Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

Power and Learning

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
The period of the high Middle Ages (1050-1300) marks various important stages in the history of the Church. It was both a dark period and one in which bright lights shone forth. The darkness increased with the growth of papal power; the light of learning burst through with the establishment of universities and the development of theology.
The PopeÕs Power Peaks
On the Continent, the struggle begun with Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand) and Henry IV, continued and reached a high point in the relationship between Popes Alexander III (1159-81) and Innocent III (1198-1216) on the one hand and Emperor Frederick Barbarossa on the other. One seemingly silly incident pictures the struggle vividly. At a certain event, on his first visit to Rome, Frederick refused to walk next to the Pope who was on horseback and hold his stirrup but was compelled to do so; otherwise the Pope would have refused to give him the imperial crown. Twenty years of arguments with various popes were finally resolved at the instigation of the ruler of Venice, in 1177, were Pope and Emperor embraced each other, after Frederick had fallen down before the Pope. This took place 100 years after FrederickÕs great grandfather, Henry IV, had been humiliated by Pope Gregory.

Also England saw its share of this conflict. Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury (head of the church in England) and King Henry II had been close friends. Henry had given Becket the highest post in the land, after himself, and Becket was an able leader, beloved by king, church, army and people. Then he accepted the post of Archbishop of Canterbury, took this seriously and changed from a pompous prince to an austere churchman. They argued many issues, including the right of investiture. Becket even had to leave the country for some time, but the Pope forced reconciliation. It was not from the heart.

It all came to a head over the issue of clerics being punishable by the civil law for offences against that law. Thomas argued that in such cases, the church courts would try them and punish them--usually, in severe cases, by removing them from office. Henry insisted that they be tried in a civil court and, if found guilty, be punished as laymen. In a fit of anger, Henry once exploded, ÒWonÕt someone rid me of this low born cleric?Ó Four knights, thinking to do Henry a favour, raced to Canterbury and murdered Thomas, right in the cathedral (1170). The nation was shocked; Henry was forced by the Pope to do public penance at BecketÕs grave and two years later Becket was canonized (declared to be a saint). This event weakened the crown and strengthened the Pope.

Fifty years later, Pope Innocent III subdued King John (of Magna Carta fame). After the archbishop of Canterbury had died, John appointed one whom he could control. Innocent refused to approve the appointment; he had his own man, Stephen Langton. John, furious, refused to allow the monks to elect Langton. Innocent excommunicates John, places all of England under the ban and tells the king of France he can have the English crown. The French king is ready to take up this offer. Then John relents and submits, but on the PopeÕs conditions: John must surrender the kingdom to the Pope who then leases it back to him for 1,000 Marks (approx. $1,500 but it is difficult to figure the exact worth in todayÕs values) per year. This pope had some power! It would have been better for John had he kept quiet.

Innocent III and the Fifth Lateran Council
This council, which met in 1215, expressed the very height of papal power. It was a true watershed in the history of the Church. A quick look at its decisions will make you able to decide whether this was the brightest or the darkest time for the Church:

1. No prince or king has the right to rule without permission of the Pope (who held ÒPeterÕs keysÓ);

2. Confirmed the doctrine of Transubstantiation;

3. Forbade the Bible to be kept or read by the common people.

Innocent called for reform in the church; it was badly needed, especially in Rome itself. But the reforms that were needed were spiritual and doctrinal, not reforms of power structures and outward rules. Yet, it was during this time that various true reform movements were undertaken.

Monastic Orders
Various monastic orders were formed. Monks were men who lived together in monasteries (cloisters) with the purpose to get away from the influences of the world so that they could devote themselves fully to God. The most important monastic orders were:

Dominicans - founded by Dominic, a Spanish monk (1170-1221) who preached to bring straying members back into the church. They were called ÒPreaching FriarsÓ (from ÔfraterÕ = brother) These were not cloister monks but they moved among the common people, preaching where they could. They were a mendicant order, which means they begged to supply their needs. There was great learning amongst these men and many of them became teachers at the leading universities.

Franciscans - founded by Francis of Assisi (1182-1226), who, after a serious illness, gave away all his riches (and he was wealthy!) and devoted himself to a life of poverty, simplicity and charity. The members of this order took a vow of poverty: they would never accept any money for whatever work they did. Francis loved all creatures and is reputed to have preached to the birds.

Both these orders received recognition from Innocent at the Fifth Lateran Council. They quickly spread throughout Europe and were very popular, doing much to ease the lot of many people. Especially in the early stages, there were some godly men and excellent preachers among them. They did much mission work among the heathen and Muslims.

These orders have survived until today. Sadly, they could not make a deep and lasting spiritual impact upon the church. Where bishops are more concerned about earthly wealth and power than about spiritual matters, this is hardly surprising. As long as doctrinal reform was not possible, abuses would persist. The Fifth Lateran Council had effectively shut the door to doctrinal reforms (transubstantiation gave much power to the priesthood and kept the Bible from people promoted ignorance). Still, there were further rays of light.

Some Men of Learning
Amongst the learned men of this era we must mention three: Anselm (1033-1109), Peter Abelard (1079-1142) and Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274). These, and many others, are sometimes referred to as the Schoolmen or Scholastics. They struggled with the question how to combine faith and reason. Throughout this period there came a sudden flowering of learning: universities were established, many of which survive to the present (Oxford, Cambridge, Bologna in Spain, Paris etc.)

Anselm is best known for his book Cur Deus Homo? (literally ÒWhy God Man?Ó) in which he laid out his theory of the Atonement. He reasoned as follows. God created man for his honour. Sin dishonoured God and God could not just ignore this; had He done so, He would himself have become immoral. Satisfaction must be made to God. Since man sinned, man must satisfy. However, no mere man can give God anything above what he already owes to Him. How to resolve this problem? God cannot leave man in sin, for that would frustrate His original plan for creation and give the victory to the devil. God solved the problem by becoming incarnate in Jesus Christ, a human person who is also divine, therefore infinite and thus able to offer satisfaction to God. This is referred to as the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement. Although many reject this as forcing God into the limits of human logic, it does give structured form to the teachings of the New Testament. Reformed theology embraces this theory.

Abelard, two generations after Anselm, rejected this and taught the Moral Influence theory. Out of grace, God in Christ took on the suffering caused by sin. This act of love is to awaken us to gratitude and love to be expressed in living Christ-centred lives under the influence of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the great moral example. AbelardÕs views appear close to being heretical. His career was marked by scandal: in middle age he fell in love with Heloise, one of his young students. She bore him a son. They were secretly married, but news got out and they denied the marriage. HeloiseÕs Uncle Fulbert, who had tried to protect her honour, now hired thugs who castrated Abelard. After this tragedy, Abelard became a monk and Heloise a nun. It is one of the great, tragic Òlove storiesÓ of the ages.

Thomas Aquinas was the greatest of the Schoolmen and his doctrinal work, the Summa Theologia is still the basis of the official doctrinal position of the Roman Catholic Church. Thomas, who taught at the University of Paris, combined some elements of Greek philosophy, especially from Aristotle, to explain the major themes of the Christian faith. His view on man and the Fall into sin later gave rise to the idea that believers, once they had received grace, were required to do good works, which earned merit with God. Also, he developed the notion that forgiven sinners must still do a form of penance. If the Òtemporal penaltiesÓ remained unpaid in this life, the imperfect believer would have to go to purgatory upon death to be purged and prepared for heaven. However, there was another way out: the church had the authority to transfer merits earned by Christ and the saints. Such transfers could be earned by good works or outstanding service to the church. Later, the individual merit required by penitents and earned by good works (pilgrimages were favourites) gave way to the whole wicked scheme of indulgences. Although Thomas himself may not have taught all this, he did open the door to these corruptions of the truth.

The sad thing is that when the light shone most brightly, it turned out to be the light of human reason. The Church sank deeper and deeper into darkness.

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