The History of the Church taught by Dan Jensen

Taught at Spring Meadows Presbyterian Church in Las Vegas

9 Sessions

Session 5 Appendix

Part 4: The Middle Ages (500-1500AD)

  • Preliminary Remarks –

The Middle Ages has often been called the Dark Ages and there is a lot of truth to this. Part of the reason for this truth is that after the fall of the Roman Empire things became so bad in Europe, especially Western Europe, that the amount of literature produced was downright paltry compared to that during the heyday of Rome. So there is a darkness to our general knowledge of this era, especially of the first 500 years from 500-1000AD. There also was a huge shift in the weather during this time, again especially in the northwestern parts of Europe. This made everything feel very dark, wet, and cold. There was also a huge uptick in poverty and crime because there was little central government in huge swaths of Western Europe after the fall of the empire. Living conditions were simply dark. Finally, and most importantly for us as Reformed Christians today, this period was marked by a tremendous spiritual darkness. Idolatry and borderline heresy, known as heterodoxy, overran the church until things got so bad that God rose up the Reformation.

Having said all of that, this designation is surely overly simplistic and most church historians, including Reformed ones, generally shy away from it. While all that was said above was true to a large extent, God was still moving, spreading His gospel amongst true believers throughout Europe during this time. Therefore, it was never completely a dark age.

  • The Breakdown of this Era –

I personally break down this era into 3 sub-eras, namely the Early Middle Ages (500-1000AD), the High Middle Ages (1000-1300AD), and the Late Middle Ages or Renaissance Era (1300-1500AD). The Early Middle Ages are called this for obvious reasons. The High Middle Ages are called this because things were starting to get better, especially because of the influence of scholasticism and the rise of the monastic orders. The Late Middle Ages or Renaissance Era is called this because the Middle Ages are winding down and the Renaissance Era is in full swing. On a practical level people’s lives did get much better during this time, especially in Western Europe. However, a lot of the spiritual fervor of the High Middle Ages has been replaced by a grotesque decadence and ignorance of Scripture and spiritual things among the laity.

  • The Early Middle Ages (500-1000AD) –
  1. Overview

The fall of the Roman Empire essentially split Europe in half. The Roman Empire had already been split in half to some degree before this fall, but the fall made the split almost absolute. The Middle East of today was largely swallowed up by Eastern Europe and the Byzantine Empire, but it only lasted for approximately 200 years when it was entirely conquered by Islam. North Africa and what is today Portugal and Spain were conquered by Arian German tribes and therefore largely became their own culture until they too were conquered by Islam around the same time as the Middle East. Shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire the German lands were converted from Arianism to Christianity and the last remnants of what is today the British Isles were converted as well. Other than what is today England, most of what is today the British Isles became part of the short lived, but very important, Celtic Church. More will be said about this church in a moment. The East largely regrouped and became the Byzantine Empire and Byzantine Church. More will be said about them as well in a moment. The West was hit the hardest by the fall of the Roman Empire by far. It utterly disintegrated and it took over 300 years for a recovery even to begin and really around 500 years before things had really changed substantially across the board for the better. The West eventually became primarily known as the Catholic Church.

  1. Monasticism

This movement is one of the most important in all of Christian history. Protestants tend to have a very negative view of this movement largely because elements of it were very unbiblical and because of what it became on the eve of the Reformation. But it can’t be stated more strenuously that originally this movement was extremely godly and was one of the most used by God throughout the history of His people. This movement traces its roots back to St. Anthony at the end of the 200’s. As the church began to grow and persecutions began to wind down culminating in the “conversion” of Constantine, St. Anthony and others felt that the church was beginning to compromise and was becoming too lax. Many would later attribute the Arian controversy to this laxity. Anthony separated himself from society so that he could focus on God. He did not become a complete hermit though as many have alleged. He often came into the empire and secretly attended to slaves and prisoners in work camps, doing the work of Christ. Later many others followed his example and monasticism was born. Men were called monks and women were called nuns. Eventually men began to band together and formed monasteries and women did the same forming convents. Later with the rise of St. Benedict, monasticism became more formalized with vows and rules. The three most common vows were a vow of celibacy, a vow of poverty, and a vow of obedience. Throughout the Middle Ages the monks and nuns were the spiritual leaders of the church. The clergy may have run the church politically, but the monks and nuns served the people, they were the biblical scholars and theologians, they were the preachers and evangelists, and they were the prayer warriors. Often a horrible cultural Christianity became entrenched in many parts of Europe and it was mostly the monks and nuns that were those that were truly saved and carrying the torch of biblical Christianity. This movement was universal in the church. It was widespread and absolutely integral in the Celtic Church, the Byzantine Church, and the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.

  1. Feudalism

Feudalism was the political/governmental/societal/cultural structure throughout the Middle Ages. It existed in both East and West, but it was the most dominant and rigid in the West, especially during the Early Middle Ages. In this structure there were two overarching classes, the nobility and peasantry. However, six sub-classes in actuality existed. These six were the royalty, the nobility, the knights, the clergy, the monks and nuns, and the serfs. The royalty, the nobility, and the knights were all technically part of the noble class. Many of the clergy and some of the monks and nuns were part of the noble class, but most were not. And of course the serfs were part of the peasant class. The royalty were those who ruled over large swaths of land and their close family. The nobles in general were the landowners and were the primary movers and shakers of the economy. The serfs worked directly for them, not for pay, but for food, housing, clothing, etc. The serfs could leave, so they were not technically slaves, but there were not very many other options for them if they didn’t want to become a monk or a nun or part of the clergy. Basically if you wanted to have sex morally you had to stay a serf. Hence, they were for all intents and purposes slaves. The basic societal structure was built around small cities or towns. These towns were largely attached to a castle where the nobles lived and trade took place. These castles were guarded by the knights. The serfs lived on the land surrounding the castle grounds and worked the lands and lived in very small dwellings. Most of the serfs formed small villages where they intermarried and had festivals together and where they went to a small local church. The priests primarily performed the sacraments on Sunday mornings and at other masses and did some preaching. But usually there was a monastery or convent nearby that often took care of the physical, medical, and spiritual needs of the people. When a village was attacked the people and all other surrounding villages would rush to the castle grounds for protection. Many of the men would be required to fight, but always underneath the authority, guidance, and control of the knights. All of this evolved over time. For instance, early castles were simply guarded by large wooden fences and that was about it. By the later Middle Ages castles had become what we tend to think of them today. Many of the knights wore animal clothing as protection in the Early Middle Ages, but eventually evolved into the highly skilled and sophisticated armor and weaponry that we tend to think of when we think of the Middle Ages. The East or Byzantine Empire was much more developed in all of these regards from the get go. Eventually, larger cities developed and the serfs began to engage in many other trades than simply farm work, often earning some pay, and began to live in houses and neighborhoods. A lot of this was already present in the Byzantine Empire from the outset.

  1. The Celtic Church

Largely due to the influence of St. Patrick and Columba, the Celtic Church developed during the 400’s. It contained within it many elements, like praying to the Saints, that we would as Reformed Christians today consider proto-Catholic. However, in a lot of ways it was very independent of the Byzantine and Catholic churches and often had a lot of tension with the Catholic Church of the Early Middle Ages. The Celtic Church heavily emphasized highly abstract, nature oriented, and detailed artwork, along with a strong commitment to biblical scholarship. Many of the Celtic monks were some of the most highly educated people to ever walk the face of the earth. Sadly, the tensions eventually proved to be too damaging to the unity of the overall church and under a great deal of pressure the Celtic Church was incorporated into the Catholic Church at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

  1. The Byzantine Church

After the fall of the Roman Empire the Eastern Church regrouped pretty well and became the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church, often calling itself the Orthodox Church. The terms orthodox and catholic were words that had been used by the true church throughout the Ancient Church Era to distinguish themselves from the many heretical groups that they were fighting against. The two words were largely used interchangeably amongst Christians in both East and West in the Roman Empire. However, by the time of the Middle Ages the East began to more and more use the term Orthodox while the West began to more and more use the term Catholic. The Byzantine Empire remained fairly static throughout the entirety of the Middle Ages. It of course evolved a great deal in many respects, but nothing along the lines of what we see in the West. Really the three sub-eras of the Middle Ages primarily belong to the West and only apply to the East as it was largely affected by the West during these sub-eras. Having said that, there were certainly some major events that took place that shook the Byzantine Empire.

  1. Heretical Controversies

There were not nearly as many heretical groups in either East or West during the Middle Ages as we saw during the Ancient Church Era. This was largely because Christianity and the State were joined together throughout this time period. A much, much bigger problem was heterodoxy. However, some heretical groups arose that did cause problems. The two that caused the most problems in the Byzantine Empire were the Monothelites and the Iconoclasts. All of the Christological heretical groups continued to exist to one degree or another in pockets of the Byzantine Empire. And from the Monophysites sprang the Monothelites during the early part of the Early Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire. They taught that Christ had only one will and was thus really just another form of the Monophysite heresy. This is because ultimately it blended the two natures of Christ. If Christ truly has two natures, then He must have two wills and we see this explicitly in the Garden of Gethsemane. The Monothelites eventually gained a great deal of power in certain parts of the Byzantine Empire and were fought against valiantly by Maximus the Confessor who was horribly persecuted by them. Eventually, the movement largely died out. The Iconoclasts largely had the right idea as they were fighting against so much of the idolatry that had developed during that time, but they degenerated into heresy because they became so legalistic, harsh, and often articulated themselves in Nestorian ways. They caused a great deal of division, but were eventually defeated, which was a good thing for the most part, but it also had terribly negative implications because it caused the Byzantine Church to become all the more attached to its growing idolatry.

  1. The Rise of Islam

Islam arose in the 600’s and eventually conquered all of what is today Portugal, Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East. In this process hundreds of thousands of Christians were slaughtered mercilessly, and millions were tortured, enslaved, and/or exiled. The Byzantine Empire was essentially cut in half in a short period of time. We will return to Islam in a bit.

  • The Conversion of the Russians

While the rise of Islam was a huge blow to the Byzantine Empire, the conversion of the Russians was a massive boon to the Byzantines. It gave them a tremendous boost in land and people. This conversion was led by the leader of the Russians, Vladimir, at the end of the 900’s.

  1. The Catholic Church

After the fall of the Roman Empire, Western Europe and the Western Church were in shambles. Most of the West split into smaller tribal regions with little to no central governing force. Many pagans who had been forced to become Christians but were not in their hearts began to reassert themselves. Crime and poverty were everywhere. The Catholic Church, relying heavily on the feudal system, scratched things slowly back together over the next 500 years. Slowly, most of the pagans, the German Arians, and Celts were converted and a fledgling Christian society began to emerge although in many places only a cultural Christianity that was plagued by heterodoxy and idolatry existed. Backing up, as the Roman Empire began to split the East and West began to develop very different cultures and these differing cultures spilled over into the churches. The East continued to speak Greek and the Eastern Church continued to use the Greek New Testament and the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures). The West began to speak Latin, what had up until then been primarily the language of the military, and the Church became more and more reliant on the Vulgate in the West. The East was more urban and the West was more rural. All of these things spilled over into the churches after the fall of the Roman Empire and resulted in two different churches that were still united spiritually, but were functioning in very different worlds. At first, most in the West during the Early Middle Ages spoke Latin, but over time countless differing languages and dialects developed from Latin as Western Europe became more and more splintered. But the Bible was still the Vulgate and therefore more and more of the laity could not understand the Bible even when it was read to them and therefore they were often at the mercy of the clergy to understand it. Early on, the monks and nuns did a lot to curb this breakdown, but by the later Middle Ages most of the laity was woefully ignorant of Scripture. Some major events mark the Early Middle Ages in the West.

  1. The Battle of Tours

While this battle took place in the West, it had massive implications for the Byzantines and therefore for the entire church. Islam, as said earlier, had conquered what is today the Middle East, North Africa, Portugal, and Spain. In the process it had slaughtered and persecuted millions of Christians and Arians throughout these lands. The Muslims at this time were a fierce army to be reckoned with, but they had almost no naval power and were largely scared of the open seas. This ended up being a huge advantage for the church. For geographical reasons, the only way to conquer the rest of the Byzantine Empire was to go through its capital, Constantinople. And the only way to conquer Western Europe was to go through what is today southern France. Constantinople was heavily, heavily fortified and was not going to be an easy conquest and Islam knew it. Therefore, the strategy of the Muslims was to send most of their forces to what is today southern France and begin to penetrate Western Europe and then return later to conquer Constantinople and eventually sandwich the Christian world and ending it forever. The problem for Islam is that by 732 the one place that had really started to regroup in the West was the Frankish Kingdom in what is today most of France and is really the precursor to France. They were the one group that had a sizable military force and was led by a tough leader known as Charles Martel. Martel was not the most spiritual man, but he loved his people and at least outwardly they had converted to Christianity. Hence, he was indirectly going to defend the church against these invaders with all of his might. The Franks were highly outnumbered, but God in His providence gave them a sweeping victory, so much so that after that point Islam gave up its hopes of conquering Europe for almost a millennium.

  1. Charlemagne

Charlemagne came on the scene in the late 700’s and reigned into the early 800’s. He was the grandson of Charles Martel and was the King of the Franks. Charlemagne through his alliance with the Pope began to consolidate power throughout Western Europe culminating in what was known as the New Holy Roman Empire. He did not conquer all of Western Europe, but from then on all Western Christian rulers were expected to either be a part of this new empire or to work closely with it. This led to the doctrine known as Christendom, which simply means land of the Christians. Christendom was said to be led by the “two swords,” the civil sword, namely the emperor, and the spiritual sword, namely the Pope. It was not always clear which had precedence and this led to a lot of tensions and problems throughout the Middle Ages. Charlemagne also began the Carolingian Renaissance, which was an effort to clean up Western Europe from its many ills that have been discussed above. Eventually this Renaissance led to the High Middle Ages when things began to improve exponentially throughout Western Europe.

  • The Vikings

The primary reason the Carolingian Renaissance did not move faster was because of the Vikings. Before the Vikings began raiding Europe around 750AD, Scandinavia was not even part of the known world for most Europeans. The Vikings seemed to come out of nowhere like demonic aliens and they absolutely terrified Western Europeans, primarily in the North, where military might was very weak. Only the Franks put up any real resistance to the Vikings and even they could not completely stop them. The Vikings hated Christians and were mercilessly brutal towards them for almost 300 years before the Vikings were finally converted and incorporated into the Catholic Church.

  • The High Middle Ages (1000-1300AD) –
  1. Negative Events
  2. The East-West Schism

The church from the time of the Council of Nicea had debated whether the Holy Spirit is sent by the Father and the Son or simply by the Father through the Son. This became known as the filoque controversy (filoque in Latin means “and the Son”). It may seem like gross theological hairsplitting, and in many respects it was, but I am oversimplifying things a lot as well for the sake of time and space. At any rate, this controversy finally boiled over in 1054 becoming the East-West Schism when the East and West excommunicated each other. I believe, as do most evangelical and Reformed theologians, that both sides were still Christian, but at the time both sides had rejected the other. This led the Pope to becoming the unquestioned head of the entire church in the minds of Western Catholic Christians.

  1. The Rise of Heresy and Witchcraft

As was stated earlier, there were not nearly as many major heretical movements during the millennium of the Middle Ages as we saw during the Ancient Church Era. Throughout this entire period there was only one major heretical group that truly plagued the Western Church. There were smaller groups, but again only one major one. Now to clarify, this was not the perspective of the Western Church at the time. There were three other major movements that the Catholic Church viewed as heretical and as posing a major threat, but that we would look at as godly movements that were forerunners of the Reformation, namely the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Hussites. The one major heretical group in the West, that was clearly heretical from a biblical standpoint, came about in the High Middle Ages and was known as the Albigenses or the Cathars. It was essentially a revival of Gnostic thought without some of the most bizarre elements. Witchcraft also began to become extremely popular during this time as many in Western Europe sought to go back to the roots of their ancient pagan ancestors. In many pockets of Western Europe, paganism had never fully died out and was still secretly practiced.

  • The Crusades

The church has taken a horribly bad rap for this episode of church history, and while it certainly was ugly and was assuredly not our best moment, a lot of what happened is badly taken out of context and largely used by secular humanists to bash the church. The crusades did not happen in a vacuum. They came about after centuries of slaughter and persecution at the hands of the Muslims and there was always a righteous sense in the church that justice needed to be done eventually. Further, there was a strong belief that it was sinful for the holy lands to be in the hands of Muslims because that is where the prophets, apostles, and Jesus Himself had done their might deeds. Therefore, in the early High Middle Ages the crusades began to take back the holy lands from the Muslims. The first campaign was successful, but the lands were again lost in the second crusade and were never regained despite many other attempts.

  1. The Inquisition

The Inquisition was established in the latter part of the High Middle Ages to terminate heretics and witches, mostly the Cathars. This marks yet another major low point for the church, but again things are often exaggerated and taken out of context by the enemies of Christ’s church. We must not forget that at this time Christians, like most of the rest of the world at the time, had no concept of a strong distinction between church and state. And most Christian theologians believed that the Old Testament commandments against idolaters and heretics applied to them in the same way in their context. Hence, these Christians simply felt that they were obeying God’s word.

  1. Treatment of the Jews

This is yet another example of where we don’t want to be too easy on the church nor overly harsh. We must remember that the Jewish religion as it existed after the time of the destruction of the Temple in 70AD evolved from the Pharisees. The Pharisees became the rabbi’s and eventually evolved into the Judaism of today. And we cannot forget that the primary enemies of Jesus were the Pharisees. This in no way is an excuse for anti-Semitic sentiment, please don’t misunderstand me. But we have to remember that we are living post-Holocaust, whereas the earliest Christians were not. They saw Judaism as simply pharisaism and therefore as the mortal enemy of the church based on Christ’s words against the Pharisees. And despite this sentiment Christians still allowed the Jews to live in Western Europe, something that most others, especially Muslims, would often not do. They were of course seen as second class citizens, but we must remember that Christians felt that they were doing their best to love their enemies by simply allowing them to live amongst them at all. Today, with our firm belief in religious freedom, we often look at this second class treatment as horrifying, and to a large degree rightfully so, but they lived in a very different cultural context. Now many Christians would engage in physical persecution, but it is important to emphasize that this was never ever sanctioned by the church itself, but was often false cultural Christians taking out their anger on Jewish scapegoats.

  1. Positive Events
  2. Scholasticism

For the first half of the church’s history, the church had largely frowned upon robust learning. It was largely seen as Greek and pagan. The church only needed the Scriptures and the traditions of the church to some extent and nothing more, so it was often said. Even most of the greatest theologians did not advocate knowledge of all subjects as strongly as they should have. Even regarding biblical studies, very little systematic theology was done. Theology often tended to be simply a reaction to heresy. All of this led the church to being far, far, far behind the Islamic, Jewish, and pagan worlds regarding things like medicine and technology. By the late Early Middle Ages this had become an all-out embarrassment. All of this started to change with scholasticism. At first it mostly started spiritually with the launching of systematic theology. The first great scholastic teacher was St. Anselm. From his influence came the Universities of Paris and Oxford.

  1. The Greatest Scholastic: Thomas Aquinas

Much more will be said about him in class, but suffice it for now to say that because of his influence the church would become committed to learning in all spheres of life, which led to the Renaissance and without the Renaissance there would be no Reformation.

  • The Rise of the Monastic Orders

Throughout the Middle Ages in the Byzantine Empire, there were not very many monastic orders, there were simply monasteries and convents and most followed the theology of the nation wherein they resided. In the West throughout the Early Middle Ages there were smaller monastic orders here and there, but for the most part the Benedictines dominated the scene going back to St. Benedict. This all changed with the High Middle Ages. Three new major monastic orders rose up and this diversity led to a much needed boost in spiritual and theological fervor, largely fueled by scholasticism. Three highly gifted men rose up to found or catapult these movements. St. Francis of Assisi and the Franciscans, St. Dominic and the Dominicans, and Bernard of Clairvaux and the Cistercians. The greatest of these three was St. Francis who was a servant to the lepers of his day and eventually died himself of leprosy. These men and their movements led to preachers and evangelists going throughout Western Europe preaching and teaching cultural Christians to truly give their lives to Christ. They also led to much needed theological debates and clarification on a number of key theological issues. The East had always kept most of its theology under control by limiting divisions to the various Byzantine countries. But in the West theological chaos often reigned in the Early Middle Ages. After the rise of the monastic orders in the High Middle Ages, there were still differences to be sure, but they were mostly limited to the various schools of thought found within the monastic orders. Even most of the clergy who were not part of a monastic order still chose a school of thought based upon these distinctions.

  1. The Waldensians

The Waldensians were the first major reform movement. They challenged a number of the heterodox doctrines of the Catholic Church. They didn’t go as far as later Protestants would go, but they were a major step in the right direction. They were heavily persecuted for their fight against the Catholic Church.

  • The Late Middle Ages or the Renaissance Era (1300-1500AD) –
  1. Overview

This era was marked by tremendous advancements in Western Europe in the areas of education, architecture, medicine, technology, literature, and the arts. This was the time of Dante, Michelangelo, Giotto, and so many others. In many ways the lives of people in Western Europe got much better from a practical standpoint. Many serfs were living in better housing in cities and worked better jobs receiving some pay. The New World was discovered and brought back huge riches for certain countries that economically spilled over into the rest of Western Europe, especially Spain and Portugal who had towards the tail end of the High Middle Ages been taken from the Muslims and incorporated into Catholic Western Europe, becoming two of the most zealous Catholic countries by the time of the Reformation. However, spiritually and theologically this was a period of bleak decline. The legacy of Aquinas should have countered this, but as is often the case with church wealth and privilege, it brought about extreme backsliding. The heterodoxy that had always marked the Middle Ages to some extent was now front and center and was becoming exponentially worse. Idolatry skyrocketed as the focus was becoming more and more on the Saints, especially Mary, while God, including Jesus Christ, was seen as angry and distant. The monasteries and convents, which had always been the spiritual backbone of the church, became glorified brothels in many cases. Corruption such as simony, concubinage, nepotism, priestly ignorance, indulgences, and absenteeism, all became rampant. This was the time of the Great Schism where there were two and at one time even three rival Popes, creating absolute political turmoil. Towards the end of this era the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire (known as the “Turks” at the time). The Orthodox Church was again subjected to extreme persecution. On top of that it became very fragmented and chaotic. All of this led to a situation where most cultural Christians simply expected corruption and chaos and most went through the motions. True believers were hard to find and by the time of the Reformation biblical Christianity was thoroughly diseased and dying. In the midst of this darkness two key reform movements emerged as well as one very inspiring woman.

  1. The Lollards

The Lollards were begun by the great John Wycliffe in England. Wycliffe translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate to English and began to disseminate it to the common people. The translation was far from perfect because it was done by just one scholar and it was at the end of the day a translation of a translation, but it was nevertheless a huge step in the right direction. Wycliffe and the Lollards went even further than the Waldensians in their challenges to Roman Catholic heterodoxy and they were severely persecuted because of it. They did not go as far as the Reformers, but they were on the right path and were a deep source of encouragement to the Reformers when they came on the scene.

  1. The Hussites

The Hussites were founded by Jan Hus in Bohemia. They went even further than the Lollards, but again, not quite as far as the Reformers would later go. The one area where Hus and the Hussites backtracked a little bit was over the literal presence of Christ in the Supper, which they accepted and the Lollards had rightfully rejected. Hus was eventually burned at the stake and the Hussites were persecuted and always subjected to military threat all the way up to the time of the Reformation when most of them became fully Protestant.

  1. Joan of Arc

She will be discussed in class.

  • A Final Word: Heterodoxy

Thus far in class and in my appendices to this class, I have made consistent reference to the heterodoxy that plagued the church and that became more and more prominent during the Middle Ages, eventually becoming out of control on the eve of the Reformation. However, I have intentionally avoided overly defining this heterodoxy as this will be something that I will cover in an overview fashion at the beginning of our discussions on the Reformation Era.




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