Revisiting the Medieval Church: Duane W.H. Arnold, PhD
Church History spans the continuum of two thousand years. As one who has taught and researched this specific field for over four decades, one thing has become abundantly clear to me, most individuals from Protestant traditions do not understand the scope and the depth of Church History. This lack of understanding, however, is not uniform or consistent. There is what one might call a spectrum of at best, misunderstanding, and at worse, ignorance. On one extreme end of the spectrum are those who believe that the Holy Spirit was active in the work of the Church in the age of the apostles (“we can read all the Church History we need in the Book of Acts”) and only resumed that work in about 1968. For these, the image of the apostolic Church is roughly equivalent to a successful home Bible study in Orange County, California. While admittedly this constitutes an extreme view that is seldom articulated aloud, it is practiced and held by more contemporary believers than we might wish to think.
Further along the spectrum there are those who are willing to grant importance to the post-Apostolic history of the Church, up to and inclusive of the Church councils of the fourth century. Many of these are uncertain of the structure and practices encountered in this period, such as infant baptism, the Eucharist or bishops and priests, but desire to lay claim to the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. Many of these also wish to identify with the doctrinal formulations of the period such as those regarding the deity of Christ and his human and divine nature, although they are less enamored with the doctrinal description of Mary as Theotokos. For a good number of these, however, Augustine of Hippo in the fourth and the early fifth centuries seems to be a terminus point, with the Holy Spirit reemerging in 1517 when young Martin Luther nails his theses to the door, signaling the dawn of the Reformation.
What then are we to make of that thousand year stretch of history that encompassed what we know as the Medieval Church in the West?
Many among Lutherans, the Reformed, Protestant leaning Anglicans and Anabaptists today tend to read the medieval period through what they believe is the view of their particular Reformation tradition which usually translates into the superstition and false teaching of the medieval Church set over against the faith and clear reason of the Reformers. This stark historical division, however, owes more to the Enlightenment’s view of the medieval Church than it does to unbiased historiography. If we, in fact, consider the reformers, each owed a debt to the medieval Church and the theology it produced. Calvin was one of the great scholars of Augustine and was devoted to the writings of Bernard of Clairvaux and Gregory the Great. Zwingli and Bucer were classical scholars of the first rank specializing in Cicero and well versed in the Augustinian revival of the fourteenth century. Luther, in addition to Augustine, read, and was influenced by, Tauler, Gregory of Rimini, Bernard and Hugh of St. Victor. Cranmer knew the medieval liturgies of Salisbury by heart and used them to shape the Book of Common Prayer. There is a debt owed to the medieval Church.
All of this is not to say that there were not errors or abuses in the medieval Church. Of course there were, just as there are errors and abuses in our period and, indeed, in every age of the Church. Yet, the Holy Spirit was at work in that age of the Church as in every age. If not, how do we explain a Francis of Assisi, a Clare, a Benedict, a Dominic, a Bede, a Barnard of Clairvaux, or yes, even a Thomas Aquinas… and there are hundreds more. This, of course, is not even to speak of Eastern Christianity.
Most people, however, tend to reject what they do not know. This seems to be especially true of the medieval Church. Many are content with a comic book version of history (Wikipedia) or with looking back through the lens of their own tradition or tribe. Now, after my most recent purge, I have about twenty feet of shelf space devoted to the medieval Church, not counting another additional fifteen feet containing books on medieval Church architecture. Of these, there are three books I would recommend as an initial entry into this period of Church history.
The first is, ‘Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages’ by R.W. Southern. It is part of the Penguin History of the Church. It is relatively short (384 pages) concise and very well written. The second is a secular history of the era, ‘Medieval History: The Life and Death of a Civilization’ by my old friend and colleague, Norman Cantor. It is simply the standard text for this period and sets the context. Finally, ‘Christendom and Christianity in the Middle Ages’ by Adriaan Bredero takes one inside the movements and personalities that shaped this crucial era of Church life.
If, however, the above volumes seem to be too much like “school” I have a final suggestion. Pick up the novel, ‘The Name of the Rose’ by the great Umberto Eco, for as you are entertained, you will learn more than you thought possible!