Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Importance of Medieval Church History

Through Christ we are united to the whole church in ages past and future. In each era the church has been given strengths and weaknesses for the benefit of the whole body. Thus, church history is important if we are to attain “to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph. 4:13). Regrettably, many Christians have neglected to study it, and many more have specially neglected one certain era: the medieval period (approx. A.D. 590-1517). Modern church history is studied because it is close to us. The Reformation is popular among Protestants because it was a desperate time of struggles and heroes. The early church has its appeal because it is so foundational and close to Christ Himself. But what of this millennium stuck in the middle, the one we call the “Dark Ages”? Are we really united through Christ to those people? Despite our initial reactions, medieval Christianity is worth our attention and study as we seek to build the church in our day.

In any age there will be errors from which we can learn, and the Middle Ages are no exception. One great error the medieval church made was in its government. While its emphasis on the unity of the church and society was originally seen through and under Christ, this was corrupted by the fact that they made the pope the “vicar of Christ,” subordinating society to the pope. They transferred Christ’s transcendent authority to the power of a man. This was then countered by the ancient competing claim that the emperor was over all, leading to the great struggles between the pope and the emperor from the 11th century onward. The idea did not come from the Bible, which teaches a strong Creator/creature distinction and a limited and distributed human authority structure. Instead, it came from Greco-Roman thinking, which was especially brought into Europe via the Crusades.
“The concept that all men were subordinated to one infallible, supreme, and super-human justice manifested on earth, whether in church or empire, was alien to Christian Europe. [It was introduced] to the degree that Aristotelian and other pagan thought infected their thinking” (Rushdoony, 206).
This false doctrine wreaked havoc as far as it was implemented, and it was why the Reformers used the term “papist” to identify their Roman opponents. The tendency to replace Christ with human government is still one of our greatest threats today in the form of statism. We ought to look at the immense trouble this problem caused and ascribe sovereignty to Jesus Christ alone.

There were other errors as well, many of which were simply the accumulations of human tradition. While the early church had done a great job at minutely defining the doctrines of the Trinity and Christ’s natures, it had left the application of salvation somewhat vague. Various pagan ideas of works and a higher view of the church’s sacraments quietly crept into the church. In the 12th century Thomas Aquinas incorporated Aristotle’s Greek ideas into theology and developed the Romanist system of merit and justification by substantive grace. Along with this system came the defined doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, transubstantiation, and the like. Thus justification and sanctification were mixed and confused, leading to a grave corruption of the gospel. The lack of peace that was produced by this deficient system led men like Martin Luther to seek reform. Many people in our day still suffer from a lack of peace from faulty systems of justification. We must avoid all failed systems and seek justification only and completely by Christ, received by faith alone.

Despite the errors of the medieval church, which we Protestants are usually quick to point out, there was also much good developed at that time that we can benefit from. Despite its imperfections, medieval Europe was a distinctively Christian era and culture with hundreds of years of maturation. The Reformation did not come out of nowhere but “was in many ways a continuation of a theological discussion of authority, worship, and redemption which had been started in the middle ages...Protestant concerns were medieval concerns, and the two fit together organically, naturally” (Jones, 20).

While some men in Christendom made important theological errors, others made beneficial theological developments. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) did the church a great favor by developing the doctrine of the atonement, which had been fairly imprecise up until then. The Reformers benefited from his work and would build upon his doctrine in their view of penal atonement and justification (Musin, 11). Anselm taught that only Jesus Christ, the God-man, could satisfy God’s justice for men by his sacrifice. As a direction for the visitation of the sick written by Anselm says,
“I place the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between myself and my evil deserts, and the merits of His most worthy passion I bring in place of the merit which I should have had, and, alas, do not have” (Owen, 16-17).
At this time the Scholastic philosophers, of whom Anselm was one, sought to build up Christianity as a whole system. A study of them is helpful for modern discussions over the place of reason in theology, the relation of particulars and universals, and how Western Civilization ended up like it has. The Scholastics sought to develop a Christian philosophy with which to interact with Greek philosophy. It is due to their errors that the Renaissance and Roman Catholicism developed, and due to their successes that the Reformation and its heirs continued the search and answered many of their questions. To ignore these ideas and their consequences would be a grave mistake if one wants to understand what has happened to our world.

The piety of medieval Christians was something that we should not despise. Various medieval movements, especially among the monks and mystics, emphasized a piety that was firmly rooted in meditation on the Bible. Singing the psalms and hymns were also promoted. The Rule of Benedict, for example, required that the Psalter be chanted in its entirety every week (Browne, 8). The simple pre-industrial rhythm of life, though it was hard and unromantic, was generally more conducive to meditation on God’s reality than today’s society. This medieval piety also expressed itself in fervent activity. The conversion of Europe is a monument to its energy. Monks, bishops, priests, and friars all joined in the massive project of bringing a continent out of barbaric paganism. There was much to discourage them with the fall of Rome, invading Muslims and Vikings, periodical apostasies, warring kings, and stubborn superstitions. Nevertheless, these men courageously transformed Europe by the gospel over hundreds of years with efforts often unrecorded or forgotten, setting the stage for the Reformation and world-wide expansion. This should be a rebuke to our wimpy modern pessimism, and should encourage us in having a long-term and victorious vision for Christ’s Kingdom despite our momentary set-backs.

This transformation established a new kind of civilization, Christendom. This trajectory was set early by Augustine (354-430). Going back to the fall of the Roman empire, “Augustine stood between two worlds, the classical and the new medieval. He insisted that people must look forward to the ‘City of God,’ a spiritual civilization, because the old classical civilization was passing” (Cairns, 139). Augustine’s book The City of God, as well as other books he wrote, had a huge influence on medieval Christianity. In it he taught a Christian view of history, which is the struggle between the City of the World and the City of God. These are opposing principles, the love of self versus the love of God, and result in different civilizations. Thus medieval Europe, while it could not escape some syncretism with the world, was self-consciously built on a principle of antithesis against the world. Unlike pagan and classical civilizations, it glorified labor and technology as the work of saints. It civilized warfare and protected and honored women and children. It maintained the freedom of the church against state control. It set up charitable and hospitable organizations to care for the poor and needy. It outlawed abortion, sacrifices, sodomy, adultery, and often, as in the case of King Alfred, incorporated Old Testament law into civil law codes. The medieval motto could have been the same as the motto of the Reformers, “out of darkness, light.”

After the chaotic fall of the Roman empire, a new social system was developed, feudalism. In this system people were knit into a decentralized, local community through interconnected covenants and relations. The idea of personal and concrete communities was preferred over large and abstract nation-states. People generally learned to be content with their status and to show honor where it was due. Today we see this reversed with the rise of egalitarianism and individualism. The idea of “preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (Westminster Confession, 305) is scorned. Envy and rebellion are commonplace today. Even though it wasn’t a perfect system, the older mindset of serving God in one’s calling in an unequal society is much closer to what the Bible teaches (see Col. 3:18-4:1, 1 Cor. 12, Eccl. 10:5-7). Not only might we learn from their idea of decentralization and hierarchy, but also from their idea of unity. Unity was not primarily seen in terms of national or ethnic unity but was seen in Christ. A medieval peasant would have seen himself as part of his local manor and as part of Christendom. “The earlier unity of Christendom had been a religious unity, a Christian unity which was a reality in a decentralized civilization” (Rushdoony, 203). As I mentioned above, the emperor and the pope eventually corrupted this unity. As the pope fell out of favor, national leaders like King Henry VIII continued this human-centered form of unity. The earlier goal, though, of a decentralized civilization united by Christ is a fitting goal for us today.

Even though the Middle Ages may seem dark to us, that is most likely because we have not studied them as we ought. When we look at them more closely we can see that they had their struggles like us and can give us direction as we face our problems today. Perhaps our current situation is not unlike Augustine’s situation. Like him, we face the crumbling of human empires and civilizations and the pressures of barbaric paganism. This is the time to learn how the first Christendom was formed so that we may learn to build a second. May we not look down upon the medieval folk as a bunch of backward, ignorant brutes who did nothing for a thousand years, but may we value their mistakes and successes and seek to build upon them. The corruptions of modernity and narrow pietism have done their damage, but let us recover what we have lost. May we look to disciple the nations as our medieval fathers did, and as we build upon them may the second Christendom be even better then the first.

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Browne, Gerald M. The Abbreviated Psalter of the Venerable Bede. Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2002.
Cairns, Earle E. Christianity Through the Centuries. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996.
Jones, Douglas and Douglas Wilson Angels in the Architecture. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1998. 
Musin, Dr. Donald J. “Lecture 11: Reformation and Post-Reformation Soteriology” HCH 201 History of the Christian Church. Lakeland, FL: Whitefield, 2006
Owen, John Justification. Edinburgh, UK: Banner of Truth, 1971 [1677].
Rushdoony, Rousas John The One and the Many. Fairfax, VA: Thoburn Press, 1971.
The Holy Bible (ESV). Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.
Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994.

3 comments:

Joel Stanton said...

Great job, Peter! I thoroughly enjoyed reading your article. Just out of curiosity, was this a seminary or college writing assignment?

Peter Bringe said...

Yes, this was my research paper for Whitefield College's class, "HCH 201 History of the Christian Church." You can see other Whitefield papers I have posted here at: http://forchristskingdom.blogspot.com/search/label/Whitefield%20College

Faithful Legacy said...

Excellent article, Peter!
You are right: too often medieval church history has been neglected. But they accomplished great things.

Keep up the good work!

Non Nobis Domini,
Jordan