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Church History - The Medieval Church (600-1517) Print E-mail
Church History

I.  Introduction:

 With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, there is much change in the life of the Church.  The authority and power gap that is left by this collapse is filled, or at least attempted to be filled, by the Roman Catholic Church and eventually the Holy Roman Empire (in 800).  As the Church grows in power and influence over the centuries, it becomes misdirected and for the most part corrupt.  All this of course will set the stage for the next big movement in Church history, namely the Reformation.  Yet, before we get to that, this morning we want to look at the period between 600 and 1517.  Obviously this is almost a millennium of Church history to cover in one hour so we cannot get to it all.  Our goal will be to outline the changes and look at the major events of this period..

I.  Introduction:

 With the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, there is much change in the life of the Church.  The authority and power gap that is left by this collapse is filled, or at least attempted to be filled, by the Roman Catholic Church and eventually the Holy Roman Empire (in 800).  As the Church grows in power and influence over the centuries, it becomes misdirected and for the most part corrupt.  All this of course will set the stage for the next big movement in Church history, namely the Reformation.  Yet, before we get to that, this morning we want to look at the period between 600 and 1517.  Obviously this is almost a millennium of Church history to cover in one hour so we cannot get to it all.  Our goal will be to outline the changes and look at the major events of this period.

II.  The Major Events and People of this Period

 A.  First, we need to begin by discussing the development of the Roman Catholic Church.  In 590 Gregory I becomes the Bishop of Rome.  He refused the title of Pope, although technically he served as Pope in Rome.  What he did do is solidify the power of the bishop of Rome and organize the papal system.  Much of what he did institutionally for the Church played a major role in the development of the Roman Catholic Church during this period of history.

 Another development within the Catholic Church was the missionary movement to the Germanic tribes.  Many smaller Germanic Kingdoms replaced the Roman Empire.  This reality led to missionary activity in the Church among the Germans.  Gregory I also played a role in this.  One particular missionary was Boniface, who lived from 672-754.  Boniface was from Wessex, which is in England.  He was able to gain the support of the Roman Bishop and the ruler of the Franks and began to minister to the German tribes.  The most well known story of Boniface is his defeat of Thor.  Thor was the Nordic god of thunder and was worshipped by the Germans.  In one particular city, there was an oak tree that symbolized his power and glory.  Yet, Boniface came to this city and proceeded to chop down the tree with an axe.  The story goes that after he took one swing, a wind from heaven came and blew down the tree.  Boniface then used the wood to begin a Church that would be dedicated to St. Peter.  Thus, Boniface was able to greatly impact the Germanic tribes for the Church. 

 One last point to mention here concerning the Catholic Church is the division of 1054.  The Church had been split into East and West for many years and had been slowly drifting apart over particular issues as well (icons, theological issues, and political power issues).  This situation came to a head in 1054 and the split resulted in the Greek Orthodox Church in the East and the Roman Catholic Church in the West.  The split still exists today.

 B.  A second topic to discuss from this period is the rise of Islam.  Mohammed, who lived from 570-632, claimed that he had received messages from Allah through the angel Gabriel.  These messages that he received would later become the Koran, the holy writings of Islam.  In 622, Mohammed flees from Mecca to Medina.  By 630, he has conquered Medina and moves back and conquers Mecca.  At this point, Islam began to move and conquer lands throughout the Middle East and Spain and parts of Europe.  Their conquest was put to an end by Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours in 732.  Yet, much of the land they had conquered remained under their control and does even to this day.  As we shall see below, the Church does respond to Islam. Unfortunately, the response deals more with land lost than it does with truth or the gospel.  The religion of Islam is still thriving and expanding today.

 C.  The next topic I want to touch upon is the Crusades.  In 1095, Pope Urban II issued a call to deliver Palestine and the Holy Lands from the Muslims.  This call resulted in an ongoing wave of Crusades that lasted until 1291.  There were seven to eight Crusades in all, including a children’s crusade, which is one of the more tragic moments in Church history.  For the most part, success was really limited to only the first Crusade, which was able to capture some of the land back, but in the end they were not able to hold it.  Many have interpreted the Crusades in different ways. 

 Even recently, I heard someone trying to defend what was done.  Yet, from my limited perspective I view the Crusades as one of the darkest points of Church history.  Instead of responding to Islam with the gospel, the Church responded with force and violence.  I do recognize that there is a time for war, but I am not convinced that this was one of those times.  Faith is not secured through force.  Our battle is not of flesh and blood as Paul tells us in Ephesians 6.  And that children would be sent to their death over such a cause reveals the desperate and confused state of the Church at this time.  It indeed was a dark time.  Other results from the Crusades include a growing middle class, Europe’s exposure to other literature and cultures, a very wealthy Church, and a strengthened papacy.  Yet, for all this, the Church’s influence greatly waned in Europe. 

 D.  Let me turn now to talk about some of the doctrinal developments during the Medieval ages.  There was a group of people identified as the Scholastics.  They were seeking to deal with the issue of the relationship between faith and reason.  There are two of these I want to mention: Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas.

 Anselm lived from 1033-1109.  He believed and taught that reason was a means to give strength and understanding to his faith.  This is the Augustinian idea of believing in order to understand.  Thus, Anselm saw the relationship between faith and reason as being closely tied and not in contradiction of one another.  He also wrote a great work on the atonement of Christ which would later influence Calvin and Luther.

 Thomas Aquinas lived from 1225-1274.  His major work is called ‘Summa Theologica.’  He maintains that faith and reason are complements, much like that of Anselm.  Aquinas wrote on such topics as the attributes of God, the Resurrection, and creation.  Yet, he also gave support for such issues as the veneration of Mary, purgatory, human effort in salvation, and other issues.1   Although his contribution was great, as with so many, we would not agree with him on everything.

 E.  The last thing I want to mention this morning is how the Medieval Church led up to the Reformation.  An event known as ‘The Great Schism’ took place from 1378-1417.  This was a split in the papacy that resulted in two popes being named, one in France and one in Rome.  This obviously caused great division in the Church.  Also during this time, there had been a growing corruption within the Church.  Many of the popes had been corrupt and had focused more on money and power than anything else.  Greed and scandal were rampant within the leadership of the Church.  Another controversy in the Church was over the availability of the Word.  The Scriptures were primarily available only in Latin, which the common man could not read.  People like Wycliffe and Huss fought and gave their lives to provide English translations that could be read by the common people.  The Church fought to suppress this movement.  Some within the Church recognized these struggles and called for moral reforms.  This is the type of reform that Desiderius Erasmus called for.  Yet, more was needed, and eventually more would come.  All these factors and more led to the Protestant Reformation, which we will discuss next week. 

III.  What can we learn?

 Before we go this evening, let us consider for a moment what we can learn from this period of Church history.  First, I think we see clearly that there have been dark times in Church history.  Whether it be the Crusades, the immoral popes, or the prevention of the making the Word available, we see very dark spots in the history of the Church.  We must look to these times and learn from the mistakes that were made so as not to repeat them in our own day.  Second, we see the great need for a clear understanding of the place and authority of the Church.  We must understand the difference between man’s kingdom, which fights for land and power and money, and God’s Kingdom, which labors for the gospel.  We must realize the authority of the Word.  The Church cannot afford to compromise on this issue, lest we send our children to die over lost causes.  John Huss was burned at the stake because he believed that people should be able to read and understand the Scriptures in their own language.  This is the battle that the Reformers picked up.  Sola Scriptura was their cry.  May we labor for the same.  Amen.

1 James P. Eckman, Exploring Church History, (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2002), 45.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Wednesday, 08 August 2007 )

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