Was Christianity responsible for the crusades?

Found this question difficult and can’t say that I was particularly happy with my answer. What would you have said?


UPDATE #1: My good colleague through the wall, Dr Bill Vandoodewaard,  comes to my rescue with this answer:

There were certainly atrocities committed as part of the Crusades: the sack of Jerusalem stands as one glaring example which we should lament as Christians. 

However, to be fair the Crusades as a whole must be set against both the backdrop, and immediate context of Islamic expansion through warfare and conquest.  The Byzantine Empire, the great empire of eastern Christendom, was under continued assault and invasion.  North Africa had fallen to the Muslims; Spain had been invaded.  While the French mainland invasions from Spain had been repelled prior, there were regular attacks by Muslim raiding parties along  Mediterranean coastal France, Italy, Greece, etc.  This is one reasons why medieval (and later!) Greek, Italian and French villages along the coasts sit atop fortified hills – Muslim raiding parties which killed the men, sexually assaulted/captured the women, and took the children as slaves back to North Africa/Palestine.

The medieval world was a religio-political world.  The two were not separated as they are today in a secular West.  As such, when the Byzantines asked Western Europe (in part via the Pope) for assistance, it was seen as Christians asking Christians for help in defending their national boundaries and the lives of their citizens.  Why the move during the Crusades to take Palestine/Jerusalem?  One reason is the errant medieval theology of meritorious pilgrimages to pray at sacred locations/relics where grace was believed to be more accessible.  Another is that these were still seen as lands wrongfully and forcefully conquered by the Muslims.  Thirdly, in terms of military and geo-political strategy attempting to retake Jerusalem and the surrounding regions was seen as beneficial in aiding the Byzantines in their self-defense by opening a second front.  This was for a good deal of time effective in minimizing Muslim military attempts against the Byzantines.

The Byzantines despite being “Christian” had plenty of issues themselves, as did the other European “Christian” kingdoms.  This was abundantly evident in the Fourth Crusade, perhaps the worst of them all in terms of violence against civilians.  It occurred when the “Christian” Venetians decided to take the opportunity to take out their chief economic competitor, “Christian” Byzantium/Constantinople.

I believe there were genuine Christians caught in the midst of it all.  Undoubtedly some who sinned and failed.  Others were simply seeking to be faithful in their context.  Bernard of Clairvaux, the great medieval preacher, appreciated by Calvin and Luther, was an instrumental figure in raising some of the Crusader support: to me it seems likely he was a believer.  Historically I think there are some good reasons to see him as promoting a just war, despite the evident failures (theologically and militarily) in the midst of it all.


A great book related to the topic is Bat Yeor’s The Decline of Eastern Christianity Under Islam: From Jihad to Dhimmitude.


UPDATE#2: James Hakim serves as a PCA Pastor in Orange City, Iowa. Although, he is from Detroit, Michigan, his family is of Coptic origin, his father having been a Presbyterian elder in Egypt. He sent in this perspective as someone who holds North Africa dear to his heart:

I’m responding to your blog post/clip on the crusades; I would like to add a little context that is pretty undisputed, to supplement Dr. Vandoodewaard’s answer.

For centuries, North Africa was the most Christian region in the world. That region produced many great pastors and theologians, whom we now know as “church fathers”: Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Tertullian, Cyprian, Augustine. 

The hard work and simple living of such simple societies produced a large amount of wealth and civilization that made them a tempting target for the Muslims. 

Just doing the math, one can see that the Muslim genocide of Arabia, Near Asia, and North Africa went basically unanswered for around 500 years. That in itself is astounding. 

What is more astounding is the amount of self-sacrifice that was involved for the people going on the crusades. Treasure could not be a motivation. One could barely carry enough back to compensate him for the cost of the journey. Many gave up the best years of their lives, leaving house and home behind. Many went, not knowing what would happen to their families while they were gone. 

But it was for their families, first, that they went–so that what had happened in North Africa would not soon repeat itself in Europe. And, too, being faced with the possibility of such horrors at home, it became no small thing that their own brothers and sisters in Christ had been facing the reality of these horrors (not merely the possibility!) for centuries.

And, of course, there is the cause of Christ, which is served more out of loving your brother than securing parcels of land in the Near East. It cannot be denied that this last was part of the “marketing” of the thing, and some good old North African “City of God” theology might have spared them this as well.

So, was Christianity responsible for the crusades? Christianity was responsible for sons and fathers and brothers and husbands willing to lay down their lives for the defense of those at home. Christianity was responsible for fair skinned Europeans being willing to die in the defense of men whose language and appearance was very different than their own–simply because they belonged to each other in Christ. Christianity was responsible for thousands of men doing thankless work, with no promise of any reward in this life. Christianity was responsible for many who loved not their life even to death.

The fall, and remaining sin, were responsible for a number of things that are now associated with the crusades. But there are many aspects of the crusades that pastors pray to see lived out in the boys and men of their congregations. And if anything will produce such character from the heart, it must be Christianity.

It is very easy to fingerpoint at Christians of another generation. If the crusading Christians could see how self-serving, worldly, inconsiderate, gender-confused, lazy, and demanding the Christians of today are, I certainly hope that they would not think that our “Christianity” is responsible for that! 

Yes, Christianity certainly teaches me to turn the other cheek when it is only my life or property that is at stake. But it also teaches me to love my brother and to love my neighbor, even unto the laying down of my life. And, sometimes, if it is the last option available to me in defense of brother and neighbor, loving my enemy will mean taking his life to prevent him from the bloodguilt of yet another murder at the judgment.

I know that you did not have so much time to say all of these things in the interview, and I am grateful for the answers that both you and Dr. Vandoodewaard have already provided. 

I just think that getting the actual dates of things in front of people, and having them swap shoes with believers from other centuries can be helpful. Perhaps then, they may see that Christianity really does result in much genuine good in the lives and history of Christians–and that the Crusades are actually an example of that!

As you made clear in your video answer, it is easy to demonstrate that Christians are still sinners. However, I think that we bring glory to Christ when we point out the good fruit that His grace has borne in the lives of many believers, even in this life.

Thanks again for taking the time to read this.

 UPDATE #3: Bill Vandoodewaard concludes with this caution.

By defending aspects of the Crusades as just war, I hope readers understand that we are not saying just war = preaching the gospel. Mixing the two in the wrong way has historically led to many difficulties and problems.  A helpful distinction is that soldiers who are Christians are called to be good soldiers, preachers are called to preach, not to careers of wielding the sword, and of course, Scripture does not call preachers to use the sword to encourage faith and repentance. 

Meeting manners


Have a look at this entertaining infographic and see if you can identify your meeting manners:

1. Bill the Deflector: keeps out of the conversation by deflecting all questions to other workers

2. Linda the Jargonmeister: Uses colorful buzzwords and “business speak” to navigate the questions to which she doesn’t have any real answers

3. Paula the Artful Dodger: Escapes answering as many inquiries and requests as possible

4. Martin the Boomerang: Throws everyone off guard by answering questions with questions

5. Conrad the Oldtimer: Knows the ins and outs of the game and only speaks up when a voice of reason is needed so that he can get out of the room as fast as possible

6. Agnes the Realist: With the possibility of promotion dangling in front of her like a carrot, she is determined to get everything done, no matter how long it takes – much to the chagrin of everyone else present.

7. Jerry the Big-Leaguer: Schedules meetings when he knows he can’t attend. It’s a powerplay of sorts that he thinks makes himself seem important.

8. Susan the Pacifist: Does everything in her power to keep everyone as happy as possible; conflict only makes the meeting drag on.

Disclaimer: The fact that I’m posting this a couple of days after our last Faculty & Staff meetings is entirely coincidental. Honestly! And the fact that some familiar names might be on this list do not in any way reflect the characteristics of any PRTS staff (Honestly, Bill and Jerry!!).

While on the subject, have a look at “The Modern Meetings Revolution.”¬†

A body-language gallery

I’m not for preachers practicing gestures to accompany their preaching; arm and body movements should flow naturally. However, I am all for preachers understanding and avoiding body-language that will not just offend the eyes but close the ears of their hearers! 

Have a look at this body-language gallery and ask yourself if your body-language is undermining your verbal language.

Mr & Mrs Israelite read Ruth

Inspired by my friend Tim Challies’ fascinating and insightful preaching (here) and blogging series (here and here) on Ruth, I returned to the book myself for a recent sermon.

Whenever I preach from an Old Testament book, I start by trying to ask the same questions that the original readers would have asked as they read the book.

And the first question the Israelites would have been asking when they read Ruth, or any other Old Testament book, is: “What is God like?” The Old Testament was not primarily a history of Israel, but a revelation of God. It revealed Him to Israel through their history.

In fact, we can be more specific. When Mr & Mrs Israelite were reading the Old Testament they were asking, “What is the coming Messiah like?”  Jesus Himself said that if the Israel of his own day had properly searched the Old Testament Scriptures, they would have found Him, “for they testify of me” (John 5:39).

Hindsight and foresight
And that testifying was not just with New Testament hindsight, but with Old Testament foresight. The whole Old Testament is built upon a promise; the promise of a suffering and saving Messiah; a promise first given in Genesis 3:15; a promise that was expanded and clarified with every passing chapter and book; a promise that stimulated hope, expectation, and longing. As Jesus said, “Many prophets and righteous men desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matt. 13:17).

Peter tells us that although we understand more clearly than they did, the Old Testament prophets accurately predicted the saving sufferings of Christ and the glory that would follow (1 Peter 1:10-11). And just in case we think that it was maybe only a few later prophets who grasped this, Peter assures us that God spoke of these things “by the mouth of all his holy prophets since the world began…Yes, and all the prophets, from Samuel and those who follow, as many as have spoken, have also foretold these days (Acts 3:21, 24)

With that increasingly powerful forward momentum of Old Testament revelation, Mr & Mrs Israelite read the book of Ruth and asked not only, “What is God like?” but, “What is the Messiah like?” “What do we learn about the Messiah from this book?” 

Moses himself provides this hermeneutic, this principle of interpretation, by saying that, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a Prophet like me from your midst” (Deut. 18:15). Moses is providing us with the key question to ask when we read Exodus to Deuteronomy. And it’s not so much, “What was Moses like?” That’s a good start. But we must go beyond that with, “What will the Messiah be like?” These then are not primarily “The books of Moses,” but more accurately “The books of the Messiah” (John 5:46).

Radical shift of focus
Returning to Ruth now, this fundamental question, “What is the Messiah like,” radically shifts our focus from Ruth to Boaz. In fact the book might equally be named after him, because he is the center and pivot of the book. Chapter 1 begins with a bitter Naomi and the book ends with a blessed Naomi. What made the difference? Three chapters of Boaz! All eyes should be on him. 

The key word in the book also dramatically spotlights Boaz. The Hebrew word ga’al appears 20 times. It is variously translated, but it basically combines two elements: relation and redemption. It is a close family member who steps in to defend, protect, and provide for the needy. It’s a word that was used to describe God’s past action of redeeming Israel out of Egypt; and the later prophets also used it repeatedly to describe a future redemption that God would accomplish.

So, when Mr & Mrs Israelite were reading in Exodus about God’s past redemption, or in Isaiah about God’s future redemption, they would perhaps turn to one another and ask, “Isn’t there another book about redemption somewhere in the Scriptures. Oh, yes, that little book about Boaz has lots about redemption. Let’s read there and find out about what kind of Redeemer God is, and what kind of Redeemer the Messiah will be like.”

If you want to read Ruth like Mr & Mrs Israelite, then ask the question “What is the Messiah like?” And if you do, you will discover the beautiful answer: “The Messiah is like Boaz.”

PS: Ruth has an important genealogical “postscript” that further boosts the Messianic momentum (Ruth 4:17-22). 

Reformed Forum: Christ in the Old Testament

Anyone who’s interested in a Christ-centered understanding the Old Testament should listen to (or watch on video) this Reformed Forum podcast with Lane Tipton, Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary.

Although a few parts of the discussion are a bit technical/academic, the vast majority of it is accessible and extremely helpful.

How to complete an MIT Physics Class in 4.5 days

Here’s something to inspire students as they gear up for classes again. Scott Young specializes in rapid learning. His latest experiment was to complete and pass an MIT Physics class in 4.5 days!

He had a threefold strategy:

  1. Watch lectures at 1.5x speed
  2. Work early. finish early (6am to 7pm, including a 25min midday nap!)
  3. Relate everything to the subject

And his big three tactics were:

  1. Deliberate practice
  2. The 5-year-old method
  3. Visceralization

The last one sounds a bit scary, but you can read his explanation here. The one that resonated most with me was “the 5-year-old method.”

My best method for that was to write on a blank piece of paper the name of the concept and write out an explanation to myself in terms even a 5-year old could understand.

This is something I often do in sermon preparation.

His three takeaways from this experiment were:

  1. Have a clear strategy
  2. Never memorize what needs to be understood
  3. Clearly separate work from time off

I’m not suggesting Scott’s method as the best long-term educational approach; there’s a significant difference between passing an exam and learning. However, he’s pushing the boundaries of intellectual possibility and providing us with valuable and challenging lessons in the process.