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Posts Tagged ‘Innocent III’


Another quarter, and another volume of Nick Needham’s church history set, 2,000 Years of Church History. The second volume covers The Middle Ages. I mentioned the layout of the books in discussing volume 1. This volume is about 440 pages long. Reading about 10 pages per day, I was able to read a chapter a week and be done in 10 weeks. This makes for a very doable project, and you aren’t overwhelmed with all the information that is found in this thus far excellent series.

HeĀ  begins this volume with Islam and the Church. We’d join Paul in saying that even if an angel preaches another gospel to you, they are to be anathematized (Gal. 1). While Mohammad claims to have received a vision from an angel, his message is very different from Paul’s gospel and therefore to be rejected.

Islam did spread through military conquest. Some of the churches in conquered lands were treated fairly well, particularly the Arian and monophysite churches. He distinguishes between the Sunni and Shia muslims in addressing their first “civil war”. Most Christians were placed in segregated communities and treated as second-class citizens, often with a heavy tax. At times they benefited from the Christian community. Nestorian Christians in Persia translated the great Greek philosophers into Arabic. Generally “Christian governments” waged defensive wars against Islam. A few people like Francis of Assisi preached the gospel to them. Some of the crusades seem far less interested in protecting pilgrims and freeing conquered Christians than gaining fame, power and wealth.

Needham then discusses Charlemange and the Holy Roman Empire. The struggle between civil and religious authorities would take up much of the Middle Ages. This was not limited to the Pope, but we also see the Eastern Patriarchs, at times, seeking to bring the civil authority to heel. It was a back and forth. He also addresses developments in theology and worship in both the Eastern and Western Church.

This volume continues Needham’s broader than usual focus. This is not a Eurocentric approach to church history. For that I am thankful. For instance, much is said about the development of both Eastern and Western monasticism. We see the repeated influence of Augustine in controversies involving predestination and the Lord’s Supper. Communion controversies appear at least 3 times in this volume.

The third chapter focuses on the Byzantine Empire and brings us to the Great Schism. The iconoclastic controversy takes up a bit of space. It was a ruthless controversy with Emperors deposing Patriarchs; Patriarchs excommunicating Emperors, exiles and cruel punishments. Church history is not pretty! This should put to rest any mistaken notion about the consensus of the Patriarchs as preferable to “sola Scriptura”, but sadly it won’t. The filioque controversy regarding the Nicene Creed is discussed.

“Following the Cappadocian Fathers, the East tended to being with the persons of the Trinity, and saw their unity as lying in the person of God the Father. For Eastern theologians, the Father guarantees that the three persons are only one God, because the Father alone is the “fountain of deity”, the one source of the Son and the Spirit, … By contrast, the West began, not with the persons, but with the nature of God. Following Augustine of Hippo, Western theologians tended to think of God’s nature or essence before the three person of the Trinity, and to see the oneness of the Trinity as lying in the one common nature shared by Father, Son and Spirit”

In the east, you had some dissenting movements: the Manichees, Paulicians and Bogomils. All three were connected to Gnosticism. Paulicians often allied themselves with Muslim Arabs against Byzantium, whom they saw as oppressors. The Bogomils were in Bulgaria, which was a region over which the Eastern and Western Churches struggled. They would not survive the conquest by the Muslim Turks in the late 14th century.

Needham then moves back West for the Cluniac Revival, influence of Hildebrand and the Investiture Controversy. The Norsemen proved to be a problem for much of the Western church. But eventually they were converted to Christianity. Over the course of about 100 years the gospel spread from the lands the Norseman conquered to the lands they came from (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland and Finland). The gospel also made headway into eastern Europe as the Bohemians, Poles and Croats were converted. Alone with this was a reformation of Western monasticism aka the Cluniac Revival. They also sought purification in the leadership of the church. Hildebrand led the efforts to reform the papacy. He wanted it to be independent of the state in order to pursue its spiritual purposes. This would lead to the Pope investing kings with power. Popes, for a time, were king makers. One unfortunate side effect was that ecclesiastical officers were freed from prosecution from the state. Their crimes were considered sins and subject to the discipline of the church- a practice that helped produce the sexual abuse scandal that rocked the American Roman Catholic Church, particularly in Boston (don’t worry, I don’t deny that Protestants like to cover up a “good” scandal too).

The fifth chapter examines that less than period of time covering the Crusades. He looks at the causes and history of the Crusades. Not all crusades were created equal. Some were worse than others as the trade cities exerted their power.

Needham then moves into the manner in which the gospel came to the Rus, how they had their own patriarch and became an independent Eastern Church. The Mongols factor heavily in this. After the defeat and removal of Mongol control, many Russian Orthodox began to think of themselves as the “third Rome”. Because Byzantium had “sold its soul” in the Union of Florence (in order to receive military assistance against the Turks) Russia saw itself as the heir of orthodoxy.

Back to the West, the book then delves into the rise of the universities and scholasticism. Aristotle “came west” and exerted great influence on the theology of the Church at this time. Needham gives summaries of Anselm, Peter Abelard, Peter Lombard, Bonaventura and Aquinas among others.

The Papacy reached its height in the time of Innocent III. There were a number of theological developments (transubstantiation was made dogma), new monastic orders (Franciscans and Dominicans) and humbling of kings. There was also the crusades against dissenters like the Albigensians and Waldensians.

Back to the Eastern Church he develops the fall of Constantinople. The battles with the Muslims, particular the Turks, continued to take their toll. There were also controversies like the hesychastic controversy involving Gregory Palamas. He relates the various attempts to heal the Great Schism, all of what came to nothing since they were mostly about receiving military aid than uniting the Church.

The decline of the Eastern Church was matched in the West by the decline of the Papacy, particularly in the Avignonese Captivity (the Papacy was controlled by French nobility and seated in France). At times there were two or three Popes. Proto-Reformers like Wycliffe and Hus arose. The church East and West was in sad shape at the end of the Middle Ages.

This is another insightful and interesting volume. It has good balance between East and West. It deserves a reading by all interested in church history.

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