CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1550 thru AD 1650

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.

When I first studied Church history, the Reformation was taught as this unbelievable time of change. For obvious reasons, this period of history was seen as the hinge point for the modern era. It was one of the major peaks in the history of Christendom.

I know it feels like I was setting up a “but” statement, but I actually agree with these statements and I’ve come to see those statements from even a bigger and wider angle than what I believe was being taught to me. Originally, this period of Church history was taught to me in light of the progression of Protestant, Christian development.

But this development did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, this period of Christendom was accompanied by an unbelievably tumultuous time of cultural change that immediately followed it. Without the Reformation, I don’t believe Christianity would have survived the 200 years after it — a statement that has very little to do with what most of us would call theology or Church ecclesiology.

Even as I say that, I wonder if we can separate the two worlds (Church history and non-Church history). It is incredibly difficult to imagine a “pre-French Revolution” world (coming next in our discussion) in which there was no separation in thought between church and state, between faith and science, between poetry and pragmatism. So I suppose one might even be able to make the case (as in the Hannam book I mentioned earlier) that the Reformation actually led to and/or catalyzed what we refer to as the Age of Enlightenment.

The late sixteenth century brought us two people who had a large impact. John Knox is known as the man who founded the Presbyterian Church, which happened to be the flavor of Reformation in Scotland, seemingly overthrowing the presence of Catholicism and Anglicanism there. While those from a Presbyterian background would probably appreciate a much larger treatment of Knox’s contributions, it could be simplified into the style of government the Presbyterian Church is named after. Unlike other movements in the Protestant era, Knox brought an approach to church polity and governance known as the “presbytery” — a group of representatives who would lead the church as a governing body, rather than a hierarchy of papacy, priesthood, or the like.

In reference to the preceding paragraph, it’s hard to quantify the affect this would have on the thinking that would eventually lead to a political style of governance based on a democratic republic. While many of these ideas are based on Roman systems of governance, the impact of John Knox on the application of representative leadership is undeniable.

Another name in the mix during the Age of Enlightenment is Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus had this crazy idea that our universe was not revolving around the earth; he proposed the idea of a universe revolving around the sun. Using his expertise in science and mathematics, Copernicus was just trying to be honest with his findings.

While most of us read this portion of history with a smirk, we often fail to realize the impact this had on the world of theology. In this period of history, the Church’s theology rested on a geocentric understanding of the universe. Using the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, the theology of the “heavens” was such that differing levels of the heavens — and ultimately God’s dwelling place — could be found at further levels of these concentric circles of universal existence. While most of us would see this as a simple scientific adjustment and part of the learning process — the Church in this day did not. The prominent belief was that the proposal of Copernicus (and what we call heliocentrism) was threatening the very existence of God. His teaching was deemed by many to be heretical and an attack on the teachings of the Church.

As a side note, I hope my readers are realizing the relevance of this conversation to our own century of Church history. It’s a world where new scientific understandings threaten our understanding of theology and the Bible. Instead of jumping to hasty conclusions, we may want to take a lesson from this chapter of history. If we don’t, the next few centuries may not look back on our day with much kindness, but might see us as incredibly foolish, just as we do the sixteenth century.

But I digress. We will cross that bridge in due time.

While it’s probably not a shocker to most of my readers, science will not backtrack and affirm the status quo of the Church; quite the opposite, in fact. Galileo is one scientific giant who would champion the cause of Copernicus and, through the use of telescopes and other mathematics, prove (in many ways) the validity of the heliocentric universe. While this incredibly uncomfortable growth in the Church took more than a century, it happened nonetheless.

The Church accepted (albeit quietly) that their thinking was flawed, made adjustments to their theology (albeit not gracefully), and moved on.

Blaise Pascal is a Christian philosopher who helped make some radical advances in science and mathematics. In a lot of ways, Pascal would set the stage for what we understand as Newtonian physics. Through the work of men like this, the Church was able to move — even if it was an awkward movement — through the Age of Enlightenment. This growth curve would not end any time soon, and the hard work of Christian evolution through this era is only the beginning. In many ways, we are still in the awkward growth phase of this era. To this day, we continue to have a hard time appreciating the world of faith and science; often seen as enemies, we have never truly recovered from the adversarial tone struck during the Age of Enlightenment.

And so we continue to study this growth in an effort to appreciate our own place in the story.


CHURCH HISTORY: AD 1300 thru AD 1550

NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.

So Christendom emerges from the period of the Crusades in horrible shape: completely beaten up, completely broken. Having spent everything they had on war and conquest, they now turn their sights toward rebuilding. In order to do this, they need to find a way to get resources.

Well, in a world that is largely illiterate, where the educated are priests and leadership, studying the Text that is written in an archaic, foreign language is difficult. It becomes simple to manipulate the truth that the masses depend on you to communicate. With a little shaping here and a little gloss there, the narrative of God quickly becomes something that can enslave people in a system of fear, guilt, and control. At its best, you had priests and Church leadership who were maintaining a commitment to sound doctrine, modeling a self-sacrificial life, and instilling a message of hope into people who needed the gospel so badly.

At its worst, we saw the rise of the Age of Indulgences. While the entire conversation is incredibly complex and usually oversimplified (as even I am about to do for the sake of brevity), the general understanding of the problem is relatively accurate. As parishioners came for their typical interaction with the sacraments, the Church leveraged this need to help control the general populace.

To understand this conversation, one needs a basic understanding of sacraments. To the orthodox faith of the Middle Ages, people believed you would interact with the many different practices of the Church in order to experience the grace, mercy, and forgiveness of God. You might remember the liturgy and order we spoke of when we talked about the contribution of Gregory the Great. The Church had identified seven sacraments to serve as corporate practices for experiencing the dispensation of grace. For these early thinkers, there is nothing magical about the sacrament itself, other than its service as a conduit to receive the grace of God into your life. Things like baptism, the Eucharist, confession, marriage — these all allow the grace of God to flow into your life.

You can imagine, as people come to engage these sacraments and anticipate the reception of God’s grace in their lives, it is a short leap for the Church to start manipulating this system for their ends. At some of its worst moments, the Church was even offering forgiveness at a monetary price. Come to confession and absolve your sins by going through the appropriate motions — and offering the appropriate gift.

In short, we are seeing a rabid abuse of Church leadership and priesthood.

Not all the educated were prepared to turn a blind eye to these abuses. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries are littered with names of those who stood up against this corruption and fought to reveal the gospel as it ought to be seen. Two popular names in the world of scholasticism are Wycliffe and Hus.

John Wycliffe — Wycliffe was known for consistently attacking the imperial privilege of the Church at large. He hated the separation between the clergy and the laypeople and thought the gap should be dissolved. While he railed against the pomp of the high Church system, he also argued that the Text should not be held captive in an ancient language. He wanted the Scriptures to be accessible for all and thought they should be translated into the common vernacular for people to understand in services. In a lot of ways, Wycliffe paved the way for the Reformation.

John Hus — Sometimes referred to as the true father of the Reformation, it’s hard to see Hus apart from the work of Wycliffe. Hus led an informal resistance to the papacy and was eventually executed for leading what history knows as the Bohemian Revolt. There were two successful regional Crusades against the reigning papacy. While his methods may be subject, his thinking deeply shaped the thought process in western Europe and definitely laid the groundwork for what we know as the Protestant Reformation.

Part of the issue in this period of Catholic history was the geopolitical context. With a new sense of what I call “medieval nationalism,” the power structures in the world were shifting entirely. No longer was the world ruled by one giant papacy; as Christendom tried to figure out how to hold onto their outdated systems of governance, the world changed around them. People were seeing their allegiance aligned more with the powers of the state and country than they were with a foreign church. People associated with being French or German as a more immediate identification than they did with being “Catholic.”

This made it easier and easier to reject foreign papacy and rule. The papacy of Avignon actually shifted the seat of power away from Rome and into France for a period of seven popes, leading to what would later be called the “Western Schism” — when the Western Church was spilt between western and eastern Europe.

The Church continued to suffer from divisions and schisms.

In light of the many abuses of religious power, the Protestant Reformation was simply waiting for good leaders. How “good” these leaders were is left to historical debate. I will leave my personal opinions out of it; so much material has been written about the Reformation and I encourage you to do your own study. Needless to say, people like Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Calvin led reformations away from the Catholic Church in their respective lands, each with their own nuances to their understanding of theology.

At this point, we begin to split over the smallest of nuances. No longer held together by a common hierarchy or papal leadership, we were free to disagree over the smallest details, often fueled by our nationalistic identifications. However, each national identity will get a denominational affiliation: Germans would be Lutheran, the French might be Calvinistic Reformers, and the Swiss would follow Zwingli.

Their many opinions splintered the faith of Christendom, and we don’t have time for that full conversation. However, as far as the good this movement did, it is hard to overstate. The invention of the printing press allowed the widespread distribution of the Text in the language of the common person. The Reformation changed the face of education and cinched up the gap between the educated and the uneducated, especially in reference to theology — both orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

And while this might seem like an unbelievable amount of change for the world to endure, the change is only beginning.