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TH 302 Lecture 3

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TH 302 Lecture 3


3.1 Toward Medieval Christianity: Augustine, Monasticism, Dogmatics


If we consider the contemporary church in America, one might well argue that the "flow" of understanding and salvation follows this sort of path:


You ----> Personal encounter with Jesus ----> Become part of the church


In other words, your relationship with Christ can exist without a relationship with the church - at least in the way many of us consider the matter today. This was also the case for the earliest churches in the first century. But this was not true as the church began to gain institutional structure and power.


Even before Constantine made the church the official religion of the Roman Empire, one begins to see the rise of the idea that the church is the only point of salvation in the world. Instead of the formula we saw above, one might instead see


You -----> Join the Church ----> Personal encounter with Jesus


As Augustine (whom we will discuss in a moment) put it: "You cannot have God for your Father if you do not have the Church for your mother."


All discussions of the church in the rule of Constantine and after, then, must contend with the reality that the church had moved from its outlaw status and become allied with the Empire - a reality which technically we call Christendom.


The first major split in the Church


If one were to draw a timeline of church development, it is often tempting to simplify matters and start with the Gospel events and then draw a straight line to the 12th and 13th centuries, where you would then put a break - branching left and right (or east and west) to reflect the first "split" of the church into Western (Latin-speaking) Catholisism and Eastern (Greek-speaking) Orthodoxy - often known as the "Eastern Schism." But to present the timeline like this is far too simple. To begin with, what was formalized in the 13th century (where the bishops of Rome and Constantinople excommunicated each other) only officially acknowledged what had in fact been the case for several centuries: the church was divided in half by geography, language and doctrine (some examples: The eastern half allies with the bishop of Constantinople, the western half with the bishop os Rome; the churches in the East speak Greek, and Latin in the West; and, as we saw in the discussion of the Nicene creed, there is disagreement over the proper place of the Holy Spirit in relation to the Father and the Son in the doctrine of the Trinity).


Such a simplified timeline also fails to account for the incredible messiness of these early, pre-schism years of the church, in which the rise of several doctrinal controversies pushed and pulled believers in many differing directions.


Often, in systematic theology, we act as if the eastern church ceases to exist after this schism, completely ignoring it. This refelcts the reality of the (western) church's perception of itself. Eastern Orthodox Christianity does not disappear - it continues to grow, and develops its own mystical and theological traditions. However, what we term "systematic theology" is so deeply entwined with the thought of the "Western" branch of the split that it is not always possible to reflect the deep richness and diversity of the Eastern tradition. Let us acknowledge this as a shortcoming in the discipline (as well as this class!)




Augustine was born in North Africa in the year 354 AD and became, arguably, the most important theologian for the western church's development (he is also a major figure in the east, but not to the same level). While there is much in the life of Augustine to reflect upon and study, what is most important for our understanding here is his contributions to several of the major controversies of the church, namely Donatism, Arianism and Pelagianism .


In the century preceding Constantine's acceptance of the church, Christians suffered heavily under various persecutions across the Roman Empire and beyond. Often these persecutions included the demand that believers renounce their faith or the Scriptures or else face death. The Donatist controversey revolved around the question of what to do with a priest or believer who caved in under such pressures and renounced their faith or gave up the holy books. Could this person be admitted back inot fellowship with the church? Can a priest who has betrayed the Scriptures be allowed to serve the sacraments? The followers of a man named Donatus said "no." If you reject the faith for any reason, you are to be expelled from the church, according to their view.


When Augustine wrote his work "Against the Donatists" his intention was to re-inject the concept of grace into the discussion. But he also had more practical goals in mind: because the donatists held that traitor Bishops were not valid, they had elected a series of new bishops in their place. This meant that many cities in north Africa had two competing bishops, each claiming to be legitimate. It was splitting the church and the church's authority. Augustine hoped to mend this rift in the church with his writing.


His most persuasive argument, however, was not practical, but theological: If the behavior of a bishop or priest can alter the ability of a sacrament to convey grace (the early church saw the sacraments as a means by which God gives grace to us), then in some way the priest is more powerful than God. Augustine argued instead that it is God's will, and not the actions of the bishop, that make the sacrament effective.


As we have discussed in some of the earlier lectures, the question of the nature of Jesus Christ in relation to God the Father was a major issue of the church in its first centuries. During Augustine's lifetime the majority of bishops had come to follow the teachings of a bishop named Arius. The Arians (as they were called) held to the idea that Jesus was a created being, not God. As we have already discussed some of the problems with this position, and the church's response at Nicea and elsewhere, we should merely note that Augustine vigorously wrote and spoke against the Arians and defended the claim that Jesus was "fully God and fully human." Augustine greatly influenced his fellow bishops away from Arianism during the later years of his life.


The bishop named Pelagius was from a rural part of the empire, and he was not pleased at what he saw going on in the big cities. To his way of thinking, there were a great many folks claiming to be Christians while continuing to live degenerate, sinful lives. His response was to teach that God rewards and punishes us based upon our good (or evil) deeds. Now at first glance, this seems very reasonable (and it fact it is a doctrine still very alive in today's churches). We have the ability to do good, and our failure to do it condemns us.


The Pelagian position greatly alarmed Augustine, however. He felt it did not adequately account for the power of sin. If we are trying to hit a target, but someone has blindfolded us and spun us around, our ability to aim and hit the target is compromised. In Augustine's view, this is exactly the effect that sin has upon us: no matter how much we may want to hit the target of "doing the good," we will fail because we are blinded and misled by our sin-natures. We are desperately in need of assistance.


For Augustine, the grace of God is exactly the sort of help we require. Where we are unable to do the things that would save us, God takes over and "hits the target" through the work of Jesus' crucifiction and resurrection. As we saw in the donatist controversey, Augustine wants to make sure that we kow where salvation really comes from: the idea that we create our salvation through good works compromises the power of God's grace and makes it unneccessary. In his writings against the pelagians, Augustine makes clear his belief that we are so locked into sin that we are always dependent upon God's grace.




The church is gaining power and prestige as we move into the Constantinian period. The imperial church is very different from the earliest house churches. Money, land, and fine clothes are just some of the elements that mark the Constantinian church.




3.2 Medieval Christianity: Politics, Aquinas, the rise of Humanism


If we were to look at a map of what North Africa and Europe looked like as we move into the fifth and sixth centuries, we would begin to see a tremendous amount of shift and change. The Roman Empire was coming more and more under attack, and various tribal areas to the north began to solidify into more cohesive political entities. These are not "nations" or "states" in the way we think of in the Modern era, but definitely a style of "kingdoms," each with their own monarch or prince, as well as slowly developing alliances with other territories and kingdoms. The politics of these kingdoms, and their shifitng and growing power over the next several centuries, form the background for the discussions here.


As the shake-ups continue politically, we observe the reduction in power of the Roamn Empire - it "remains" in name only, with its structure and influence disappearing. For a time, as the various political entities are re-organizing, the only "real" imperial power in Europe is the Catholic Church itself. It strectched across borders and had influence in the governments of many of the emerging European monarchies.


The political instability in Europe was heightened by rampant disease and the "loss" of the remnants of Hellenistic culture. Works of the Greek antiquity such as the writings of Aristotle were lost or destroyed in Europe during this period. The copies that survive make their way out of Europe to the Middle East (Islamic culture, where they exert a vast influence) and a handful os monasteries in Ireland. The loss of these writings in the 7th and 8th centuries leads to scholars sometimes referring to these centuries as the "Dark Ages."


The monasteries across Europe are becoming institutionalized during this period, and it is often the case that the second son of a family would be sent to live and learn with the monks (this was due to the peculiar structure of inheritance at work at this time: the first son got everything, the second and subsequent sons nothing - so their option was to learn a trade or go into the priesthood). Monasteries became like schools - repositories of knowledge (as we move out of the "dark ages" the monasteries become sites for copying books and often they had vast libraries) and places of instruction.


In the cities, too, we see the eventual creation of centers of learning designed to train young men for the priesthood (although soon the areas of instruction branched out to include the natural sciences and other subjects). These were the "Universities." Now there had been schools of instruction in various forms for centuries before - the church did not invent such a model. Still, these universitis in Europe in the Middle Ages were chiefly run by - and answerable to - the dictates of the Catholic episcopacy.


The return of Aristotle: St. Thomas Aquinas


In the 12th century the writings of Aristotle (which had been preserved in the Middle East for several centuries) re-enter European consciousness and create a storm of controversey. At that time in Europe it was assumed that Christian thinking and philosophy offered the highest possible wisdom. Aristotle was a pagan, and yet he seemed to outshine the best of Christian thinkers. How could this be?


The attempt to answer his question became the life work of a man named Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas did not agree with everything Aristotle wrote, but he did his best to re-interpret the writings into a Christian context. The result was a Christianity that was deeply influenced by the categorical and analytical methods that Aristotle employed.


An example can be seen when we compare Aquinas with Augustine. For Augustine, the senses we have cannot be trusted because they are distorted by sin. As a result, the most important aspects of faith for Augustine occur when God directly touches our hearts and souls. Aquinas, however, accepted Aristotle's starting point, which was sensory perception itself. As a result, Aquinas feels very comfortable with theologies that see the divine order in nature and the world around us, something Augustine would never have accepted. The differences in the two thinkers, of course, has to do with the way they arrange the sources and norms of their positions. Each makes sense and is "right" in the context of its own presuppositions.


The re-introduction of Aristotle and Greek thinking was important to the growing rift taking place in the universities as well. Especially in the wake of the "rediscovery" of Aristotle the pursuit of natural science for its own sake, apart from church teaching, gained strength. There were those who taught in the universities who believed that not all truth was to be found in the Bible, and that human beings themselves were a subject worthy of study. This was the beginnings of the worldview which we now call humanism, and it will factor even more prominently as we move in our discussion toward the Protestant Reformation.



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