I was kept up last night about what the issue at hand was for Martin Luther. I am preparing for teaching the book of Romans. Since Romans and Galatians are the two books Luther found the most life changing and useful in his endeavors for change in the church I have been thinking a bit about him. I have read and written quite a bit on the middles ages preceding the reformations. As I have often set out to defend the church of the middle ages it is also something I have aimed to clarify, that the church was no doubt in need of reform.
I have laid out in other places that the church indeed had a couple of reforms take place throughout the middle ages. Specifically the Reform of Pope Gregory VII. Though Gregory VII denied the honor saying that honor was to be given to Gregory the Great whose name he took as Pope. Pope Gregory the Great never sought to have a position in the high church. Against his will he was forced into office. Though it was essential for the church to have actually given the Papal office to a man of humility and integrity. Pope Gregory VII sought to honor Gregory the Great by taking his name and continuing the work of reform that Gregory the first had brought. Simony (the buying of priestly offices) was a serious problem in the church. Along with the buying of offices by corrupt men came the depravity of the priesthood. These were area of great concern for the early reformers.
So Luther had sought to bring about his own reforms. Though he went further than any others had ever gone before. His challenge of the Pope’s authority took on greater meaning as the Papal bull of 1302 ‘Unam Sanctum’ was drawn up. A document that most historians consider to be the most extreme statements of Papal authority ever made. So the problems in the church had never been worse then the century leading up to the time of Luther. It is also of important note that Luther was not the first monk to respond to the abuse within the church in those early times. John Wycliffe in 1384 attempted reform in England, then the Czech Jan Hus in 1415 in Prague. Later we come to Luther in Germany, Calvin and Zwingli in Switzerland (there influence spreading throughout other parts of Europe into Scotland, Germany, France, and Hungary.) This is only to mention a few of the locations breaking into reform or schism with the Roman Catholic Church. There was a great need that the church had for change, reform, and even schism. It is important to note that it was reform that men like Luther sought. But they soon realized they could only settle for a break with the previous Roman Catholic institution.
Thus the story of the church throughout the middle ages is rife with corruptions, wheat and tares. But it remains the church until a split has taken place. Though there has been some actual reform in the Roman Catholic church there has also been a sinking into more error. The Roman Catholic Church like any other denomination has issues that need to be addressed, some more serious then the rest. Clarity about salvation and papal infallibility to name just two. The Catholic church was not wrong to attempt to exercise some control over the translation of scriptures for the sake of protecting them and assuring they would be translated well. The need for the Reforms I believe had less to do with the availability of bibles in the language of the people then it had to do with a) how someone gets saved, b) who has the authority. The need was to recognize scripture as having authority where the Pope did not, and for salvation by Faith and Grace rather then by mere association and participation in catholic church rites. The issue at hand with regards to common people having access to scripture was about the need for people to learn to read at all.
The Latin Vulgate could be read by anyone with an education in most of Western Europe. If you were from Eastern Europe you spoke and likely read in Greek and could read the bible. If you were form Africa there were a number of translations available to those who could read. Even in Europe there are a handful of German translations the predate Luther’s bible. Again, only to name a few. Bibles were available, though not as many because the printing press was innovated around the time of Luther’s reform and made it possible for Luther’s bible and theological material to spread quicker to the public then any other materiel before it. In fact though Luther translated his work into German it would still only have been readable by someone who could actually read. That is the reason that during the middle ages if you wanted to hear the reading of scripture in your own language you had but to go to a church where that was made possible. It is therefore easier to say there was a great need for the printing press and more frequent work done to translate scripture into other languages. This was a task that the Catholic Church was up for but did so at a slower rate then we would be satisfied by. They were scared of letting just anyone take on this task. We take this for granted today because we know that now large teams of scribes work together to carefully translate the bible from its original Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic text.
I feel sad discounting the work of scribes and devout monks who worked hard to translate and copy the scripture before the printing press. Their work is significant and important to say the least. But I think we bring shame on the church and its saints by repeating the mistake of calling this broad era of 1,000 years ‘dark’. Luther’s challenge and subsequent schism with the church of Rome was necessary. But was this an era of 1,000 years of darkness that preceded Luther? Hardly.
Though, it is not easy because of the blanket statements that have continued to shape our thought about history in that period. Instead of blanket statements and generalizations about the churches control over western Europe it helps to see that Europe was fractured into many kingdoms throughout most of the middle ages. The church only gained “control” or at best “influence” over the kingdoms at certain times, during certain reigns, in certain places. Then, there is the dilemma of the state or kingdom exercising its “control” or “influence” over the church. You see it is not always the church with the power to control. Many of the corruptions came because of the opposite being true. Though both had its way of corrupting the right influence of the church in a culture and period of time. Sadly the middle ages had its moments of darkness but I would hardly call it an era of 1,000 years of darkness. If there is a dark ages within the church then I would say it existed during the 10th-12th Centuries leading up to the time of Luther. But the ‘dark ages’ was a term given to the entire period from the fall of Rome to the Enlightenment. It is a secular term used to smear religion and Christianity and the very idea of God being something to be banished from the public sphere so mankind could get on with its anonymous progress. By using it as protestants we simply mean it to be a slant against a certain kind of church rather then the church. But by using the term we give credence to the movement of the “enlightenment” and its anti-God (not just anti-catholic) bias. What we aught to do as Christians is recognize what Christ said about his church that it would be full of good wheat and creeping tares that corrupt and distort its message of hope. We need to do a better job observing the details and avoid criticizing those who came before us. Thus I would not even go so far as to use the ‘dark age’ term as it is a secular term used to condemn the church as a whole of holding back human progress. When in fact the period from the 10th-12th century was one of the most exciting times of technological and scientific exploration by Catholic scholastic Universities across Europe giving way to the Scientific Revolution of the 13th-14th century. Again, blanket statements and generalizations confuse and are the opposite of learning. If you want to know truth about this issue you need to look closer and observe more carefully.
Luther’s Reforms/schism was needed for the church as a whole to go on being the true church of which the Catholic church is part of and always has been, even though it has had its issues and still does.
The “Dark Ages” (a term coined by Petrarch, an Italian scholar, in the 1330’s to describe the decline of Latin literature) was a term used heavily by enlightenment figures as a sweeping criticism of the Roman Catholic church and the lack of technological, scientific, philosophical, and artistic progress as the result. To which I say, “ABSOLUTELY POPPYCOCK!”
A closer look is warranted for the serious Christian scholar, minister, and social activist. Dark Ages is a term to avoid in order to ever find unity with Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. It is a term to avoid in order to not invite unwarranted criticism on the body of Christ of which we are a part. It is a term to avoid because it is far to general and directed (even by the most well meaning folks) at the church and not other important spheres of society of which God is also glorified in.
Read these books for further study.
1. Church History in Plane Language – Bruce L. Shelley
2. The Triumph of Christianity – Rodney Stark
3. The book that made your world – Vishal Mangalwadi
4. For the Glory of God – Rodney Stark
5. Hinges of History Series – Thomas Cahill
6. The Genesis of Science – James Hannam
7. The Victory of Reason – Rodney Stark
8. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature – C.S. Lewis
9. Story of Christianity: Part 1 & Part 2 – Justo Gonzalez
10. Those Terrible Middles Ages – Regine Pernoud
11. Scripture and the Authority of God – N.T. Wright