Theological Insights from a Modern Perspective

To fully understand the history of the Western church we have to go back to 313 AD, when Constantine the Great, Emperor of Rome, legitimized the Christian religion. This was great news for the entire Christian world – finally they could worship in the open, and not fear persecution or death for their beliefs. This, however, was not to last.

In 330 AD Constantine officially move the capital of the Roman Empire form Rome itself to the new city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul). While the process had been occurring for nearly a century, this was the final piece. Rome was no longer suited to be the capital of the great empire, and activities has been moving to Byzantium (Constantinople) a little at a time. To Rome, and here we are speaking of the Western Christian Church, this was seen as a blow to their authority. The Roman Pontiffs worried that Constantinople would now become the heart of Christendom, as it became the heart of the Empire. The fear was unjustified, but it was still there.

Long after final move Rome feared its loss of power. This was not aided when Constantinople became an Autocephalous church, acquired its own Patriarch, and was recognized as the center of Eastern Roman Christianity. But, whenever there were disputes between the different Sees of the church (Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople) the churches always turned to Rome for arbitration. Still, this began the long process of separation between Rome and the reset of the Christian Sees.

In 395 Eastern and Western parts of the Empire split, never to be one Empire again. A tie began to develop between the Church and the Empire in the west, and contact between the two sides of the Christian Church started to become strained.

Things did not get better when, in 445, the Roman Emperor (Valentinian III) declared Pope Leo I the supreme ruler of the church. Leo declared that anyone not in agreement with Rome on Christian matters should be put to death. Fortunately this decree was not accepted in the rest of the Christian world. However, this began a change in Christianity, for the first time one of the Sees felt itself superior to the others and, while they could not effect changes in the other churches, Rome began making changes that, prior to this, were seen as needing the approval of the entire church.

In 600 AD Rome declared that only Latin should be used in worship services and, eventually, for anything with regards to the church. Forty-four years later Roman Catholicism becomes the official church in England. By 900 AD contact between East and West was almost non-existent, and Rome saw itself as the de facto standard of Christianity, and the Pope as its supreme leader.

In 1014, under Papal Authority, the Roman Pontiff Benedict VIII officially changed the Nicene Creed to include the word “filioque” (from the Son) to indicate the procession of the Holy Spirit. The outraged the other four Sees since changes of this magnitude required approval of the entire Church. Here the real split between East and West begins.

East and West in 1054

In 1054 the split between East and West began in what can only be described as misunderstandings, bad manners, and the impudence of youth. In 1053 Pope Leo IX forced the Greek Orthodox churches in Southern Italy to either Latinize or close. In retaliation Patriarch Michael Cerularius ordered all Latin churches in Constantinople to close. In 1054 Pope Leo sent his legate to Constantinople to remove the title of Ecumenical Patriarch and to force him to recognize the Pope as the unquestioned authority of all Christendom. Additionally, the primary, initial, purpose was to seek the Patriarchs military support to expel Norman invaders from Southern Italy. When the Patriarch refused both the title change and the authority of Rome the papal legate, Cardinal Humbert, laid a writ of excommunication on the Patriarch during Liturgical Services in Hagia Sophia (Eastern equivalent to St. Peter’s Cathedral). In return Patriarch Michael excommunicated the entire envoy.

Sadly, as it turns out, the papal legates authority ceased to exist since Pope Leo passed away while they were still on their journey to Constantinople, but they did not find out about this until their return, by which time it was too late to stop what had happened. If only email existed back then. His replacement, Pope Victor II, found himself too deeply involved in the war against the Normans to try to re-establish relationships. Over the intervening centuries there have been many attempts to bring East and West back into union, but there have also been many attempts to widen the rift (including the absorption of some Eastern Churches into Rome during the Ottoman years).

Enough of East-West, if you have any questions on this subject please post them and I will get back as soon as I am able. Now onto the West.

Rome, and hence the Western Church, enter into a dark period, perhaps the darkest prior to modern times. The Roman Church and the local empires became tightly woven: Popes anointed kings, and kings appointed Popes. This lead to Popes being appointed who had no real religious background or commitment to the faith; and, at some times, multiple Popes as different kings would see it their right to make the appointments.

Pope Sergius III
  • Pope Sergius III had a mistress and, as with the Temple in Jesus time, turned his palace into a “den of thieves.”
  • Pope John XII turned the palace into a bordello and he himself was killed by a jealous husband while in the act.
  • Pope Benedict IX continued the bordello, added gambling to the palace, and even sold the office of Pope, but then refused to vacate the office.
  • 1061 saw the first conflict over the Papacy when both England and Germany announce a Pope to replace Nicholas II. For England it was Pope Honorius II; for Germany it was Pope Alexander II. Honorius lasted 10 years, Alexander 11. Things didn’t settle down until both died and Pope Gregory VII became the sole Pontiff.
  • Pope Urban II began the Crusades, in order to obtain soldiers he guaranteed them salvation regardless of what they did during the crusade.
  • Pope Innocent III was not so innocent, at least from the Eastern perspective. He began the Fourth Crusade, a crusade that abandoned its goal of freeing the Holy Land and instead turned to sacking Christian cities in the East, especially the sacking, burning, and raping of Constantinople. Pope Innocent threatened the crusaders with excommunication because of their deeds (some of the cities were in Western territory), but never carried it out.
  • In 1231 Pope Gregory IX instituted the Spanish Inquisition as a method to flush out heretics from the Church. It is unclear as to whether Gregory actually intended for the Inquisition to go as far as it did, or if zealous monks were responsible. Actual numbers of people put to death are not available, some estimate it in the millions, others say it didn’t go that high but that other campaigns outside of the church were responsible for most of the deaths.

This was also a time when, unhindered by the need of council from the East, the Roman Church instituted many new worship and doctrinal practices, some good, others not so.

  • 709 saw the institution of kissing the Pope’s feet, a practice adopted from kissing the feet of the emperor.
  • 1009 was institution of blessing water to make it holy.
  • 1070 instituted celibacy among the clergy, a decision that has haunted the church to this day.
  • 1090 brought in the use of the rosary.
  • In 1090 the church began selling indulgences for the forgiveness of sins – past and future.
  • As stated before, 1231 saw the institution of the Spanish Inquisition.
  • 1382-1401 John Wycliffe published the English version of Scripture; Pope Clement VII pronounces anyone death on anyone reading or preaching from Wycliffe’s Bible. In 1415 Pope Benedict XIII ordered all copies of Wycliffe’s Bible be burned, and that he be dug up and his remains burned.
  • 1438 Purgatory was declared official doctrine.
Martin Luther

Soon after, and triggered by the practices above, the Reformation would start. Nearly 50 years after the Purgatory declaration Martin Luther was born (1483). Luther became an Augustinian monk and was quite upset about the bad practices rampant in the church, especially the sale of indulgences. The practice became so bad that with enough money one could buy forgiveness for a yet-to-be committed murder. In 1517 Luther posts his famous “95 Thesis”, a list of 95 things Luther believes wrong in the Catholic Church; contrary to popular belief Luther isn’t immediately condemned. Luther enters into debates with fellow preacher Johann Tetzel, a Dominican. Tetzel was renown for selling indulgences for the purpose of funding the building of St. Peter’s Basilica, even selling indulgences to people for the sake of their deceased loved ones. In 1521 Luther was excommunicated and the reformation began in earnest, though not with Luther’s blessing.

Luther never wanted separation and the creation of a competing church, even to his death he wished reform could have been made from within the church. The entire purpose of the 95 Thesis was to spark debate, not dissension. Luther was not, in principle, opposed to indulgences, but objected to the existing practice which replaced true repentance for a mere financial contribution.

More important to Luther than indulgences were the concept of salvation by faith and not works, and Bondage of Will (predestination over free will). I’ve often wondered what Luther, had he been aware at the time, would have thought of the Eastern Church’s belief that our works are the earthly sign of our faith; that our works (liturgia) show the world that our faith has saved us.

In 1524 the peasants in Germany, inspired by Luther’s writings on the priesthood of all believers began a revolt against the Church. Luther sided with the other side, objecting to a breakaway from the Church. Despite his objections by the end of the revolt Lutheranism had become the official religion of Germany.

Following quickly on the heels of Luther’s the Swiss Revolution began in 1521 and culminated in the 1541 Calvinism movement. Then, in 1534, the Church of England was created when Pope Clement VII refuse to grant King Henry VIII yet another divorce.

Since the Reformation movement began in 1517 the Western churches have continued splintering on both major and minor issues, to the point where, as of the latest estimates (2015 study) from the U.S. Department of Census there are 6,161 denominations identified as Protestant (Christian churches not belonging to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy), the number also does not include churches not fully recognized as Christian (Jehovah’s Witness, Scientology, Mormonism, etc.). These are only U.S. numbers, the numbers worldwide are probably larger.

What I see as the saddest part of the history of the Western church is the Christian-on-Christian violence. The Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisition and other movements that were aimed at the elimination of those not fully believing in its teachings. The Church of England’s outright murder of Roman Catholic priests, monks, and laity who refused to deny their faith. This violence continued into the New World where outright discrimination against Catholics was publicly accepted, even into modern times.

Then we have the slaughter of native peoples in the Americas. Spain’s annihilation and slavery of South and Central Americans, along with forced conversion to Christianity. France and England doing likewise in the North American continent. Then there is the entire slavery movement of peoples from the African and American continents using the Bible’s comments on slavery (taken out of context). Yes, African tribesmen were also part of the slave trade, they were not innocent in the activities, but neither were they claiming to be followers of Jesus.*

This brings my thesis on Christian History to an end. It is not all-encompassing, nor does it cover more modern history, as such a work would entail far more than I am currently interested in pursuing. I am willing to answer individual questions on what I have written, and what I have omitted, so please fell free to post questions.

Glory to Jesus Christ.

Mike, the Modern Theologian.

  • A note on slavery. It wasn’t limited to Europe or black Africans. Muslims participated in the slave trade for over 1300 years dealing in both black and whites as slaves, so long as they weren’t Muslim. Slavery also existed on the Asian Continent in India, China and Korea long before Europeans were involved, China continuing it until it was outlawed in 1906.

Comments on: "A History of Christianity – The Western Church" (2)

  1. I believe few things wound the heart of our Savior as much as the atrocities done by those claiming to be His children. If the point of being created in the first place is that we might walk with our Creator, then these atrocities are direct attacks on the purpose of our existence. And, we still do it, on various levels.

    And yet, where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more. I can only take a deep breath, wipe the tears from my face, and reach out to love the ones in front of me.

    Thanks, Mike! Blessings upon you!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Agreed. His command was to love each other as He loved us. I don’t remember Him beating up even one person because of their skin color or sexual orientation. I do remember Him reaching out to Samaritans and even a Roman soldier.

      Like

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