More people are awakening to appreciate the historic Christian church. The first step for many in this awakening was to be reintroduced to the tenets and confessions of the Protestant Reformation. This helped clear up some of the historic myopia of those who were only raised understanding general modern evangelicalism. While that initial awakening is good, considering the two thousand year history of Christianity, tracing your faith back to only the last five hundred years of the Reformation doesn’t exactly ground you in the wealth of the Christian heritage. So there has been another awakening as people look back to those whom the reformers consistently appealed to, the Church Fathers. This renewed interest in the Patristic era of Christianity has provided a necessary link between the New Testament history and the continued history of the church as it spread. This vital era gave us the great creeds and councils of the early church that provided clear statements of Biblical doctrines that help us guard against heresy and error. The problem, however, is that the church didn’t go straight from Nicaea to Westminster. When we focus on the first 500 years of the Christian church and then skip over to the last 500 years of the Christian church, we are leaving out 1000 years of our very own heritage.
This middle thousand years has been largely considered a trash heap to modern Protestants, seeing it as merely the time in which errors corrupted the supposedly pristine early church and providing a mere backdrop for the heroes of the Reformation. But the church did not cease to exist for those thousand years; it grew, it thrived, it matured and it advanced. Did it introduce innovation and error? Absolutely it did, but not necessarily any more than such innovation or error that we can see happening today. This era gave us the solidification of Byzantine Christianity, the rise of Charlemagne, Monastic reforms and proliferation, missionary expansion into new regions never before touched by Christianity, the Crusades, the Schism of the East and the West, the development of Scholasticism, the founding of major universities, and the sprouting of the Renaissance. Far from a period destitute of significance, it is one rife with theological development, spiritual advancement and important lessons for us to learn.
Of course there were problems during this time, problems which would grow and widen that would make the Reformation necessary; but that shouldn’t be construed in such a way as to make it seem like the church practically ceased from existence only to reappear later in 1517. Christ built his church, and the gates of hell never have prevailed against it, even in the middle ages. One of the problems is that most of us have a caricature of what the period even was, thinking that all of Europe was ruled over by a monolithic authority handed down by the Pope where everyone did his tyrannical bidding. But the truth is far more complex, and thus far more interesting than that however. Papal authority did not go unchallenged, in fact it was one of the very causes for the monumental Great Schism between the Eastern churches and Rome. Even in the West multiple men vied for power in such a way that at one point there were three Popes simultaneously. There were not only religious power grabs but also secular kings played a strategic chess match, choosing at times to defy papal desires.
As is often scorned there were indeed mystics, as there are in every era, but there was also profound theological advancement. Anselm, Peter Abelard, Frances of Assisi, Thomas Aquinas, John Wycliffe, Jan Hus and many other famous theologians all lived and died within this period of the church’s history. There were also major technological and social advances during this time that are often overlooked, such as the advance of hospitals and banking systems. Most importantly to those believing in Sola Scriptura was the preservation and copying of thousands of manuscripts by monastic scriptoriums. It was primarily through the monastic system that we have the wealth of manuscript copies we have today. Without these dedicated scribes within the thousand years that we think of as illiterate and uneducated, we would not have nearly the manuscript testimony that we have of the scriptures that the Reformers themselves looked to.
If you neglect the medieval era of Christianity, you are in fact neglecting half of the entire history of the church. The point is not that the middle thousand years of Christianity were flawless, far from it, but that they were essential. Those years are just as much a part of our heritage, good and bad, as any other Christian period. From the Christians of this time there is much to learn and much to appreciate from their testimonies, sacrifice, mistakes, errors, faithfulness and advancements. So as we study church history don’t leave a blind spot or a have a disdainful condescension to a time that was so vitally important to our faith. Not only was it important from a sociological standpoint, but that the same Christ who was head over the early church and is head over the modern church was also head over the medieval church. The faith once for all delivered to the saints didn’t disappear in the year 500 only to reveal itself again in 1500. Though at times obscured, overshadowed or distorted, God has always kept and preserved his true church.