The Medieval Church
From Roman Catholicism to the Protestant Reformation
Pope Gregory

The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Rise & Fall of the Roman Empire ...

The Holy Roman Empire

... and theHoly Roman Empire!

The Rise and Fall of the Holy Roman Empire
[After the fall of the Roman Empire, the] papacy began to wield tremendous secular power in the west. Beginning in the eighth century, the approval of the papacy was sought as conferring divine sanction on feudal kings. In the ninth century the Church produced documents old and new believed to legitimate the hierarchical authority of the papacy over the Church, and the Church over society, as the proper means of transmitting inspiration from the divine to humanity. Those who disagreed could be threatened with excommunication. This exclusion  from participation in the sacraments was a dread ban, cutting a person off from the redemption of the Church (blocking one’s entrance to heaven in the afterlife), as well as from the benefits of the Church’s secular power.
Diet of Worms
Late in the eleventh century, Pope Gregory VII set forth unprecedented claims for the papacy. The pope, he asserted, was divinely appointed and therefore could be ruled by no human. The pope had the right to depose emperors; the princes of the world should kiss his feet. (Living Religions, 328)
The Seven Sacraments
  • How does this emphasis on Church-controlled methods of attaining salvation influence the Catholic understanding of the relationship between “faith” and “works” (i.e. what you believe vs. what you do)?

Map of the Crusades
Problems in the Church?

From 1095 to about 1290, loosely organized waves of Christians poured out of Europe in what were presented as “holy crusades to recapture the holy land of Palestine from Muslims, and in general to wipe out the enemies of Christianity. ...
Martin Luther on the Crusades
The popes have never seriously intended to wage war against the Turk; instead they used the Turkish war as a cover for their game and robbed Germany of money by means of indulgences. ... But what motivated me most of all was this: They undertook to fight against the Turk in the name of Christ, and taught and incited men to do this, as though our people were an army of Christians against the Turks, who were enemies of Christ. This is absolutely contrary to Christ’s doctrine and name. ... This is the greatest of all sins and is one that no Turk commits, for Christ’s name is used for sin and shame and thus dishonored. This would be especially so if the pope and the bishops were involved in the war, for they would bring the greatest shame and dishonor to Christ’s name because they are called to fight against the devil with the word of God and with prayer, and they would be deserting their calling and office to fight with the sword against flesh and blood. They are not commanded to do this; it is forbidden. (Martin Luther, On War Against the Turk, in Luther’s Works vol. 46, 164-5)
When crusaders entered Constantinople in 1204, they destroyed the altar and sacred icons in Hagia Sophia, the awesome Church of the Holy Wisdom, and placed prostitutes on the throne reserved for the patriarch. Horrified by such profanity, the Orthodox Church ended its dialogue with Rome and proceeded on its own path, claiming to be the true descendant of the apostolic Church. Despite periodic attempts at reconciliation the Eastern and Western Churches are still separate. (Living Religions, 328-9)
The Crusades
The Spanish InquisitionThe thirteenth century saw the power of the papacy placed behind the Inquisition, an ecclesiastical court set up during the 1230s to investigate and suppress heresy. This court was based on the concept that heretics should be controlled for the sake of their own eternal salvation. In some cases the medieval inquisitors had them tortured and burned to deter others from dangerous views. For example, in northern Italy and southern France a sect arose that was later called Cathari (the pure), for its members lived ascetically, emphasizing poverty and mutual aid. Though similar to established Christianity in organization and worship, the movement denied that Jesus was the incarnation of God, and saw the spirit as good but matter as bad. Such beliefs were proclaimed heretical by the papacy; the Cathars, attacked by the Inquisition, disappeared. (Living Religions, 329-30)
IndulgencesDespite the genuine piety of individuals within the Catholic Church, some who clashed with its authority claimed that those in power seemed often to have lost touch with their own spiritual tradition. With the rise of literacy and printing in the late fifteenth century, many Christians were rediscovering early Christianity and comparing it unfavorably with what the Roman Catholic Church had made of it. Roman Catholic fundraising or church-building financial activities were particularly criticized. These included indulgences (remission of the punishment for sin by the clergy in return for services or payments), the sale of relics, purchases of masses for the dead, spiritual pilgrimages, and the earning of spiritual “merit” by donating to the Church. (Living Religions, 333)

Martin Luther
A Renewal of Faith
Martin Luther
Most significant among the reformists was Martin Luther (1483-1546). Luther was a monk, priest, and Professor of  Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg. He struggled personally with the question of how one could ever do enough good to merit eternal salvation. Luther was also disturbed by the moral corruption of his parishioners from the selling of indulgences, through which people could gain the merit accumulated in the church to decrease time in Purgatory (the intermediate place of purifying suffering for those who were not yet sufficiently stainless to enter heaven).
Dante's Divine Comedy
The Castle Church at Wittenberg housed an immense collection of relics, including what were believed to be hairs from the Virgin Mary and a thorn from the crown” of thorns placed on Jesus’ head before he was crucified. This relic collection was deemed so powerful that those who viewed them on the proper day and contributed sufficiently to the Church could receive indulgences from the pope freeing themselves or their loved ones from almost two million years in Purgatory.
By intense study of the Bible, Luther began to emphasize a different approach. Both Paul and St. Augustine could be interpreted as saying that God, through Jesus, offered salvation to sinners in spite of their sins. This salvation was offered by God’s grace alone and received solely by repentant faith. The good works and created graces prescribed by Catholics to earn merit in heaven were not part of original Christianity, Luther argued. Salvation from sin comes from faith in God, which itself comes from God, by grace. This gift of faith brings justification (being found righteous in God’s sight) and then flowers as unselfish good works, which characterize the true Christian:
From faith flows love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss. ... As our heavenly father has in Christ freely come to our help, we also ought freely to help our neighbor through our body and its works, and each should become as it were a Christ to the other.
The Ninety-Five ThesesIn 1517 Luther invited the university community to debate this issue with him, by the established custom of nailing his theses to the door of the church. He apparently had no intention of splitting with the Church. Nevertheless, he refused to recant passages from his theses when threatened with excommunication. He was thenceforth excommunicated by a papal bull (decree) in 1521.
       Luther’s evolving theology took him farther and farther from the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church. He did not think that the Bible supported the Catholic teaching on the importance of pope, bishops, priests, and monks to mediate between God and laypeople. Instead, he emphasized that there is “a priesthood of all believers.” He also felt that the sacred rites, or sacraments, of the Church were ways of nourishing faith instituted by Jesus and that they inlcuded only baptism and the Eucharist (also known as the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion, or Mass).
(Living Religions333-4)
Salvation Through Faith
One thing and one only is necessary for Christian life, righteousness and liberty. That one thing is the most holy Word [i.e. the logos, Jesus Christ] of God, the Gospel of Christ. ... The Word of God cannot be received and cherished by any works whatever, but only by faith. Hence it is clear that, as the soul needs only the Word for its life and righteousness, so it is justified by faith alone and not by any works; for if it could be justified by anything else, it would not need the Word, and therefore it would not need faith. But this faith cannot at all exist in connection with works, that is to say, if you at the same time claim to be justified by works, whatever their character; for that would be to halt between two sides, to worship Baal and to kiss the hand, which, as Job says, is a very great iniquity. (An Anthology of Living Religions, 237)
Reflection Paper Icon
Compare Catholic and Protestant perspectives on the relationship between “faith” and “works”.