Category Archives: Medieval Church
The history of the church from the fall of the Roman Empire in the west (AD 476) to the Reformation (1517).
[Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Francis of Assisi’s death (1226). The founder of the Franciscans and influential spiritual leader, Francis left a number of written prayers. So, to commemorate his passing, here is one of them.]
Lord God: you are Three and you are One,
you are goodness, all goodness,
you are the higest Good,
Lord God, living and true.
You are love and charity, you are wisdom,
you are humility, you are patience,
you are beauty, you are sweetness,
you are sefety, you are rest, you are joy,
you are our hope
and our delight,
you are justice, you are moderation
you are all our wealth
and riches overflowing.
You are beauty, you are gentleness,
you are our shelter, our guard
and our defender,
you are strength, you are refreshment,
you are our hope.
you are our faith.
you are our love,
you are our complete consolation,
you are our life everlasting,
great and wonderful Lord,
all powerful God, merciful Savior!
Last week I asked for some input on the most shameful moments in Christian history because I was thinking about putting together a top 10 list on the subject. Well, Listverse stole my idea (because, of course, they have nothing better to do than sit around and read this blog all day) and put together their own list of their own. But, I think I’ll still do my own list at some point, because I think we can do better. As far as I can tell, this list was put together by a Protestant with an oddly narrow focus on the medieval period.
Read their post for more explanations on each of these, but here are their Top 10 Shameful Moments in Catholic History.
- The condemnation and posthumous burning of John Wycliff.
- Refusing to allow Vernacular Bibles.
- The corrupt abuse of Indulgences.
- The persecution and destruction of The Knights Templar.
- Galileo and the ban on heliocentrism.
- The trial and execution of Joan of Arc.
- The execution of John Hus despite having promised his safety.
- Burning William Tyndale at the stake.
- The Inquisitions.
- The Medieval Witch Hunts.
What do you think?
The lyrics come up on the screen. I don’t recognize them. Looks like we’ll be learning a new song today. Good. I like to sing, I love to worship, and I’m always looking for new music. The drums lead off followed by both acoustic and electric guitars, and then the vocals kick in. The song sounds great.
I should know, because all I can do is listen.
The lyrics, range, and rhythm of the song are so difficult that you need to be a talented musician who has practiced extensively during the week to sing the song. So, the worship team sounds great. The rest of us just stand mute.
I suppose that wouldn’t have frustrated me as much if they’d made it clear that this was “special music,” a performance that the rest of us were never intended to participate in, at least not vocally. But, with an invitation to sing along, the words on the screen, and the congregation on its feet, it sure seemed like we were supposed to be doing something. But we couldn’t.
So, we did nothing.
What happens when the complexity of worship leaves the worshiping community behind?
That was a problem for the church in the middle ages as well. Some time ago, I started a series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Middle Ages. I had to step away from that for a while, but I’d like to come back and continue reflecting on what we can learn from those who have gone before us.
By the time the church reached the early middle ages, it had well-developed worship practices. Liturgies, vestments, processionals, rites, and most other aspects of the church’s worship had been around for quite some time. And, these seemed to have worked quite well in the cultural context of the Roman empire, from which they developed.
As the church transitioned into a post-Roman Europe, however, problems arose. As we discussed in an earlier post (“Should we teach classes on how to speak Christianese?“), the average church-goer couldn’t speak Latin, the language of the church, anymore. And, although the strongly visual elements of the liturgy helped many stay connected (see “I’m listening, but I still can’t see anything“), the new “barbarian” cultures developing in much of Europe left many struggling to understand even this aspect of the church’s worship. So, many simply stopped going (see “Do I really have to go to church?“). But others continued to attend, convinced that somehow just being there would make a difference. Even if they didn’t really know what they were doing.
With all of these factors in place, the medieval church struggled with (at least) the following issues:
- Professionalization: Given the complexity of medieval worship and the widespread ignorance of the laity, professional worship leaders was almost a necessity. Who else could do it? And, there’s nothing wrong with supporting ministers/priests so that they can devote themselves fully to leading God’s people in worship. The problem is when worship itself gets professionalized, when worship is something only the pros can do. And, that’s where the medieval church found itself. The people still gathered, but the professionals did the actual work of worship.
- Passivity: The second problem stems directly from the first. Disconnected from the act of worship, the people didn’t do anything. Now, don’t get me wrong, worship doesn’t have to be “active.” Hearing a sermon, listening to a song, or viewing a painting can all be acts of worship. The problem is when the people aren’t even doing that. Instead, they’re just there. Maybe they’re even enjoying themselves. But they’re not worshiping. Someone else is doing that for them.
- Elitism: Professionalism does not have to become elitism. But it’s a short step. And, once worship itself has been professionalized, elitism always tags along. It’s just too easy to conclude that the one doing the worship is the one who truly stands closest to God. The rest of us hang out in the worship ghetto just hoping that they’re doing it right.
And, these aren’t just problems for the medieval church. I think we can see many of them at work in the church today. When I visit a new church, I often check out the people during the worship service. And, in some churches, I think I see a lot of people but few participants. I’m open to the possibility that I’m wrong, but it sure looks at times like the professionals on the stage have left the people far behind, worshiping for them instead of leading them to worship God as a community.
So, what can we learn from the medieval church for today?
- Strive for quality without sacrificing participation. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be your best when you lead others in worship. If God gifted you for leading others in worship, do it well. But, remember that in worship participation trumps performance every time.
- Lead people by bringing them with you. People often say that to be a leader, you have to have people following you. That’s simply not true. But, a leader must at least be trying to take people somewhere. And, if you’re a worship leader, you’re there to lead people to glorify God with their whole being (mind, heart, will, body, etc). So, your primary purpose is not to produce quality music, a great sermon, or (heaven forbid) a funny skit. Your primary purpose is to glorify God by leading God’s people to worship him. Everything else is secondary.
- Beware the cult of celebrity. One might think that elitism would be the least of our problems. Evangelical churches in general are driven by the egalitarian notion that all are equal before God. We’ve learned the “priesthood of all believers” so well (at least we think we have) that we even struggle at times to honor our leaders as we should. How could we have a problem with elitism? Yet we do. The cult of celebrity is alive and well in our worship services. And, wherever the cult of celebrity thrives, elitism tags along.
I could also mention that we need to understand cultural transitions and the impact that they have on the worshiping community. But, with the seemingly never-ending traditional vs. contemporary “worship wars,” I think that’s been discussed enough.
It’s important to recognize that complexity itself is not the problem. Many churches use highly complex liturgies to lead the people of God in meaningful worship. The problem is when we allow complexity to produce professionalization, passivity, and/or elitism. This happened in the medieval church with tragic results. And, if we fail to learn from those who have gone before, it can and will happen today.
The verdict seems unanimous. From presidential speeches to role-playing games, the crusades are depicted as a deplorably violent episode in which thuggish Westerners trundled off, unprovoked, to murder and pillage peace-loving, sophisticated Muslims, laying down patterns of outrageous oppression that would be repeated throughout subsequent history. In many corners of the Western world today, this view is too commonplace and apparently obvious even to be challenged.
The author, Paul Crawford, goes on to identify four common myths about the Crusades. He provides a nice discussion of each myth, so you’ll want to read the whole post. But, here are the four misconceptions he engages:
- The crusades represented an unprovoked attack by Western Christians on the Muslim world.
- Western Christians went on crusade because their greed led them to plunder Muslims in order to get rich.
- Crusaders were a cynical lot who did not really believe their own religious propaganda; rather, they had ulterior, materialistic motives.
- The crusades taught Muslims to hate and attack Christians.
I’m not sure how many sermons and lectures I’ve attended in the last thirty-nine years. But, it’s a lot. And, after countless hours spent in such oratorical contexts, I’ve learned one very important point. I don’t learn well that way. Unless I take a lot of notes and really force myself to pay attention, I’ll walk out with very little idea of what I just heard. Hearing is not my strong suit.
Indeed, my wife always gets frustrated with me in church. She’ll lean over during the sermon and ask a question. And my usual response is, “Oh sorry, I wasn’t listening.”
It’s not that I don’t care. I’m big fan of the Bible, and I think preaching is fundamentally important. Nor does it mean that my pastors don’t preach well. I’m fully capable of losing focus in the midst of the most outstanding sermon. I just drift. Within five minutes, the preacher will have said something that sparked a thought…and I’m gone. I’ll tune back in again a little later and try to pick up the thread of the sermon, but that usually doesn’t last long either.
I’m much more of a visual learner. What I see has a far greater impact on me than what I’ve only heard. I’m sure that’s largely why I love books and have always been fascinated by movies, TV, and the internet. It’s taken me a while to appreciate other visual arts, but I’m getting there.
I learn best with my eyes, not my ears.
And no, putting the main ideas on power point slides doesn’t qualify.
From what I understand, I’m far from alone. Lots of people struggle to learn well with their ears. Yet, the only mechanism many churches use to teach and train people is the spoken word. Should there be a greater role for the visual in Christian worship and education?
From its earliest days, the church appreciated the importance of visual elements in worship. Whether they worshiped in a house, a catacomb, or a church, the early Christians went out of their way to decorate their worship sites will all kinds of art. Such artistic productions stood alongside the written and preached word as a key aspect of Christian formation.
Despite this long history, two events in the early medieval church contributed to an even greater emphasis on the visual arts in worship. First, as I mentioned in an earlier post (Should we teach classes on how to speak Christanese?), the loss of Latin at the popular level rendered many people incapable of understanding most of the liturgy. Thus, the visual and kinesthetic (bodily movement) aspects of the liturgy took on an even greater importance. Hearing took a back seat and other modes of cognition rose to prominence.
At the same time, the iconoclast controversy provided greater theological justification for the use of visual representation in Christian worship. Without going into the details of the controversy, it revolved around the question of whether it was legitimate to have “images” in Christian churches despite the prohibition of the second commandment. After decades of turmoil and conflict, the consensus emerged that the doctrines of creation and the incarnation both support the legitimacy, indeed the necessity, of recognizing art as a legitimate expression of Christian worship. (For a good resource on this, see “Saint John of Damascus and the Iconoclastic Controversy.”)
Together, these two events placed the medieval church on a strong trajectory toward the use of the visual in worship and education.
I can see a lot of value in this development. But, there were some problems as well.
- The neglect of the spoken and written word. To the extent that we are a people of the word, we simply cannot ignore or neglect the word spoken and written in worship and education. To be fair, the medieval church didn’t sacrifice this entirely, but it was often sadly neglected and underappreciated. Combined with some of the other weaknesses on this list, this left the medieval church exposed to all kinds of problems, setting the stage for the reaction against the visual arts in many segments of the Protestant reformation.
- The neglect of certain modes of learning. An illiterate laity (often accompanied by an illiterate clergy) and an overemphasis on the visual led to an almost complete neglect of other modes of learning. As much as I appreciate the visual arts, there are some things they just don’t do well (e.g. explain complex ideas, sustain careful arguments, etc.). Losing these modes of learning weakened the church in devastating ways.
- The failure to train viewers. Though appreciating the power of the visual, the church often failed to understand that people need to be trained to understand the visual arts well. If you doubt, just walk into a modern art museum. (Or, if you already understand modern art, take someone who doesn’t.) Look at those black and red splotches. You can “see”, but can you “see as” the art intends? Can your imagination be shaped by those red scribbles as the artist hoped? Probably not. If you’re like me, you’ll just be annoyed by the pretensions of the modern artist and wonder if you can get your money back. Christian art works the same way. Unless you’ve learned how to “see” the art properly, you may not see it at all. Or, possibly worse, you may end up seeing all kinds of things that were never intended to be there – which takes us to our last point.
- The interpretive openness of the visual. One of the things that renders the visual arts so powerful is their openness to interpretation. Granted, all forms of communication bear a similar openness. But there’s something distinct about the ability of the visual to remain open before the interpreter and host a wide range of ideas and meanings. This is its power, but it can also be its weakness. Used casually or carelessly, the viewer can find meaning and application far removed the art’s original intent, subverting its own purpose. And, in the middle ages, this often contributed to rampant syncretism. Without proper training in how to see the art properly, people easily integrated it much of their pagan religiosity and superstition. The eucharist becomes a magical ceremony to appease the wrathful gods; Mary morphs into a fertility goddess; and God becomes Odin (or some other deity).
So, what can we learn from all of this today?
- The need to engage multiple modes of learning. Many of the Reformers responded harshly to the medieval emphasis on the visual. And, given some of the problems mentioned above, that’s understandable. But, we’ve also seen that medieval church had good theological, anthropological, and pedagogical reasons for its visual practices. And, we’ve seen that an overemphasis on one learning style alone can have negative ramifications for the church. So, we would be well advised to learn from those who have gone before and recognize the need for a more holistic approach to worship and education.
- The need to retain the word written and spoken. At the same time, we should heed well the problems that the medieval church encountered and the serious objections raised by the Reformers. We are and must be people of the Word. We should, therefore, tread lightly and thoughtfully down any path that might take us away from this focus. The visual does not need to be one of those paths, but it has been before and it could be again.
- The need to use the visual carefully. We teach people to read, to think carefully, and to speak clearly. But, for some reason, we think that everyone intuitively understands how to use and respond to the visual arts. We don’t talk about how to watch a movie, how to view a painting, or how to watch a ballet. Why not? Do we think all people have an innate ability to watch Glee well? Of course not. As we’ve seen, used carelessly, the visual arts can have tragic consequences for the church. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t use them. (All modes of expression have their own potential for misunderstanding and misuse.) But, it does mean that we need to use them far more carefully than often seems to be the case. Indeed, the resurgence of the visual arts in many churches today makes me nervous for this very reason.
Many of us are visual people. And, from what I’ve seen of God’s creation, I think he’s okay with that. Yes, God spoke. And he speaks. So, let’s speak and speak boldly. But, God also painted, sculpted, acted, and so much more. Let’s learn from the medieval church and see if we can engage all of these modes of expression carefully, thoughtfully, and worshipfully.
(For the rest of the posts in this series, see 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.)
Church is boring.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that from one of my high school students. Probe them a bit, though, and you’ll discover that the problem isn’t just that church isn’t exciting like a video game, an action movie, or a first date. Instead, the problem is often that they don’t understand what’s going on or what it has to do with “real life.” Listening to the songs and sermons, the language seems so odd, so removed from everyday life, that they struggle to understand why any of this matters.
And, like most of us, when faced with an hour or more of something they don’t really understand, they get bored.
And, if we’re honest, teenagers aren’t alone in this. Many people have a hard time understanding “church language.” Faced with words like “sanctify,” “redemption,” or, heaven forbid, “ebenezer,” they feel like they need their own personal translator just to keep track of what’s happening.
Indeed, some people have grown so accustomed to not understanding church language that they don’t even notice anymore. I’m sure I could drop “image of God” into a sermon and it wouldn’t even phase most people despite the fact that they probably have no idea what that phrase even means.
What do you do when the average person doesn’t understand the language of the church?
That is exactly the problem the church faced during its transition into the early middle ages. After the fall of the Roman empire in the West, the church had to deal with the fact that most people no longer spoke Latin, the official language used in all church services. In such a situation, what should the church do? Should it retain its traditional language, or should it try to translate itself into its new linguistic context?
In the early middle ages, the church opted to maintain its language. And, I think that we’re all aware of at least some of the consequences. Few people ever learned Latin, meaning that they often had very little idea of what was taking place in the service. And, as a result, the worship service often became something that the priest did for the people, rather than something that the people actively participated in. Indeed, regular attendance at church services declined significantly as people came to think that even their presence was unnecessary.
When we choose not to translate the language of the church, we risk alienating God’s people from God’s worship.
But, what about the other option? It’s easy to criticize the church for making what looks like an apparently obvious mistake. Why continue worshiping in a language that people don’t understand? But, what if the church had chosen differently? Suppose that it decided to recognize its new context and translate its worship into the various languages of the people. Although I think this would have been a good idea, we should recognize that the church had good reasons for concern.
- Something always gets lost in translation. Just ask a translator. It’s never quite possible to capture everything when you move from one language to another. And, when you’re talking about important truths, losing something along the way is never a good idea.
- The church risks its “catholicity.” The early church was deeply concerned to emphasize that regardless of what part of the world you are in, you are still part of the one church of Jesus Christ. That is the church “catholic” (i.e. the church in its unity). And, for them, common worship practices and a common worship language were powerful and visible declarations of our Christian unity.
- You may end up with a lowest-common-denominator Christianity. If our focus is on what the “average person” is able to understand, and if our goal is to make sure that our worship makes sense to that person, do we not run the risk of “lowering the bar” so much that we lose some of the depth and substance of Christian worship?
So, faced with a difficult situation, the early medieval church had two choices, both of which came with significant risks.
And, both sets of risks are worth keeping in mind as we deal with a similar situation today. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, we too struggle with a “church language” that most average people find hard to understand. What will we do?
- Will we choose like the medieval church to retain our language, convinced that it conveys important theological truth and maintains our connection to one another and to the broader Christian tradition? If we choose this path, we need to understand that we’ve got our work cut out for us. We must do the hard work of educating our congregations to understand that language, or we risk alienating them from the worship life of the community, leading them to grow frustrated, disconnected, and bored. And, we should also recognize that the tide flows against us in this task as the biblical/theological knowledge of the average person today continues to recede.
- Or, will we choose to translate our worship into the language of “the people”? Down this road likes the possibility of greater engagement and understanding. But, I’ve attended worship serves at many churches who opt for this path, and we should also be aware that this can be a road that leads to a theologically shallow spirituality that tries to develop in isolation from the broader life and language of God’s people through time.
As with most difficult decisions, I don’t think a simple either/or will suffice; the truth certainly awaits us somewhere in the middle. Our task is to recognize the dangers on either side and address the challenge with eyes wide open. And, that’s most easily done when we seek to learn from those who have navigated these difficult waters before us.
[This is the first post in our series on 6 Things We Can Learn about Worship from the Dark Ages.]
Yesterday’s post on 9 things worship leaders need to stop doing raised a number of concerns about modern worship practices. But, as I was reflecting on those issues a bit more, I realized how similar some of them are to difficulties that the church has faced before. And, if God’s people have dealt with these challenges before, wouldn’t it make sense to take a look back and see what we can learn?
So, I thought it would be interesting to start a short series on what we can learn as we wrestle with some of the same challenges in a new historical context. Specifically, I want to look at challenges that developed in the church’s worship practices during the early middle ages, particularly as they relate to the Eucharist (communion), and how that can help us understand the difficulties we encounter today.
For those of you who aren’t into church history, I realize this might sound a little abstract. What could we possible learn from the “Dark Ages.” Well, first, “Dark Ages” is a horrible label for this time period. Far from being a time of unrelieved darkness, the early middle ages are a fascinating time of exploration and discovery in the face of tremendous challenges. But, more importantly, regardless of what we call this time period, it’s still a time in which God’s people sought to carry out God’s purposes in God’s world. Unless we want to believe that God abandoned his people during this time (he didn’t), then we should still be able to learn plenty. So, stick with me.
Here’s what I have in mind. As we look at the eucharistic practices of the early medieval church, we’ll find them wrestling with 6 key issues that I think have parallels to today’s worship struggles. I’ll tackle these one at a time over the next week or so and see what we come up with.
This past Fall semester I took an independent study class on Church History in the Middle Ages as both an overview of the period but also a chance to study one of the greatest theological minds in Thomas Aquinas. At this same time, I was taking a philosophy class and little did I know how much these two classes would be intertwined. This was also the first time I have ever studied Thomas Aquinas extensively so I was in for a treat.
Aquinas has become one of my favorite people to study in church history. One of the things I learned the most about Aquinas is that he had so much to say that helped theology. I valued his insight he gave to theology in his Summa Theologica. I wrote my paper on the development of the Trinity in his Summa. And one of the main points for Aquinas in differentiating between the Persons of the Trinity was his doctrine of Word and Love. I really liked his definition of the Son being Word and the Spirit being Love and how he used these to explain procession and relation in the Trinity.
Another key point that I learned from Aquinas was the interrelation of philosophy and theology. The whole first question of his Summa Theologica is used to defend the superiority of theology over philosophy but that philosophy does have a part to play in the discussion/interaction. This is where Aquinas develops his “handmaiden” view of philosophy. That theology is to be the topic that is to be studied but when needed philosophy can come beside and help theology say things it otherwise would be unable too.
For being a church history fan, I really enjoyed seeing how Aquinas used the early church fathers in his writings. He seemed to rely heavily on Augustine, especially in developing his Trinitarian theology. But Aquinas was not afraid to question and correct what he thought someone from before his time said. His basis for correcting was that there was more revealed information now then they had back then so it was proper for him to reinterpret them. He did this when he questioned Augustine’s understanding of essence but what was funny was he used Augustine to prove his point of reinterpretation. So he question Augustine, interpreted Augustine his way (that is Aquinas), then backed up his interpretation with Augustine.
Finally, and this goes for the study of church history as a whole I have truly come to value history as it pertains to my beliefs. I find it amazing to see where the beginnings of my beliefs came from and how they moved throughout church history. The development, questioning, and acceptance of different theological points throughout church history are fascinating. This is something that I feel is lacking in much of ministry. We fail to explain the history behind some of our beliefs. Yes, I understand not all people are fans of history but I have come to the belief that it is important for those in the church to understand where their beliefs came from. We are great at explaining and defining different theological terms but that is where it is left. There is no discussion of how we got to this point in our theological development. History is important to understand where we are today, especially church history for the church!
For those who feel Aquinas is beyond their understanding I would challenge them take up and read and see how easy Aquinas is to understand. His way of writing is very structured and thorough and thus easy to outline and read (again personal preference). I would recommend a little understanding of philosophy. I believe I would not have understood some of what I read if it was not for the philosophy class, I was taking. I would say to stop waiting and read Aquinas though; he is such a great read!