The Crusades Are Too Complex To Be Shoehorned

I think Obama was historically ignorant and politically ill-advised to bring the Crusades into the discussion, for reasons we have discussed in this space (in short, because the historical phenomenon is far too complex to be shoehorned into a neat, politically useful narrative). Nevertheless, he was certainly right to say that no religion has a monopoly on virtue or vice, and to call for all of us to be more humble and loving. What’s most interesting about his speech, though, is how he assumes that his watery, secular-ish liberal take on religion (both Christian and otherwise) is the authentic religious stance.

—Rod Dreher, The Heretic Hunters Of Liberal Christianity

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  1. Just from the first sentence, it wouldn’t matter if he was historically accurate, that he would be condemned because mentioning the errors of Christians past was politically wrong. I would like to know how he was historically inaccurate concerning what he said about the Crusades. That the Crusades might have been a mixed venture does not contradict what he said.

  2. Well, surely we can say that Christianity does have a monopoly on virtue since it’s, you know, the true religion. It holds out the only way of salvation and true godliness can only be found in following Christ. Have so-called Christians done bad things? Yeah. The difference is that such behaviour is contrary to true Christianity. Regenerated Christians continue to sin, and may struggle with particular sins all their lives, but they don’t habitually go out and murder people or commit war crimes, justifying their behaviour by their faith. Those who feel justified in such behaviour justify themselves by their carnal religion, not by the Gospel.

    This cannot be said of other religions. It is intrinsic to Islam to be violent, aggressive, desirious to conquer and enslave those who are not muslim. That is how Islam spreads: by the sword. They have no spirit-wrought work in their hearts; they can only conquer the non-muslim by physical force. So, no, Obama was wrong not only in bringing the Crusades into the discussion but was wrong in his assessment of religion in general.

    • Alexander,

      1. It depends upon how one defines “virtue.” Surely unbelievers have virtues of some sort. I have known pagans to be most kind, patient, gracious, etc. There are civil virtues.

      2. I doubt that we can say that all the crusaders were ipso facto unregenerate, if that was the implication.

  3. Perhaps the standing traditional view of the Crusades was overly harsh, but I confess to being baffled at the Reformed folks that have been citing Cannon as providing a corrective, particularly since the President’s speech. While I admit that I haven’t read Cannon’s book length work, the essay from First Things that is getting so many links is little more than a puff piece in behalf of the Crusades. Not only does Cannon gloss over the issue of ecclessial control of the civil sphere in order to perform the work of Christ at the business end of a sword, but he additionally says that the Crusades — all of them — not only met just war criteria, but were also “holy wars,” a designation that he gave approvingly because they involved papal offers of plenary indulgences.

    That’s not a corrective revision. It’s an apologia.

    • Harry,

      After I read Madden, Stark, and others (Riley-Smith is on order) I realized the story I had been told and was telling others was too simple. The crusades were very complex. Yes, Christendom was a great mistake. I agree entirely. Christendom was partly responsible for the crusades but people would likely have made pilgrimages (also misguided) to Spain and to Jerusalem without Christendom. What do states do when their citizens are being slaughtered? In that sense, the response by the West to centuries of Islamic violence is not much different from what we face today.

      Were the crusades laudable? No. Did they become unfocused? Yes. Were they unduly violent? Yes. Were they used as an excuse to do terrible things to Jews in Europe? Yes, sometimes. Did they exacerbate the tensions between the Eastern and Western churches? Yes. Did the W. church attempt to use them to leverage influence in and control over the E. church?

      Were they, however, as I was told in university, fueled principally by land-grabbing greed? As it turns out, no. The facts don’t support the materialist-Marxist interpretations of the crusades.

      From a theological point of view I don’t think Reformed folk should be defending the crusades as much as cautioning presidents of all political stripes to stick to policy and step down from the pulpit. We should be ambivalent, at best, about presidential prayer breakfasts. There were aspects of Dr Carson’s address that were wince worthy and aspects that were praiseworthy. He was one of the first national figures to speak up against what seemed, at the time, to be an attempt to silence all dissent in this country. There is a fundamental problem with presidential prayer breakfasts, as I pointed out in 2011.

  4. Dr. Clark,
    I had not read the first link you provided but I not only had read the second link, I read the Madden link it referenced. But I also read Madden on the Inquisition and found that he doesn’t mention everything when trying to act as at least a partial apologist for the Inquisition. Likewise, he did not mention everything about the Crusades and how the Popes had been making declarations that would expand their political power.

    As for indulgences, the first mention of the offer of indulgences comes in November of 1095 (see ). In that same speech, the Pope called for rich and poor alike to join and expel that ‘evil race’ where Christian brothers live.

    In addition, the quote from the second link which you provided for me seems to be at odds with what Dr. Godfrey says at around the 12:27 mark of this video:

    It also seems that the eschatological motivation allegedly used to garner recruits, all of which was reported by Godfrey’s talk, is very similar to the motivation driving today Christian Zionism. And in today’s Christian Zionism, there is a tremendous disregard for the humanity of the Palestinians due to narrow goals and vision of these Zionists.

    Finally, in judging any venture must be done on two levels: assessing the leaders and their motivations and assessing not just the words, but the actions of the participants. And this must be done for each Crusade. For example, the slaughter of the indigenous people of Jerusalem places a tremendous blight on that First Crusade. On all of these levels, there are horrible wrongs done in the name of Christ. And pointing to any atrocities committed by Arabs does not excuse the atrocities for which we need to acknowledge, mourn, and remember as we point out the sins of our enemies.

  5. Mr. Clark-

    Hmmm, it would appear from your comments that you don’t find the Crusades that complex at all. At the end of the day, they were, what, a four century war? That’s how they should be addressed. The muslims were the interlopers. It was never their land. It seems quite acceptable to me that those in the West would want to reclaim it. Lots of bad things were done during them, most especially to Jews (those “crusaders” clearly weren’t regenerate) but they can’t be treated as a monolithic, or even self-contained “event” like the burning alive of the pilot or the beheading of a journalist.

    Also, I find your wholesale condemnation of Christendom as a mistake problematic. Christendom was the means used by God for the propagation of the Gospel; just as the British Empire was used in later generations for the further propagation of the Gospel. Was Christendom a righteous, holy, perfectly Christian political entity? No. But it was the means used. I won’t say that without it the Gospel wouldn’t have spread, because that would be making the same mistake you did: namely, that human actions are necessary for/frustrate God’s work. The fact is, Christendom did happen and it was the means used. And frankly, I think many nations would be in far better shape if they were governed like Calvin’s Geneva than how they are governed today (and I mean Western states).

    Curt- who was actually celebrating the Crusades before that man made his stupid remark? The response has probably been a bit of a knee-jerk one, driven by politics, but if you go out of your way to make a partisan point then expect partisan points in response. Also, they were 1000 years ago!! People are being burned alive right now, and hacked to death on our streets right now! To make the point that he did is not just partisan, it’s immoral. But then he has an agenda, and it’s not protecting the West from Islam that’s for sure.

    • Alexander, wow. So The weapons of God are just as carnal as spiritual? Here some of us thought the propagation of the gospel was by Word and Spirit alone.

  6. Zrim, how does the Son of God becoming inCARNATE sound to you? Sounds pretty fleshly… Sounds like God getting his hands messy with humans in their heilsgeschichte/heilshistorisch.

    Christendom was, in fact, a missionary endeavor. Whether or not it succeeded or was compromised in the end is a different question altogether. Unlike the good Drs. here whose vision isn’t obscured, it is difficult for you to see this from the Ideological Historicism of your (per)version of two kingdoms theology.

    Word and Spirit “alone”? If you look at the texts of Scripture, you will find wherever the Spirit broods, materiality comes forth, even making use of the materiality it surrounds. What you don’t find is some Gnostic anti-materialism which shuns ‘carnality’. You really need to rethink your “wow.”

    • “Gnostic anti-materialism”? Take a breath, Anglican. The point isn’t to undermine the incarnation (it does sound good to anyone with ears to hear, you’re quite right). It’s to take the brooding Word seriously when it says not to put any trust in princes or a son of man in whom there is no salvation, or that our weapons are not carnal but spiritual. It’s hard to see how the cheerleaders of Christendom do those kinds of words much justice.

    • Dear Brighton,

      Please note the comments policy:

      Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.



  7. Brighton Anglican- thanks for the back-up. I think Zrim’s “wow” was directed more towards “hearing” himself speak than anything actually said in the discussion. I guess his translation of the Bible doesn’t have Romans 10:14-15.

    Zrim also seemed to miss the fact that I was distinguishing between the Crusades on the one hand- a four century long war, waged by the nations of what was Christendom against those who had invaded Christian lands and conquered peoples who depended on the western nations for support; and Christendom itself. He missed the fact that I didn’t argue for the propagation of the Gospel by the sword (I don’t see the Crusades as about converting muslims through war but expelling them from land which they had stolen).

  8. I didn’t argue for the propagation of the Gospel by the sword…

    “Christendom was the means used by God for the propagation of the Gospel; just as the British Empire was used in later generations for the further propagation of the Gospel. Was Christendom a righteous, holy, perfectly Christian political entity? No. But it was the means used. I won’t say that without it the Gospel wouldn’t have spread, because that would be making the same mistake you did: namely, that human actions are necessary for/frustrate God’s work. The fact is, Christendom did happen and it was the means used.”

    Wow. But, Alexander, you seem to think that the sword is only the one wielded in war. Does your Bible include Romans 13, which clearly teaches that the sword is bore to enforce what is good and oppose what is evil (“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain”). IOW, even during peaceful times when no militaristic threat looms, the magistrate is bearing and using the figurative sword, which is to say employing carnal tools for carnal ends. So why do you think carnal tools are good for spiritual ends when the Bible and plain reasoning clearly teach that while carnal tools are for carnal ends, spiritual tools are for spiritual ends?

  9. What in my comment even implied that I believe the sword should be used for the propagation of the Gospel? I said Christendom and the British Empire were means used for the spread of the Gospel, i.e. these geo-political structures allowed the spread of the Gospel. It wasn’t the Roman centurions or the British Navy that was preaching the Word; it was the missionaries travelling throughout these empires. Travel which wouldn’t have been possible had it not been for the existence of empire.

    I don’t even know what your point about the civil magistrate is since you spend all your time fulminating against him elsewhere you now come and argue for him? Bizarre,.

  10. Alexander, you’e not reading. Sword = carnal tools. Geo-political structures are carnal tools.

    Do you not distinguish between means of propagating the gospel and particular context for doing so? Further, the apostles had the polar opposite of a friendly geo-political context. And yet, not only propagation of the gospel (by Word and Spirit alone) but no agitating for anything remotely resembling Christendom (Word, Spirit and Sword). Are you saying they had a second-rate (even “Gnostic”) playbook?

    “Fulminating against the magistrate elsewhere”? You mean when promoting civil obedience to all manner of boos and howls?

    What’s in the drinking water in Scotland these days? Heavens.

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