The Middle Ages were characterized in our last article as a period in the history of the church in which there was a famine of the hearing of the Word of God. Social and political chaos had followed the Germanic invasions of Europe, and out of that chaos emerged a church, centralized in the papacy, with great temporal power and influence, capable of lording it over the minds and consciences of men. The Word of God was withdrawn from circulation, and learning and even literacy itself declined and were preserved mainly in isolated monastic communities. Spiritually the church declined, directing its energies into worthless philosophical speculation or mysticism.
The result was a Christian church which was increasingly corrupt. Offices in the church became posts of political and worldly power, sought for earthly advantage and bought and sold as positions of wealth and power. Spiritually the church was truly in darkness. This does not mean that there were no men of faith and godliness in the church, for in every age God preserves a remnant who love the truth, treasure it in their hearts, and in faithfulness proclaim it. But they were just that, a remnant.
In order for reformation to take place, a return to Scripture was necessary. This could not take place of itself. Certain elements were needed which gradually emerged in the latter part of the Middle Ages. These formed the building blocks upon which a return to Scripture could be based and were to make the Reformation of the sixteenth century possible. These events, changes, and developments must be seen in the light of God’s providence as He, the Lord of history, directs the affairs of men for the welfare of His church and her reformation.
In the 500 years following Gregory the Great the papacy gradually rose to supreme political power in Europe. Under the leadership of Hildebrand (Pope Gregory VII, 1073-1085) and Innocent III (1197-1216) the papacy was elevated to such heights that it was able to force even kings and emperors to submit to its will. As the whole foundation of the papacy was laid, not upon Scripture, but upon tradition and the doctrines of men, a return to Scripture under these circumstances was impossible. Indeed, a return to Scripture as the sole authority for faith and life was a direct threat to the papacy. The papacy had served a purpose in the years of upheaval in filling the vacuum left by the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West. It had preserved the heritage of the early church, both good and bad. It had also been the means to bring pagan Europe under the influence of Christianity, albeit a Christianity buried under a mountain of superstition and vain traditions.
But if the church were to be renewed and if Scripture were again to grip the minds and hearts of men, that supreme power of the papacy could not endure. Under the providence of God there arose out of the chaos of medieval Europe new nations which gradually grew in power and strength. Further, the Crusades, the attempt to recapture the Holy Land and wrest it, from the power of the Muslims, also fueled this development for they served to break down the isolated barriers of many of the small feudal kingdoms of Europe. The Crusades aided the consolidation and concentration of power into the hands of a few kings. The Crusades broke down the walls of an isolated and provincial Europe. Peasants who before had lived out their whole lives in small communities under the thumb of a local feudal lord were suddenly thrust out of their small world to march across the continent of Europe. Such men could not be content to return to the narrow life they had known before. Commerce and trade also re-awoke in Europe, and with it the need for a more centralized government. Nations began to emerge as kings consolidated their power, nations which could rival the temporal power of the papacy.
The papacy and the clergy as a whole had become more and more corrupt in their abuse of power and had degenerated into open immorality, so that the power and wealth of the clergy and their immoral lives became an object of abhorrence and ridicule. The papacy began to become the political plaything of kings vying with each other for power so that for a time the seat of the papacy was moved to France. The result was a schism in the church with two popes, each claiming to be the rightful pope and pronouncing judgments from heaven upon the other. Church councils were unable immediately to heal the breach, and Europe was divided in its allegiance. When finally the breach was healed, the papacy which emerged was more corrupt than ever, seeking to rival even ancient Rome in its immorality. For such a papacy true spiritual leadership was impossible. At last men began to question the Biblical and traditional claims of the papacy and to find them empty and false. By the days of Luther the papacy had lost not only its temporal power, but even the moral force to impose its false claims or to put a stop to reformation.
A second building block in the return to Scripture was the return of learning in general to the darkness of Europe. The monasteries had long preserved the remnants of the past by making it their business to copy the existing books so that they became more and more accessible. Along with this, the schools of the monasteries and cathedrals, originally intended to serve the training of the clergy, gradually developed and expanded into universities and institutions of general learning. Moreover, the Crusaders returning from the East brought with them, among their treasures and spoil, many manuscripts and books, including classical Greek and Roman works, acquired from the Arabs and from the Eastern church. Furthermore, in the East, the church had more and more fallen before the advancing threat of Muslim Turkish armies with the result that many fled to the West, bringing with them a knowledge of the Greek language as well as early manuscripts. With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 this process was complete. An era of new learning and study in science, literature, and the arts followed which is called the Renaissance. This revival of learning had its center in Rome. It was by no means a reformation, but rather a return to classical and pagan ideas of the ancient Greeks and Romans. It was thoroughly worldly and man-centered, directed to the development of worldly culture. Nor is it surprising therefore that it was also promoted and encouraged by the popes of that period who were thoroughly worldly men. The Renaissance served to spread new ideas throughout Europe and to create a more independent frame of mind.
While the Renaissance was in the service of man and not God, yet in God’s providence it was to serve the church and her reformation. For the humanism of the Renaissance, with its emphasis on man and human freedom would not be bound by the laws and traditions of the church, for it recognized no authority above man himself. In such a climate the church in all its abuses was laid open to mockery and ridicule. The tyranny of the church over men’s thoughts and lives could not continue. This created an environment in which the reformers could work, returning to the Scriptures without the stranglehold of the church’s tradition being placed upon them.
Moreover, with the renewal of learning and education came a renewed interest in the original languages of the Scriptures. For the humanists of the Renaissance, in their search for the culture of antiquity, and regarding the Scriptures as another such form of ancient literature, went back to the languages of the past. They began also to challenge traditional accepted interpretations and particularly to overthrow the allegorical method of interpretation which had severed Scripture from history and faithful grammatical exegesis.
In this changing climate dissent became more marked and open. Throughout the Middle Ages there had always been groups which had dissented and differed with the church. Many of these groups were heretical sects or survivors of earlier heresies. They were largely stifled by the church through its temporal power and through persecution, sometimes systematic and brutal. But there had also been those who on truly Biblical grounds had opposed the church’s corruption and superstition. These too had been largely suppressed or, where possible, absorbed by the church and included under her umbrella by pressure and compromise. But with the changing climate, the church’s ability to crush dissent declined. Kings and princes would no longer serve merely as the tools of the pope.
To that growing dissent belonged not only the humanists of the Renaissance, who in cynicism mocked the church and her theology, but also men who spoke out of genuine spiritual concern for the truth. The famine of the Word of God had created a spiritual hunger for the truth in the hearts of the remnant of the church. The arid ritualism and spiritual life of the medieval church could not satisfy the needs of those who hungered after the Word of God. Thus dissent grew throughout the Middle Ages and unwittingly paved the way for reform. In all these developments we see God at work, leading His church, and laying the foundation for a return to the Scriptures as the sole foundation of the church of Jesus Christ.