My analysis of Church History as a series of episodes.

I wrote these series of articles (see menu sidebar to the left) as a Catholic for Catholics, but I no longer accept Catholic teaching as the authoritative source of truth.I have not attempted to align these articles with my current views.


Summary

Index: Young Church Struggles to Survive | Roman Persecution | Heresy | State Religion | Culture Becomes Christian | The Papacy | Monasticism | The Frankish Church | Investiture Controversy | College of Cardinals Elect Pope | Crusades | Inquisition | Doctrinal Development | Conciliar Movement | Nationalism | Humanism | Protestant Reformation | References

   Why I Became Catholic | The New Testament Church


The Development of the Church


Protestant anti-Catholicsassume that at some point in church history before the Protestant Reformation, the Catholic Church became apostate. These critics identify various time periods in which this occurred:

  1. First generation after the apostles
  2. The state religion of Constantine
  3. 1,000 A.D. when the church was at the height of its political power
  4. Luther claims it was about 1,200 A.D.

These critics typically assume that the Protestant Reformation "fixed" all the problems by returning to the biblical model of the church. This ignores several facts:

  1. The Protestant church is nothing like the biblical model
  2. Protestant churches had the same tendencies as the Roman church they were seeking to reform, indicating that the "problems" were rooted in society at large and not in the Roman church.
  3. Protestantism has continued to develop over the centuries so that modern Protestant doctrine and practice is very different than in the early days of the Reformation. (In discussions with Protestant critics of Catholicism, I find that they often quickly abandon any loyalty to Luther and Calvin).
  4. The Roman church reformed itself anyway (perhaps quicker as a result of the Protestant Reformation).
  5. No human institution such as the church can remain static throughout human history. Social forces will affect it. Certainly God planned for this when He created the church.

I provide a sociological and historical perspective of the development of the church to demonstrate why she became the way she was at various stages of her history. Certainly the Roman Church has been in need of reform at various points in history, but she has also been progressing according to God's plan and purpose. She has been fulfilling her mission on this earth and continues to do so.

In studying church history I have observed a cycle of development which I use as the basis of this analysis. To avoid a Catholic bias in the events I have based the historical accounts on a secular textbook, "The Western Heritage."

I have divided this study into episodes. Each episode (or cycle of development) contains the following features:


Church History

I limit my discussion in this article to the time period before the 1600s and the Scientific Revolution. In addition, this history is from the perspective of the Roman Church — I do not address the Protestant Reformation except for the problems it caused for the Roman Church.


Young Church Struggles to Survive


From the beginning the church was barraged by political and social forces from within and without that were seeking to destroy her.

Initial Condition

The church is created on Pentecost.

Problem

From the beginning people try to destroy her. First the Jews, later the Romans. There are heretics from within.

Tension

The church must defend herself. Her very survival is at stake.

Solution

Church leaders attack heretical doctrines and expel heretics. They must assume the authority to do this (We see this happening already in the New Testament). They define church doctrines and explain the relationship of the church to Israel. They define church practice and must assume the authority to do this.

Resultant condition

The church progresses through three stages:

  1. A very informal organization
  2. Run by bodies of presbyters
  3. Strong church leadership by bishops who have authority over church members and are ordained to pass on this authority and tradition (the deposit of faith) to the next generation of leaders.

Unplanned side-effects

Protestant anti-Catholicsoften portray this development of the church as if somehow the leaders had failed, and that they should not have assumed such a strong leadership role. But considering the aggressiveness of the attacks against the church, surely she would not have survived without an equally strong defense to preserve the purity of the teachings, practice and doctrine of Christ and the apostles. We should commend the early church leaders for their commitment to the deposit of faith that was passed on to them and for providing effective methods of preserving the church during her very fragile beginnings.


Roman Persecution


Christians did nothing to deserve their persecution except follow the commands of Christ and be true to His gospel message. Yet they were persecuted for their faith in the early centuries of the church.

Initial Condition

The church has dogmatic religious views which are not subject to alteration or negotiation.

Problem

The Romans perceive a threat to the unity of the empire. They see Christians as atheists since they don't honor the Roman gods. They perceive too much power in one group. The weakening of the Roman empire at the time makes the problem worse.

Tension

The Roman emperors want to take action and sometimes they do, especially the later emperors. The mobs often do take action. Christians are persecuted, sometimes severely, and sometimes they are martyred. Strong Christians reject weaker Christians. It takes strong faith to be a Christian.

Solution

Galerius, Constantine, and Theodosius declare Christianity to be the state religion.

Resultant condition

Christians are finally free to worship as they wish. What a relief — their prayers are finally answered.

Unplanned side-effects

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically object to the church becoming entangled with the state. For centuries the western church fights against this while the eastern church doesn't worry about it too much. After a long struggle the Roman Church finally becomes free from state control.

What could the church have done differently? They desperately needed the relief from the persecution. Which church leader made an error of judgment in letting the state control the church? No one did. This just happened through no fault of anyone. It was God's will for the church to become a strong political entity in the subsequent centuries.


Heresy


Heresy has been a problem since the earliest days of the church. Even the apostles dealt with the issue in the New Testament. The typical perspective of Protestant anti-Catholicsis that the church had no right to fight heresy (although they won't admit to having this assumption).

Initial Condition

The church is created.

Problem

Heretics appear who:

Tension

Solution

Resultant condition

Only rarely was the problem resolved.

Unplanned side-effects

Heresy has caused division in society. In mediaeval times the church was tightly coupled with the culture at large. In addition, the society of the day was rather brutal and warlike. It is natural that the fight against heresy would be taken seriously since it was a threat to the fabric of society itself. In addition, it is natural that the methods used to fight heresy were so barbaric by our modern standards. But we need to remember that heresy was a violation of secular laws and that secular rulers were enforcing these laws based on the practices of the day. Many times the church had to make statements against such barbaric methods. And sometimes the church itself, in moments of spiritual weakness, accepted the practices themselves.

We should note that even the Protestant Reformers used the same kinds of practices in their suppression of heresy. That was just the way things were back then. It doesn't prove anything about the Catholic Church or the Protestant Reformation.


State Religion


The church became the state religion rather early. At the time this must have seemed like a good thing to the Christians of the day, but it brought its own problems which affected the church for many centuries.

Initial Condition

The church becomes the state religion. There is freedom of worship. The survival of the church is assured.

Problem

The secular rulers want control. They want to use the church for their own purposes. There are many Christians who were merely born into this state religion who have had no deep spiritual conversion.

Tension

Solution

After many centuries of struggle, the Roman church wins the battle and becomes independent and free from state control.

Resultant condition

The Roman church is no longer controlled by the State.

Unplanned side-effects

As a result of the power struggle, the Roman Church had to gain political power. Side-effects of this:

Some Protestant anti-Catholicsseem to assume that the church should have refused to become a state religion. They seem to forget that even today the church exists in the context of secular political power which imposes rules and laws regarding church conduct. The Western church did fight against this usurpation of the church by the secular rulers but the struggle lasted for many centuries and required that the church become a political power in its own right. Of course, there were side-effects to this as I have indicated.


Culture Becomes Christian


Mediaeval society was tightly integrated with the church.

Initial Condition

The non-Christian culture adopted Christian values.

Problem

Tension

Bishops became Lords who were appointed by secular rulers (the Investiture Controversy). They had to split their duties between secular and religious responsibilities.

Solution

Resultant condition

Unplanned side-effects

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically complain that the Roman Church was totally secular but this is a gross overstatement. In addition, the monastic movement provided a spiritual vitality for the church and her members, but this fact is often overlooked.


The Papacy


Protestant anti-Catholicstypically object to the institution of the papacy. Yet the papacy developed in response to real needs of the church.

Initial Condition

The church by its very nature exists in the context of the social and political realm.

Problem

Tension

Solution

Popes demand absolute authority over the church and they succeed in this. The doctrine of papal infallibility is developed.

Resultant condition

Unplanned side-effects

Protestant anti-Catholicsoften don't object to having a strong pastor who leads a church with an iron hand, or to a strong leader of a denomination who sets the tone and doctrinal distinctives. Martin Luther acted like a pope in that he was the absolute authority of his new religious movement and expected everybody to accept his doctrines and beliefs. There is nothing inherently wrong with having the church structured as a well-defined hierarchy with a strong leader.


Monasticism


Monasticism is a very important part of the Catholic Church. However, it is often overlooked by Protestant anti-Catholicswhen assessing the spiritual vitality of the church. They prefer, instead, to focus on the political aspect of the church to the exclusion of all else.

Initial Condition

A desire to have a deeper spiritual experience; to become separate from the materialistic concerns of the world. At certain points in history there was an emphasized need to evangelize and reform the spiritual experience of the people.

Problem

In an institution such as the church the focus can become too much based on survival, politics, and material concerns. Deeply religious people sense there is more.

Tension

People boldly break away from the old traditions and try new things.

Solution

The church creates religious orders. It allows these expressions if they do not destroy unity. The pope must be the ultimate authority in these religious orders.

Resultant condition

Many religious orders provide spiritual nourishment for monks, nuns, and friars who then pass this spiritual refreshment along to the people. They provide works of charity and provide an example to the people.

Unplanned side-effects

Sometimes the asceticism is too extreme and the pope must correct them. Some try to follow their vision in a way that is schismatic; for example, those reformers up to and including the Protestant Reformation.

Even today, the monastic movement is a strong aspect of the Catholic Church.


The Frankish Church


The interaction between Charlemagne the Great and the church is a good example of how the social and historical forces of history affected the culture of the church. Protestant anti-Catholicstypically object to the worldliness of the church during the Middle Ages but they fail to consider how it happened. Since God created the church in the context of a political world, surely He intended the church to interact with it and to have an aspect of political concern.

Initial Condition

In the 700s, the Lombards of north Italy and Emperor Leo of the Byzantine Empire threatened the survival of the Western church and especially the papacy.

Problem

The church was forced to choose between extinction (the gospel message would be lost) and integrating with that society.

Tension

The Franks already had a church culture which was based partly on Arianism.

Solution

The Franks defended the church in 754 A.D.

Resultant condition

Unplanned side-effects

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically assume that a focus on ritual and doctrine is a bad thing and that Christians should focus instead on the ethical aspects of their behavior. But this is merely an assumption. A ritualistic and liturgical life can be very spiritual and can affect the person very deeply in their day to day life.


Investiture Controversy


Lay Investiture refers to the practice of having secular rulers appoint high church officials including the pope. The first stage in regaining power for the church was for the pope to forbid secular rulers to appoint bishops.

Initial Condition

Problem

Popes know they must regain full authority over the church. But how to do it? They must be the ones who appoint the bishops.

Tension

Changing the status quo in politics is sure to cause problems.

Solution

In 1075 A.D. Pope Gregory condemns the practice of Lay Investiture.

Resultant condition

Unplanned side-effects

Local princes in Germany became more powerful and independent which provided the seeds of the Protestant Reformation.

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically ignore the fact that the church finally regained control of the church. It took strong popes to counteract the ambitions of the secular rulers who wanted to control the church.


College of Cardinals Elect Pope


The popes were appointed by the secular rulers and emperors. Obviously, this had side effects for the spiritual life of the church.

Initial Condition

Popes appointed by the emperor.

Problem

The popes know that this is wrong. The Church should not be under the control of secular government.

Tension

There are political struggles between the pope and the secular rulers.

Solution

In 1059 A.D. Pope Nicholas II decreed that the College of Cardinals (who are all bishops) will choose the pope.

Resultant condition

This practice is still used even today.

Unplanned side-effects

Secular rulers still influence the Cardinals, so eventually they were sequestered upon the pope's death to minimize political influence. The seeds of the Conciliar Movement (councils vs. popes) was planted.

Giving councils power to choose the pope resulted in some people thinking that councils were above the pope. In fact, in the Eastern Orthodox Church, councils still have ultimate authority over the church.


Crusades


Protestant anti-Catholicstypically use the crusades as an example of how corrupt and abusive the church was.

Initial Condition

Problem

Eastern Emperor requests aid from the West.

Tension

Possible reconciliation between east and west.

Solution

Pope sends first crusades which succeed in taking back the Holy Land.

Resultant condition

Unplanned side-effects

The First Crusade set the pattern for future Crusades. Some of these were instituted by secular rulers and some were for the purpose of destroying dangerous heresies.


Inquisition


The Inquisitions are often targeted by Protestant anti-Catholicsas proof that the Roman Church was not the true church that Jesus established.

Initial Condition

Problem

Tension

How to keep society intact and the church pure.

Solution

Inquisition: Find offenders, interrogate them, allow them to recant, expel those who won't recant, execute those who refuse to leave.

Resultant condition

For the most part the Inquisitions accomplished their goals.

Unplanned side-effects

We need to consider that in the historical context of the time, Inquisitions were a good solution to the heresy that threatened to destroy the fabric of society. The tragic part is that the church sometimes allowed the brutal nature of society to influence her actions.


Doctrinal Development


Protestant anti-Catholicstypically object to the development of doctrine by the Catholic Church on several fronts:

Initial Condition

A certain set of beliefs and doctrines are accepted by the church.

Problem

Heretics come up with new views and aggressively promote them.

Tension

The Church senses that these views are wrong and observes their schismatic nature.

Solution

Resultant condition

With each new cycle, the set of "official" church doctrine grows and particular doctrines become clearer.

Unplanned side-effects

The church has been reacting to events as she develops doctrine. She waits until there is a pressing need to define doctrines that have been in place for centuries. In addition, it sometimes took centuries to work out the correct formulation of doctrines. In the meantime, theologians were busy discussing and writing about these doctrines. Protestant anti-Catholicstypically don't distinguish between the discussion phase and the official church declarations of doctrinal truth. As a consequence the church is accused of changing doctrines, but this is not the case.


Conciliar Movement


Today the Eastern Orthodox Church is run by councils but the Catholic Church has the pope as the highest authority. But the papacy of the Roman Church had to fight to gain its power over the councils. The movement by councils to be more powerful than the popes is called the Conciliar Movement.

Initial Condition

Problem

Some believe that the church councils are more authoritative than the pope. The popes disagree.

Tension

A contentious political struggle.

Solution

Pope declares that the pope is more authoritative, that councils must be called with the pope's approval, and the pope can veto their conclusions. The pope and the council work together. The Pope must get support of the council in order for his decrees to be binding on the church.

Resultant condition

The modern Catholic Church still accepts these views.

Unplanned side-effects

The popes have had to fight for their authority, first with the secular rulers, then with the church councils. In the end the pope succeeded.


Nationalism


The church had been trying to compete with the secular states by becoming as strong as these states. But during the era of Nationalism, the church loses this struggle and must confine her activities to spiritual and moral concerns. This process takes some time to finally become the norm.

Initial Condition

People begin to develop nationalistic feelings and place their primary loyalty on a nation.

Problem

Where does the church fit in? Should people be more loyal to the church than to the nation? The church simply can no longer compete politically with the power of the new nations. The era of a secular church is coming to an end.

Tension

Some popes (the Borgia family in Italy) try to make the church strong politically but become very materialistic in the process.

Solution

Resultant condition

The church loses power to Nationalism.

Unplanned side-effects

Political power is not easy to give up for the church.

Protestant anti-Catholicstypically object to the church ever being involved in politics, but in the pre-nationalistic days it made sense for the church to have a political influence. But once Nationalism became the norm, the church could no longer have any hope of competing in the political arena. This corresponds to the modern world in which the church must limit her activities to spiritual and moral concerns. But in the church of previous eras, it was possible for the church to have substantial political power and this was, in fact, forced on the church. We need to judge the church's activities in different time periods from the perspective of those time periods. Protestant critics of Catholicism, however, typically judge all the church's activities from the perspective of the modern world, but they should limit their judgments from the modern perspective to the modern church.


Humanism


When the ideas of Humanism begin to become prominent, the church had difficulty dealing with the effects. She tended to hang on her old ideas rather than risk becoming secular in her world view. In fact, the ideas of Humanism are a result of people exploring what man can learn and rejecting revelation from God via the Bible and the church.

Initial Condition

Problem

Tension

Inertia and power struggles to maintain the status quo.

Solution

The church takes a stand against the secular ideas of humanism. The books of Erasmus are banned. In Spain, religious orthodoxy is enforced.

Resultant condition

The church maintains her commitment to the gospel.

Unplanned side-effects

The modern world with its secular values has lost out to the ideas which began with Humanism. Some Protestant anti-Catholicslove to blame the church for being so slow to adapt to the new secular ideas, but based on the effects, it would seem that the church was justified in her suspicions.


Protestant Reformation


This discussion is from the point of view of the Roman Church.

Initial Condition

Problem

The Protestant Reformers split the church and were anti-Catholic.

Tension

As a result there was war for 150-plus years. There were social divisions. The German princes became more powerful until Bismark finally united them.

Solution

Counter reformation of the Roman Church. The Council of Trent defined doctrines and reformed the church.

Resultant condition

The church is reformed.

Unplanned side-effects

There were no doctrinal concessions made to the Protestant Reformers during the Council of Trent.

The Protestant Reformation occurred in Germany where the princes were looking for a way to abandon the centralized Roman Church which kept them from being as powerful as they wished. The Protestant Reformation provided them with a way to become more powerful and they wholeheartedly embraced it. The Protestant Reformation would not have been successful without this political situation to help it.


References

Kagan, Donald; Ozment, Steven; Turner, Frank M. (2001). The Western Heritage (7th ed.). Prentice-Hall: Upper Saddle River, NJ

A textbook on Western Civilization.