Reforming the Bright Ages
Social historian R.W. Southern defined the Middle Ages as “the period in Western European history when the church could reasonably claim to be the one true state, and when men acted on the assumption that the church had an overriding political authority.” For most moderns, the Middle Ages provide a cautionary tale about the danger of allowing religion to have undue influence in the civic realm. The answer to the Middle Ages that all good citizens in the modern era must confess is Enlightenment secularism. Religious agnosticism in the public square and the relegation of religion to the private sphere is presented as the key to maintaining the best of all worlds. However, in this brave new world, we find that secularism is not simply a neutral peacekeeper, but the Hobbesian sovereign that also demands tribute. It will keep the peace for all religions and faiths as long as the faiths are limited to the space between one’s ears. One can believe anything one wants as long as those beliefs have no effect on the public realm. Chafing under the heavy hand of secularism, some have been drawn back to the appeal of the Middle Ages. Conversions to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy are on the rise as people look for a spiritual grounding in a world where truth is up for grabs.
Appreciation Without Nostalgic Idealism
There is a kind of sentimental gloss and nostalgic idealism that provides a rose-colored lens through which these people interpret the time period that blinds them to the problematic aspects of that era, chief among them being the tyranny of the papacy. The popes claimed two swords for themselves – the ecclesiastical sword, the power of the keys, which they claimed was given directly to them by Christ, and the civil sword, which was delegated to the magistrate by God through the papacy. In contrast to this two-swords theory, Enlightenment secularism has claimed that civil power arises based on individual natural rights in the state of nature, and the state permits tolerance of all “religion” as long as it does not question the basis or legitimacy of civil authority as expressed by the demos. Between these two extremes sits the thinkers of the magisterial Reformation who argued for two kingdoms rather than two swords. This tradition, which might be referred to as a Reformed Catholic view of civil government, offers a better and more realistic critique of the Middle Ages without succumbing to the political agnosticism of the modern age.
In many ways, the Middle Ages were an ideal time in the history of the church and one that Christians should yearn to recover. It was a time of triumph for Christianity over paganism in the West. From the modern vantage point, what that age lacked in terms of literacy, medicine, and prosperity among the people was more than made up for in conviction and will. Both spiritual warriors bearing the cross and physical warriors bearing the sword brought about a civilization that not only created human flourishing and temporal goods but was aimed at obtaining heavenly goods as well. The Christian civilization that spread over Europe through the early Middle Ages was vastly more humane than the violent, pagan society it replaced. The old gods demanded blood and valued military prowess and power. Their worshippers tried to appease them with sacrifice but were powerless to comprehend their fickle ways. The old gods did not desire a relationship with their worshippers and made no claim to justice. In contrast, the Christian God was carried to Europe offering mercy and forgiveness. He demanded worship and allegiance, but he offered his own Son to be the sacrifice that allowed worshippers to be reconciled to Him. The sacrifice of Christ shaped his followers so deeply that they took on his likeness, offering themselves as living sacrifices in service to their fellow man, and responding with forgiveness and mercy when they had been persecuted and harmed. Patrick, Augustine of Canterbury, Cuthbert, Willibrord, Boniface, and many others extended themselves to bring the gospel to the furthest reaches of Northwestern Europe. Not only was the gospel brought to these places, but it was also inculcated deeply into the culture and shaped the imagination of generations for centuries to come.
Strength, Authority and Corruption
The self-sacrificing work of missionaries alone did not secure the Christendom that emerged in Western society. To combat and convert a violent, pagan culture which preceded it, the church needed an equally strong and united force willing to push forward in the face of setbacks and opposition. Law, and the willingness to use the sword to enforce it, was needed to secure the kingdoms that had been Christianized from physical attacks from barbarian kingdoms as well as spiritual attacks from heretical sects. The church hierarchy centralized in the papacy provided not only the institutional unity but a moral force and catholicity of doctrine, that distinguished it from heresy. This moral authority would not be achieved by most of the tribal chieftains or monarchs in the West. It was Pope Leo who delivered Rome by negotiating with Attila the Hun in 452. It was Pope Urban II who could inspire a multilingual, multicultural, military campaign to take back the Holy Land in 1095. It was Popes Gregory VII and Innocent III who could force arrogant kings to “bend the knee” and submit to the church. However, the centralizing tendencies of the papacy also had a corrupting effect on the church as it sought out a greater political role for itself than the spiritual role it was intended to serve. The irony of ironies is that the expanding use of papal power that led to the political corruption of the High Middle Ages was justified in the name of bringing about moral reform to the church and the state.
Attempts are often made to separate the distinctives of Roman Catholic doctrine from the abuses that occurred in the Middle Ages. In this view, the corruption and abuses are treated as exceptions to an otherwise legitimate rule. However, the cause-and-effect relationship really should be understood in reverse. The new doctrines and accretions acquired by the church in the Middle Ages should be understood as flowing from the abuses of power. These doctrines grew out of the need to maintain the church hierarchy and for that reason lent themselves to abuse.
The Penitential System
First, the entire penitential system of the Middle Ages gave the papacy the unique role of acting as mediator between God and man. Rather than calling on man to repent by appealing to the free grace of God that hearts would be changed, an entire system of penalties and fines was constructed whereby a sinner might receive forgiveness and be relieved from the temporal consequences of sin. Without the pope and his hierarchy to hear confession, offer absolution, and prescribe penance, there was no comfort or assurance that one’s sins could be forgiven. If forgiveness could be gained through repentance that produced a change in mind and heart, the penitential system would not be needed.
The Sale of Indulgences
Second, and closely related to the doctrine of penance, was the sale of indulgences. Indulgences were originally granted by Pope Urban II to crusaders who lost their life in battle. The papal indulgence allowed soldiers to fight without fear that their actions on the battlefield would extend their stay in purgatory. As time went on, the pope found that making continual withdrawals from the treasury of merit to grant an indulgence was too great a temptation. The pope could motivate people to do what he desired with the mere promise of something of immense value in the afterlife that cost him nothing. R.W. Southern compares the issuance of indulgences to the issuance of paper currency in modern economies in their similar economic effect. Inflation resulted as “the abundance of the notes brought about a decline in the value attached to them.” In other words, Gresham’s Law went into effect. As bad money drives out the good in an economy, so did easily obtained indulgences drive out the desire for true repentance. Says Southern:
By the end of the fifteenth century, it would not have taken a very farsighted prophet, or a profound student of economics, to see that the day would soon come when the questions would be asked: what, after all, was the backing for the papal currency of indulgences, and what would happen when it was finally presented for payment?
This was the heart of Martin Luther’s argument in his 95 Theses. His protest against the corruption of the penitential system and the abuse of the sale of indulgences is rooted in a proper doctrine of repentance, which should be understood as an inward change of heart that leads to outward acts of mercy and love consistent with the change of heart rather than a system whereby one may pay a fee or perform a task to absolve oneself of guilt. Understanding that the whole of Christian life is one of repentance posed an existential threat to the penitential system atop of which the pope stood.
The Doctrine of Transubstantiation
Third, the doctrine of the miracle of transubstantiation, which kept the people in awe and fear of participating in the sacraments, bolstered the claims of power made by the clergy in general and the papacy in particular. Upon the utterance of the words of the priest, a miracle was performed changing the substance of bread and wine into the physical body and blood of Christ. The capability of performing such an act differentiated the clergy and the laity to such an extreme that prevented the two groups from equally partaking in the same holy meal. The laity feared to participate in the sacrament of the Eucharist, and when they did partake, they were prevented from taking the sacrament in both forms. Viewing the mass as an unworthy spectator of the clergy, who alone were holy enough to receive Christ’s body and blood, was a powerful image that reinforced the notion that the church alone, with the pope at its head, provided access to God.
Opposition to a Vernacular Bible
Finally, the Roman church’s strident opposition to a vernacular Bible was not a conviction born of a desire to protect the sacred text of Scripture against corruption that was merely abused for the sake of gaining political power. Rather, it was the desire to safeguard the exclusive authority of the papal hierarchy to interpret the Word of God that vernacular translations were prohibited. The Council of Toulouse banned the laity from reading the Bible in the vernacular. Says historian Philip Schaff, “It was regarded as a book for the clergy, and the interpretation of the meaning was assumed to rest largely with the decretists and the pope.” Rather than being the servant of the laity and assisting them in their understanding of the Word of God like Philip did for the Ethiopian eunuch, the church’s magisterium served as the gatekeepers, preventing lay access to the Scriptures that would deprive them of their mediatorial role between God and man.
The Failures of Secularism
Medieval Christendom was not a failed experiment, and it should not be thought of as a primitive time, beyond which moderns have evolved. The secular, liberal society that grew out of the Enlightenment has been a failure. A desire to bring society and political economy back in line with God’s Word should result in the formation of a new Christendom. However, this requires that we learn from the mistakes of the old Christendom. Preventing the abuses and corruption that plagued the papacy in the Middle Ages begins with a proper understanding of God’s two kingdoms rather than a theory of two swords. For, as William Tyndale rightly said:
To preach God’s word is too much for half a man: and to minister a temporal kingdom is too much for half a man also. Either other requireth an whole man. One therefore cannot well do both. He that avengith himself on every trifle is not meet to preach the patience of Christ, how that a man ought to forgive and to suffer all things. He that is overwhelmed with all manner riches, and doth but seek more daily, is not meet to preach poverty. He that will obey no man is not meet to preach how we ought to obey all men. Peter saith, Acts 6, “It is not meet that we should leave the word of God, and serve at the tables.” Paul saith in the 9th chapter of the first Corinth. “Woe is me if I preach not.” A terrible saying, verily, for popes, cardinals, and bishops! If he had said, “Woe be unto me if I fight not and move princes unto war, or if I increase not St Peter’s patrimony,” as they call it, it had been a more easy saying for them.
The classical Protestant understanding of two kingdoms is not a peace agreement whereby the church agrees not to concern itself with temporal affairs, in exchange for the right to worship as it sees fit in peace. Rather it is an acknowledgment that God has uniquely gifted two different offices for the promotion of both our temporal and spiritual goods. Confusing these two roles has a corrupting effect on both institutions. Recovering such an understanding of the distinctive purposes for both roles is key to recovering and incorporating the best of what the Middle Ages has to offer the modern world.
- Richard William Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 24. ↑
- Southern, 142. ↑
- See Theses 1-4. Luther, Martin. “95 Theses.” Project Wittenberg. Accessed October 29, 2022. https://www.projectwittenberg.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html. ↑
- Philip Schaff and David S. Schaff, History of the Christian Church Volume VI: The Middle Ages from Boniface VIII to the Protestant Reformation (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994) 341. ↑
- William Tyndale, The Works of William Tyndale, vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 2010) 207. ↑