Setting our Stories Straight: Doctrine of Discovery

As I seek to identify, interrogate, and ultimately unravel the various strands of dysfunctional Christian theology that were used to justify European expansion and colonization, I need to start with the biggest, baddest narrative of them all: the Doctrine of Discovery. I would argue that no idea has had as profound consequences for the world and its peoples as this one has.

The first time I heard about the Doctrine of Discovery, I thought it was a metaphor. I was in my mid-thirties, had grown up in the church, and had an advanced theological degree, yet had never heard of such a ‘doctrine.’ And so I thought the term was a clever way of speaking about how Europeans understood their relationship to the ‘new’ lands they encountered in the 15th and 16th centuries. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Doctrine of Discovery was an actual, official doctrine and policy of the Western Christian Church, and one that had a tremendous impact on subsequent world history.

The Doctrine of Discovery was pronounced in a series of papal bulls starting in 1452.* While not strictly theological, papal bulls are edicts rendering the Roman Church’s opinion on a given matter and carry the weight of the Church’s authority. The original context for this particular bull had nothing to do with European exploration, but was rather about a much older encounter: the then seven-hundred year-old conflict between the Christian and Muslim worlds. 1452 was a very particular moment in the history of Christian-Muslim relations: It was the year before the fall of Constantinople, a half century before the fall of the last Muslim kingdom in Iberia (the peninsula comprised by the modern countries of Portugal and Spain), and seventy-five years before the siege of Vienna stopped Muslim advances in central Europe. ‘Christian’ Europe still felt a very real threat from the Muslim world (and vice versa, of course). This was the context into which Pope Nicholas V authorized the Portuguese king:

to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all [Muslims] and pagans whatsoever, and other enemies of Christ wheresoever placed, and the kingdoms, dukedoms, principalities, dominions, possessions, and all movable and immovable goods whatsoever held and possessed by them and to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit. (Dum Diversas)

For our purposes, the main takeaway from this edict is that it identified “pagans” (non-Christians) “wheresoever placed” (anywhere in the world) as “enemies of Christ,” and on this ground authorized the theft of land, wealth, resources, and people for the profit of Christian kingdoms. The scope of the bull is truly unbelievable: In the specific contexts of the Reconquista in the West and Ottoman invasion in the East, the pope offered a blanket authorization of the dispossession and slavery of all non-Christians anywhere in the world. This was reinforced two years later in a second bull, which explicitly gave legal sanction for Catholic nations to ‘claim’ and govern ‘discovered’ lands, and enslave their inhabitants as a way of stemming Muslim influence and promoting the Christian faith. Lands not governed by Christians were held to be terra nullius, ‘no one’s land’, uninhabited as far as the Church and European governments were concerned.

Terra nullius is perhaps the clearest way of understanding the Doctrine of Discovery. In saying that lands governed by non-Christians were “no one’s land,” it says that the people who lived in those lands were “no one.” This turned European Christians into a special class of people uniquely entitled to claim rights to land, yes, but also to civilization, culture, and, ultimately, life itself.

Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah summarize the impact of the Doctrine of Discovery as follows:

It gave theological permission for the European body and mind to view themselves as superior to the non-European bodies and minds. The doctrine created an insider perception of the European while generating an outsider, other identity for non-Europeans; it created an identity for African bodies as inferior and only worthy of subjugation; it also relegated the identity of the original inhabitants of the land ‘discovered’ to become outsiders, now unwelcome in their own land. (Unsettling Truths)

And Australian theologian Chris Budden notes:

There was little sense that this was a people made in the image of God who could not then be made in the image of white people. There was no sense that this people may have been put on this land by God, or that this people already had some sense of God. There was none of the respect needed to treat Indigenous people as real neighbors, as the ‘other’ whom the church needed to serve justly. The history of the relationship between the church and Indigenous people has largely been one of paternalism, racism, lack of respect, and an unwillingness to treat Indigenous people as part of the church (rather than an issue for the church). (Following Jesus in Invaded Space)

This was not just the policy of a single rogue pope or a single European power; a similar message was sent to the Spanish crown fifty years later by Pope Alexander VI, who also praised Christopher Columbus as the rightful ‘discoverer’ of the Americas and as doing the Lord’s work. While this was not exactly a high point in the spiritual history of the Western Church — this was the era of all the abuses that led to both the Protestant and Catholic Reformations — it would also be a mistake to assign the blame to a corrupt papacy alone. For as much as the Reformers challenged the corruption of the Renaissance era Church, the understanding of Christianity and humanity as a whole revealed in the Doctrine of Discovery remained largely intact in the Reformation, and continued to inform the policy of the English crown following its split from Roman authority, and the attitudes of the Calvinist Protestant settlers known to Americans as ‘the Pilgrims.’

Even as modern secular governments eventually arose in the colonized areas, the Doctrine of Discovery continued to directly impact law. To cite two examples that came up in my reading, in 1971 an Australian court ruled that Indigenous peoples “held no title to land under European law”; and 1985 an American court explicitly mentioned the Doctrine of Discovery in a ruling against the Oneida Indian Nation: While acknowledging the Oneidas’ traditional ties to the land, the court ruled that “the ‘doctrine of discovery’ provided, however, that discovering nations held fee title to these lands;” this ruling was subsequently cited by progressive US Supreme Court justices as recently as 2005. The Doctrine of Discovery continues, then, to guide policy surrounding the use and ownership of land almost six hundred years after it was pronounced, to say nothing of the pervasive impact it has had on the imaginations and understandings of European settlers around the world.

So, the question we have to ask is, how did Church leaders justify the Doctrine of Discovery? In what way is this ‘Christian’ doctrine? And how does it hold up to investigation? The Doctrine of Discovery was a bad idea that was a logical conclusion from many other bad ideas, which the rest of this series will explore in greater detail. The two biggest of these were the doctrine of Christian election — the belief that Christians were uniquely blessed and chosen by God — and the myth of Christendom — the belief that God desired the creation of Christian Empire. Both of these require a fuller exploration, but for now it’s safe to say that with these two presuppositions in place, it stood to reason that the political expansion of European (in their minds, ‘Christian’) civilization was a good thing, and in fact a blessing upon the earth and its peoples. This was a failure of theology — understanding who God is — and ecclesiology — understanding what the Church is. And these failures in turn led to a massive failure in anthropology — understanding what it means to be human.

Therefore, we need to go back to the beginning and remind ourselves what the Christian tradition really has to say about humanity.

First, according to Genesis 1, humanity was created in “the image and likeness of God.” There is something special about humanity, which connects us to the divine. And this ‘something special’ comes at the very beginning, by our nature as a species, prior to any understanding of election. All humans, therefore, have inherent dignity before God. Second, in the aftermath of the flood, God enacts what is called the ‘Noahic Covenant’, which again is said to apply to all humanity prior to any differentiation of race or culture (see Genesis 9). Third, the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11 explains the diversity of languages and peoples in the world as an intentional act of God.

These last two stories were fertile ground for early Christian understanding of the relationships between the peoples of the world: When the early Christians were trying to figure out the grounds on which Gentiles (i.e., non-Jews) could join the Church, it was Noah’s covenant to which they turned (Acts 15). And, when the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 2), it enabled them to speak in all of the languages of the known world; God could have undone the diversity of language set in motion at Babel, but chose instead to bless and reinforce it. Neither the language of God’s ancient chosen people (Hebrew/Aramaic), nor the language of popular culture (Greek), nor the language of Empire (Latin) were privileged in what God was doing.  Paul combined these themes in his famous speech in Athens:

From one ancestor, [God] made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. (Acts 17.26f)

So, from this earliest strand of Christian theological material, we can confidently claim that:

  1. All humanity is created in the image and likeness of God; all humans therefore have the same inherent nature and dignity.
  2. All of the world’s peoples exist in relationship with God; there are no ‘Godless’ people.
  3. Diversity is not a problem as far as God is concerned. God created human diversity, has blessed human diversity, and did not choose to erase human diversity.

Respect for other people and for cultural diversity is not some postmodern plot. It is a teaching of our Scriptures and part of our heritage as Christians. Full stop.

It’s hard to say when or how Western Christianity lost the plot with these fundamental assumptions. Certainly, there is no record of anything like the Doctrine of Discovery in the first centuries of the Church. Christianity emerged at the intersection of three continents — Asia, Africa, and Europe — and of these, it was Europe that was the ‘backwater’, ‘uncivilized’, ‘New World’ in the context of the early Roman Empire. (As far as the great civilizations of the Eastern Mediterranean were concerned, even Rome itself was a questionable upstart.) The early Church continued in the spirit of Pentecost and operated in many languages: Aramaic, Greek, Latin, and Coptic emerged quickly as the Church’s main languages of worship and communication, and in subsequent centuries, Arabic and Slavonic were added in light of the rise of Arab domination of the Near East and Christian mission into Eastern Europe. But most of this was happening in the East, and I think it’s safe to say that as the Roman world became increasingly divided between East and West starting in the fourth century, Rome’s centralizing, imperial tendencies were allowed to take over in the West. (We see this, for example, in the imposition of Latin and the Roman rite over Celtic and Germanic languages and practices within the Western Church.) Furthermore, the officially Christian identity of western European countries, coupled with the rise of Islam in regions with long Christian histories — Syria and Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula, and later Anatolia, Greece, and the Balkans — robbed European Christians of positive or neutral interactions with non-Christians. It’s easy to see how, in this context, the cosmopolitan sensibilities of the classical Mediterranean world would be replaced by the myopic, insider vs. outsider, Christian vs. ‘infidel’ attitudes we see in the papal bulls that promoted the Doctrine of Discovery, despite these attitudes being absent from the New Testament and early Christian thought.

These attitudes, combined with doctrines of Christendom and election that we’ll look at in subsequent posts, and European political and economic rivalry, caused the to Church lose sight of its basic beliefs about humanity. There were those who remembered them and argued for the rights of Indigenous peoples based on the doctrine of creation in the image and likeness of God — people like the Portuguese official Zurara, who was an early opponent of the African slave trade, and Bartolome de Las Casas, who spent a half century defending the rights of the Indigenous peoples of the Caribbean — but even when they won the theological battles and were recognized as being particularly saintly in their outlooks, they lost the policy wars and were largely treated like trouble-makers, and even traitors for questioning imperial and colonizing policies. Even today, Christians who promote a different relationship to the ‘discovered’ lands are often dismissed as being out of touch idealists.

But this is our work to do.

The Doctrine of Discovery was a false doctrine; there is no terra nullius because no one is ‘no one’. Every single human is created in the image and likeness of God. All peoples exist in relationship to God. God created, blessed, and sustains human diversity. The Doctrine of Discovery was and is a heresy. That’s a formal word generally used for theological choices that lead to division in the Church, but I feel comfortable using it here because the Doctrine of Discovery split not just the Church, but humanity itself. It has done more to break the wholeness God intends for the world than any other idea. We must acknowledge it. We must repent of it. We must lament its impacts. And we must tell better, truer stories about God, about the Church, and about humanity itself.

*This history is gathered from a few sources, but mostly follows the narrative found in Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah’s excellent primer on the topic, Unsettling Truths. For further details, please see the series bibliography and reading list.

2 thoughts on “Setting our Stories Straight: Doctrine of Discovery

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