. In line with Holland’s governing assumption, the story that he tells in Dominion is a purely human one. According to his account, the history of the Church in the West has been solely the result of human activity. God’s only role has been to be the object of human belief. From a Christian perspective this systematic exclusion of God from the story necessarily renders Holland’s account untruthful. What has really been going on in and through all the human activity that Holland so vividly describes is the risen Christ acting through the Spirit to fulfil God’s good purposes as the world moves towards the coming of God’s eternal kingdom. An adequate account of the history of the Church has to make this point clear.
3. As part of Holland’s exclusion of God from the picture, he regards the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as purely human writings rather than acknowledging that they have been inspired by God as the authoritative revelation of God’s activity in the world and his will for his human creatures.
4. Holland seems to accept (a) that the accounts of creation and the Fall contained in the Book of Genesis were not written by Moses, but came into existence as the result of the activity of Jewish scholars during and after Babylonian exile, and (b) that the conquest of Canaan under Joshua may well never have occurred. Many Christian scholars have exposed the problems with both these ideas and yet Holland never acknowledges or engages with their arguments.
5. Holland suggests that Yahweh had originally, ‘ranked as only one among the various gods of Israel’ and had only gradually ‘evolved to become the universal Lord of the heavens and the earth, without peer or rival.’ (p.44) As evidence for this claim Holland notes the references to other gods in Exodus 15:11 ‘Who among the gods is like you, O Lord’ and Psalm 89:6 ‘For who in the skies can compare with the Lord? Who is like the Lord among the sons of the gods?’ and the plural form of the Hebrew word for God, ‘elohim.’ Originally, suggests Holland, Yahweh was a storm god from Edom worshipped in the form of a bull and he had only gradually ‘come to be seen as supreme in the council of the gods’ (p.44) and finally seen as the only God there was.
The problem with this argument is that the point that both Exodus 15:11 and Psalm 89:6 is actually making is the uniqueness of Yahweh in relation to all the other entities labelled as ‘gods’ in the Ancient Near East. The Old Testament does not deny that there are ‘gods’ but it insists that these are either heavenly beings whom Yahweh has created or idols that human beings have created. By contrast Yahweh is the one true creator and ruler of heaven and earth and he always has been (‘from everlasting to everlasting thou are God’ Psalm 90:2). The use of the term elohim does not call this into question since there is no trace of it ever having been used in a way that suggests that God has gradually taken over the roles originally attributed in Israel to a pantheon of separate gods.
Furthermore, the description of Yahweh as coming from Edom in passages such as Judges 5:4 does not imply that he was originally a local deity from Edom, but that he led his people into Canaan from Edom at the conquest, and the Old Testament is quite clear that the worship of Yahweh in the form of a bull referred to in Exodus 32, 1 Kings 12:28 and Hosea 8:6 was a turning away from the true worship of god to idolatry rather than the way in which Yahweh had originally been worshipped. 
6. Holland fails to engage with the question of why it was that the human being Jesus of Nazareth came to be worshipped as God in a Jewish setting that held that God and human beings were completely distinct.
The nearest he gets to engaging with this question is when he comments concerning the depiction of Jesus in the gospels
‘…nothing was remotely as uncanny as the character of Jesus himself. No one quite like him had ever before been portrayed in literature. The measure of this was that Christians, when they read the gospels, were able to believe that the man whose life they depicted, a man whom they described as weeping, sweating and bleeding, a man whose death they vividly and unsparingly related, had indeed been what Paul claimed him to be: the Son of God.’ (p.86)
What Holland fails to do is explain in what way Jesus’ character was ‘uncanny’ and why this uncanniness led Christians to believe that he was the Son of God and as such the legitimate object of worship alongside God the Father. He also fails to explore the issue of whether the character of Jesus as depicted in the gospels was purely a literary invention or whether the gospels reflect what Jesus was really like.
In Dominion the question of who Jesus really was is never discussed and that is a truly extraordinary omission. As Holland rightly contends, the whole of Western civilisation has been shaped by a religious movement that originated with Jesus and yet Holland says nothing about who he thinks Jesus was or how we should understand his life and work.
Holland knows perfectly well that from the earliest days of the Church the explanation given by Christianity for its existence was that God became human in Jesus to bring salvation to a fallen world and that, to use an image employed by the theologian Karl Barth, the Church and its influence in history are the ‘bomb crater’ caused by this event. What he fails to do is either to accept this claim or provide any alternative explanation. If we ask him why Christianity came into being, he simply gives no answer.
7. Holland presents a seriously distorted view of the teaching of Paul. Holland quotes 1 Corinthians 10:23 ‘Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible but not everything is constructive’ and comments:
‘Here, plucked from the seeming implosion of the church in Corinth, was a momentous argument; that law was most properly ‘the law of Christ’ when it served the good of those who obeyed it. Commandments were just, not because God has decreed that they were, not because he had uttered them to a prophet, not because he had issued them amid fire and thunder from some distant mountain in the desert, but because they worked for the common good.’ (p.75)
He then goes on to argue, with reference to 1 Corinthians 13:1, that for Paul the test of what ranked as beneficial was whether or not something was an expression of love and to suggest that Paul was inconsistent when he went on to insist that homosexuality was wrong and that women should wear a veil in worship.
The problem with this argument is first of all that Paul never contrasted an approach to ethics based on what expresses love with the authority of the Mosaic law given by God at Sinai. As he makes clear in Galatians 5:14 and Romans 13:8-10, the importance of love is precisely that the person who truly acts in love as result of the activity of the Spirit within them will act in a way that fulfils the commandments of God given at Sinai. This means for Paul that any activity that claims to be loving but that contradicts these commandments is not really loving at all.
Furthermore, Paul was not being contradictory when he insisted that homosexuality was wrong and women should wear veils. This is because for him the framework for living rightly in obedience to God’s law included respecting the way God had created human beings as male and female, and this meant men and women having sex only with a member of the opposite sex and women dressing in a way that in that culture reflected their female identity.
8. Holland also argues that Paul failed to ‘push the radicalism of his message to its logical conclusion’ (p.82) when he insisted that a Christian slave should be willing to remain a slave. What he has failed to understand is that it was precisely Paul’s radical vision that a person’s identity was no longer defined by their social status, but by their relationship with God in Christ, that led him to declare in 1 Corinthians 7: 20-24 that while a slave should accept their freedom should it be offered to them they should not be ‘constantly seeking to become free as through everything depended on it.’ They should not make ‘a change of status their overarching goal.’ For Paul, people’s status in Christ was the really important reality and Christians needed to live in a way that reflected this fact. Being willing to remain a slave was one way of doing this since this was a way of testifying that freedom had already been given to them by Christ.
9. Holland accepts the idea that both the Pastoral Epistles and Ephesians are non-Pauline in spite of the fact that both the external and internal evidence points to their Pauline authorship. Holland doesn’t engage with scholarship that has made this point, or even acknowledge its existence.
10. Holland fails to do justice to the reasons why two of the Medieval heretical movements he covers were regarded as so serious by the Catholic Church.
The first of these movements is the Cathars. The Cathars are the centre of his chapter on the persecution of heresy by the Medieval Church and Holland argues that their persecution was unjustified because they were not really heretics at all but rather old-fashioned Christians ‘left behind by the new orthodoxies of the age’ (p.242). What Holland fails to engage with is the abundant evidence that the Cathars held to a dualist theology which regarded matter as evil and which consequently rejected the creator God of the Old Testament and both Jesus’ incarnation and his bodily resurrection. They also seem to have rejected Baptism, Holy Communion and marriage. This being the case, they were not simply people who had failed to catch up with the development of Catholic theology, but people who held beliefs that were completely incompatible with the basic teaching of the New Testament. It is perfectly legitimate to criticise the extreme violence with which the Church persecuted the Cathars, but this does not mean that the Church was not right to see them as seriously heretical.
The second of these movements is the cult of Guglielma. Holland tells us that the reason why the cult of Guglielma was suppressed as heretical and Guglielma’s corpse taken from its tomb and burned was that her ideas contradicted the teaching of 1 Timothy 2:12 ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or have authority over a man; she must be silent.’ According to Holland ‘Here, in this single verse was all the justification the inquisitors had needed to suppress Guglielma’s cult.’ (p.259)
However, as Holland himself tells us, there was more to it than that. The reason that action was taken against this cult was that the evidence suggested that she had taught that ‘she was the Holy Spirit made flesh for the redemption of women’ and that she ‘baptised women in the name of the Father, the Son and of herself.’ It was also claimed by her followers that she had been raised from the dead and had ushered in a new feminine age of the Spirit (replacing the previous age of the Son) in which the Church would be entirely run by women. (pp. 256-257). What was at stake was therefore not just the issue of whether women could teach, or exercise authority in the Church, but the claim that Guglielma was God and was ushering an entirely new stage in God’s relationship with the human race. What was at stake was therefore not just the application of one verse of Scripture, but the much bigger question of whether the Church should accept an understanding of God and God’s activity in the world that had no foundation in the New Testament or the orthodox Christian tradition and which, if not true, was completely blasphemous.
11. Holland is oversimplifying matters when he argues that ‘Aquinas, Augustine and Saint Paul’ would not have disagreed with John Lennon’s assertion that ‘all you need is love.’ (p.472). Aquinas, Augustine and Paul would certainly agree that love is the fundamental principle that should shape human behaviour. However, their understanding of what living a life of love involves would be different from that of Lennon. For Lennon ‘love’ seems to mean simply a general attitude of amiability towards other people whereas for Aquinas, Augustine and Paul love for other people is the outworking of a relationship with God and involves acting towards other people in a way that is in accordance with our knowledge of what God wills for their good. It is this theological framework for determining what love involves that has been widely discarded in the contemporary world.
12 Holland is misleading when he comments concerning the Islamic state movement:
‘The licence they drew upon for their savagery derived not from the incomparable inheritance of Islamic scholarship, but from a bastardised tradition of fundamentalism that was, in its essentials, Protestant. Islamic the Islamic state may have been; but it also stood in a line of descent from Anabaptist Munster. It was, perhaps, the most gruesome irony in the whole history of Protestantism.’ (p.496)
In reality, the Islamic State movement is an offshoot of the Wahhabi tradition within the Sunni branch of Islam. Wahhabism emerged in what is now Saudi Arabia in the eighteenth century as a reform movement calling for Islam to return to its original purity. It was an entirely indigenous development within Islam and there is absolutely no reason to label it as ‘Protestant’ since it has no historical links at all with the Protestant tradition within Christianity. Wahhabism and Protestantism are two entirely separate developments in the history of religion. The Protestant tradition may be responsible for many things, but the Islamic State movement is thus not one of them. 
13. Holland is likewise misleading when he declares that ‘America’s culture wars were less a war against Christianity than a war between Christian factions.’ (pp. 514-515) It is true, as Holland notes, that the proponents of abortion, gay marriage and transgender equality have been influenced in their thinking by Christian assumptions about the dignity of women, about the monogamous nature of marriage and about the need to care for the persecuted and the vulnerable. However, this does not negate the truth that the campaigns for abortion, gay marriage and the acceptance of gender transition have involve an attack on three fundamental Christian beliefs: (a) that the unborn child is a person created by God who should not be killed, (b) that God created marriage to be a relationship between two people of the opposite sex and (c) that human beings are called to accept the sex that God has given them and that this sex is determined by their biology. The motives of those advocating abortion, gay marriage and gender transition may thus have been influenced by Christian ideas, but this has led them to adopt an anti-Christian approach on these three issues.
14. In his closing comments at the end of Dominion Holland highlights a key issue facing the secular humanism that is becoming increasingly influential in Western civilisation:
‘If secular humanism derives not from reason or from science, but from the distinctive course of Christianity’s evolution – a course that, in the opinion of growing numbers in Europe and America has left God dead – then how are its values more than the shadow of a corpse? What are the foundations of its morality, if not a myth?’ (p.524)
Holland’s response to this challenge to secular humanism is to declare:
‘A myth, though, is not a lie. At its most profound – as Tolkien, that devout Catholic, always argued – a myth can be true.’ (p.524)
What Holland seems to be suggesting is (a) that we should now accept that Christianity is a myth, a story that is not factually true, and (b) that acknowledging that it is a myth does not actually matter because a mythical story can nevertheless in some way still be true and we in the West can and should continue to live by this truth.
There are two problems with this suggestion.
First, the idea that a myth can be true only works if a myth gives expression to something that actually is true. The reason that Tolkien held, for instance, that The Lord of the Rings was a true myth was because, although it was itself an imaginary tale, it gave expression to the Christian gospel, which was something that was factually true.
What Holland entirely fails to make clear is what the truth is to which the Christian myth points if it itself not factually true. If there is no God and if Jesus Christ was not therefore not God become man for the salvation of the world then what is the truth that is left and how can this provide a sufficient basis for the Christian approach to morality than Holland still wants to uphold? Holland simply does not tell us.
Secondly, in Dominion as a whole, Holland fails to establish that we should now view Christianity as a myth. Nowhere in Dominion does he actually give good grounds for thinking that God does not exist or that he did not become incarnate as Jesus Christ.
The closest Holland gets to doing this is when he testifies to his own loss of Christian faith, and says that this was because:
‘The reaches of time seemed too icily immense for the life and death of a single human being two thousand years ago possibly to have the cosmic significance claimed for it by Christianity;’ (p.520)
and because of the question, sparked by his childhood love for dinosaurs:
‘Why, if God existed, had he allowed so many species to evolve, to flourish, and then utterly to disappear?’ (p.520)
However, neither of these objections to Christian belief is convincing.
The first objection fails to take into account what cosmologists tell us has taken place in the universe in the immense amount of time since the Big Bang. What their studies indicate is exactly in line with what we are told in the Book of Genesis, namely that the universe is the work of an intelligent designer who has used the time since Big Bang to fine tune the cosmos so that it has given birth to the human race to know him, love him, and to share in his rule over the created order . If this is the case, then it makes sense to say that existence of humanity is not an accident but the goal of the cosmic process, and it makes further sense to conceive that the intelligent designer, ‘God’, would have taken the necessary steps to ensure that his purposes in creating the human race achieve their fulfilment, even if this mean taking human nature upon himself in order to give humanity a fresh start when it needed one.
The second objection is a variant on the age-old argument against the existence of God on the basis of the existence of evil. The argument basically goes that a good God would not permit species to disappear, species have disappeared, therefore a good God cannot exist.
The first point that needs to be made in response is that if there is in fact no God the argument undercuts itself. The idea that an occurrence in nature (such as the extinction of the dinosaurs) is wrong only makes sense if there is a standard against what happens in nature can be measured. This cannot be nature itself, so it must be a transcendent standard of goodness beyond nature, what Christian theology calls ‘God.’ The whole argument is therefore in fact predicated upon the existence of a good God and human ability to know what God wills.
However, this still leaves the question of why God allows species to disappear. Part of the answer that Christian theology has to give is that it that it takes place because of the activity of the malign spiritual power known as the Devil, who constantly seeks to corrupt and destroy what God has made, and as a result of the influence of the Devil upon human beings. However, this still leaves the question of why God permits the Devil and human beings to act in this way. The only answer that finally makes sense is that God permits this because he knows that the ultimate result will be a particular kind of good that could not have been achieved in any other way, a good which he already perceives and that will come to pass in the fulness of time.
As the Book of Job reminds, as finite human beings we are never going not be able to understand fully in this world why God acts as he does (see Job 39:1-42:6). We know enough, however, to make it rational to believe that God exists and that he is wise and good and that it therefore makes sense to trust him in regard to things that we do not yet understand.
What all these thirteen points mean is that while Dominion is an interesting read it is nonetheless seriously flawed both in terms of the assumptions on which it is based and in terms of a number of the arguments which it puts forward.
M B Davie 12.1. 2020.
 Tom Holland, Dominion – The Making of the Western Mind (London: Little, Brown, 2019).
 For a helpful study of monotheism in the Old Testament see Richard Bauckham, ‘Biblical Theology and the Problem of Monotheism,’ in Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the God of Israel (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2008), pp. 60-126.
 Tom Wright, Paul for Everyone – 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2003), pp.87 -89.
 For details about the origins of the Islamic State movement see Patrick Sookhdeo, Unmasking Islamic State, (McLean; Isaac Publishing, 2015), Chs. 1 -2.
 For this point see John Lennox, God’s Undertaker – Has Science Buried God ? (Oxford: Lion, 2009).