Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Medieval Church (500-1500)

They sometimes call this period the Dark Ages, but it wasn't all dark. Especially after A.D. 1000, the High Middle Ages, there was some significant development as well as a few important theologians. Two large movements having roots all the way back to the Church Fathers became major movements, the monastic movement and sacramental theology.

The Monastic Movement 

The monasteries were the place to be in the Middle Ages. They were the source of spirituality and devotion in the church. Most Protestants do not understand the variety of monastic movements during this time. Now is your chance! 

Hermit monks go back to St. Anthony (251-356). His life was made famous by the classic biography by Athanasius, Life of St. Anthony. Communal monks, however, have been more dominant, and their pioneer was Pachomius (285-346). He started ten monasteries under a Rule of life he wrote prescribing monastic life and work, including the disciplines of poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Monasticism spread East and West. In the East, St. Basil (330-379) shaped Orthodox monasteries. In the West, Benedict of Nursia’s Benedictine Rule was influential. Most of the thousands of monks from 500-1200 were Benedictine. Their work was prayer, and they memorized and recited the entire book of Psalms as a prayer guide.


Missionary monks – Don’t let their reputation for seclusion fool you. Many monks were vibrant missionaries across Europe. The Irish island of Iona was a center of active missionary work led by Columba (521-597). For over two centuries missionaries trained and deployed from Iona to Scotland, England, and Europe. Other monks were accidental missionaries when local folks sought them out for advice and soon a church was planted near the monastery for the community.

Cluniac Order : Prayer– Between 900-1100, five abbots of unusual vision, spiritual aptitude, and ability (named Berno, Odo, Majolus, Odilo, and Hugh) directed a monastery at Cluny in France. It grew to over 1000 monasteries and focused on a return to regular hours of prayer (seven times day and night) and manual labor. Unfortunately, their zeal for prayer attracted noble families, and their gifts undermined their commitment to poverty and manual labor and weakened their movement.

Cistercian Order: Remote Areas – Beginning in France in 1098, the Cistercians wanted to return to seclusion and simplicity, so they located their monasteries in remote areas. Within two centuries they numbered over 600 monasteries, due in part to their famous abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux, a great theologian of piety and eloquence. His poem about the wounds of Christ was the basis for the hymns, “Jesus, the very thought of Thee” and “O Sacred Head Now Wounded.” But again, their hard work brought wealth and their zeal waned.

Mendicant Orders: Urban Ministry – At the beginning of the 13th Century, two new orders developed with an eye to avoid previous pitfalls. They would own no property, either individually or corporately, and instead of seclusion, they would serve the world in towns and cities. They would live by the work of their hands or as beggars (mendicants). They were the Franciscans (nee St. Francis) and the Dominicans (nee St. Dominic). 

Under the leadership of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the Franciscans were strictly committed to poverty, teaching, preaching, caring for the sick, and a brief emphasis on missions. After Francis died, they relaxed the standards and gained vast land grants and suffered in their spirituality. 

Under the Spaniard St. Dominic (1170-1221), the Dominicans focused on education and supplied the growing universities with teachers including the most famous Dominican, the theologian Thomas Aquinas. The Dominicans and Cistercians developed the Rosary, a meditation on the Fifteen Mysteries of the lives of Christ and his mother accompanied by numerous repetitions of the Ave Maria (Luke 1:28) and Lord’s Prayer.

Jesuits – This last monastic order started later in the Reformation, but we will include it here. The Reformers attacked the rationale of monasticism in Matt. 19:21 of poverty, chastity, and obedience, replacing it with the priesthood of all believers. But Ignatius of Loyola took issue with that and began the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), the soldiers of Jesus, the Papal shock troops. Their focus on teaching, missions, and starting sixty Catholic seminaries had a role in checking the spread of Reformation.

The Sacraments

The term sacrament was used loosely in the early church. St. Augustine (5th C) later gave the definition of a sacrament as “a visible form of an invisible grace” or “a sign of a sacred thing,” but Augustine saw the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a dozen other things as part of his definition. During the Middle Ages, Hugh St. Victor and Peter Lombard added to the definition. They said a sacrament must have authorization (by Jesus or the Church), that it must be a material element similar to what was signified (wine/blood), and it must have automatic effect to benefit participants, regardless of one’s faith or attitude (errant idea of infant baptism washing away original sin). 

Peter Lombard first came up with seven sacraments: baptism, confirmation, eucharist, penance, extreme unction, ordination, and marriage, and the list was ratified by the church in 1215 at the Fourth Lateran Council. Protestants limit sacraments to those clearly instituted by Christ and directly related to the gospel – baptism and communion. There is some semantic play in the sacrament debate today since neither the word sacrament nor a definition is found in the New Testament. At the same time, Protestants practice confirmation, ordination, and marriage. Luther even saw penance as a good aid to the Christian life.

The biggest problem with sacraments became the misunderstanding that they automatically confer grace of a saving nature on a person. This association of “automatic grace” with sacraments has caused Baptists to use the word ordinance (a practice “ordained” by Christ).

Baptism was a practice that followed closely after initial faith in Christ in the New Testament (Matt. 3:15-16; 28:19-20; Mark 1:9; Luke 3:21; John 1:29-34; Acts). It signified identification with Christ and the body of believers. During the Patristic Period (100-321), it was delayed more and more to insure the candidate was saved. By the time of Augustine, baptism of infants had become common with the idea that it washed away the stain of original sin so that an infant could enter heaven. Infant baptism follows the idea of an automatic benefit since the infant cannot actively participate by faith in the act. 

Later, the Baptist denial of infant baptism was dangerous to the church-state settlement in Europe. The Baptist belief in believer’s baptism and a regenerate church made the relationship between citizens and their church and thus between church and state, voluntary. Baptist understandings of church provided the seed for the birth of modern notions of freedom of religion, a society in which no church was established, and the rights of citizens of every religion were secure.

Communion (Matt. 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-20; John 13-17; 1 Cor. 11:17-34) also began to have a number of doubtful ideas attached during the Middle Ages. One idea that developed slowly over church history was that the elements were the real, physical body and blood of Christ. Thomas Aquinas argued that the substance of the bread literally became Christ’s physical body in the Eucharist and that the substance of the wine literally became Christ’s physical blood. He called it transubstantiation. The inward substance, not the outward appearance, change.  Augustine once spoke of the need to distinguish between the sign and the thing signified. 

Baptists believe in the symbolic nature of the communion elements. Scholarly debates in the ninth and eleventh centuries centered on the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, and the idea of transubstantiation was formally approved in 1215.  Along with this errant idea came others without much discussion that transubstantiation came with the pronouncement of the priest, that it is a bloodless sacrifice of Christ, and that it automatically conveys grace to the recipient. The children’s phrase, “Hocus pocus” comes from an English misunderstanding of the Latin, “hoc est corpus maem,” the pronouncement of the elements, “This is my body.”

Lessons from the Church of the Middle Ages

1.      All through the life of the church, God has had those who were committed to him and devoted to spirituality. An emphasis on missions, prayer, and ministry have continued throughout the church’s life as God always has a remnant who love him. In the Middle Ages it was most often found in the monastic movement.
2.      Like all movements, the monasteries had difficulty keeping their movements on track as they developed. Often their beginning purpose became blurred.