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The Progression of Christianity. From the Apostolic era - the Lutheran Reformation

The Church was undoubtedly the greatest influence in medieval life, affecting not only the religious and moral codes of the period, but also the political and social climate, which in turn allowed the Church to flourish. The Christianity of the Middle Ages is a highly debated topic. Was it merely "a pragmatic religion, a matter of sensible insurance against the inevitability of death, fear of Hell and the penalties of Divine Judgement?" (Jones, p6) Or did it truly provide its participants with an inner peace, a knowledge that their salvation was assured in the eyes of God? Religion is often considered to be a helpful tool in the study of history, as it can illustrate the ideas, prejudices and wishes of a period. For example, the Middle Ages and the connections between Church and State. Churchmen maintained that their spiritual authority transcended political boundaries acting as an independant third party in disputes. Over time, however, this role seemed to change, with the Church taking on a more dominant role. There was a separation of the Priesthood of Melchizedek, who was both Priest and King - the powers now belonged to two different people, both being expected to keep out of the affairs of the other. The power of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages affected all aspects of life, and perhaps even the way people saw the afterlife.

To truly understand the progression of Christianity through the ages, one need first examine the Apostolic period and the Christianity that it preached. Was the Medieval Catholic Church a natural progression of the New Testament teachings? Or did the Church lose something over time? The Apostolic period established the basic theological concepts of Christianity, which do seem to be quite different to the theological teachings of the Medieval Church. For example, on a number of occasions, throughout his Epistles, Paul preaches the absolute necessity of faith.(See Gal 2:16; Rom 3:28; & 5:1-2; Heb 6:1, 12.) The Medieval (and even present Catholic Church) say this is not so - they say that faith alone is insufficient. This is where Medieval concepts, such as confession, penance and purgatory, come into the equation. Such ideas require faith to take a back seat to works and tradition. It was not until the first Century, after all of the Apostles and others who had been in direct contact with Christ were dead, that many Churches developed a hierarchical organisation.(Huxley, p52) From here the concept of Apostolic Succession, and Petrine Supremacy, was established. There was a turn from the Apostolic Christianity of love, equality and worship of God, to a Christianity that preached that man was never fully forgiven his sins and needed to work to reduce the punishments he would receive in the afterlife. To do this, man needed a mediator to reach Christ. Romes acceptance of Christianity as its official religion may have strengthened the institution of the Medieval Church. Diversity of belief and practice was no longer going to be tolerated, Rome did not want a loose federation. In fact, Constantine may have seen Christianity as "an instrument of cohesion, a pillar of the new Imperial structure he was building, a State Religion to underpin his government."(Barraclough, p21) Although it has been suggested that "in Constantines conversion [to Christianity] no one can know how much was due to religious conviction, how much to superstition and how much to political ambition." (Crowder, p74) Constantines vision of a Cross and the inscription In hoc signo vinces (By this sign you shall conquer) could suggest any of these reasons, but his conversion is often attributed to political power. If so, this could very well explain the Churchs appearance in the political world.

The word Catholic, when it was first applied to the Church, originally meant world-wide, but "by the end of the second century, it meant holding to doctrines of Apostolic tradition as accepted by a universal federation of Churches which recognise one another."(O'Grady, p51) The word that had originally meant a faith reaching into all parts of the world, where believers could be connected through the same faith, came to be the name for the single institutionalised Church. By the third century, the Apostles Creed had been formulated and adherence to it was obligatory.(O'Grady, p63) The end of the fifth century saw the Catholic Church generally accepted as the one True vehicle of Christianity, and any person or group who did not conform were considered heretics and were either converted or killed. "They had developed a system of doctrine, orthodox and ecclesiastical organisation by apostolicity, unity and holiness. The Church had two primary purposes. Firstly, "the solemn public worship of God"(Baldwin, p1), which the Church elaborated into the Liturgy; and secondly, the Church aimed for the sanctification of souls, where the seven Sacraments were preached. A particular feature of the time was that men and women were tempted to seek new means by which such Institutions could be bypassed.(Bolton, p14) People obviously found the Institutionalised Church constrictive and found new ways express their spirituality. Early heresies are certainly an important development in Christianity, especially the Gnostics and Marcionites. Gnosticism was considered perhaps the biggest threat to Orthodoxy, and it was these Gnostic tendancies that reappeared in the Middle Ages, threatening the unified Church. Gnostic comes from the Greek word gnosis, which means knowledge. It is a largely secret, mystical tradition, which was eventually seen to permeate parts of the Church. For example, both Clement and Origen accepted parts of Gnosticism. Clement (150-215 AD) often quoted Gnostic sources in his writings, and Origen185-254 AD) had some of his Gnostic-influenced ideas condemned by Councils in the fifth and sixth centuries. (Councils of Alexandria and Constantinople) Clements ideal was the Christian Gnostic, an idea not dissimilar from the Jewish kabbalists. Both systems, Gnosticism and Kabbalah, require an oral tradition, so one could easily see how Catholicism could go hand-in-hand with Gnosticism - they both place oral tradition over scripture. Also, they considered all material matter to be vile and corrupt, which one could possibly infer from reading the Bible a particular way. For example, Jesus states that "the Spirit is indeed willing, but the flesh is weak" (See Matt 26:41; Rom 8:12; Gal 1:16 & 6:8; Eph 6:12.), suggesting the superiority of the Spirit.

The Marcionites, as well as other Heresies, such as Catharism and Manichaeism shared the same views - that matter was evil and only things of the Spirit were of importance. For the Marcionite, all was surrounded by male and female Spiritual Beings (aeons), of which the pre-human Jesus originally belonged. This group also considered knowledge to be an essential part of mans existence. They regarded the serpent in Genesis (Gen 3) to be essentially good, as it brought Adam and Eve knowledge, which YHWH had seemed to deny them - He was a misleading Guidance. Anyhow, the Middle Ages seemed to produce or revive a great number of Heresies, most of which could be said to have been begotten of Orthodox Christianity. "There is no heresy without Orthodoxy" (O'Grady, p4)

To combat such problematic groups, Tribunals were set-up to try cases, and hopefully set people back on the right, Catholic path. Inquisitions were held to ensure the protection of the faithful, especially from the twelfth century onwards. The hearing was usually presided over by a Friar, although for more difficult or well-known cases, a higher member may have been called in. The court had two functions - to to identify the heretic and deal with the problem. It was not until the mid thirteenth century that torture was introduced to the procedure, under strict and controlled conditions. (Baldwin, p65) If the heretic was not converted by the end of the process, he/she was sentenced to death. The Court was admitting to failure to help the lost soul, but at least the faithful were safe from the corruption that a heretic might spread. The Inquisitions could also be seen as a unifying practice for the Church - by battling a common enemy, they were brought together and provided discipline for the Church.

Other individuals, out of a deep feeling of religiosity or dissatisfaction with the Institutional Church, turned to Monasticism. It began quite early on, when Christianity was brought to Rome and being a Christian was considered respectable in society. Many Christians thought it was too easy, especially considering many of Christs speeches, proclaiming that they would be persecuted for His sake.1 Abandoning the sacrificial aspect of Christianity, they fled to the Desert and the Monastic Ideal was born. From the fourth century onward, it was considered one of the highest callings. It was a well-balanced life of prayer and manual labour. The brothers rose at two in the morning, and for three hours they were involved in prayer and meditation. From five to nine they studied. Quarter past nine until noon they worked in the fields. At twelve they had their one meal of the day, followed by an hours Siesta. They would work again until four and were in bed by half past six. It was forbidden for them to receive gifts and they instead worked for any money - educating boys, performing the sacraments for neighbours etc.

Something else these groups of people were objecting to, in their move, was "the individual conscience against the established order." (O'Grady, p7) The term the Church was originally used in the sense of meaning the totality of all believers, but now seemed to refer to the building, the doctrines - anything but the believers. But why did the Church need such organisation? Firstly, it needed unity. Constantine, in the Council at Nicaea in 325 AD, settled many issues which he hoped would strengthen the Catholic Church and his Empire. There was also the unity against Heresy - "if a Kingdom be divided against itself, that Kingdom cannot stand." (Mark 3:24)

The first thing the Catholic Church did in organising itself, was to appoint a hierarchy of Church Magisterium, headed by the Pope. The word Pope is taken from the word for papa, as he is considered to be the fatherly, spiritual leader of the Roman Catholic Church. IN patriarchal times, a Father was considered the spiritual leader of his family - note Abrahams move fromhis family - to be removed from his Fathers idolatarous spirituality.(Genesis 12:1) He is elected on the basis of Petrine Supremacy, which means he is the heir to the position that Christ gave the Apostle Peter in Matthew 16:18-19. Christ singled out Peter as the Chief of His Apostles, so Peter was considered to be the first Bishop and "only those churches that could trace their descent from one of the Apostles, were repositories of the true faith, which the Apostles had handed down." (Barraclough, p14) Peter founded his See at Rome and the Bishops of Rome are his successors. There were, of course, other Churches claiming Apostolicity outside of the Roman Catholic Church. For example, Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch, Ephesus, Smyrna, Phillipi, Thessaloniki, Corinth etc. Because of this Apostolic link, he cannot be wrong - "God will not permit the Pope to make an error in solemn official declarations concerning matters of faith - this is the infamous Papal infallibility, which is rejected by non-Catholic Christians." (Hall, p6) Also, because he is ordained by God, he cannot be judged - he is above worldly matters. The Papacy excercised its power in a number of ways. Firstly, and most importantly, the Pope had authority over the Catholic faith everywhere. There were Papal Courts, which disciplined and excommunicated heretics. The Pope was also given the authority to interpret - both law and scripture, and since it was such a unique gift, he could easily pressure social groups and government. (Hall, p6) The Papacy was, however, considered to be independant of politics. There was an "insistence by the Popes upon a territorial state of sufficient size to guarantee political independance for the Papacy so that the unhindered administration of the universal Church would be assured." (Baldwin, p76) Beneath the Papacy are the Cardinals, who assist the Pope in making rules for the Catholic Church, and even vote-in the new Pope at the Sistine Chapel. The Bishop is the leader of the Church in his diocese, under the influence of the Archbishops. The success of the Papal Monarchy depended on the relationship between the Cardinals and Bishops - their positions require frequent interaction. Beneath the Bishops, are the Priests who are the leaders of the Church in their parish/community. They are helped in such duties by Nuns and Brothers. At the very bottom of the hierarchy, are the laity - the common people. The hierarchy is often described in that the higher and lower members all share the same characteristics, just "not in like measure." (Tellenbach, p48) However, it was also said that the higher members "belonged to the same order as the angels, and in consequence posessed all that the angels possessed." (Tellenbach, p48) The more a man succeeded in climbing the heavenly hierarchy, "the more exalted does he become in the metaphysical sense." (Tellenbach, p47) But not all men were equal.

Tradition was one of the main ways the common people were kept in the lowest rank. They were unable to read scripture, which forced them to depend on the Churchs interpretations. The Church claimed that tradition was sufficient to guarantee their salvation, as the whole purpose of Apostolic Succession was so that the "original teaching would be preserved and translated without error." (O'Grady, p127) The Middle Ages saw Abelard produce his work Sic et Non, which displayed apparent contradictory passages in scripture. How then could scripture be sufficient? The Church was in charge of interpreting the scriptures and making sure the people followed what that interpretaion stated. This was largely done through the seven Sacraments: Baptism, Confirmation, The Eurachrist (Mass), Penance, Unction, Ordination and Marriage. The first five refer to the spiritual perfection of each man in himself, while the last two involve the administration and expansion of the Church. One thing they focused on, was confession. It was an important step, as it was linked to the Sacraments which required purity. The idea, is that when one commits a mortal sin, they must confess to their Priest. However, before the confession is of any value, they need to be truly sorry, resolve in their heart not to repeat it, and be willing to accept the Penance the Priest suscribes for that deed. The Priest gives absolution for that sin. They did, however, distinguish between the guilt incurred by the sin, which could be removed by the Priest, and the penalty for that sin, which was still due and would be paid-for in a state called Purgatory. It was "the payment of an expiation by bitter suffering, an agony like the agony of Hell." (Pullan, p3) The only way to remove such penalties, was to get an Indulgence, which was taken from the Treasury of the merits of the Saints. In a lifetime, they had accumulated more merit than they ever needed for salvation and "these credits were stored in celestial deposits, from which the Pope could make transfers to those whose accounts were deficient." (Bainton, 1967, p65) Towards the end of the fifteenth century, Indulgences were also bought for the dead. The monetary donation was considered a recommendation to God for a remission of punishment, taking into consideration the individuals help with the Churchs finances. Although, "strictly speaking, Indulgences were not sold...granting of a pardon was timed to coincide with a contribution of money by the sinner." (Bainton, 1967, p65)

One of the most important of the seven Sacraments, was the Eurachrist, or Mass. This is "a sacred meal through which the unique sacrifice of Christ...is brought into the present." (whiterobedmonks.org) The bread and wine did not merely represent Christ, but were mystically transsubstantiated into his body and blood. The sacrifice was being performed again - Christ was dying for the Churchs sins all over again, at each Mass. A number of these things were things that Dr Martin Luther had problems with.

Luther claimed that the Catholic Church had lost something over time, it had become corrupt and needed reform. It was not that he wanted a revolutionary change to something new, but he wanted to recover something that had been lost. Luther had originally been a renunciate monk, quite happy to follow the Catholic Church wherever it went, until he had a vision and his Father questioned it, suggesting it could have been a message from an angel of light. (See 2 Cor 11:14) Luther realised that Scripture had more to offer than he had been taught to believe - it warned of such things, and provided ways of testing the Spirits. From here, he came to a number of conclusions about Catholic doctrine, which he wrote-up in his ninety-five Theses and nailed them to the door of his Church. Within these Theses were three main points - he objected to a vowed object of the expenditure, the powers of the Pope over purgatory, and the welfare of the sinner. Nailing such objections to the Church was a way of inviting scholarly debate on the topics, but Luthers own Bishop sent the material to the Pope "who promptly ordered Luther to appear at Rome for trial and discipline." (Noss, p471) This was not for questioning Catholic practices, but for attempting to diminish the power of the Pope. Searching the scriptures even more, in order to prove himself, it was made even more obvious to him that "the Catholic Church had departed so far from its scriptural basis that many of its practices were actually anti-Christian. (Jones, p50)

The thing Luther objected to the most, was the Catholic Church teaching that Tradition was pre-eminent over Scripture. As he pointed out, Scripture was inspired by God - the word used in the Hebrew is ruach, which means air, wind or breath - it comes straight from the mouth of God. In both Matthew (15:1-20) and Mark (7:1-23), Jesus states that Scripture alone is infallible. The Catholic Church stated that there was also a hierarchy of Holy authority: the Pope, the Church Magisterium, local Priests, Tradition and then Scripture. Luther said that the Bible can stand without the Church. It belongs to all Christians to know and judge doctrine. From this, he reduced the Sacraments from seven, to two - leaving only the Lords Supper and Baptism. The principle that dictated the reduction was that a Sacrament must have been directly instituted by Christ and be distinctly Christian in nature. Most of the Catholic Sacraments that did not meet these criterion were considered to be useful, but should not be institutionalised. Another Protestant question, was whether the Catholic method of confession was scriptural. The whole idea of a Priest forgiving an individual for sins against God, infers mans need for an intermediary between him and Christ. The Old Testaments sacrificial system showed man needing an intermediary - the Levitical Priesthood - who brought the nations sins to God, so that they could be forgiven. Christs sacrifice on the Cross, however, resulted in the veil of the temple being torn in two (Matt 27:51) - the veil no longer hid the place of mercy. Man could reach the Father himself, through the son, Christ, who was the only intermediary.2 The idea that Christ gave his Apostles the power to forgive sin, as the Catholic Church preached, is by some oversight not mentioned in the Bible. Such a role is reserved for God alone. Penance is another concept Luther found to be useful, but unnecessary. Repent meant to change course, not to do the type of act that the Church had been teaching. Scripture says quite clearly that "if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness." (Matt 27:51) Therefore, there is no need for Purgatory. The fear of Hell and Purgatory ruled the people for the church, terrorising Christians, and making them buy Indulgences for time-off a place that did not even exist - It is unlikely anyone would claim the Church did not know a profitable business enterprise when it came along. The Church claimed that the penalty for sin remained, although 2 Corinthians (5:17-21) states that "old things are passed away...all things are become new." One could also take into account Christs words on the Cross - "today thou shalt be with Me in Paradise." (Luke 23:43) Or did He mean to say after a period of punishment then thou shalt be with Me in Paradise.?

Luther attacked the practice of granting Indulgences, in the sense that the Church charged money for them. It seemed man could now buy his way to Heaven. He stated that the Pope had no control over Purgatory, and even if he did, he should empty it of its inhabitants, but overall, could not reduce the penalties of purgatory, as such penalties were imposed by God - if at all. Luther also charged that the Priest was not in the position to do what the Catholic Church claimed - he did not sacrifice Christ. He said that the sacrifice was done only once, but cleansed the whole human race - it did not need to be repeated, that was the whole idea behind Christ offering Himself. Therefore, transusbstantiation, the actual transformation of the bread and wine into the flesh and blood of Christ, does not occur. Luther claimed that Mass was intended to be a giving of Thanks to God, not a sacrifice. There were two types of Service in the time of St Paul - Meetings, where a group gathered and read, prayed, preached and sang Psalms, and a Feast, where they recalled the Last Supper - commemorating the sacrifice of Christ. Luthers concerns were originally religious, only accidently ecclesiastical or social. His attack on the Church, in the hope of reforming it, failed, as he did not replace it with another Church that people accepted. Lutheranism, and Protestantism in general, came to light, but did not manage to replace the Roman Catholic Church, who showed a religious unity in the midst of a Reformation causing great disunity.

Overall, it can be seen that the Middle Ages added quite a bit to the religious world. Not only did it produce one of the greatest religious, and perhaps political, powers that this world has ever seen, but people of the Church also "distorted Christianity to such an extent that it has led them to act in direct contradiction to its fundamental principles. We can read about this in past eras and see it happening now. Because religious convictions have such emotional power, they can lead to more bitterness and hatred than anything else in the world." (O'Grady, p2)


  • Bainton, Roland H; "Here I Stand. A Life of Martin Luther"; 1950; Mentor Books; USA;
  • Bainton, Roland H; "The Medieval Church"; 1962; Robert E Krieger Publishing Company Inc; NY;
  • Bainton; Roland H; "The Penguin History of Christianity (vol 2)"; 1967; American Heritage Publishing Co Inc; USA;
  • Baldwin, Marshall W; "The Mediaeval Church"; 1953; Cornell university Press; USA;
  • Barraclough, Geoffrey; "The Medieval Papacy"; 1968; Thames & Hudson; London;
  • Bolton, Brenda; "The Medieval Reformation"; 1983; Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd; London;
  • Crowder, C M D; "Unity, Heresy and Reform: 1378-1460"; 1977; Edward Arnold Publishers Ltd; London;
  • Hall, Alan; "A History of the Papacy; 1998; PRC Publishing Ltd; London;
  • Huxley, Julian (Ed.); "Religion and Philosophy"; 1968; Aldus Books Limited; London;
  • Jones, Martin D W; "The Counter Reformation"; 1995; Cambridge University Press; Great Britain;
  • Noss, John B & Noss, David S; "Mans Religions"; 1984; Macmillan publishing Company; USA;
  • OGrady; Joan; "Heresy. Heretical truth or Orthodox Error?"; 1985; Element Books Ltd; Great Britain;
  • Pullan, Leighton; "Religion since the Reformation"; 1924; Oxford University Press; England;
  • Tellenbach, Gerd; "Church, State and Christian Society"; 1959; Basil Blackwell & Mott Ltd; England;
  • "Old & Romand Catholic & Protestant Schema" (http://whiterobedmonks.org/mschema.shtml)

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