With Fixation on ‘Doctrine of Discovery,’ Christians Ape a Secular Alternative to Christian Doctrine

By Mark Tooley Published on August 7, 2018

Christianity claims that humanity is fallen. We need to be redeemed, both personally and socially. Western secularism offers an alternative story. It thinks man is largely good but corrupted or oppressed by systemic injustice. But even this clear view is distorted by a sort of a weird mix of self absorption and self-loathing. Western secularism declares the West itself to be the main oppressor in the world. Some Christians, who tend to focus on systematic sin over personal sin, prefer this alternative myth to orthodox Christian view of man.

Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Western Civ Has Got to Go

This mythology portrays indigenous peoples as uncorrupted until they encounter Western Civilization. This echoes the thinker Rousseau, who saw such people as “noble savages.” The West, in this story, is uniquely imperialistic and is wealthy only because of centuries of colonialism. There can be no atonement for this sin, only permanent guilt, shame and endless reparations.

In this mindset, the National Council of Churches, back when the media noticed it, opposed celebrating the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in America in 1992. In response, Richard John Neuhaus asked whether their lament over Columbus also included regret over the Gospel’s introduction into the Americas. The answer was never clear.

Doctrine of Discovery?

More recently Mainline denominations have taken turns denouncing the “Doctrine of Discovery.” According to post-colonial theorists, this refers to the Original Sin of Western exploitation of the Americas. In this theory, Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 papal bull “Inter Caetera” authorized Spanish conquest of the Western Hemisphere. It declared that the “Catholic faith and the Christian religion be exalted and be everywhere increased and spread, that the health of souls be cared for and that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the faith itself.”

This papal bull, according to Doctrine of Discovery ideology, was foreshadowed in 1452 by Pope Nicholas V’s “Dum Diversas,” which authorized Portuguese attacks on “Saracens and pagans.” With it, the pope had hoped to counter the impending Turkish conquest of Constantinople. We’re told that even Protestant monarchs like the British were influenced by these and other papal bulls. So were early U.S. Supreme Court rulings that traced land claims to original colonial law.

For post-colonial theory, the papal bull of 1493, or perhaps of 1453, replaces the narrative of Adam and Eve’s fall. All subsequent wickedness flows from not from Eden, but from Western colonialism. Alas, there’s no clear redemption. At most there’s a permanent purgatory that purges sin but never really culminates in salvation.

In Scripture, in contrast, God promises a Redeemer to restore fallen humanity and creation. This promise appears just after the fall itself.

Churches “Repent” of Colonialism

Among the latest plugs for this worldly purgatory was the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly. Earlier this summer it voted by 87 percent to expand its 2016 statement to repent over the Doctrine of Discovery. An earlier speech at the 2016 General Assembly explained the logic:

Our church roots and the history of this country, from colonial settlement to the present day are mixture of religion and politics steeped in racism and white dominance. In fact from the beginning of the age of exploration, established in the Doctrine of Discovery of 1453, the displacement, genocide and enslavement of indigenous natives and Africans, became an inextricable part of this nation and Christendom.

In 2016 the Evangelical Lutheran Church’s Churchwide Assembly did the same. It resolved to “repudiate explicitly and clearly the European-derived doctrine of discovery … to acknowledge and repent from this church’s complicity in the evils of colonialism in the Americas” and to “eliminate the doctrine of discovery from its contemporary rhetoric and programs. …”

And of course, the Episcopal Church was ahead of the curve. It renounced the Doctrine of Discovery at its 2009 General Convention. In 2012, its Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori explained the “doctrine” at the United Nations as an expansion of the Crusades:

The explorers who set out from Christian Europe in the 15th century went with even broader motivations, in search of riches and abundantly fertile lands. They also went with religious warrants, papal bulls which permitted and even encouraged the subjugation and permanent enslavement of any non-Christian peoples they encountered, as well as the expropriation of any territories not governed by Christians.

Bishop Jefferts-Schori insisted Western colonialism was uniquely evil. It was “not akin to Viking raids in the British Isles, or ancient struggles between neighboring tribes in Europe or Africa.” Why? Because these “acts of ‘Discovery’ have had persistent effects on marginalized, transported and disenfranchised peoples.”

A resolution from the 2013 General Synod of the United Church of Christ likewise linked Doctrine of Discovery to earlier Christian crimes. It noted that “from the Crusades through the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church promulgated several Papal Bulls which authorized and justified the destruction, killing and appropriating lands of indigenous peoples. These Papal Bulls formulated the theological base for what became the tragic genocide of American Indians.” And, “Protestant churches beginning as early as 1609 when English clergy in Jamestown developed a coherent narrative that brought together a legal rationalization for invading America, debasing American Indians and made a Christian commitment to convert Indians commitment which they never delivered … .”

It Started, You See, with Pagan Rome

An ecumenical timeline for Doctrine of Discovery moves the start date even further back in history. It sets its start date long before the Crusades, recalling how the Roman Empire took “undefended or unoccupied land (terre nulles) for the emperor.” And in the 4th century the Church and Roman state would “merge,” as Emperor Constantine “establishes the orthodoxy of the Christian church in the Roman Empire,” and “Christianity is decreed the exclusive state religion of the Empire in 380 CE.”

So Christian regrets and apologies over the Doctrine of Discovery need to encompass over 2,000 years and include policies of ancient pagan Rome.

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The Synod of the Christian Reformed Church repented of the Doctrine of Discovery in 2016. One pastor noted that there was “1,600 years of sin” to cover. So, the project’s guilt seems to start with Constantine. Delegates together performed “The Blanket Exercise,” a new guilt ritual. A church report explains that it began “with a beautiful picture, as people walk barefoot over a floor covered with brightly-colored blankets” representing “indigenous peoples before Europeans arrived.” Then the “blankets are folded back and eventually removed by invading settlers.” By way of “disease, heartache, and death, many of the indigenous people also leave the scene.” Why? So that “at the end you are by yourself and no one is approaching you.” This represents a loss of “community” and “connectedness.”

Targeting Evangelicals

Note that the Christian Reformed Church (CRC) is more conservative than liberal Mainline Protestant denominations, though the main religious activist denouncing the supposed Doctrine of Discovery comes from the CRC. He seems to target mostly evangelical audiences and has addressed major convocations attracting young evangelicals such as Q, Urbana and the Justice Conference. Doctrine of Discovery’s message of Western and American guilt fits with leftward evangelical trends focusing on systemic instead of personal sin.

These fashionable argument fails to explain how 2,000 years of Roman/Western/American conquests differ from millennia of conquests by Mongols, Persians, Moguls, Arabs, Turks, or so-called indigenous peoples whose tribes waged merciless wars on each other since the dawn of time.

Christian-influenced Western culture is as sinful as any other but did uniquely develop a system of statecraft that offers an argument against conquest and in favor of peaceful adjudication among nations wherever possible. Ironically, but the Doctrine of Discovery and its lament over unjust conquest could only have emerged from Christendom. But these modern critics of earlier Christian conquests owe far more to ideology and mythology than to history. At the extreme they become graceless and heterodox, mostly condemning dead men while largely avoiding our own sins of today. Most importantly, they consign humanity to an endless cycle of tragedy while ignoring that God is sovereign and triumphant.

Still, Christ prevails despite sin and heterodoxy. Even a misguided campaign against a Doctrine of Discovery cannot long hinder His purposes.

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