THE STORY OF THE CHURCH - PART 3, TOPIC 1
Unfortunately, this account of the medieval church is heavily slanted towards Western Christianity, especially
after 600 AD. I am less qualified to talk about the Eastern church, and it will have to be mainly skipped.
- Overview of the Middle Ages
- Introduction - from Christian History issue 49, p. 6:
"We Christians of the closing years of the twentieth century have a lot to complain
"We complain that modern Christianity is so fractured that we've made a scandal of Jesus's
prayer that all his followers be one. Yet there was a time in history when Christianity was one.
"We long for political leaders who identify themselves as Christians and try to live
by their convictions. Yet there was a time when this was so.
"We complain that our society has gone secular, and we yearn and pray that Christian
values (rather than hedonism, lust, and consumerism) be represented in television, movies, and popular magazines.
Yet there was a time when popular culture was Christian.
"It was called the high Middle Ages, from roughly A.D. 1000 to 1500. . . ."
(Mark Galli, Christian History 49, 6).
- The Christian Roman Empire
- During the last series, we talked about the conversion of Constantine and the progressive steps taken under
his successors to legalize Christianity and finally to make it the only legal religion. The council of Nicaea,
the controversies over Nestorianism, etc., all took place within the context of a Christianity that was becoming
more and more the only favored religion.
- We should not take this to mean that suddenly, everyone pretended to be Christians. Remember that Augustine's
City of God, written 100 years after Constantine's conversion, was directed partly at the pagans of Rome who claimed
that Christianity was responsible for the decline of the Empire. Augustine himself was a pagan until midlife. At
the same time, the Roman Empire was more and more filled with the barbarians themselves -- serving in the army,
serving as slaves, and ultimately taking over -- who had to be told about Christianity.
- Still, the Christian Empire and the works of its great men -- Ambrose, Augustine, Gregory, Justinian, etc.
-- laid the foundation for the ideal of Christendom, the domain of Christ, which in the Middle Ages became the
ideal of all society to be a fusion of the Christian Church and the Christian State.
- We briefly treated monasticism in the last series, but it is during the Middle Ages that monasticism really
hits its stride.
- Monks begin as a reaction against the worldly living that Christians were practicing, especially after the
legalization of Christianity. At first they were hermits living in desolate places, but afterward they often organized
- After the standardization of monastic living advocated by Benedict became the norm, monks became one of the
most important of the civilizing influences in European society. (Basil the Great, one of the Cappadocian fathers,
had a similar influence in the East to that of Benedict in the West.) Not often did the popes come from the ranks
of the monastics, but many of the highest offices were filled by monks. For the first part of the middle ages,
monks were responsible for the transmission of learning.
- They also served as the missionaries of early Europe. Often the first thing done among a pagan nation would
be the founding of monasteries, from which would spread the teachers of the whole society.
- Division of the Roman Empire
- In hindsight, the division of the Roman Empire had a huge impact on the further development of the Church.
This is the main reason that we still have the Western (Roman Catholic) church and the Eastern (Orthodox) church
divided from each other.
- This had happened first under Diocletian, before Constantine, but it was Constantine who created a beautiful
new capital in the east, at a city called Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople.
- The bishop of Constantinople rapidly assumed an importance in the Church based upon the standing of his city.
At the council of Constantinople of 381 (which, you will remember, gave us the so-called Nicene Creed), it was
declared that the bishop of Constantinople was to be given precedence of honor among all the other bishops, except
Rome only, because Constantinople was the new Rome.
- Fall of the Western Empire
- In the meantime, the Western empire and the old Rome were declining. Barbarians, who were sometimes invading
armies and sometimes simply huge numbers of immigrants, were increasing. They began to fill the armies of Rome.
But new, more violent barbarians were behind them. In 410, the unthinkable happened: the city of Rome itself was
conquered and sacked by the Visigoths in 410 and again by the Vandals in 455. In 476 the last Western emperor was
deposed by the barbarian general Odoacer, and there were no more.
- This had a major impact on the role of the church and of the bishop of Rome. Most of the barbarians respected
the church and left it intact. The pope of Rome gained more power by the absence of an emperor.
- Barbarian Tribes - Who were they. Their Conversion
- The Goths, Vandals, Burgundians, Lombards and others were the Germanic tribes who finally succeeded in destroying
the western Empire. They were not totally uncivilized, even by Roman standards. Many of them, following the lead
of the Visigoths, had already adopted Christianity. However, due to the influence of the monk Ulfilas, an Arian
bishop, who translated the Bible into Gothic, they were usually Arians rather than orthodox Christians. Hence to
the Roman Christians they were not only barbarians but heretics.
- Another wave of barbarians, Franks, Burgundians, Saxons, etc. were pressing on Gaul and Britain (cf. Dowley
190). Attila the Hun also invaded Italy about this time.
- Clovis, king of the Franks, became the first barbarian king to accept Catholic (i.e. orthodox Trinitarian)
baptism in 496. The Franks became the Catholic Church's loyal subjects for centuries, culminating in their role
as defender of the papacy in Charlemagne's time (c. 800).
- Before pagan Saxons pushed British Celtic Christians to the western edge of their island in the 500's, the
missionary Patrick had gone from Christian Britain to pagan Ireland around 432. He founded monasteries and essentially
the whole Irish church. In some ways he was the first true missionary to pagan lands since apostolic times. In
the next centuries Irish monks became missionaries to all of Europe during the darkest ages of the church (cf.
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill, an interesting book, if not always sympathetic to biblical
- Other parts of this story will be dealt with in a later lesson.
- Charlemagne and his successors pretty much completed the task of Christianizing the western barbarians. By
A.D. 1000 the ideal of "Christian Europe" was a reality. But the quality of the Christianity was suspect.
- Growth and Decline of the Papacy. Charlemagne
- In the absence of the Emperor, the pope became the visible symbol of both the Church and what remained of the
glory of Rome. Popes were good and popes were bad, but both kinds of popes never lost sight of the possibilities
of such an office.
- At times the popes were at the mercy of their secular protectors, whatever king happened to be faithful to
them. They played off kingdoms against each other to ensure the survival of what they conceived of as the church's
- Ultimately the creation of a Holy Roman Empire was conceived as a way to institutionalize the Christian state
envisioned so long ago by Augustine. Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas day, A.D. 800. The institution
of Holy Roman Empire lasted in some form until Napoleon's time, but at best it was simply the kingdom of Franco-Germany.
- The popes may at times have regretted their role in the creation of a more stable state, because the emperors
wanted to have a role in the church far above what the bishops thought appropriate. The practice of "lay investiture"
meant that the local rulers picked their own church officials, and often owned them in a way reminiscent of the
"mining town" or "company store" in parts of early America. Thus, when the church reacted against
such abuses in the "Investiture Controversy," it was ironically the power-grabbing popes which were the
"reformers" in this conflict. The whole situation gets pretty messy.
- The growth of nation-states in the High Middle Ages after 1100 spelled ultimate doom for the papacy's universal
dominion. Notwithstanding the infamous papal bull Unam
Sanctam of 1302, the fact remained that popes were always going to be resisted by the temporal power, a
fact which came in handy for Luther during the 1500's.
- The Eastern Empire and Eastern Church
- In the meantime, the Eastern empire never fell until 1453, and a separate Christianity developed with emphases
that differed from Rome's.
- The eastern church always believed that the emperor was a partner in the leadership of the church. Elections
of bishops were always under his or her thumb. There was never the kind of conflict that the West went through
over respective roles. Constantine's dream was realized more accurately and completely in the East.
- The iconoclastic controversy was an important formative episode in the East's history. Icons remain a fundamental
part of Orthodox worship today.
- By the late part of the millennium relations were quite strained between the leadership of the two branches
of the church. In 1054 the leaders of the respective churches excommunicated each other and the schism remains
to this day.
- Society's structure. Feudalism; the beginnings of Nation-States
- In feudalism, which developed around the time of Charlemagne, society was organized in a hierarchy in which
each leader swore an oath to a greater leader. The oaths were usually centered around the possession of land.
- This system began to be superseded by the growth of trade and the middle class. By the High Middle Ages, the
role of cash had grown to the point where the feudal structures began to break down, and a more modern world began
to take the place of the medieval one.
- At the same time, national feeling was beginning. Kings stopped being feudal lords and started being rulers
of the whole people. The common person began to think of himself as an Englishman or a Frenchman.
- Islam & the Crusades
- Mohammed heard the call of "God" in 610. By 750 Islamic armies had conquered Spain, all of North
Africa, Arabia, Palestine and Mesopotamia, and were spreading eastward as well.
- Although they were courteous towards Jews and Christians as "people of the Book," European views
of Muslims were of only one kind. The Muslim was the Antichrist and the heretic, and furthermore remained a military
- In 1095, Pope Urban II, partly in response to the appeals of the Eastern emperor, preached a Crusade which
would liberate Palestine from the heathen and relieve pressure on the East from invading Turks. The First Crusade
was the most successful of them all, establishing small kingdoms along the Mediterranean coast of the Holy Land
and capturing Jerusalem. But the Christian invaders were more ruthless and inhuman to their enemies than Muslim
rulers had ever been. And all crusades after the First were even worse.
- The fourth Crusade was so bad that it diverted from fighting Muslims to instead attacking Constantinople itself.
They sacked the city and set up a new Latin-based king and church there. The Greeks took back the city years later,
but any respect for Western European Christianity pretty much ended at that time.
- The crusades had the same effect on Muslims, establishing a hatred of Western Christians that still has repercussions
on modern relations with the Middle East.
- Around the year 1000, a new learning began to ferment. A new style of study began to replace the old way of
simply quoting the earlier masters.
- Scholasticism was the name for this new style. There was a new rigor to argumentation, a new desire to return
to the sources of learning. There was also a new classical master, who was harnessed to the needs of the Church:
- The highest development of this new learning was the theologian Thomas Aquinas and his greatest book, Summa
- Theological questions were wrestled with in a new way, more clearly in some cases than before. Of particular
interest to me is Anselm's work on the doctrine of the Atonement, Cur Deus Homo, which stressed in a new
way, and more clearly than before, how Christ redeemed us.
- New disputants also led the way for new dogmas. Although the doctrine of transubstantiation was not new, it
was not formally declared until 1215. This was the result of wrangling between various theologians, especially
Ratramnus who gave a doctrine approximating that of later Protestants.
- Other Scholastics such as Gottschalk explored the doctrine of predestination. Most theologians who came to
theories that sounded like later Protestantism were condemned.
- Medieval Reform
- These developments, the final hardening of the Church into an anti-grace stance and the development of all
sorts of other abuses, such as the indulgence (an incidental product of the Crusades), led to early calls for reform
by such men as Wyclif and Hus. These men were clear forerunners of Protestantism.
- The Middle Ages have a lot to teach us. It is most emphatically not an irrelevant time period for Protestants.
In fact, it may be that the middle ages had more in common with Reformation Christianity than Reformation Christianity
has in common with us. Cf. the recent issue of Credenda Agenda in which the issue's theme is "Medieval
Protestantism." We need to learn from these pre-moderns that there are other ways to look at faith than as
a thin veneer upon modern life, or as a set of four laws out of a booklet.
- If we have time, we also need to explore the devotion of the Middle Ages. These men and women, especially in
the monasteries, spent a lot of time thinking and writing about God. Many of them were true believers; many weren't.
We will find brethren there if we are willing to look.
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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted
to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works
quoted may be found in Bibliography page.