Borrowed Capital and the Making of the Western Ethic

In his 1962 short treatise, "The Case for Calvinism," Cornelius Van Til introduced in embryonic form his theory of "borrowed capital":

"In Calvinism more than in any other form of Protestantism the message of Christianity is clearly presented as a challenge to the wisdom of the world. The natural man must not be encouraged to think that he can, in terms of his own adopted principles, find truth in any field. He must rather be told that, when he finds truth, even in the realm of the “phenomenal,” he finds it in terms of principles that he has “borrowed,” wittingly or unwittingly, from Christianity."

       Van Til's idea refers to truth known and acknowledged by the unbeliever for which he can find no justification other than in the presuppositions and distinct moral commitments of Christianity. Thus, the truth claims of the pagan are inevitably and always predicated on borrowed capital—moral, philosophical, or otherwise. For instance, Van Til argued that secular materialists are incapable of living consistently with their own alleged metaphysical assumptions. If meaningless random chance rules all, and if matter is the sum total of life, relegating intellect and truth to the illusory, then nothing is knowable, and nothing matters; no value judgments are to be made at all. Of course, no one can live like this fully and consistently and so, Van Til posited that even radical materialists must borrow a certain portion of their assumptions and values from the Christian worldview in order to construct a semblance of an intelligible life.

       Van Til's attempt at "internal critique" via the borrowed capital mechanism has not been without critique. It has nevertheless enjoyed considerable influence amongst Reformed presuppositionalists and is not incongruent with Van Til's fellow Dutchman, Abraham Kuyper's social and political ideas. "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign overall, does not cry, Mine!" The world and everything in it are theologically and actually saturated with Christian truth. Contemporary Reformed theologians employ Van Til's and Kuyper's claims as theological truisms. Rarely are these sweeping assertions assessed from the perspective of historical-sociological data.

       In many respects, Tom Holland has done just that, which is not to suggest that at long last the British, atheist author is weighing in on an obscure facet of neo-Calvinist theory. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World is doing much more than that, but, perhaps unbeknownst to its penman, no less. Holland's argument is both earnest and original, and his subject matter is considered with evident admiration. Dominion is a sweeping history of a transformative ethic. It is a story of a worldview that, by Holland's light, is historically the most dynamic and distinct worldview to ever exist, and one that singlehandedly transformed everything upon which its gaze was cast. Holland's thesis is made plain in the introduction: "Christianity may be the most enduring and influential legacy of the ancient world and its emergence the single most transformative development in Western history." Holland's contention is that whilst modern western secular society officially dismisses the metaphysical and theological claims of Christianity, it simultaneously relies upon and perpetuates them, if only in sub-conscious, diminished form. In short, all westerners are living on, trading in, and thinking with borrowed Christian, ethical capital.

Vintage Tom Holland

In terms of both style and focus, Holland is not, say, Diarmaid MacCulloch (who dubs Dominion "vintage Tom Holland" on the dust jacket). The point is that Dominion, though certainly not lacking in documentation and primary sourcing, is not the painstaking, detail-laden biography of the subject like MacCulloch's 750-page tome on Thomas Cromwell from 2018. The late Roger Scruton once sardonically quipped that modern scholarship is nothing more than footnotes about footnotes; a monotonous endeavor with little to no benefit to anyone outside the guild. Holland trades in no such drudgery, which is not to accuse MacCulloch of being boring. Dominion is written in the grand narrative style that has been lately in vogue, namely that the reader comes away not only knowing he has been in the presence of a learned author but also feeling a good deal more learned himself. Anyone familiar with Holland's past works will immediately recognize his latest book as the mustering of knowledge gleaned from its predecessors.

       Indeed, Dominion feels like the culmination of a career for Holland, the natural result of prior scholarship. In 2005 he published Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West. Three years later Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom (2008) examined the two centuries on either side of the seminal year 1000 A.D., and how Western Europe ascended out of the so-called Dark Ages to become a leading world civilization once again. The rise of Christendom was contrasted in 2012 by his book on the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. But Holland is best known for his works on the transition between republican and monarchical Rome: Rubicon and its sequel, Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Caesar (2015). All of these set the stage for the sweeping narrative of Dominion, serving as the contrastive backdrop. Holland has saved the best for last.

       The chapters of Holland's latest volume progress, on average, in two hundred-year intervals, separated in groups of seven into three epochal sections entitled "Antiquity," "Christendom," and "Modernitas." At the end of 600 some odd pages, the reader has sprinted, at a sometimes dizzying but always delightful pace, from 479 B.C. to 2015 A.D. Even grisly descriptions of crucifixion or barbaric rituals of the ancient world hold the reader’s attention. In a way, the sweeping, selective narrative seems to work because it is grounded throughout by acknowledgment for the brutal realities of life amidst the rise of Christianity, at the same time emphasizing how improbably such a rise of anything espousing a meek and humbled deity was.

       To the benefit of the reader, each chapter is more or less focused upon a central figure, Paul, Irenaeus, Augustine, Abelard, and Luther. The style of Dominion is, indeed, vintage Holland; unafraid to cast judgment on historical figures, more interested in constructing the narrative with the very language, usually with unattributed quotations, of the past than documenting every event ad nauseum.

       Throughout, the epic rise of the Christian ethic is contrasted with the preexisting, conflicting ethic(s) which it encounters, first Rome, then Islam, and so on. This contrast is established early. The story begins in Athens, where arbitrary and abusive gods make cruel sport out of their sovereignty and lives of men are inescapably governed by the Fates. The Jewish background, where the righteous, rigid law of Yahweh is supreme, is briskly covered before transitioning the post-republic Roman context, pervaded by the licentiousness of mad emperors, in which an historical anomaly, the Christianos, emerges. From the missionary career of Paul in Galatia and Corinth onward, Holland tracks the development of the Christianos ethic: its emphasis on selfless love and the common good, the primacy and dignity of the individual, self-restraint and chastity, hard work and charity, the rule of law and the rule of love, that power was perfected in weakness.

“...the truth claims of the pagan are inevitably and always predicated on borrowed capital—moral, philosophical, or otherwise.”

It Could Only Have Happened Here

For all of its loathing of western culture, Holland's last chapter ("Woke") exposes the irony that contemporary social justice movements—often fueled by condemnation of western, patriarchal oppression demonstrated by the brutality of the crusades and colonialism—could only have occurred in a western context of a decidedly Christian ethic, even one held subconsciously and unacknowledged. Hence, Holland’s book may confront some with this object of disdain in an uncomfortable light. Without a Christian anthropology that prizes the dignity of man, Holland suggests, social justice claims would be incoherent. Without the Christian concern for the weak and the poor and the common good, modern activism would struggle to find a base.

       But further still, present movements would lack their familiar religious form, part of what provides them popular appeal in western society. Revolutionaries in post-Enlightenment societies—the Jacobins of 1789, the Bolsheviks of 1917, the Woke of 2020—take on, as Tocqueville put it, a "missionary fervor," embodying a "species of religion." As others have pointed out, modern progressive movements possess an eschatology, anthropology, and sacramentology, even an epistemology, proving that the preexisting categories intrinsic to Christianity are ingrained in the western mind. Piety and sin are then judged according to the answers provided to each category. The controlling eschatological narrative is that of progress—which always seems to elude our grasp, nevertheless the pursuit of which is fueled by indefatigable faith in man's perfectibility. Liberation is salvation. Authenticity is virtue. The saints are those who have effected "change." In sum, revolutionaries of any of the past three centuries must borrow capital from their object of critique in order to critique it.

       In Holland's mind, that a movement has emerged which trades upon victimhood is not all that surprising when the cultural consciousness in which it has emerged was formed by a religion founded in weakness and martyrdom. In the same way, such staunch identity politics could not have arisen in a place where the individual was not believed to be fearfully and wonderfully made, dignified as the very image of God. First the social gospel and then social justice could not have caught on in the west without the example of first century Christians serving the abandoned in plague time.

       With each cultural evolution, the shifts dependent on Christianity are often, in turn, embraced by Christians themselves. Even common evangelical parlance is saturated with the language of "identity." Individualism brought on by modern Christian ethics gave rise to new conceptions of the self which eventually centered "identity" in the contemporary conception of personal worth and recognition. But even this Holland can trace to the sense in early Christians of belonging to a common ethnos, a bond of "shared identity" which "spanned the world and reached back across the generations."

       All this is not to say that because of Christianity these modern movements were inevitable. It is to say that said movements (and any real or perceived paradigm shifts) could not have occurred outside a Christian context. Above all, for all the transformative accomplishments of the Christian ethic, Dominion's conclusion disabuses us of transformationalist hopes. Constantine's Rome, Calvin's Geneva, and Kuyper's Netherlands all failed to achieve the perfect Christian society, so too will Billy Graham's America.

       There is some truth in the idea that the failure of Constantine, Calvin, and Kuyper was more or less baked into the Christian ethic, lying dormant until the intemperance of the (fallen) populace ignites it. These are the liabilities of the Christian west just as the Islamic and Confucian east has their own. The broader lesson of Dominion is that try as the post-modern progressives might, Christianity is an indispensable prerequisite to their own project, and can never be fully rooted out. Its assumptions, norms, and forms are intricate to the very fabric of western society. They are borrowed capital. Whilst appreciating this fact, the Christian must remember always his pilgrim status and that his treasure is stored in heaven, where it is safe from thieves.  

Criticisms, Difficult to Find

Holland's latest installment makes the job of the critic particularly difficult. The only true quibbles to be found are purely doctrinal, and perhaps only noticeable to those of use self-consciously standing in the Reformed tradition. Even then, the doctrinal "mistakes" are matters of degree and emphasis. Christians, especially of the Reformed persuasion, may find themselves, at times, annoyed by Holland's oversimplification of the Gospel. "All we need is love" is perhaps how the Beatles would have summed up Pauline theology but not a shorthand most Reformed theologians would endorse. Nor do conservative Christians find a paradox in Paul between his proclamation of unity in Christ and the disregard of meaningful ethnic or gender distinctions to that end, nor in the simultaneous maintenance of hierarchical structures within the church and a refusal to directly upend the established political order. Yet Holland lingers on what he believes is such a conundrum, one which, on his reading, he sees Paul wrestling through in real-time.

       There is no doubt also that Holland has bought into the, frankly outdated, manuscript theory of Gerhard von Rad regarding the Old Testament and extends a Wellhausen-esque view of natural, or organic, religious evolution across history. These oversights are lamentably mainstream and, in any case, are not made central to Holland's (who never presents himself as a theologian or textual critic) narrative and therefore do not detract from the quality of the same.

       In the end, Holland as an atheist offers more help to Christians than misrepresentation. Often an outsider can critique, describe, and correct better than an insider. G. K. Chesterton and Alexis de Tocqueville famously did this during their respective visits to America—Brits excel at criticizing their rebellious cousins and the French have a penchant for criticizing everyone who has the misfortune of not being French. For instance, in discussing Irenaeus' confrontation of early Christological heresies, Holland insightfully and humorously notes that "Beliefs, after all, did not patrol themselves." This is surely advice for a time such as our own when on the one hand, skepticism of authority abounds and historically-defined orthodoxy is deemed overly rigid, and on the other congregants are leaving evangelical church in droves either for agnosticism or Rome. Irenaeus via Holland encourages confessional fealty and warns against the Protestant tendency toward fissiparity.

       Like any good history, Dominion, though it could not be classified as "applied history," has not strayed so far from the tradition of Thucydides that it fails to encourage us to look to the past for wisdom in the present. Yet again, Holland helps us make sense of the world we find ourselves in. He also reminds us that however mainstream, so to speak, Christianity became in the west, it was always and everywhere marked by its central and strangest claim: that the creator and governor of the world condescended and took on mortal flesh for the sake of suffering as his creatures do, all for the sake of the salvation of said creatures. This is the Christianos ethic that formed the modern world. To abandon its strangeness is to betray its essence.

Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World (Basic Books, 2019), 624 pp.


Timon Cline is presently undertaking an M.Div at Westminster Theological Seminary.

Partner with Westminster Theological Seminary and our mission 


Get Westminster Magazine delivered to your inbox

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.