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History of the Church

The Middle Ages

AD 600-1500Lesson audio


The World

The destruction of the Western Roman Empire left what might be called an organizational void in western Europe.  What had once been a unified empire had spent its strength in fratricides to select each new emperor.  Now, secular authority would rest with small kingdoms, each unable to stem the tides of invasion from the east.

This situation offered both hope and peril to the church, and in particular to the bishop of Rome.  The rule of the church had been disputed for some time, particularly with regard to the Pope.  But all recognized the five patriarchs:  Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem and Alexandria.  Of these, only Rome faced such a problem.  The others remained with the eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire.  The other patriarchs had the tradition that the emperor had a large role to play in the church.  The Roman patriarch had no emperor.  The Pope soon took his place, and politics became his first concern.

How politically involved the Pope was can be seen by one particular fact:  the Crusades.  For the first crusade the Pope pleaded for men and arms from western Europe – and an end to strife between the Crusaders.  This marked a profound point of change.  The church now called upon the rulers to make a holy war.  In so doing the church left us the romantic history of knighthood in flower – and also an ongoing problem of how the church and the state are related to each other.  Coupled with the persistent corruption of the papal office (and other high church positions) this would eventually lead to the Reformation.


Other religions

The one striking fact of this time period is the appearance of Islam.  Contrary to press reports in our day, the early Moslems understood quite clearly that Islam was to be spread by the sword.  Interestingly, Jews and Christians in areas taken by Mohammed were allowed to keep their religious beliefs – upon payment of a special tax.  Pagans were given the choice of Islam or the sword.  The method of “Islam, tribute or the sword” was highly effective.  For all practical purposes, the church in the Moslem controlled areas was reduced to a very small number.  The patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch still lived; but only the patriarch of Constantinople could act with freedom.   From Pakistan to Morocco, Mohammed ruled. 

As Islam reduced Christianity to the status of small minority, in the north another assault came – the Vikings.  The Middle Ages have a constant theme:  the invaders from the north and east come – and the western church tries to civilize them.  Vikings and Vandals alike knew what to do with the armies of Christendom – but knew not what to do with their bishops.  Indeed, for some time there was a practice that the defeat of the Vikings meant the baptism of the Vikings.  Gradually, the church prevailed.  But the terror of the Vikings was a constant feature of church life for over two centuries.


The image of Christianity

In an era in which most people of western Europe considered themselves Christians, the image of the church itself was shaped in common sights. 

  • Monasticism – the practice of Christians withdrawing from the world – weighed heavily in the average man’s estimate of the church.  This is not hard to understand.  At first, the monasteries were seen as the Christian way of being “in the world, not of the world.”  A man who devotes himself to Christ (and is not picking your pocket at the time) is a good witness to the faith.  Gradually, as monasteries grew rich with the donations of dying Christians, they became a worldly prize.  The abbot was appointed by the king, and the revenues of the rich lands of the monastery soon lined the pockets of the high ranking clergy.  High clerical offices – and the money from them – showed the world the corruption there.  This cycle of devotion to corruption to reform arises again and again in the Middle Ages.
  • Notre Dame de ParisThe most visible signs of Christendom arrived in the form of church buildings.  Early Romanesque cathedrals, with their massive walls and small windows, gave way to the soaring heights of the Gothic cathedrals.  Their stained glass windows and ornate carvings gave the average man a sense of awe – a feeling which persists to this day.



The Church


The treatment of the New Testament

It must be remembered that the unity of the Roman Empire had been fractured – but not the unity of the church.  It was a time during which most people were not well educated.  This was not at all helped by the idea that only a person with a good education would have the ability to interpret the Scripture.  The average man, knowing nothing of Aristotle and his logic, would certainly fumble about with the sacred texts.    More than that, this was an age that looked backwards.  It was a time when those who looked at the New Testament did so with the idea that they were to discover just what the early church wanted – filtered, in some way, through the science of Aristotle.  On the whole, faith triumphed over reason – though the great minds of the church tried to harmonize the two.

Towards the end of this era, two names stand out as those whose view of the New Testament significantly differed from others – two who would be “sentinels of the Army of God, until God sent Luther to relieve them.”

Jan Hus became a national hero to the Czechs. He was a man who was personally quite pious, living the honored life of purity.  But he was a firebrand of a speaker!  His great theme was the authority of the Scriptures.  He rejected the idea that the Pope was the head of the church.  Rather, he proclaimed, Christ is the head of the church.  He preached against pilgrimages, relics and other common Roman Catholic practices – such as the sale of indulgences.  He died a martyr, burned at the stake, in 1415.

Hus was greatly inspired by the other sentinel:  John Wyclif.  Both men were actively involved in politics.  He was the inspiration of the reform movement in England known as the Lollards.  He saw the corruptness of the clergy as a sign that the church had varied from her true course.  His great claim to fame is this:  he translated the Bible into common English of the time.  He left the political side to his ally, John of Gaunt.

Churchill makes a sad commentary on him:  “Here was a man whose happiness wanted nothing more than to live in a different age.” 

That such dissent could exist in an age where faith was the commonplace of all men tells us just how much the church had sunk into the mire.  In this time, men struggled to pull her out; later, they would leave her in the mud.


Great Men

The highlights of so long a time make selecting greatness quite a chore.  Here are three whose names will always be marked with great admiration:

  • Pope Gregory the 
GreatOf all the men who became Pope during this time, the one who was the greatest influence on the church was Gregory the Great.  Born to a rich family, he sought the solitude and contemplation of a monastery.  He was the great defender of the papacy being the head of the church; his undoubted personal piety gave great weight to his words.  He stressed the allegorical interpretation of the Bible; the cult of saints and relics, and the authority of the Pope.  In his eyes, the church was to lead the “Christian Commonwealth.”  In a very real sense, he defines Medieval Christianity.
  • Thomas a Becket's 
murder, taken from a contemporary publicationThe influence of martyrdom on the minds of the people is shown in the murder of Thomas a Becket.  When Henry II of England appointed him to be Archbishop of Canterbury he thought he was putting a crony in place.  Instead, he gave the church the vigorous leadership it needed to stand up to Henry.  The struggle between church and state – fought out, as usual, over trivial details – cost Thomas his life.  In the cathedral he was struck down by four of Henry’s knights.  His courage in facing them in spiritual power alone and ultimate martyrdom have made him a literary figure from the time of Chaucer to our present day. 
  • Thomas AquinasThe child everyone called “Dumb Ox” grew to be the greatest thinker in Christendom.  His life work was to harmonize faith and reason, and his output was prodigious.  His master work, the Summa Theologica, said to be a beginner’s introduction to theology, is in fact the high water mark of Medieval theology and philosophy.  It has been well said that theology since his time has largely been an effort to show that Aquinas was wrong.  When the Catholic reformers needed a guide three centuries later, it was to Thomas Aquinas they turned. 


Eastern Orthodox

The eastern church did not witness the final dissolution of the Roman Empire until the fall of Constantinople in 1453.  Until that time, they regarded Constantinople (the city of Constantine) the “new Rome.”  By the time the city fell, the orthodox church began to refer to a city by the title of “Third Rome.”  That city is Moscow.  The fact seems to have escaped most interpreters of Revelation, for which lack we may be thankful.

One great conflict arose during this time for the eastern church:  iconoclasm.  The matter was simply this:  many of the faithful had icons – images of Christ, Mary or the saints – at which (or to which, depending on which side you’re on) they prayed.  In the 8th century, Leo the Iconoclast outlawed these “idols”.  Idols they were, in a sense, as Christians began to venerate certain specific icons as having miraculous powers. 

It seems strange that this would rise to be a problem.  All Protestants know that only Catholics worship idols that way.  But the Eastern Orthodox view now includes those icons.  John of Damascus – considered by many to be the last of the “Early Church Fathers” defended the use of icons:

  • To deny that any icon could really depict the Christ is, John concluded, tantamount to saying there is no Incarnation of the Word.  An icon is never of the same substance of the original – but it’s just as real.  They should be no more than reminders or, in our terms, instructional aids.
  • He pointed out the honor given to other physical items in the church – the respect we have for the Bible; the holiness of the Cross.  We honor them but do not worship them; much the same should be said of icons.


It in this time that the first great divide of the church happens.  The separation had been brewing for some centuries; but in 1054 Leo IX (pope) and Michael Cerularius (patriarch) let their anger come ahead of good sense, and finalized the rift, excommunicating each other.  There are several points of theology as yet unharmonized; and of course the role of the Pope remains a point of dispute.  Intermittent efforts to reunite the church over the last centuries have failed. 


The Christ


It might be thought that the age of faith had seen the last of heresy.  The church was triumphant; it was also now of one opinion.  But this did not prevent a few heretics from challenging the church.

  • The Cathars, heretics from southern France, were the successors to the Manicheans.   They believed in two gods – one good, who created the spiritual world; one evil, who created the material world.  The Cathars identified the evil one as the god of the Old Testament.   They saw the soul as moving from one body to the next, over and again, unless they achieved perfection.  This was done by being instructed in their secret knowledge, the consolamentum.  The fanatics were the Perfects; the ordinary were simply called Believers.  Only the Perfects could pray to God.  The Cathars were wiped out by a holy crusade – followed by the thoroughness of the Inquisition.
  • The Waldensians (around the 12th – 13th century) foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.  They translated the Latin Bible into the common languages; their messengers were powerful preachers whose lives of poverty and piety were effective persuaders, especially when contrasted with the luxury of the church.  By the end of the 13th century, the Waldensians had infiltrated virtually all of Catholic Europe.  Gradually, they were absorbed informally into the major sections of the Protestant Reformation – whose practices they had shown for two hundred years.
  • The Catholic response to such movements was the Inquisition.  Its usual course was to begin with a public announcement that would welcome the heretic back to the Catholic Church – followed by instructions to the faithful to bring forward lists of heretics.  The next phase was a reasoned attempt to enlighten the heretic.  If they repented, penance would be prescribed.  If not, less subtle methods would be used.  The system quickly turned out to be the tool (mostly of secular rulers) used to condemn the inconvenient as well as the heretic.  It is not an accident that Joan of Arc was burned at the stake.  She was condemned by the church because the English knew that, as a prisoner of war, they had no right to destroy her.  Terror must have its examples.



The worship of the church became more and more formal.  Two major doctrinal points were resolved in this time – to come back and haunt the church when she wanted to defend them later.

  • The first was transubstantiation.  Just what did Christ mean when he said, “This is my body?”  Is the physical bread somehow transformed into a body, or not?  The church’s answer, given in the best philosophical knowledge they had, was “Yes.”  It was transformed in substance (or, after Aquinas, essence) but not in the crude sense.  Unfortunately, the fine points of philosophy were lost on the average man who believed that like magic the wafer he had placed on his tongue became the literal body of Christ.  When the Protestant Reformation arrived, the obvious flaws in that reasoning caused a great deal of trouble.
  • The second issue was that of the Sacraments.  Just exactly which ceremonies were indeed prescribed by Christ, and which ones were later inventions of man?  Thomas Aquinas prescribed seven (some lists had as many as thirty) which settled things for a while.  But not forever.



The poor man’s religion

We have spent much time on the great and the powerful; we may end with the common man’s religion:

  • Not knowing the difference between veneration and worship, his life was filled with saints to worship.  Saints had feast days; holy days then (now transformed into holidays.)  In particular, the Virgin Mary was at the top of this hierarchy. 
  • The practice of using relics (often, the bones of a saint) to perform miracles would be a commonplace.  Every geographic area had its own relics to venerate.  Praying at such a relic was considered to be a way to increase the effectiveness of prayer.
  • Pilgrimage – remember Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales ? – was considered to bring great blessing to the pilgrim.  The poor would find a pilgrimage nearby; the rich might even go to the Holy Land (and certainly to Rome). 


 The "Relic of the Holy Blood" of Bruges, Belgium.  It dates from approximately 1150 AD, having been purchased then in Constantinople.  Inside the reliquary is a rock crystal with a chamber in the middle; in the chamber is said to be a cloth stained with the blood of Jesus on the Cross.  The relic is paraded through the streets of Bruges once each year. 


In the midst of all the candles and incense, the word of God was stirring the hearts of men.  The power of the word was there; in the next era we shall see it break forth.



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