Why have nations of the West dominated the globe for the last five hundred years, when for centuries they lagged behind great civilizations in India, China and the Moslem world? Why were a few small countries on the western fringe of the great Eurasian continent able to spread their culture all around the world when other cultures did not? Why did a group of daring navigators from Western Europe—Columbus in 1492, Vasco de Gama in 1499, Ferdinand Magellan in the 1520s and others—launch the Age of Discovery with globe-girdling voyages in tiny ships, instead of men such as the great Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who sailed thousands of miles across the Indian Ocean in huge treasure ships nearly a century earlier?
Questions like these have puzzled scholars for centuries. However, the deliberate removal of courses in Western Civilization from schools and universities and a failure to discuss the role of religion or Bible prophecy have obscured key elements in the remarkable rise of the West. As a result, many today are largely ignorant of one of the most dramatic turning points in the history of the world—a transformation of global proportions that has been termed by some as “the miracle of the West.”
What led to the rise of Western Civilization? How did it happen, and what does this pivotal event reveal about God’s hand in history?
Numerous scholars have proposed ideas to explain the remarkable rise of the West. In his book, Historians Debate the Rise of the West, Jonathan Daly chronicles many of their theories. For instance, some believe that geography and climate favored Europe. The acquisition and use of navigational instruments and advanced ship design, as well as the development of more powerful armaments made important contributions. Other scholars have pointed out that more efficient economic systems and methods of production and the growth of global trading networks aided the West. Others cited the respect for law and private property, the free exchange of ideas that fostered innovation, and competition that fed the growth in science, technology and capitalism.
In contrast to thinking in the East that glorified the past and sought to maintain the status quo and harmony in the present, the West focused on progress and by learning to harness the forces of nature for the betterment of mankind—and for profit (Louis Rougier, The Genius of the West, pp. 89–91).
Taken together, these and other factors operating in Europe, “transformed the balance of the world within an amazingly brief period of time… The magnitude of European cultural achievements in the sixteenth-seventeenth centuries…arouses a sense of wonder and amazement” (William H. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community, pp. 574, 598). Yet, as historian Christopher Dawson has pointed out, “none of these causes seems adequate to explain the magnitude of the European achievement” (Religion and the Rise of Western Culture, p. 15).
Dawson also notes that the British historian Lord Acton once commented, “Religion is the key of history.” While modern secular scholars tend to dismiss the influence of religion in history, biblical principles did play a critical role in the rise of the West. Max Weber, a prominent German sociologist, “emphasized a constellation of historical features he considered unique to Europe.” especially the “radical change in religious outlook—from Catholicism to Protestantism.” Such factors “brought the West to materialistic prominence in the modern world” (Historians Debate the Rise of the West, pp. 8–9).
Our series on the Protestant Reformation—the second installment of which can be found on page five of this magazine—chronicles with precise detail this massive change in Europe’s religious landscape, as well as the many apostate doctrines, teachings, and practices that infected European “Christianity.” However, buried amid the distortions of Christ’s teachings, remained some surviving biblical values and principles that did make a mark on European culture in a powerful way. Jonathan Daly has noted that some scholars, such as Dr. David Landes, credit the presence of such biblical principles for instilling an appreciation of hard work, widespread literacy (for both men and women), thrift, diligence, and other ethics into European civilization.
Rodney Stark, a professor of sociology and comparative religion, writes that modern scholarship is “far too reluctant to acknowledge the positive effects” that such religious influence had on the culture of the West. He goes on to explain that science as we know it flourished in Europe instead of elsewhere “because Europeans believed in God as the Intelligent Designer of a rational universe” that operated on laws that could be discovered and put to practical use (How the West Won, pp. 5, 13, 315–317). In contrast, in Islam, the universe did not operate on laws but according to the will of Allah—which was not conducive to the development of science—thus many innovations in the Islamic world were driven by Jews and other Christian sects. While the Chinese developed printing, mechanical clocks and gunpowder, they never exploited the potential of these innovations because they threatened to disrupt the stability of their society. Islamic caliphs outlawed mechanical printing for religious reasons (ibid., pp. 12–13, 33–45).
Yet even these insights are not sufficient to explain the rise of the West.
Above all else, Europe’s rise to prominence was enabled by the God of Heaven, who is working out the fulfillment of ancient prophecies over the course of history (Isaiah 46:8–11).
The Bible reveals that God “removes kings and raises up kings,” and that He determines when, and how long, kings reign or nations rule (Daniel 2:21; Job 12:23). It is not a coincidence that the rise of the West occurred just as Asian societies turned inward and “suddenly became immobile… [T]hey cut themselves off from a changing external world just when European expansion was beginning” (Geoffrey Barraclough, Turning Points in World History, p. 24). Once the West started to rise in the sixteenth century, “it seemed that nothing could hold it back” (Historians Debate the Rise of the West, p. 23). But why did one civilization rise and the others decline—almost at the same time?
Today, few understand that many nations of the West are Israelites—descendants of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—who migrated into Northwest Europe and then to other parts of the globe. In Genesis 12:2–3 we read that because of Abraham’s obedience, God promised Abraham and his descendants, “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” God gave His laws to the ancient Israelites so they could be an example and a blessing to the peoples of the world (Deuteronomy 4:1–10). Though they cast aside many of those laws and concepts as the centuries passed, some of those laws, concepts and ideas survived to become a part of the foundation of Western civilization that has transformed the world over the last five hundred years. The dramatic rise of the West—one of the most important turning points in the history of the world—illustrates the accuracy of these prophecies and the power of these divinely inspired ideas. In future articles in this series, we will see how more of these prophecies have been fulfilled.