Christopher Dawson was a Catholic lecturer and historian. He lectured at University College, Exeter, and at the Liverpool and Edinburgh Universities. In 1958, at Harvard University, he became the first Professor of Roman Catholic Studies. His book, The Formation of Christendom stems from a series of lectures given at Harvard University. The original intended audience of this book was of course those students, who were mainly Protestant, who came to the lectures given at Harvard by Dawson.
The main point of Dawson's book is Christian unity, specifically unity between Protestants and Catholics. He believes that the way in which we find this unity is through the study of theology, history, and culture. Dawson proposes this thesis because he had just been appointed to the Chair of Roman Catholic Studies at Harvard, and hoped to teach others the truth of Catholicism, in order to come to a mutual understanding. Since Dawson is Catholic, he will be discussing the history, theology, and culture of Catholicism in an attempt to unify both Protestants and Catholics.
Dawson continues and says that he intends to study the incline, and decline within the Church's history and that he intends to study “...the life of Christ in History-the progressive penetration of humanity by divine revelation, the extension of the Incarnation in the Life of the Church.” (Dawson 38) In the next chapter, Dawson describes the nature of culture, and says that “...there has been a close relation between the world civilizations and the world religions...which we must study if we are to understand the spiritual ideals that have inspired these great cultural unities...” (Dawson 57) Dawson says that there are six great religions, which have been the “...great unifying factors in the civilization of the world,” (Dawson 72) and that there is a problem whether or not “...these great world cultures themselves are to become merged in one all-embracing world civilization, based on modern science and technology.”(Dawson 72)
The second part of Dawson's book deals with the beginnings of Christian culture. Dawson begins with the theme of divine revelation within Judaism and Christianity. He begins with Abraham and continues with Moses, ending of course with Jesus. The main point Dawson wished to get across to his audience was that this divine revelation was the revelation of a personal and close God, not some distant and inaccessible deity. He points out that Jews were also waiting for a kingdom. The Church is the fulfillment of the kingdom hoped for by the Jewish people. Dawson says that the early Christians were a combination of Greek and Jewish culture, united under one Spirit, that is, the Spirit of Christ.
Dawson continuing his discourse discusses the influence that the Greek culture had upon the early Church, for better, and for worse. He says that unfortunately, Greek philosophy influenced Origen, and Tertullian, which eventually made them heretics, but that most of the early Church Fathers wrote in Greek, and not Latin. Dawson proceeds to give a brief account of when Christianity was finally legalized in the Roman Empire by the emperor Constantine.
He also discusses the formation of the Byzantine Church and the monastic traditions of the East and West. Dawson says that the formation of monastic communities “...was the development which would prove of such immense significance for the history of Western Europe in the following centuries.” (Dawson 145) These monastic communities produced many Fathers of the Church. Dawson then reflects upon the influences which the Hellenistic culture had on the early Church describing it as a Hellenistic-Patristic tradition. He says that “..the extreme forms of Protestant sectarianism...” (Dawson 161) have attempted to eliminate this tradition. Dawson says that the age in which the Byzantine culture ended, ended with the loss of the Christian East. This was mainly due to the invasion of Islam. The West was also devastated by the fall of the Roman Empire, and the loss of northern provinces to the barbarians, who were extremely difficult to convert.
The main element of Christianity which was able to effectively convert the barbarians were the monasteries, in particular the Benedictines. The monasteries also served as stable places of prayer, work, and study, which held the Church intact during this period. Dawson points out that many Protestant reformers saw this age as full of superstition. Dawson says that there was some superstition, but that the main element of this age was piety.
Dawson then briefly gives a background to some of the religious orders, mainly the Dominicans and Franciscans, and says that they along with the Jesuits, “...did much to save the religious life of Italy from the secularizing influence of the Renaissance culture, and thus to prepare the way for the religious revival of the Counter-Reformation.” (Dawson 225)
Dawson points out that this Medieval age of the Church, and in fact the entirety of Europe was not all as holy as we would deem it. During this period, there was the burning of witches, the execution of heretics, and the formidable Inquisition. He reminds us that the Church in fact did not agree with the execution of witches and heretics and instead implored her children to pray for those who had gone astray.
The next issue Dawson discusses is that of scholasticism. He says that it is absurd to think that people merely stopped thinking during the classical period, and then began thinking at the beginning of the Reformation. Dawson continues and briefly discusses the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, pointing out that Divine Revelation contained in the Scriptures needed philosophy and grammar in order to be understood, and not merely Sola Scriptura as the Protestants would say.
Dawson then argues that Christian culture is the “...historic source not only of Western Catholicism, but of the whole Western Christian tradition, both Catholic and Protestant, and of what we call European civilization in general.” (Dawson 263) The next topic Dawson goes over is that of the Great Schism between the East and the West. The main causes of this schism were political. “Thus the root of the great schism between East and West was not theological. It was cultural estrangement, mutual misunderstanding and the hoarded memories of unforgotten feuds.” (Dawson 276)
Continuing, Dawson shows that the clergy of the time were well educated, and therefore received positions of authority from kings and nobles because the laity were not as educated as they (the clergy) were. This was a major problem when the Reformation came along years later. Other problems which weakened the Church leading up to the Reformation were the Avignon papacy, and then the Great Schism that followed.
In conclusion, Christopher Dawson has tried to show the rise and fall of Christendom throughout the ages, but especially the deplorable state of the Church right before the Reformation. Dawson has shown that there was nothing wrong with the Church instituted by Christ, but that any flaw that could be found, resided in her members.