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Spiritual Darkness in the Middle Ages #16

Rome meets Rome


The Bible in the Middle Ages
(about AD 500-1500)

by Ken Connolly


     Constantine, the son of a co-emperor, was brought up at the
emperor's court. He joined his father, who was responsible for
Spain, Gaul and Britain, in a war against the Picts and they were
in York when in 306 his father died. Constantine was acclaimed as
emperor by the army, but Rome would only recognize him as Caesar
(deputy emperor). At the battle of Milvian Bridge, by the walls
of Rome, in 312, Constantine defeated the western emperor,
Maxentius, and became Caesar Augustus

*Constantine the Great, whose edict of toleration marked the end
of official persecution of the church.

of the western Empire. On the eve of this battle, on a bright
afternoon, he claimed he saw the sign of the cross in the sky,
bearing the inscription "By this sign conquer." He claimed that
the following night the Lord came to him in a dream and commanded
him to mark his soldier's shields with the first two Greek
letters of the name of Christ, and to use these letters, combined
with the cross, as his standard. Thus was Constantine's supposed
conversion, reported to us by the Christian historian, Eusebius,
many years later.
     In January 313, Constantine published a memorable "edict of
toleration", by which all religious cults were to be tolerated.
It also required the return of all Christian property that had
been confiscated and gave Christians access to public office.
This edict did not make Christianity the religion of the Empire -
but it did mark the beginning of the downfall of paganism.
     Constantine was not baptized until he fell sick in 337, the
same year that he died. The Senate of Rome placed him among the
gods, and to this day the Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches
celebrate his festival on May 21.
     Constantine married the church to the state; but it was the
state that was the head, and the church subordinate. This harmful
alliance persisted for more than 1,000 years.
     Constantine's personal life was not consistent with his
profession of faith. He was overwhelmingly conceited, and
gathered around him those who fed his ego. He was egocentric
enough to think that God had revealed Himself to him in a unique
way, as though God had made special efforts to convert him. Even
the bishops of his court often forgot which ruler was their
master. One of them told Constantine he was appointed by God to
be the ruler over all, and designated to reign with the Son of
God in the world to come. To his credit, Constantine reminded the
bishop to restrain his language and pray for him.
     Constantine was also prey to fits of jealousy and anger. He
had his second wife, Fausta, and his step-son, Crispus, put to
death because he was suspicious of them. His decision, however,
was based on misinformation, and he regretted it later.
     His priorities were misconceived. He considered affluence
the sign of divine approval. He took bishops who had been reduced
to relative poverty, scarred and dazed from the recent
persecutions, and brought them into palaces that blazed with
light and breathed with perfume. His attitude toward the power of
wealth is seen in his actions after the destruction of the pagan
temple at Heliopolis, with its abominable and licentious rites.
Though there were no Christians in the region, he built a church
in place of the pagan temple and staffed it with clergymen and a
bishop. Then he bestowed large sums of wealth on it for the
support of the poor, assuming that this would produce
conversions. Here we see the beginnings of the shift from Christ
to cash, from preaching to purchasing, which was later to
dominate much of the medieval church. 
     Constantine's theology was also lacking. He struggled to
free himself from a dreadful horror of demons. When his
conscience bothered him over the murder of his step-son, he
turned for help first to a Platonic philosopher, and then to some
heathen priests. It was some time later that he was informed that
the Christian faith had a solution for every sin. One benefit did
come from Constantine's association with the Christian church. In
331, the emperor asked Eusebius to prepare fifty copies of the
Bible for use in the churches of Constantinople, with the result
that attention was again directed to the issue of what
constitutes the Bible.

The Creed

     There are two periods in church history in which general
Councils attempted to define dogma. The first period stretched
from 325 to 787, when seven ecumenical Councils were held; the
second was during the time of the Reformation in the sixteenth
     In 324 Constantine had defeated Licinius, the head of the
eastern Empire, and now ruled a united Empire from
Constantinople. He was determined to have his subjects united in
the worship of God, but he faced a difficult task. The Christian
church was seething with bitter theological disputes. Deep splits
and fractures made unity a seemingly impossible dream. The
Councils were called in an attempt to resolve these
disagreements. The first and last were held in the city of
Nicaea, and all seven dealt with differences about the doctrine
of the Trinity. Here is the story behind the first ecumenical
     Alexander, the bishop of Alexandria in 318, preached a
sermon on the unity of the Trinity in which he said that "Christ"
was the name given to the Father in His role on earth. A
presbyter named Arius, who was a popular local preacher, heard
the sermon and strongly disagreed on the grounds that the bishop
failed to distinguish between Christ and the Father. Arius
believed that Christ was less than divine, though more than man.
The conflict became so sharp that Alexander had Arius condemned
by a church council, and excommunicated.
     Alexander refused to allow any follower of Arius to come to
the Lord's table. He was adamant. He simply would not break bread
with anyone who denied the deity of Christ. The dispute developed
into a question of salvation: could anyone less than God deliver
sinners from their just doom?
     Arius fled to the East, and found refuge with a preacher by
the name of Eusebius - not the historian, who was the Bishop of
Caesarea, but an old school friend. Here in the East his views
were more acceptable: the
at Antioch, in its attempt to resist the heresy of making Christ
a mere emanation of the Father, had long stressed his humanity.
The dispute continued....


     It is difficult to tell at what point the decline and fall
of the Roman Empire began. The dividing of the Empire between
East and West weakened both empires, while the wars against the
Goths in 535-553 caused terrible slaughter and devastation in
Italy. The situation became even worse with the invasion of the
Lombards, another Germanic tribe, in 568-572. The inhabitants of
the land became slaves, and little but Rome itself remained
     A new era began with the accession to the papal chair of
Pope Gregory I ("the Great," 540-604), whose brilliant leadership
transformed the tragic circumstances he faced. With the wealth
acquired by the church, he was able to buy off the Lombard army,
who had not been paid their wages. Thus he gave the church the
reputation of being the savior of Caesar's realm.
     Then in the early 700s a new threat arose, a threat even
more terrible than the Goths and Lombards, who were at least
nominally Christian. Now the West lived in dread of an Islamic
conquest. The Muslims had crossed North Africa and surged up
through Spain into southern France, posing a serious threat to
all Europe. Had they reached Rome, Europe would have fallen to
Islam; but they were defeated by the German ruler Charles Martel
in 732.
     When the last Lombard king threatened Rome once more, the
Pope turned to Charles for help. His victory over the Lombards in
771 extended his domain from Hamburg to Rome. German armies
continued to buttress the Empire, and on Christmas Day 800, at St
Peter's in Rome, Pope Leo III placed the imperial diadem on the
head of Charlemagne, grandson of Charles Martel. (The name is a
contraction of Carolus Magnus, meaning "Charles the Great.") From
then on, German kings used the title "Kaiser," the German form of
the Greek word for Caesar. They called their empire the Holy
Roman Empire, though it was neither holy nor Roman, nor even an
empire, but merely a union between Germany and northern Italy. At
times, however, the Empire claimed control over Poland and
Hungary in the east, and in the west over Spain, France, the
Scandinavian peninsula and the British Isles. This union gave the
pope unprecedented political and military power.
     The position of the Pope within the Holy Roman Empire swung
like a pendulum. At the beginning, Pope and Emperor ruled as
equals over a commonwealth of Europe. In 1024, on the death of
the Emperor Otto, the Papacy fell under the dominion of the
Emperor. In 1046, the Emperor deposed three Popes, and filled the
vacant Papal chair with his own candidate. Then, in 1075, Pope
Gregory VII forbade emperor, king or prince to make any church
appointments, even in their own kingdoms. Now the Popes started
appointing the Emperors. Gregory (also called Hildebrand) claimed
that the pPpe stood to the Emperor as the sun to the moon. This
is well illustrated in the famous story of the Pope's
excommunication of the Emperor Henry IV who, when he repented,
was kept standing in the snow, with bare feet, ill-clad, outside
the gates of the Papal palace at Canossa. The moral of the story
is that any union between church and state always ends in the
secularization of the church, never in the christianization of
the state.
     Ignorance was one result of this marriage. The Goths who
trampled Italy were little more than savages. It is questionable
if even their noblest leaders, including Charlemagne, could
either read or write. Hallam, in his book "The Middle Ages,"
stated that "in almost every Council the ignorance of the clergy
forms a subject for reproach.... It was asserted that in one held
in 992 scarcely a single person was to be found in Rome itself
who knew the first element of letters."
     And with ignorance went superstition. Witches, wizards and
astrologers had a thriving trade, while fantastic and unbiblical
stories were credulously believed. For example, the Virgin Mary
was reported to have materialized to support the feet of a man
who was being hanged for highway robbery. She sat at his feet
until he was taken down and released. She also, it was said,
assumed the shape of a nun who had eloped to live a life of sin,
working, unsuspected, in the nun's place for ten years until the
wayward nun returned to her convent.
     Authoritarian control replaced freedom of thought, a control
that was easy to enforce in a feudalistic society. Galileo was
forced, under threat of torture, to deny his astronomical
calculations. When Roger Bacon invented gunpowder, he was afraid
to publish the facts, and contented himself with committing its
secret to an anagram.
     Theology suffered in the union of church and state. No
longer God-centered and Spirit-empowered, the church became arid.
The big theological discussions of the day concerned subjects
like the state of an angel's mind in the morning and evening. The
appalling lack of theological content in the pronouncements and
councils of the church meant that it was not possible to discuss
theological issues with Christians who held divergent views.
Groups such as the Albigenses and Waldenses left the church.
In short, the involvement of the church in the politics of that
millennium reduced it to a degenerate and apostate machine.


     Much of the blame for the darkness of the Middle Ages has to
be laid at the door of the church, and especially of the corrupt
     In New Testament times, the Christian minister was known as
a "pastor" (a shepherd who fed his flock), an "elder" (the
president of a deliberative assembly) or an "overseer" (of a
working force; the Greek word is "epfscopos" from which we get
our word "bishop"). Passages such as Acts 20:17 and 28 show that
the three words were synonymous: "elders" were appointed as
"overseers" over a flock they were encouraged to "feed." The
Jewish church emphasized the role of the elder, while the Greeks
emphasized the role of the bishop or overseer. As time went on,
the titles came to be applied to different offices, with the word
"bishop" signifying the higher responsibility. At first each
church was ruled by a group of overseers/elders, but gradually it
became the practice for one "bishop" to lead a church, probably
in order to ensure the unity of the church. Where that church was
larger and more influential than other churches in the area,
often because it was based in the chief town of the area, the
bishop of that church became more important.
     After the apostles died, and before the Bible canon was
agreed upon (It was agreed upon before the last of the apostles
died - see the studies om "Canonization of the New Testament -
Keith Hunt) the church, as we have seen, was splintered by heresy
and strife. Gradually the bishops of Rome assumed wider influence
as people in the West looked to Rome for a source of authority.
     In 440, Leo I gave the official interpretation of Matthew
16; the idea of the "keys," he said, implied apostolic
succession. In 607, Boniface III compelled the Emperor to confer
the title of "universal bishop" on him. By the twelfth century,
Innocent III was exercising secular authority over kings such as
John of England. A hundred years later, Boniface VIII was able to
say: "The Pope alone is called most holy-divine monarch and
supreme emperor and king of kings ... Moreover we declare,
affirm, define and pronounce that it is necessary to salvation
that every human creature be subject to the Roman pontiff."
     Pope Boniface VIII, who made high claims for the power of
the papacy.
     Meanwhile, the importance of tradition in the church was
growing. At first there were reports of some teachings of Jesus
which had not been committed to writing but handed down through
an inner circle of privileged believers. Next came similar
reports of what the apostles were supposed to have taught. In the
third stage, unpublished letters from respected church fathers
were discovered, and added to these oral reports. They were later
supported by Council pronouncements and papal decrees, and all of
these collectively became a binding tradition. The Word of God,
according to the Council of Trent in 1546, was a composite of a
written Bible and a handed-down oral tradition.
     A ninth-century collection of documents, supposedly provided
by someone named Isidore Mercator, strongly supported the supreme
authority of the bishop of Rome. Known as the Pseudo-Isidorian
Decret als, their origins and authorship are still open to
question. A few of the documents were authentic, but they were
outnumbered by clever forgeries. Altogether there were
ninety-four spurious decretals in the collection, but they were
held in great esteem until a voice first questioned them in the
fifteenth century. These letters had a very great influence on
developing thinking about the Papacy.
     Attempts had already been made to sort and compile the
various decrees of tradition when an Italian Benedictine in the
twelfth century, Gratian, made a proper job of classifying and
commenting on them. The first part of his collection dealt with
legislative issues, the second part with practical applications
of the law, and the third part mainly with liturgy. For three
centuries virtually no other decrees were referred to but those
of Gratian's Decretals, and his work became the textbook of all
seminaries. By the time the Reformation broke out, most priests
graduating from Oxford and Cambridge majored in Canon Law.
     It was not the Decretals that intensified the darkness in
the medieval church, but the unintentional concealing of the
sacred Scriptures. Instead of studying the Bible, priests studied
canon law; the word of God was hedged in and qualified by the
word of tradition; the common people had no Bible in their own
everyday language, and were dependent on the ministry of priests
who were frequently immoral. All this is what deepened the


     Muhammad was born in Mecca in AD 570. He was a merchant who
married a rich widow, and had four daughters by her. He
supposedly had visions in which the angel Gabriel communicated to
him the Muslim religion, and he became the chief prophet of that
religion-which is called "Islam," meaning "submission." It
quickly spread into other countries from India to Spain, and
today is the second largest religion in the world.

     Between 1100 and 1300, the church launched a military
campaign against Islam, chiefly in the Middle East. It started
when Alexius, the emperor of Constantinople, was threatened by an
invasion of Muslim Seljuk Turks, and appealed to the Pope for a
"Christian army" to assist him. This was of immense interest to
western Christians, because the same invaders had taken control
of Jerusalem. They were a fanatical and brutal force, and needed
to be restrained. At the Synod of Clermont in 1095, Pope Urban 11
urged the Christian nations to unite and crusade against the
heathen. The imagination of western Christendom was fired. Over a
million people were involved in this, the first of eight
crusades. Some people participated for economic reasons. The West
was facing famine, and the Venetians saw the potential of a new
market in the East. Some may have responded out of love of
military adventure or as an escape either from domestic boredom
or criminal punishment. Whatever the reason, the cross was
emblazoned on all armor and attached to national flags. It became
the emblem of holy war and bloody murder.
     Because Urban II, who launched the Crusade movement, was a
Frenchman, most of those who responded to the First Crusade were
French. A mob of unorganized and undisciplined peasants gathered
at Constan tinople and set out to meet the foe. They were either
massacred or taken prisoner and sold as slaves in Egypt. This
caused the nobles of France, Belgium and northern Italy to
organize another effort. They also met at Constantinople, this
time in the spring of 1097; and by June, 1099, they captured
Jerusalem. They immediately organized the subjugated province
into a Kingdom of Jerusalem, governed on feudal principles.
     When the Muslims later threatened their north-eastern flank,
they requested a Second Crusade. In 1147 Bernard of Clairvaux
preached for another military attack on the Muslims. The King of
France and the Holy Roman Emperor united their forces, but the
Second Crusade was a failure and Jerusalem was recaptured by
Saladin the Muslim in 1187.
     The Third Crusade, known as "the King's Crusade," lasted
from 1189 to 1192. For the first time England became involved.
Richard of England, Philip of France and again the Emperor
Frederick, started on this ven ture. Frederick was accidentally
drowned on the way, and Richard and Philip argued with each
other, so that Philip returned home, leaving Richard by himself.
Although Richard was unable to recapture Jerusalem, he did
accomplish the "peace of Saladin," promising future pilgrims
access to Jerusalem.

     Pope Innocent III considered Egypt to be the key to the
problem of the Islamic occupation of the Holy Land. He called for
the Fourth Crusade in which he proposed to capture Egypt and use
it as a base for future operations against Palestine. The
importance of this crusade was that in 1024 the Greek church was
made subject to the authority of the pope. This weakened the
eastern Empire, and fostered bitterness between Latin and Greek
     The Fifth Crusade was led by Frederick II. In 1229 he
succeeded in bringing Jerusalem, Nazareth and Bethlehem,
including a corridor to the sea, under the control of the
Christians. This was accomplished by a treaty with the Sultan of
Egypt, under which the Muslims could retain their Mosque of Omar
in the Holy City and Frederick was crowned as the King of
Jerusalem. Despite this, there were three more Crusades in the
thirteenth century.

     The Crusades sank to their lowest depths with the Children's
Crusade of 1212, led by two boys named Stephen and Nicholas. The
boys believed that their parents' sinfulness had made them lose
their battles against the Turks, and assumed that their own pure
motives would cause the enemy to fall before them like flies.
Children of France and Germany rallied around them and marched
across southern Europe and northern Italy. Those who did not
perish on the way were sold as slaves in Egypt.

     What have these events to do with our English Bible? 
     They all prepared indirectly for the overthrow of
church-state control of religion. In England, financing the
Crusades impoverished the king and many of his feudal lords, and
so contributed to the weakening of the whole feudal system which
controlled so many aspects of people's daily lives. (It was
during this period that the Magna Carta was signed, conceding
that there were limits to the state's power over the individual.)
In Europe, the political weakening of Constantinople ultimately
led to its collapse in 1453. The scholars and thinkers who had
kept classical scholarship alive there fled to the West, bringing
their books with them, and we shall see how this gave reformers
the tools they needed to understand the Bible. But the immediate
result of the Crusades was an increasing resentment of the
autocratic demands of the Pope.


The Albigenses

     The Albigenses - who derived their name from Albi, a town
with which they were associated - believed that when Satan
sinned, God gave him a body and cast him out of heaven. Satan
then created this world, with the result that all matter is
intrinsically evil. The supreme mission of mankind, they
asserted, was to liberate the spirit within from its prison of
flesh, a liberation which could only be accomplished by
rigorously enforced ascetic restrictions including no marriage, a
strict diet, nonparticipation in war or civil government, and
rejection of "objects" in worship. A dying man or woman had to
receive the sacrament of "consolamentum"; if not, the spirit was
obliged to reincarnate another body.
     Few of us would agree with such a creed, but would we defend
the right of others to hold to it? In 1119, the Council of
Toulouse asked assistance of the secular powers in eradicating
this heresy, but the nobles protected the Albigenses and the
common people joined them. A hundred years later, when Innocent
II occupied the Papal chair, he ordered a crusade against these
Cathars, as they were also called. It precipitated a war between
the princes of the north and the south of France, destroying the
independence of the southern nobles. Occasional insurrections
occurred, but they were brutally suppressed. Two hundred Cathars
were burned to death in one day, and severe reprisals were taken
even against those who were sympathetic.

The Waldenses

     Peter Waldo, a wealthy merchant, lived in the city of Lyons.
In 1173, following a deep religious experience, he determined to
distribute his wealth to the poor, keeping only sufficient for
his family's survival. Others copied his example and the group
became known as the Poor Peter Waldo, founder of the Men of
Lyons. The chief tenet of their faith was that the Bible was
their supreme authority and Peter Waldo had the Latin New
Testament translated into the vernacular. Their faith was
orthodox. They believed in the divinity of Jesus, and salvation
solely through Christ. Evangelism was the heartbeat of their
faith. They believed that church leaders should abandon secular
life and live by begging, preferably as celibates, and preach the
     In 1174 the Pope sent missionaries to "convert" the
followers of Waldo, or Waldenses as they were called. When
persuasion failed, fire, faggot and sword were applied. A Roman
Catholic historian, Bzovius, tells of Pope Innocent III's
campaign against them, dating from 1206. The pope placed Dominic,
founder of the Dominican preaching friars, in charge of the
expedition. They captured a camp where they found "180 persons,
who preferred being burned alive to adopting a pious creed." In
another town "the Lord of Mountroyal was hanged; eighty others,
who fell by the gibbet, were slain by the Crusaders ... and
innumerable heretics were burned." In another town, captured in
1215, "450 of them, hardened by the devil, persisted in their
obstinacy, of whom 400 were burned, and the rest hanged."

     These persecutions, like those upon the Christians of
ancient Rome, failed to stamp out the movement. In 1532 the
Waldenses joined with the reformers, and became a Protestant
denomination. In spite of con tinuing, often horrific opposition
- including a massacre of believers in the Alpine town of
Piedmont in 1655 - their group continued, and today they number
about 20,000.


     The Inquisition, instituted in 1232 on the basis of a
program agreed at the Council of Verona in 1184, was the church's
official method of purging heresy. It was used wherever Rome held
sway. Boettner records that during the reign of three Inquisitors
in Spain some 191,285 people died (31,912 of them burned to
death). An additional 291,450 suffered imprisonment.
     All these barbarisms were perpetrated simply because men and
women refused to submit to the official church viewpoint. As the
darkness of the Middle Ages dissipated, and men and women began
to read the Bible for themselves, the atrocities increased, and
then, as we shall see, the Roman Church was not alone in its
guilt. But now we move on to the dawning of light and the
"Morning Star" of the Reformation.


To be contiuned with "The Bible in England before the

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