How Should We Then Live? Chapter 2: The Middle Ages
A Time Named By Its Detractors
The years 500-1400 AD have been called different things, all of them dismissive. They are called Medieval which conjures thoughts of mercilessness and savagery. The saying "to go Medieval on somebody's..." refers more properly to the Paleolithic era before civilization not the time following the fall of Rome. These years are also called the Middle Ages. The thought is that it was merely a time between two others. Apparently nothing important happened from the end of the last great Ancient civilization until the start of the modern world. It says "nothing to see here, move along to the Renaissance." The third name for these years was created by the philosophers of the Enlightenment, the Dark Ages. Of course they were biased. According to them, they had to bring light to the darkness of the preceding years. Those in the Enlightenment placed all their faith in reason. To them anything else was ignorant religious dogma which resulted in nothing but unsophisticated art and no advancement in intellectual thought. Studying this era in history shows it was anything but dark.
The Mystifying Nature Of The Middle AgesTo be honest, life in Western Europe in the 6th Century did take a step back. Rome fell. That had huge consequences. The Emperor lived almost 1000 miles to the East. To understand the situation, picture your life if the electrical grid fell apart. Most everything we enjoy today in the 21st Century would not exist. Refrigeration, air conditioning, internet, even rotary dial phones. Gone. The start of the era was characterized by loss.
The Roman state did not exist, but its imprint was still left on society. The Church fit into its impression and directed the way forward. Christianity survived the death of Rome. Jesus died and was resurrected. Rome didn't come back to life. So the way forward was dictated by the Church for the next 900 years.
I would actually describe this era as a time of rebirth. The Renaissance was really more just the developments of the Middle Ages extended out over time. The Middle Ages then is the time where civilization contracted to its low point and then started to build into a crescendo. Another way I would describe it is that this era was a time of waning and then waxing across many subjects.
The other identifying feature of the Middle Ages was that the crescendo or waxing movements bifurcated. As progress occurred there was often dual competing elements within it. Picture a tree branch splitting into two stems. They both are growing out and then they split in two again, like a fractal pattern. This meant that many good and bad influences grew up together during the era, with the epitome of this being the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, which we will cover at the end.
This chapter can be hard to follow or at least write about because Schaeffer moves from one subject to another freely, combines multiple subjects together in several sections, and then goes back to subjects he has already covered in previous sections. It was hard to understand his flow, so I have tried to organize my sections by subject matter.
Developments In Art
The first area Schaeffer emphasized was the development of art during this time. It is something he wrote about a lot in his other books too. One of his greatest strengths as a teacher and apologist was to show how philosophy, the world of the mind, made it out into the physical world through art. The first development he describes is one of several shifts in the religious art of the Middle Ages.
"The Byzantine style developed in the east and gradually spread to the west. This art
had real beauty, but increasingly only religious themes were given importance,
and people were depicted not as real people but as symbols. This came to a climax in
ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries. The portrayal of nature was largely abandoned, and
even more unhappily, the living, human element was removed."
This first development was both a split and a waning as described by Schaeffer. Humanity and the creation was separated from the heavenly realm in the minds of the intellectuals. To Schaeffer true religion always existed in a reality where "real people lived in a real world which God made." Removing real life depictions from religious art was also a signal that Christian theology was drifting away from simple Bible interpretation and valuing simple life on Earth.
But then also another parallel development occurred. There was an artistic revival in the West started during Charlemagne's reign. This art was characterized by ornate carvings in valuable materials and adorned with various jewels. The most important thing though was that the themes retained real people engaging the real world and its Creator, even if they threw a relic in for a bit of mysticism.
The best example of art in this vein, both visually beautiful and depicting real world scenes, is the Allegory of Good and Bad Government, made by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in 1339. Its most striking message shows that good government leads to a society where a woman can walk the streets alone safely, whereas under a bad government she would be likely to be raped or robbed. It is art communicating something important about real life.
Developments In Architecture
"It would be impossible to speak of the gradually awakened cultural thought of
the Middle Ages and not consider the developments in architecture in some detail."
Just like in art, there are ideas embedded within architectural design. Maybe they are not as obvious. However, once again we see the "inner world" of the mind determining what happens in the outer, material world. The first step was the development of the Romanesque style in the 11th century, which was distinguished by "the rounded arch, thick walls, and dim interiors." As the name suggests it was an innovation from the previous Roman style which extended through the Carolingian era of the 9th century. Many of the great examples were churches in England and France.
The pinnacle of Medieval architecture was the Gothic style, which was developed in the 12th century. It was born in a suburb of Paris at the abbey of Saint-Denis. It was a big leap beyond the Romanesque style with its pointed arches, large extended windows to bring in more light, the flying buttress which provided extra support allowing for the huge windows, and the rib vault. This style maintained its popularity through the rest of the Middle Ages.
But nothing was ever simple during this time. As great technical and artistic feats were achieved in architecture, there also developed along beside it the worship of Mary, "the Gothic churches of France were overwhelmingly dedicated to her". The Gothic style visually represented the glory of God and directed man's eyes up towards heaven well. But these buildings were made by men who let their worship of the Creator God be mixed together with praise to the human Mary.
Development In Society, Economy, and Politics
During the Middle Ages, the people of Europe being largely Christian incorporated theology into every aspect of their lives. In every period of history understanding how to do that appropriately is a challenge. As is the case for Christians today, they also:
"struggled with their personal and corporate response to Christ's prayer that they
be in the world but not of it. On one level, this challenged Christians in their
attitude toward material possessions and style of living."
In terms of ideas about material possessions, society often operated on the extremes. On one hand, the first monastic orders forbade making money at all and required vows of poverty. On the other hand, it wasn't uncommon for popes, bishops, and priests to live opulently. Also, later in the era, monasteries that started out under ascetic orders transformed into organizations focused on economic activity (not saying that was a bad thing). As examples of extravagance did arise, voices within the church called out a rebuke. A great example was the Gospel According to the Mark of Silver written in the 11 century. It used pointed satire in mock Bible verses to show how off the mark certain people in the church had become.
"Blessed are the rich, for they shall be filled; blessed are the wealthy, for theirs
is the Court of Rome."
As a reaction to fight greed and injustice, the church got involved in the economy in several ways. Most of the ways were misguided in my opinion. For example, they had a good instinct that money lending could be used by the rich to exploit the poor. However, attempting to prohibit lending completely or artificially capping the interest rate caused its own problems. There were also unsuccessful attempts to enforce price controls. Despite the problems this kind of intervention caused, trying to build an economy that functioned well for the common person, eventually produced what is called classical economics and the growth of capitalism. In order to make real progress people had to use trial and error, experience negative unintended consequences, and discover the natural processes which set real interest rates and prices.
With that in mind Christian society benefited through the value it placed on both hard work and generosity to those who couldn't provide for themselves.
"the church provided society with an impressive network of hospitals and other
All in all, economic philosophy in the Middle Ages swung back and forth like a pendulum while at the same time material prosperity rose up out of the lows experienced after the Roman Empire disintegrated.
Schaeffer starts his commentary on developments in government with an interesting statement.
"the state, strong or weak, has always posed a problem to the church, especially
when it concerns questions of moral principle."
As with the other subjects, there were dual competing realities that made politics in the Middle Ages very complicated. The church was no longer persecuted by the state. Popes crowned kings as Holy Roman Emperors. Kings like Charlemagne conquered and converted lands in Christ's name by force. Charlemagne also financially supported churches with tax money. The scholars of his court were clergy. The two comingled to such a degree that there existed the possibility for a kind of throne and altar alliance between them.
"But if the church baptized or consecrated the state, this only made more complex
the problem of conscience, because government which is to all appearances in tune
with society can, for that very reason, betray society with the greatest impunity."
However the reality was that the Church of the Middle Ages retained its identity apart from the State. It frequently criticized kings who were oppressive or too war-like. The church was not a facilitator of secular power but its limiter.
"paradoxical, as it may seem, the church, through its frequent tussles with secular
rulers over the boundary between church power and state power, had encouraged the
evolution of a tradition of political theory which emphasized the principle of
governmental limitation and responsibility. There was, in other words, a limit - in this
case, an ecclesiastical one- on worldly power; and the theme of kingship balanced by
priesthood and prophetic office is important in the statuary of Chartres and many of
the great Gothic cathedrals."
Think about how this applies to us today. Even though we claim to have a separation of Church and State, there are strong yet informal alliances between the two that determine the course of politics. Christians identify with this political figure or party thinking it shares the same views or will direct the nation in the way they want. In addition, some Christians, and others, think of the State as society itself or as a paternal organization with the same interests as society at large. More people should see the error in this way of thinking. The relationship between Church and State in the 21st century is very much inverted from the Medieval situation.
Developments In Theology
Ebbs and flows. Branches of thought splitting from each other, growing up together in opposite directions. Just as these metaphors have been appropriate for the other areas of discussion, even more so they describe what happened in theology.
"The birth pangs of the Middle Ages were characterized by an awakened cultural
and intellectual life and an awakened piety. Yet at the same time the church continued
to move away from the teaching of the early Christianity as distortions of biblical
Even early on Christian thinkers were split on whether it was beneficial to include Greek and Roman philosophy in their studies. Scholars like Tertullian and Cyprian from the 3rd Century were very against it. Paul had included quotations from Greek authors where appropriate and also included reasoning from his Jewish studies under Gamaliel in his Biblical writings. The major scholars from late antiquity like Ambrose, Jerome, and Augustine followed Paul's example . Paul used extra-Biblical ideas or quotes which aligned with the Bible or complemented its teaching. But Paul was always clear, the Bible was the authority and everything must be subject to it. However, the situation at the beginning of the Middle Ages was set. The door was open for pre-Christian thoughts to creep in and compromise the message away from Biblical teaching.
In the Middle Ages, the premier scholar was Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) who borrowed heavily from Aristotle, the Greek philosopher (384-322 B.C.). As a result of Aquinas teaching, mankind took the center stage, away from the centrality of Jesus Christ. Aquinas did believe that man was fallen due to his rebellion from God. However, he didn't think the fall affected man's reasoning ability.
"In his view the will was fallen or corrupted but the intellect was not affected."
That had two huge implications. First, he taught that man could reason himself to God. No super natural act was needed for salvation. Second, because human logic was still unstained, teachings from outside the Bible could be mixed in and held to an equal level as Scripture. Thinkers like Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Ptolemy, Euclid and Pythagoras could be trusted just as much as King David, St. John, or St. Augustine. Philosophy became a thing independent of the Bible.
In order to understand where Aquinas' thinking ended up. We must briefly cover the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. First, Plato emphasized universals or absolute ideals. This included things both heavenly and theoretical. The picture of a triangle in your mind's eye is an example of a Platonic ideal. Aristotle focused on particulars, the individual things existing on the earth. For example, each person is a particular human, a plastic pool ball rack is a particular physical triangle. Aquinas based his philosophy on Aristotle and as a result the seed of humanism germinated in the Middle Ages.
One of the problems with this thinking is that considering particulars isolated from universals strips the particulars of any unifying meaning. What is the meaning of life? It is a question that has been asked by philosophers ever since but not always before. It is a question that comes when you try to reason up from particulars to determine purpose and meaning while denying the existence of universals. If morals, values, and laws are going to be true guides for life, they must be built on universal truths. But if the existence of universal truths is rejected up front, how can that ever happen?
The positive aspect of Aquinas' teaching was that the normal, physical world was given a value that had been lost earlier in the Middle Ages. It is important to give value to real people in the real world doing normal everyday things. This is how God created it to be. But as mentioned, the negative was the denial of the universal which stripped purpose away. One result of over emphasizing particulars was that the authority of the church grew over reliance on the Bible for matters of doctrine and practice. Another was that people were able to reconcile themselves to God through their own works. The Medieval Church started the idea that a believer could attain grace from God by performing sacraments. These influences continued and built momentum in the Renaissance.
Remember though, we are talking about the Middle Ages where the axiom from physics "for every action is an equal and opposite reaction" can be applied.
"Soon European thought would be divided into two lines both of which have come
down and influenced our own day: first, the humanistic elements of the
Renaissance, and second, the Bible-based teaching of the Reformation."
Men started to emerge who taught that the Bible was the supreme authority over the church and criticized the Pope and other leaders in the Church who had drifted from Biblical teaching. John Wycliffe (1320-1384), an Oxford professor, was one such man. Another was Jan Huss (1369-1415), a priest from Bohemia. They both preached that men could only enter into a right relationship with God based on Jesus' work on the cross on their behalf. They also taught that the Bible was the ultimate authority regardless of a what a Pope or Bishop commanded.
As the Middle Ages teaches us, it is so easy to drift from the truth. It is so difficult to recognize truth from a variety of sources while keeping the Bible at the forefront. It is difficult to value each individual person while also understanding that God created it all with purpose and meaning and universal laws that all men should obey. In light of the difficult lessons we have learned from the Middle Ages, how should we then live?