Church History in the Medieval Period
We’re joined again this week by Dr. Michael Haykin from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to finish our mini 2-week series on the early church in the Patristic Era and the Medieval Period. This week we’ll be digging into church history in the Medieval period. This, as Dr. Haykin will explain, isn’t necessarily a “glorious” period, as things like Bible illiteracy, the rise of Islam, and political power in the church abound. Dr. Michael Haykin will join us again in a few months to finish our church history lesson with one more mini 2-week series focusing on the Reformation and the Modern Era.
Check out The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (where Dr. Michael Haykin teaches).
Also, check out The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies (where Dr. Haykin serves as director).
*Below is an edited transcription of the audio conversation.
Well it’s a privilege once again to be talking with Dr. Michael Haykin – professor of Church History and Biblical Spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary – on the history of the church – that’s what we’re digging into. Michael has committed to bringing us through year 100 AD to the present day. Obviously we know that he’s merely going to be scratching the surface because there’s so much there. But thanks for being here with us Michael.
My pleasure. Great to be with you.
If you want to hear more about who Michael is personally and hear how church history became a subject of importance to him, I’d encourage you to go back one week and listen in to that specific part.
But anyways, let’s get in here. Dr. Haykin is going to be sharing with us about the Medieval world and its challenges.
Church History in the Medieval Period
Yes, as I was talking last week when we were together – we were looking at Augustine as, you know, a great gift of the early church, his thoughts, and the doctrine of the trinity. Augustine died in the year 430 AD and when he was dying a group known as the Vandals were at the city gates, beseeching the city. He died in North Africa, modern Tunisia – it’s where he would’ve lived and died. And the Vandals came from Denmark, what is now modern Denmark – and you think, like, “wait a minute – these guys are miles away, how did they end up in North Africa?” Well in the early 400s (406-407 AD) there had been a very severe winter in which the Roman frontier in Europe, which was the Rhine river, froze. Romans used the Rhine as a frontier because it had never frozen. What they didn’t know was that Europe was entering into a mini ice age. The winter of 647 AD was sufficiently cold enough for the Rhine to freeze, and around 200,000 Germanic warriors from various tribes (Burgundians, Angles, Franks, Vandals, Goths, etc.) crossed. And they were never driven out, and eventually brought their families.
And this is the beginning of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West.
In the East it continues for another 1000 years, but in the West it collapsed within the 5th Century, and by the end of the 5th Century you’re living in a very different world, in Western Europe. It’s now a world dominated by various barbarian kingdoms – like Visigoths in Spain, the Franks and Burgundians in what is now France, the Ostogoths and the Lombard’s in Italy, and the Vandals in North Africa. And with the collapse of Roman military power there was a collapse of a variety of other things as well.
Urban life collapsed. Rome, which we noted last week, had a population of 1 million people, by 700 AD it is down to around 25,000.
It’s just a complete collapse of urban life and urban culture. Schools, universities, etc. disappeared. Literacy disappears. In some ways the Middle Ages is the 1000 years of illiteracy, I mean, there’s literate people obviously all the way through it, and with the recovery of university life and urban life in, around the 1100-1200s AD there is the growth of literacy. But in many respects it is a much more illiterate age then the early church. That means a loss of the knowledge of Scripture.
The only people that are reading the Bible are monks, not even all priests in local parishes who would be able to read – and many of them were illiterate. They would memorize the Mass. So one can imagine all the sorts of things they were telling people. It’s a complete collapse of biblical literacy, along with this larger collapse of learned life, urban life, and so on.
Christianity is the dominant religion, but it’s a veneer. All of Europe eventually embraces a Trinitarian Christianity, but as I said, it’s a veneer. The one bright spot is the Celtic Church in Ireland, which was evangelized by Patrick. He took the gospel there in the early 5th Century. It becomes a centre of mission and learning, and it begins to evangelize other parts of Europe. By the 8th Century it’s kind of run out of steam. The true Dark Ages is probably in the 8th and 9th Centuries.
The Rise of Islam & its Impact on Church History in the Medieval Period
The other key factor in this whole period is the rise of Islam. Islam emerges out of the Saudi Peninsula. Obedient to the revelations reportedly being given to Muhammad in the early 600s AD. By the year 700 AD, Muslims in terms of their religious fervor and enthusiasm have conquered all of North Africa. Over the next centuries Christianity is pretty much eliminated in North Africa except for Egypt where it’s survived by the Coptic church. They conquered large amounts of the Middle East – Jerusalem, Antioch, Damascus – all of these cities that have been centres of Christianity – early Christianity falls to Islam.
Now, are they converting people? Or are they slaying these Christians?
You’ve pretty much got a scenario that you find today, you’ve got a choice of conversion or the sword.
In certain contexts, for some reason, in Egypt the church is strong enough to survive, but it survives as a minority. It survives of second class citizens. And non-Muslims are regularly taxed at a higher rate in these various countries, and they have to pay these exorbitant taxes, etc.
And then the Muslims cross into Spain in 700 AD and conquer it. One of the major areas of the life of the Medieval Church was called Reconquista, which was the reconquest of Spain by Christian princes. But it introduces a very sad element into the life of the church, which is forcible.
Just as the Muslims had forcibly compelled Christians to embrace Islam, now Christians do the same with Muslims. And so forcible conversion of people groups becomes a pattern in the early Middle Ages.
You find this particularly among, for instance, the Saxons. The great king Charlomagne or Charles the Great in what is now France and Germany, well, he converts the Saxons at the point of the sword. So it’s a period really of a large amount of nominal Christianity, and massive superstition. A good example of superstition is what we call the relics. And the relics were, generally speaking, parts of the bodies of saints. And it was believed that these parts of the bodies of saints had enormous power because they represented the saints. The saints being those men and women who had so lived their lives – they’d been so holy that they were admitted to heaven in the presence of Christ without going through any intermediate purgation of their sin.
The majority of the faithful, it was believed, would end up going to a place called purgatory. But the saints go immediately to heaven. Everyone in purgatory eventually gets to heaven, the problem is that you’re going to have to spend a million years getting rid of your sin. But again, this goes back to a biblical literacy – it’s a loss of confidence in the shed blood of the Lord Jesus, failing to understand the nature of the atonement, the work of the cross, etc.
I’m looking ahead to the Reformation when you have people like Zwingli that are bringing in, “We got to get back to the Bible,” you know? We revive that, so that’s really interesting. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but there’s sort of the orthodox kind of Christians to the East, and then you have the more Western Christianity, like Catholicism, at this point in the West.
That’s correct. With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire with the two main centres of Christianity – Western Latin-speaking Christianity and the Eastern Greek-speaking Christianity are to some degree sundered because of the different political scenarios that they’re now living in. Eastern Christianity is living still in an ongoing, revived Roman Empire which is called the Byzantine Empire – which will last until 1453 when Constantinople falls to the Muslims and the end of that institution comes. And the West is living in the midst of these various barbarous kingdoms who are now embracing a nominal Christianity. So it’s a very different political scenario. It’s also very different in terms of linguistics. The West speaks Latin and they can’t understand Greek, and the vice-versa – the East speaks Greek and can’t understand Latin. And then in the middle of the 11th Century, the 1050s AD, there’s this formal schism between the West and East.
And so eastern Christianity will persist through this period. It has its own mission endeavours. Christianity went to Russia – certainly the conversion of the Russians is a major element in the growth of Christianity in this period. Again, a lot of it is nominal.
Now, there are obviously key differences between the East and West. The west has centred its ecclesial polity in a pope. The pope was believed to have supreme power over not only the church but also temporal princes. And so a large part of the Middle Ages is the pope’s struggle with temporal princes for a kind of political control of Europe. In the East you have various patriarchs, none of whom claim to be the supreme religious figure. So you don’t have the papacy in the East – but you do have the nominalism. That, obviously, is a major problem. And biblical illiteracy in both areas.
Now, when you talk about the schism in the 11th Century, was it based on this idea of the pope and so forth? Or was there something else that was the centre point of it?
The Filioque (The Controversy about the Nicene Creed)
The centre point is what we technically know as the filioque. “Filioque” in Latin means “and the son.” And in the Nicene Creed, which we looked at last week, I mentioned it briefly. The Nicene Creed in 381 AD talks about the Holy Spirit being glorified with the Father and the Son. Well part of that statement is that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father. The West added the little phrase “and the son.” The Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and the son. Which the Eastern church felt was an undermining of the unity of the Godhead. It’s a very complex issue – theologically. When I was a much younger, more naïve Christian historian, I thought it was muchado about little. But, I since come to the view that, no – underlying it was a very important insight of the Western church which is that the Holy Spirit is always the Holy Spirit of Christ, the Spirit of Christ. There is a Christological orientation to the Holy Spirit’s work, a Christ-centeredness to the Holy Spirit’s work. Jesus did say after all, in John 16, when the Spirit comes He will glorify the Lord Jesus, and that is Him. And so I think it wasn’t inappropriate for the Western church to add that phrase. But it did precipitate it, that was the precipitation of the schism – which still lasts, technically, to this day. But having said that, there are many other factors involved. The political factors of the claims of the papacy being one. The pope definitely claimed authority that the Eastern churches were not prepared to admit.
Wow, okay interesting. Now you’ve mentioned those in Ireland as sort of being a beacon of light. What are some of the other figures that we should know about?
Key People During Church History in the Medieval Period
Yeah, I mean there are a number of key figures who never leave the Roman church. I mean, it’s very interesting that up until the Reformation, things like, you know: could you believe in justification by faith alone? Yes! Could you believe in Sola Scriptura? Yes! In some ways the position of the Roman church over against what we know as the Reformation is not codified until the Reformation. So we have some remarkable theologians in the Medieval Period. People like Anslem, who hammers out the whole idea of Christ’s death as an atoning sacrifice for sinners. Or Bernard of Clairvaux. John Calvin loved the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux – a man not without faults, but just a remarkable lover of the Lord Jesus. And various figures like Peter Waldo who died somewhere between 1205 and 1218. He rejects the idea of the Roman Catholic priesthood, the papacy, and various other key doctrines of the Roman Church. He’s persecuted. His followers are called the Waldensians, who were a key body of people who would be maintaining a gospel light in this period. Or John Wycliffe. Born around 1330, dies in 1384. He too rejects the authority of the pope. At one point he says, “The pope may well be the head vicar of the devil.” That’s quite a knock right?
He maintains Scripture alone as the authority in the believer’s life. He translates the Bible into English. His translation came from the Latin. He gave the Bible to those people who could read. His followers are known as the Lollards. They’re a very, very important group. Where they were strong in various parts of England in the 1400s, in the 1500s when the Reformation comes, those are the first areas where the Reformation is embraced.
Jan Hus, a Czech reformer. A national hero in the Czech Republic today. He was martyred in 1415 at the Council of Constance in Switzerland. He maintained, again, similar views to Waldo and Wycliffe.
And so there are these men who are in the Roman church, men like Anselm, Bernard – they were solid in many ways. There are those outside the Roman church – they end up leaving or being kicked out or being titled as heretics by the Medieval roman church. But they’re really a light. It’s not surprising that John Wycliffe is sometimes prescribed as the Morning Star of the Reformation.
Main Theme During Church History in the Medieval Period
Yes. Now, you talked last week about the Patristic period and how the overall theme was the development of the trinity – all the hard work put into understanding that doctrine. So what would you say is the main theme or point in regards to this Medieval time?
I think it’s probably a negative one. I think it’s the danger of political power, and the church is wed with the political powers. And the statement that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely was made by the historian named Acton in the 19th Century. He was a Roman Catholic, and he was speaking about the Roman Catholic Papacy. And it’s a complete departure from the early church. Not only in the New Testament, but also the early church where…
…the bishop was regarded as a loving, caring, teaching, mission-minded pastor. By the Middle Ages he’s become a secular prince.
And so if the key areas of the early church that we have to remember are the doctrine of the trinity, the life of Augustine for instance, then when it comes to the Medieval period, it’s to some degree a negative lesson – the danger of power.
Well, it almost seems like you sort of have this mountain-valley-mountain (with the Reformation being another mountain). That’s interesting. Well thank you so much Michael, and I look forward to finishing this series at a later date.
Thank you. That’s great.
We hope you enjoyed our interview with Dr. Michael Haykin on church history in the Medieval Period. To listen to Dr. Haykin talk about the Patristic Era, click here.