The Middle Ages, to a large extent, form an interim in the development of doctrine and the truth of the Word of God. The church in the West had been overrun by invasions of Germanic pagans which destroyed the structure of society and culture. With the removal of the government of the Roman Empire to Constantinople in the East, the only effective government in the West gradually became the church. Gregory the Great became Bishop of Rome in 590. He was not only the head of the Western Church, but amid the invasions which took place, he became also a temporal ruler, organizing the defenses of the City of Rome. The lines between church and state which had begun to be blurred when Christianity was made the official religion of the empire, disappeared completely and the church gradually became a political as well as a spiritual power.
The effect of these changes had great significance for the development of the church. Learning was extinguished as the institutions of society, including schools, crumbled. The church, and particularly the monasteries, became oases of learning, preserving the remnants of classical and Biblical knowledge. The church, confronted with heathen idolatry, superstition, and paganism, turned her attention to mission work. Rome in particular served as the overall fountainhead of these efforts under the leadership of Gregory and succeeding popes, and as their controlling ecclesiastical center. The church directed its efforts to the practical need to Christianize the barbarians and to maintain order in the midst of disintegration.
This mission work embraced the whole of Europe, and a number of centuries passed before the whole of Europe was actually brought under the power of the Christian church. The church’s method in this work was not directed at individuals, but at whole tribes and nations. The religion of the tribes being determined by its ruler or king, the church’s efforts were directed at converting the tribes en masse by converting their rulers. The result was that great masses of people were brought into the Christian church who knew nothing of the Christian faith. The church in accommodating herself to superstition and ignorance, often simply replaced pagan ritual with Christian ritual, and the worship of pagan gods with the worship of saints and the Virgin Mary.
The church became the center of community life, not only spiritually; but because it alone preserved the remnants of the culture and science of the ancient world, it also became the center of temporal life and power. Thus the church also became occupied with many things which had nothing to do with her spiritual calling.
Although the church preserved the learning of the past, that learning was not spread throughout the church but was concentrated in the major metropolitan churches and in the growing number of monasteries. Books were precious and scarce. The Greek and Hebrew languages were virtually unknown in the West. Latin, no longer the common language of the people, had become the language of scholarship and of the church, and the ability to read and write it had also declined. So deep was the decline in literacy and knowledge that even among the clergy ignorance was prevalent. In the early part of the Middle Ages, before the rise of universities, priests who knew little more than the liturgy, the creed, and the Lord’s Prayer were not uncommon. This decline in literacy also tended to concentrate power into the hands of a learned few. Moreover, the languages of the invaders were Germanic languages and the Latin of the church was foreign to them.
Under such circumstances the knowledge of the Word of God as a whole or the study of Scripture was limited more and more to a few in the church. The church became concerned not with studying and developing the truth, but only with preserving it. Tradition and conformity to the orthodox doctrine of the past became the chief concerns of the church. The early Middle Ages were particularly concerned with. conserving and transmitting the work of the early church fathers. Regrettably the errors of the fathers were also part of this traditional orthodoxy which concerned the church. The allegorical approach to Scripture and the practice of turning the Word of God into a book of practical and moral object lessons replaced serious exegesis. The church was more concerned to instruct the rough pagan barbarians in ritual, liturgy, and morals than in the true doctrine of God’s Word.
Moreover, the approach to the church fathers were encyclopedic, producing collections of the sayings and comments of the fathers upon Scripture and doctrine. This method was not a systematic setting forth of doctrine, but rather a collection of arbitrary excerpts. Such a method of dealing with the church fathers often served to obscure their doctrine in the process of preserving it. The resulting productions were anthologies of comments on doctrine and Scripture with marginal comments and explanatory notes chosen according to the whims of the compiler. Such a method tended to preserve as much the weaknesses of Augustine, for example, as his strengths, and to obscure some of the doctrinal truths he had developed. The soundness of the comments and citations was not evaluated in the light of Scripture, but assumed because of the individual’s standing as a church father.
As the medieval period developed, Scripture, with its appended commentary, was made more and more to serve the interests of the church and her tradition. Confronted with a confusing array of interpretation and allegorical fancies in these collections, Scripture came to be viewed as an obscure book, hard to understand. The clergy of the church, as the custodians of Scripture and tradition, became the authoritative interpreters of both. While this power and authority was at first found in the whole church, as the Middle Ages progressed and the power of Rome advanced, this power became more and more concentrated in the hands of the papacy.
While formally, therefore, the church may have preserved the doctrinal fruit of the early church, also regarding Scripture, in actual practice, much was lost. Scripture was no longer the clear Word of God to His church but an obscure word, difficult to understand. The interpretation of the Word of God and also the guiding influence of the Spirit of Truth was seen as limited to the clergy alone, and in particular to the upper levels of that clergy. The ordinary believer possessed neither the Word nor the Spirit to interpret and understand that Word for Himself. On the contrary, the church demanded of him unwavering faith in the dogma and authority of the church.
The result was tyranny over, the minds of men, and the average believer walked in ignorance and superstition. Scripture was no longer treated as an organic unity, one Word of God, but as a source book of separated texts and passages to be read in the worship service according to a yearly cycle. Scripture moreover was made, through the commentaries of the fathers, the servant of tradition and an instrument to establish that tradition. Preaching became disconnected from Scripture and became rather a place for allegorical inventiveness, reduced to practical and moral homilies, interwoven with stories of the lives of saints and fables concerning the Virgin Mary.
Rather than doctrinal development of the truth, the Middle Ages was, for the most part, a period of development of error and firm establishing of error, backed by the authority of the church. The resulting famine of the hearing of the Word of God and study of the Scriptures opened the door to rationalism and mysticism.
These two trends emerged in the medieval church. The one, intellectual and rationalistic, endeavored by faith and human reason to demonstrate and defend the truth of the doctrine of the church. It brought the pagan philosophers of the ancient world into the service of the church and attempted to join human philosophy and theology together in the service of tradition. This principle of the union of Christianity and pagan philosophy had originally stood behind the allegorical method of interpretation, and in the Middle Ages it ,emerged full-blown in scholasticism.
The other trend in the church was mysticism, the striving after inward and immediate communion and fellowship with God. Scripture, God’s self-revelation, being inaccessible and conceived of as dark and unclear, a more direct access to God and revelation was sought through contemplation and prayer. This inward and subjective trend was furthered by the church’s formal and rigid ritualism and by the arid intellectualism of scholasticism.
Neither trend could satisfy the spiritual needs of the people of God, deprived of the Word of God. Throughout the Middle Ages the pendulum in the church repeatedly swung back and forth between the more intellectual and objective trend and the more subjective and mystical one.
But it was not until the Reformation and the full return to Scripture as the authoritative Word of God and revelation of Himself to His people, that the church would again turn to the true fountain of both the truth and the water of life. There were indeed lone individuals and groups within the church who anticipated the developments of the Reformation and planted the seeds from which it would spring, but they were few and far between, nor could they break the death-hold of tradition.