Theology in the Medieval Era: Zachary M. Bowden on the Church

Historical Theology for the Church is a new book from B&H Academic that treats the entire 2000 year history of Christianity with a focus on doctrinal development through major figures, events, and written works. By steering this work “for the church” this textbook shows the development of doctrine in history through congregations as well as provide a resource for contemporary congregations. The following is an excerpt from one of the contributing authors’ chapters.

Zachary M .Bowden serves as assistant professor of theological studies and as Executive Assistant to the President at Cedarville University.

Introduction

The church was a pervasive presence in the world of the Middle Ages, expansive in its reach. Today when we think of the doctrine of the church, we tend to focus on her people and practices: preaching, the sacraments, as well as her officers and members. To be sure, the church of the Middle Ages saw robust development in each of those areas. Nevertheless, it never saw itself as restricted to the walls of a given cathedral, nor even one’s respective city. The church itself was apolitical and culture-shaping enterprise. Failing to see how entangled the church was throughout society is a failure to understand the church during the Middle Ages.

Historical Overview

1. Early Middle Ages (500-1000)

Going into the Middle Ages, the church knew who she was. “One holy, catholic, apostolic church” had been the creedal mantra of Christians as they prepared for the baptismal waters for some time. Enduring persecution at the hands of Nero, Decius, and Diocletian, the church grew. Under Constantine, her fortunes changed dramatically. Now with imperial support, the church was lavished with beautiful buildings. Her bishops were elevated to positions of civic authority. And the emperor himself had a vested interest in ecclesiastical affairs. After Constantine, the church and the empire would be wed. One could not think of one without the other.

2. High Middle Ages (1000-1300)

Turning to the eleventh century, one turns to a time of reckoning. In prior centuries, the church experienced no shortage of struggle. Out of that struggle, the church made concessions to surrounding conquerors to ensure they had military protection from impending foes. To some degree, the concessions were a type of quid pro quo. Military aid would be provided in exchange for papal legitimization for the emperor’s rule. Although this arrangement ensured the church’s survival, it also resulted in unintended consequences, not least of which was the blurring of the lines between the authority of emperors, kings, and the pope.

3. Late Middle Ages (1300-1500)

If the high Middle Ages were a period of reform and theological development, so were the next 200 years. Yet reform is in the eye of the reformer. The prior age was one of freeing the church from the “captivity” of lay leaders and reinvesting power in the church, supremely in the pope. Nevertheless, what was freedom from the pope was bondage to others, at least when the pope was not living in a manner consistent with his high calling.

Case Studies

1. A Tale of Two Gregorys

2. Transubstantiation

For the Church

The great medievalist C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) once warned against “chronological snobbery,” or the tendency to look down on the past in favor of the apparent progress of the present. Along with that warning, when thinking about the Middle Ages, especially as a Protestant, one must also beware the danger of ecclesiastical tribalism. Imagining the history of the church as a school playground, it is all too easy to approach it like picking a team for a game of pickup basketball. Surveying the players available, Luther, of course, is picked first. Calvin, possibly second. But Gregory, Lombard, or Aquinas? They are left to the last few, anxiously looking around, hoping they are not picked last. After all, who wants a papist on their team?

Altogether then, it is imperative to approach the church of the Middle Ages not as a blight on the church’s story. Rather, simply, it is our story. Are there significant, serious points of disagreement? Absolutely. But that by no means discounts the reality that men and women of this time between the times are as much a part of the church’s story as the Reformation is. In fact, as the next portion of this book will show, the Reformation cannot be understood apart from the Middle Ages. Nor, for that matter, can the church or the world today.

Historical Theology for the Church
Jason G. Duesing & Nathan A. Finn, editors
B&H Academic, 2021