Middle Ages

Dear Khan,

In the 1230s and 1240s, the Mongol armies were raiding Russian towns and cities. These armies even made their way into modern-day Poland and Hungary. They did more raiding than occupying territory—they would come and take what they could and leave a lot of death and carnage in their wake, and then they’d move on. It left Eastern Europe and Russia unsettled and it started a panic through the rest of Europe and the Holy Roman Empire. And that is when the pope got involved.

Innocent IV was pope from 1243 to 1254. Right after he became pope, he called a church council. The council was held at the town of Lyon, France, in 1244. The main issue of the council was reining in the Holy Roman Emperor. At the time, it was Frederick II, and he had overstepped his bounds as far as the church was concerned. So, the pope and all the bishops and the cardinals gathered in Lyon to move against Frederick, and ended up ordering him deposed and excommunicated.

That was the domestic issue at the time, and Innocent, perhaps emboldened by his success there, thought he could then engage in foreign affairs. So, he sent off a letter with some emissaries to the Great Khan, leader of the Mongols. The Khan at the time was Güyük Khan. He was the grandson of Genghis Khan and he was the one responsible for the raids into Poland and Hungary. The pope wanted to put an end to this. He sent some Benedictine monks with the letter. They traveled more than three thousand miles, and it took them more than eighteen months to get to the Mongol camp. And when they finally did get there, they were kept waiting for another few months before they finally had their audience with the Great Khan.

In his letter, Innocent said, “It is not without cause that we are driven to express in strong terms our amazement that you, as we have heard, have invaded many countries belonging both to Christians and others and are laying them waste in a horrible desolation.” He went on to say, “We, therefore, following the example of the King of Peace and desiring that all men should live united in concord in the fear of God, do admonish, beg, and earnestly beseech all of you that for the future you desist entirely from assaults of this kind and especially from the persecution of Christians and that after so many and such grievous offenses you conciliate by a fitting penance the wrath of divine majesty.” Innocent continued by saying that God is a just God, that God is an avenging God, and that the Great Khan should be careful because he is putting himself at the risk of the judgment of God.

The Great Khan sent a letter back to the pope, wherein he said, “If you should act up to your word then you, the great pope, should come with the monarchs to pay us homage and we should thereupon instruct you.” He went on to inform the pope that he was not subject to the pope, but rather it was the other way around. I guess we could file that under “agreeing to disagree.” So, the success that Pope Innocent saw in domestic affairs didn’t quite translate to foreign affairs. This set off a few more decades of hostility between the Mongol raiders and the people on the Eastern European borders.

Joan of Arc

With some figures in church history, you know exactly where they stand. You could put a white hat on them—they’re the good guys. With other figures in church history, you again know exactly where they stand: on the other side. You could put a black hat on them—they’re the bad guys. And then there are those figures in church history that we are not quite sure what to do with.

Joan of Arc fits into the third category. Joan was a very colorful person, not only in church history but in history in general. She was a farmer, born in a small town in France in 1412, 105 years before Martin Luther posed his Ninety-Five Theses. This was at the height of the latter Middle Ages, and Joan was every bit a woman of her times. She was illiterate, like most people at the time, but she was raised in a very pious home and she was a very pious individual.

Now, we need to back up and take a look at the bigger picture. The Hundred Years’ War was going on between England and France; it concerned the succession of the throne of France. Henry V of England was victorious and was recognized as heir apparent to the French throne. However, he soon died and was succeeded by his infant son Henry VI. The English began to take territory in northern France and to move into the villages there. Many of the residents of Joan’s village fled.

In 1425, when she was 13, Joan started having visions. She claimed that she was told to save France from the oppressive English king and to restore the throne to a Frenchman. Three years later, at the age of 16, she started gathering supporters, and she even got the attention of the prince of France, the future Charles VII. Charles met with her and agreed to equip her with an army. Joan set off into battle, and she was successful. She drove the English forces from Orléans, and as a result, Charles was able to be secure the throne of France.

But that wasn’t good enough for Joan. She wanted to rid all of France of the English, and at this point she lost Charles’ support. The tables turned, and her forces were defeated in 1430. She was taken captive and held prisoner for a year. In 1431, she initially recanted of her assertions against England and of the heresy of which she was accused. But then she received a vision saying that her recantation was wrong, and she once again reaffirmed her assertions and her calling before God. Well, this was enough for her to be taken and burned at the stake. And May 30, 1431, Joan of Arc’s young life came to an end.

Cruce, Libro, et Atro

If there were bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, the phrase Cruce, libro, et atro may well have been a popular one. In many ways, it was the motto of monasticism.

Monasticism is an institution with a long history in the church. There were early monks in the 200s known as the Egyptian fathers or the desert fathers. In these early years of church history, monastic communities began to pop up. By the time of the sixth century, these communities needed a bit of a structure. To that end, Benedict came along provided some direction through his Rule, which became the organizational basis of the Benedictine order.

From 500 to 1000, the church experienced rapid growth and expansion, and here’s where our Latin phrase comes in. Cruce means “cross”; libro means “book”; and atro means “plow.” “Cross” has to do with the message of the gospel, though how closely the proclamation of the monks hewed to the true gospel certainly varied. And as the centuries rolled on and the church drifted from the teachings of Scripture, that divergence from the gospel grew even further, sadly. But their intention was to proclaim Christ.

Libro refers to a significant activity of these monks: their scribal duties. Interestingly, the room in monasteries that housed the books was called the vivarium in Latin, which translates to “living room” in English. The average American living room houses an easy chair and a big-screen TV, but the “living room” in a medieval monastery was the library. It was the nerve center of the monastery.

“Plow” is a reference to the monks’ farming activity. These medieval monks actually contributed significantly to the history of farming. They first developed the idea of terrace farming in Europe, developed significant irrigation techniques, and developed new ways to get water to places that needed it. They even developed the idea of crop rotation to replenish crucial nutrients in the soil. The monasteries often controlled great lands and vineyards, farms, and orchards. These farms were a lifeline for many people in the Middle Ages. If there was a famine in a particular town, the townspeople knew they could go to the monastery nearby and be fed, because the monastery often would have food.

Over the centuries, some of the monasteries were not true to their calling and drifted far afield from a biblical ethic or a biblical program for their existence. But we also have to recognize that, in many ways, these monastic institutions were a significant social institution in the Middle Ages. They were a center and a place of refuge for many through the centuries. And so, the bumper sticker motto of these monks—Cruce, libro, et atro—provides testimony to these medieval monks and their contributions to church history.

The Ghent Alterpiece

It was very common in medieval cathedrals to have what is called a triptych. A triptych is a trifold painting. It has three panels: a rather large panel in the center and two panels on the sides that fold in so that the triptych can be closed. And artists usually even painted the outside so that when it was folded in there would be a painting and then when it was opened up you would see the masterpiece.

In the cathedral at Ghent, Belgium, there is a polyptych called the Ghent Altarpiece. It is called a polyptych because it has far more than three panels. In has two levels to it, and in total it has twelve panels. It is an absolutely fascinating piece of art. It was begun by Hubert van Eyck and finished by his brother, Jan. So, we typically credit it to Jan van Eyck. It was installed in the cathedral on May 6, 1432.

This painting has a fascinating history. It was taken out of the Ghent Cathedral by none other than Napoleon, and then it was returned, only to be taken again during World War I by the Germans and again to be returned. And then it was taken in 1942 by the Nazis, and it spent three years buried in a salt mine. It actually made its way into the recent movie The Monuments Men, about the Allied soldiers tasked with finding art stolen by the Nazis, and it plays a significant role in that movie. The altarpiece suffered damage from its time in the salt mine because of the conditions there, and it was later restored. One of the panels was actually stolen in the 1930s, and when the painting was restored, the restorer, who was quite an artist himself, reproduced the missing panel.

At the very center of the top panel is a portrayal of God, and what’s fascinating about it is that to the left there is a pelican. The symbolism is important. The pelican was understood to eat its young on occasion, and so the idea is that God would sacrifice His very own Son. The panel beneath is the highlight of the piece; it is sometimes called The Adoration of the Lamb. It depicts Christ as a Lamb, lifted up above the altar and being sacrificed. The altar is surrounded by those who have gathered to worship and adore the Lamb. The upper panels on the far ends depict Adam and Eve, creation, and God at the center of creation, and then below, the panels illustrate redemption. So, we have the great work of God as Creator and the great work of God as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

This painting is one of the most famous paintings of Jan van Eyck. He is also known for other works of the pre-Renaissance period, but in the Ghent Altarpiece we see his finest work as he brings together these theological themes and presents for us a beautiful piece of art.

The Song of Roland

The medieval era was the era of epic poems. The English have Beowulf and the Spanish have The Poem of the Cid. In France, there is The Song of Roland. This poem has all the elements of a great story. It’s got betrayal—Roland, the main character, is betrayed by his stepfather, Ganelon. It has plenty of battles, which take place across the lands of Spain and France. It has medieval knights and chivalry and horses and armor and swords. It is, in every way, an epic.

The Christian author Dorothy Sayers once published an edition of The Song of Roland. In her introduction, she writes, “So, the grand outline of the poem defines itself—a private war set within a national war and the national war, again, within the world war of cross and crescent, this small circle center shakes the whole web.”

Sayers goes on to compare this epic to the great epic poem Iliad. She says, “Looked on, thus, as a whole, it has a much greater theme than that of the Iliad. This does not mean it is a greater poem; it is not by a long way. In style and technique it is primitive and has nothing to compare with Homer’s music and accomplishment. But in depicting, as both poems do, a struggle between two civilizations, the Christian poet is much more conscious of a serious purpose and the main spring of the action is something more important than the recapture of a wife or a quarrel about booty.”

Well, this main spring of action in The Song of Roland is, in fact, the battle that was taking place in medieval times between Christianity and Islam. And Roland finds himself in the center of this conflict. Having achieved some victories, he is on his way back to France when he is betrayed by his stepfather. The rearguard of his army is attacked by King Marsillion, who is the leader of the Muslim forces, and Roland is fatally wounded. The poet picks up the story:

The count Roland lay down beneath a pine,
his face to the land of Spain he’s turned as he lies,
and many things he begins to call to mind,
all the broad lands he has conquered in his time
and fairest France, and the men of his line,
and Charles, his lord, who bred him from a child.
He could not help but weep for them and sigh,
yet of himself he is mindful betimes,
he beats his breast and on God’s mercy cries,
“Father most true in whom there is no lie,
who didst from death St. Lazarus make to rise
and bring out Daniel safe from the lion’s might,
save thou my soul from danger and despite,
of all the sins I did in all my life.”
His right hand glove he’s tendered unto Christ
and from his hand Gabriel accepts the sign,
straightway his head upon his arm declines
with folded hands he makes an end and dies.
Roland is dead and heaven, God, hath his soul.

There it is, The Song of Roland, from an event that occurred in August 778, an epic poem.

Trending in the 12th Century

What was trending in the twelfth century? If you were alive during the 1100s, it would have been very hard to miss it. It was not the church’s brightest hour—it is the Crusades.

The First Crusade was launched just before the beginning of the twelfth century. It occurred from 1096 to 1099. Pope Urban II issued the call in response to Islamic forces’ having taken control of the Holy Land. At the time, there was a spiritual malaise due to corruption and decline in the church. The sense was that God had removed His hand of blessing because the infidels—the Muslims—had overtaken the Holy Land. And so, the pope issued a call for the armies to gather and retake the Holy Land.

The First Crusade succeeded in retaking Jerusalem from Islamic forces. The Crusaders established four Crusader states and constructed castles for their defense. This lasted for about three decades. But, by the 1130s and into the 1140s, Muslim forces began to gain control.

The need was then for a second expedition. So, the Second Crusade was called in 1147 and it lasted until 1149. This was a very intense crusade; one Crusader army that attacked Damascus, Syria, numbered fifty thousand soldiers. The Crusaders were roundly defeated at Damascus and many of the Crusader states were ceded back to Islamic forces. Things settled down then, but by the 1160s and the 1170s, the Muslim forces, under Saladin, set their sights on recapturing Jerusalem.

This brought about the Third Crusade. It occurred from 1189 to 1192. It did result in the recapturing of some cities, but it ultimately failed in its main objective of retaking Jerusalem. And so, we have the end of the Crusades in the twelfth century. The Crusades continued for another two hundred years, and there are even more sad episodes in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. But the twelfth century was the century of the Crusades, and it was a century of war. It has left a bitter legacy down to our own day.

We should end on some good news. Two other things were also trending in the twelfth century, and these are worthy of honorable mentions. The first concerns the Waldensians. In 1173, Peter Waldo gave away his considerable wealth and established what amounted to a new monastic order, a new group of Christians who were committed to “back to the Bible” reform. As they carried on in their movement, they aimed their sights at corruption in the church—both in terms of the wealth of the church and of the corruption of doctrine. As they read Scripture, they saw how far the church had drifted, and they began promoting some of the very same doctrines that would become central during the Reformation.

And finally, at the beginning of the twelfth century, we have Bernard of Clairvaux. In 1115, Bernard established his monastery at Clairvaux. It too was a center for reform within the church. His movement was much more like that of the Waldensians, and it had to do with reforming the church’s practice and the church’s doctrine. Bernard is a significant figure. He is one of the few medieval figures whom Luther actually liked. And that is what was trending in the twelfth century.

Trending in the 10th Century

We’re going to start a new series that we will be returning to from time to time. The series is called “Trending.” But rather than looking at what’s trending in the next hour or even in the next five minutes, as our culture may have it, let’s talk about what was trending for a century. The first century we are going to look at is the tenth. What was trending in the tenth century? What big movement or big idea dominated the discussion and left its mark? You could probably make a case for any number of things, but I want to talk about Cluny. Cluny was a monastery in France. Early in the tenth century, the leaders who established that monastery saw it as a place of significant reform for the church.

By the tenth century, the church had seen significant cultural decline. The previous century saw the Vikings roaming and pillaging and destroying virtually everything they could. Toward the end of that century, many of those Norse leaders converted to Christianity and settled down, but there remained the wake of the carnage that had been inflicted. The tenth century was also a time of spiritual upheaval, as the papacy was entering into a period of intense decline.

And so, the monastery at Cluny was established to get the church back on track and as movement of reform. Among the many leaders at Cluny, one stands out: Odo. His tenure at Cluny ran from 927 to 942. He stressed a return to the Benedictine rule, which brought an intense structure with an emphasis on work and prayer to monastic life. He also focused on worship and introduced significant art into the structures of churches in the tenth century, so that that art could aid in worship. He was very much committed to the idea of beauty and bringing beauty into worship.

The influence of the monastery at Cluny spread throughout the land, and over the next two centuries, one thousand monastic houses were established from the leadership at Cluny. So, one of the significant factors and movements that trended in the tenth century was the monastery at Cluny.

We should also note a few honorable mentions. One comes near the very end of the tenth century, and that is the baptism of Vladimir the Great, the grand prince of Kiev. Vladimir was baptized in 988. Christianity had come to Russia in the early 900s but Vladimir was a committed pagan, and he has a colorful history. His brothers were involved in killing each other so that they could take over the throne. In the wake of all that, Vladimir fled to Scandinavia, but then he was able to return, and he assumed his role as the grand prince of Kiev from 980 to 1015. And he needed to settle on a religion. He sent his counselors out to review the religions of Islam and Judaism but he settled on Christianity. And much of the reason why was because of what was happening in Cluny and the emphasis on beauty. So, Vladimir was baptized in 988, and while much of Russia was already accepting Christianity, his baptism accelerated the acceptance of Christianity in the lands of Russia.

One final honorable mention is the year 1000. The coming of the new millennium spread a great deal of doom as the end of the world was assumed to be coming. It was a time of intense apocalyptic speculation. So those were some of the things trending in the tenth century.

The Cathedral

Could you imagine, in our day, staring a building project that you know you will not finish in ten or twenty or even thirty years? It’s almost impossible for us to even think like that. Now try this: imagine starting a building project that you will not see completed in your lifetime. You won’t even see it completed in your children’s lifetime. And you won’t even see it completed in your grandchildren’s lifetime. Welcome to the building of a medieval cathedral.

These were such grand edifices that they were literally centuries in the making, and they exhibited a variety of styles. There are Norman cathedrals and English cathedrals. Some of the cathedrals have flying buttresses that support the great height and, of course, the significant weight of the cathedrals. Others have vaulted ceilings; the famous cathedral at King’s College in Cambridge incorporates the vaulted ceiling style.

But these cathedrals also have many commonalities, so let’s talk about five elements of a cathedral.

First is the narthex or vestibule. This is the part of the cathedral into which you enter as you come from the outside world, before you enter the sanctuary. The narthex is a sort of transition space to prepare you for entering into worship.

As you walk into a cathedral, that long center aisle is called a nave. Some think that it was named for a ship, from the word naval, and it comes from the shape of a ship.

On each side of the nave are the aisles. The sides of the cathedral are considered the aisles.

At the far end, you have the apse. The apse is the semicircular domed portion of a cathedral. There, you will find the pulpit or the altar. Usually, in the back of the apse, there are windows made of stained glass. And, since cathedrals are oriented to the east, as the sun rises, its rays penetrate that stained glass and flood the cathedral with light.

In front of the apse, the cathedral branches out to each side. These branches are called transepts. The word transept literally means “a partition across.” And what this forms then are sort of arms that extend out from the middle of the cathedral. If you look at a cathedral from above, you very clearly see a cross shape.

As you walk into a cathedral, your eyes are drawn upward through the columns and the architecture. Even the geometrical shapes within the cathedrals draw your eyes upward; they lift you off this human horizontal plane and point you toward God. These medieval cathedrals are wonderful feats of architecture—cross shaped and heaven focused.

5 Firsts in British Church History

Christianity has a long history in the British Isles. Here, we’re going to take a look at five firsts in British church history.

The first is the first martyr, a figure known as St. Alban. He is believed to have lived in the third or fourth century, but we know very little about him. In fact, most of what we know about him comes from accounts written centuries after his death. But from what we can piece together, Alban had some wealth, and he liked to protect people who needed help. And this also would include Christians. During his time, Roman imperial authorities issued orders to persecute Christians, resulting in troubles for early British Christians. One of them, named Amphibalus, ended up seeking refuge in Alban’s home. After a few days, as Amphibalus lived out his faith in front of Alban, Alban came to recognize the beauty and the truth of Christianity, and he himself becomes a disciple of Christ. Soon, the authorities learned that Amphibalus was camping out at Alban’s home, and they came for him. At the last minute, Alban changed his clothes with Amphibalus and sent Amphibalus out one way dressed as he would be, and with his attendants, while Alban stood there dressed as Amphibalus would be. Alban was arrested and taken before the authorities, who were thinking that he was Amphibalus. When they pulled back his hood, it was Alban. This infuriated the presiding official, and he turned to Alban, who unexpectedly confessed his own Christian faith and testimony. So, he was martyred. Later, Amphibalus was martyred as well. A few others were martyred alongside them. But St. Alban is credited as the first martyr in Christian Great Britain.

The second first concerns one of my favorite British church history figures, the Venerable Bede. He was born around 670 and died around 735. Bede was many things, but he is perhaps best known as a church historian; he wrote the first history of the church in Britain. In fact, he’s credited with a couple of firsts. He also gave us the first attempt at translating the Bible into English, or at least, into Old English.

The third first is the first version of the Thirty-Nine Articles. Originally, there were forty-two articles. They were brought to Parliament under Edward VI. They were passed through Parliament but they weren’t yet ratified. Then, Edward died; he was succeeded by Mary I, known as “Bloody Mary.” She reinstituted Roman Catholicism in England and began persecuting Protestants. The articles were then taken off the table, but when Mary died, Elizabeth I came to the throne and the articles were reintroduced into Parliament. Elizabeth did not like the last three, which were sort of anti-Anabaptist in their tenor, so she had them excised. The articles were then passed as the Thirty-Nine Articles, and they became and still are the official doctrinal confession of the Church of England.

The forth first is the Geneva Bible. This is the first on two counts. First of all, it’s the first study Bible. It was compiled by theologians and pastors who were exiled under Mary. They found themselves in Calvin’s Geneva, and Calvin put them to work on putting together a new Bible. It was a new translation based largely on Tyndale’s work, but they added study notes. And the other first of this Bible is, this is the first Bible with verse numbers. If you find an old Tyndale or Wycliffe Bible you’ll see chapter divisions but you won’t see verse divisions.

The last first brings us a little closer to our time. It was the founding of the Bible League in 1892. This was a concerted effort against the beginnings of apostasy and liberalism in the British church. As we look at the Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy that would rage on through the 1930s, it was the Bible League that organized the first concerted group effort to take a stand for orthodox doctrine and especially the inerrancy of Scripture.

Church History in 5 Minutes

5 Minutes in Church History has reached a milestone: this is the one-hundredth episode. To commemorate, we will provide a five-minute summary of church history.

John, the last of the Apostles, taught Polycarp, who went on to be the bishop of Smyrna. The early church, up through the 400s, is a story of martyrs and bishops and apologists. The Roman Empire was the challenger outside; heresy was the challenge within. To speak to the challenge outside, there were the apologists and the martyrs. Even in their death, the martyrs were providing a faithful witness to Christianity. Polycarp who was one of these early martyrs. To respond to the challenge from within, the early church engaged in the recognition of the New Testament canon. The church also formulated statements of belief, summaries of orthodox teaching—the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Definition of Chalcedon. We also see the development of an episcopacy, or rule by bishops.

In the 400s, we have Augustine, who was a bridge between the early church and the medieval church. As he lay dying, the Vandals were laying siege to his city, Hippo Regius, in northern Africa. This was the end of the Roman world and the breaking in of the medieval era. The medieval world was a world of popes, theologians, emperors, councils, and Crusades. It was a world of monks and nuns, mystics and scholastics. And there was one figure who embodied many of these features, and that’s Anselm of Canterbury. He was a monk; he later went on to be bishop at Canterbury; and he was involved in theological developments with his work on the argument for the existence of God and on the atonement. He wrote the wonderful book Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man). He was even involved in the First Crusade. Because of power plays between the king of England and the pope, he was exiled from his home in Canterbury.

Then we move on to the Reformation, which stretched from the 1500s through the 1600s. We can get at the theology of the Reformation through the five Solas: sola Scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. There are also the various branches of the Reformation, beginning in Germany with Martin Luther and Lutheranism; in Zürich, we have Ulrich Zwingli; in Geneva, we have John Calvin and the Reformed church; in England, we have the Anglicans; and in Scotland, we have Presbyterianism and then Puritanism.

As we move into the 1700s, we see that it was the worst of times. This is the rise of modernism and the rise of deism. This would eventually give rise to the secularism of our age. But it was also the best of times. The 1700s saw the First Great Awakening and great revivals under men such as Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield.

In the 1800s, we see the beginnings of higher criticism and the Second Great Awakening. This was a little different from the First Great Awakening. Charles Finney, the preeminent evangelist of the Second Great Awakening, was known for his innovative revival techniques (including “the anxious bench”) and emotionalistic preaching; as a result, he looked and sounded a little different than Edwards and Whitefield.

As we move into the 1900s, we’ve got the controversy between theological liberals and so-called Fundamentalists, which involved figures such J. Gresham Machen, founder of Westminster Theological Seminary. The 1900s saw the rise of evangelicalism and the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham. By the time we reach the twenty-first century, we have entered an age of missions as well as an age of ecumenism. It is also an age of theological confusion and an age of martyrdom. Thus, we have come full circle, back to the beginning and the martyrdom of Polycarp.