Wikipedia gives the most common start date for the Protestant Reformations in the early 16th Century. The Oxford Dictionary of World Religions gives the same date. Wikipedia also identifies this as the schism that took place rather then an actual reformation of the church.
I want to take a look at the nature of what we call the reformations. Every October Lutherans around the world celebrate Reformation Sunday to commemorate the events of Martin Luther and other figures of the German reformation. However, this is a narrow view of the reformations. Our understanding of the reformations as something to do with Luther and the German church is obviously not hitting the whole church. There was an English Reformation, there was Calvin, Luther contemporary working to bring reform to France. There was the Bohemian Reformations initiated by the Czech Jan Hus. Only recently, and you can see it in the timeline on the Wikipedia page, that historians have begun to trace the beginning of the reformations to the 11th century.
The main body of this post will be to discuss the reformation spirit seen even earlier then 16th or 11th century. But generally it is a way of referring to the actual schisms that took place in the life of Martin Luther.
Generally speaking, most people are aware that Acts highlights the growth of the organic move of the spirit, and the work of the apostolic community. But were did the real trouble with the church begin. Before jumping to the time of Constantine i think it is important to remember what Jesus said about wheat and tares. Jesus knew that even in the Old Testament community of faith, there were those among the faithful who sought there own good and were not concerned with being the people of God. The early church, though it was a time of ‘organic’ growth, was a time when Judaizers sought to distort the message, Greek pagans, and Christian Gnostic attempted, and often succeeded in weakening the witness of the church.
It is obvious to me but not everyone, that ‘reformation’ may have been needed as early as the apostolic times. If we look at the nature of some of Paul’s letters it would seem that some churches, though young, encountered great error that needed to be addressed and people brought back to the truth. I think were the trouble lies later for the church is who has the authority to speak into the error within the church. Constantine, and the institutionalizing of the church has its pros and cons. I want to consider both when moving forward. But remember things were not perfect before the institution.
To many various claims have been made about Constantine. That he was a blessing to the church because he helped it to triumph other religions and become the world religion it is today. Or that it was a curse to Christianity because it gave the church a sword. These two perspectives are a bit off though.
The triumph of Christianity was already in effect taking place leading up to the time of Constantine. If anything he weakened the expansion of the organic growth by supporting it. But there are some misconceptions here. Constantine did not make a Christianity a monopoly religion of the empire. He did not persecute pagans, many consider him to still be a pagan, and his conversion to Christianity fake. Some make an opposite argument. But in truth he simply ended the persecution of Christianity, sought the blessing of the Christian God in battle, and in time transferred some of the wealth of the state temples to the church. This weakened Christianity, because as Christ said, wheat and tares, there was not more of a reason for tares to come into the church. Also Christian bishops became friends, and influential parts of the Roman empire. The Capital of the Roman empire also became a capital for church policy and doctrine. Thought previous centers in Jerusalem, Antioch, and Ephesus, maintained their influence.
Constantine did work within the church to protect its unity with the sword, at times fighting off the heretics of the time. There is a bit that can be critiqued in the life of Constantine. Much is up for debate. One of the earliest issues within the church was that it became a place of power and influence. Simony, the buying and selling of offices within the church became a play at power for and were filled by sons of the aristocracy. The high office of Pope had its price along with the lowly parishes. Clerical families took up residence in the high office. Pope Innocent I (401-417) Succeeded his father Pope Anastasius (399-401). This is the earliest example and the latest was 1044. This was far from regular but there are a handful of examples.
This gets me on then to the body of this post. Now that we have reached a somewhat institutional church as opposed to the early grassroots move of the church. What was the nature of the church? When did the reformations begin? Where there successful reforms? Was the church from Constantine to Luther corrupt, hiding scriptures, ignorant, and committed to all the wrong things?
Two Churches: From Constantine to Luther
I believe that this is a very unknown era of history for most Protestant Christians because when being told the story of the church people like to go to the beginning. For Protestants the beginning is often the reformations. Or maybe Acts. But usually not what happens in between. As a protestant young person, I’ve been grown disturbed at not having been adequately acclimated to this long era of Christian history. Not to mentioned it has polarized my faith from that of your average Roman Catholic. Though I remain protestant, some Sunday mornings I would just as soon attend a good Catholic church as I would a charismatic pentecostal church. And I say that not as a slant against either. I find that there are wonderful traditions in the Catholic church just as there are a few I do not appreciate. I also enjoy the emotional stirring of a pentecostal atmosphere from time to time. But it really is not about preference, I’m simply stating what my preferences are from week to week. So while I will remain protestant I will not bash Catholics. In fact I may be caught more often sympathizing with their beliefs and traditions save one or two.
I feel the need to do this sympathizing because there history is my history. Not to mention many of the Catholic traditions have in fact been carried over into Protestantism and it is wrong to claim them as solely protestant. So there is a large heritage protestants enjoy built up by those who’s loyalty to God, and the catholic church will be observed a bit here in this post.
However, when I refer to Catholic I am not using the word as a synecdoche. Catholic includes both the church of power, and the church of piety. Or the high church and the low church. These terms indicate that from a very early time in the history of the ‘institutional’ church that there was a difference in the part of the church concerned with power and those concerned with being the people of God. The early monastic movements as opposed to those buying office and playing politics. These are the two churches of the history from Constantine to Luther. If Luther and other reformers were not successful they would appear likely as another monastic movement within the Catholic church. Or had they been truly successful to reform rather than form a new sect then the catholic church would have remained in place. We may still have a Pope, although a very different version of what the Pope was and is and the authority he holds.
What we are then to be looking for is how much like the true church of Acts was the the two churches of the medieval era? ( also quick disclaimer, the two churches might bring to mind the eastern orthodox church. However, I will not be strongly including it because my knowledge is still limited as to what went on and why, within the Orthodox church.) So we will be looking at the church of Power, its corruption and some of the bright spots. Also we should be considering the reformation work of the monastic communities all throughout this era.
How the Church was the Church and how it was not
It is interesting to remember that the monastic movement was institutional just as the high church of power was an institution. Though many devotees went of in search of solitude and silence, ther reputations grew and soon man more would flock to learn from these hermits. The need grew for organization, rules, and establishments to be provided for many seeking to follow in the footsteps of influential monks.
This is essentially the story of Pope Gregory the Great who was the first monk to ascend the papal throne. He began by seeking the kind of life that the great monastic founder St. Benedict. Upon his becoming Pope he fought endlessly for reform, he sought to reform the churches corruption of offices bought by wealthy families. He also reformed the monastic communities according to the Benedictine Order. He wrote a book on what being a Pope was to be about. For this early Pope, Gregory saw his role as a pastor over the whole church rather then the master of the flock. He understood his role as a servant to the church. After Gregory’s death the roman clergy quickly replaced monks with secular clergy. The church was still a tool for politics. Perhaps exactly what Constantine did, or something that came as a result of his influence given to the church.
He is an example of a number of men who rose to the high church even when this was not easy to do because of corruption and typically needing to buy your way into those positions.
But the traditions that had begun in the deserts of Egypt with monastic communities is a better way to trace the church being the church. Though its not completely one sided. There were two natures of the church during this era that I think are important to maintain. Monastics had a sincere approach and love for God. The High church was committed to public life, sometime to much, and sometimes compromising as I have mentioned.
It is helpful to think of the churches influence not in such drastic terms. The church did not consist of only Popes and Monks. The in-between is the job of the Bishop. When monks had spent time in meditation, discipline, scripture, education, they would then be elected to serve as Bishop. Many did so unwillingly because they preferred the life of a scholar and hermit. When examples came along who served faithfully as Bishop, and also enjoyed scholarly life then you had someone special. But scholastic monks had a great value even before becoming well known Bishops.
The earliest well known hermit was Anthony the Great (251-356). His life inspired many to pursue the monastic life. His most influential follower was Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo (354-440). Augustine’s influence is well known. His work as a scholar has likely been the most influential of all scholars. Calvin’s commentaries are like holding a mirror to the work of Augustine. Not only was his work influential for theology but he developed a model for education and modeled a wider education for what would become the Cathedral Universities of the Middle Ages. Not only did monastic communities make way for an educational system, but also for better economic systems.
These are just a few key examples of the movements started. A movement for the reform of both high and low churches had begun with Anthony in the 3rd century (the same time Constantine helped shift wealth and power to the church). A monastic way of life became what many sought who wanted a sincere approach the service of God. Among the monastics developed an entire educational system for reading, writing, scripture and other important works. The Scholastic movement was an option, men like Augustine lead way in this. And then there was men who dared as Gregory I did to reform the church of power, to fight against Simony, Adultery, and the lies of the high church clergy.
Perhaps Ive done more to open up a can of worms here then anything else. However, I think there are a couple of main conclusions. That there are obvious characters throughout what some call a “dark ages” who’s aim was to bring the light of reform long before men like Martin Luther. Luther, well known for his challenge of Papal authority and his educational reforms had many who came before him. Pope Gregory, and Augustine both sought and achieved these kinds of reform but compromise and corruption persisted.
The Sequel to this post will be to include what character’s, and events of the 10th century until Martin Luther hold. Protestants owe more to their Catholic, Monastic, roots then they realize. In order to continue to see our own needed reforms we need to understand our past and try to implement what we can from a true biblical worldview. We are not attempting as in a revolution to break off from the past and forget any of the lessons we could be learning from.
Knowing History is a precursor for Reformation.