Links: The Medieval Period

General Information on Icons — Icons are crucial for an understanding of Eastern Christianity, which really began to have a separate identity in what we call the “medieval period.”  This is a helpful site on the topic, formatted as questions with answers.

Icon Blog — You may also find helpful this “Reader’s Guide” to understanding icons.  When iconographers create an icon, Eastern Christians say that they “write” the icon; as a result, one must learn how to “read” them, and this blog can help!

Description of Hagia Sophia — Here you’ll find a description of Hagia Sophia (the great church of Constantinople/Istanbul) from Procopius, a sixth-century figure who was alive when Hagia Sophia was built.  At the bottom of the page, there is a link to learn more about the destruction of the city in 1204 — that is interesting.  But the other link (“Hagia Sophia”) is dead, so don’t bother with it.  Also interesting is this link, which provides the history of the church up to the present, as well as a contemporary description.

A Full List of Popes — It’s impossible to think of medieval Christianity without thinking of the popes of Rome.  You’ll find many names in our textbook; however, if you’d like a full list of the popes — from Peter to Francis — check out this link to the Catholic Encyclopedia.  Each pope’s name also links to his biography  You’ll occasionally see the word “antipope” — that’s the word used when there was more than one pope claiming the office at one time.

Boniface and the Oak Tree — Early medieval Christianity also saw the development of Christian traditions among the Germanic/Teutonic peoples and the Celts.  The Germanic tradition included the work of several missionary monks, including the famous Boniface.  This link tells of his life — scroll down to chapter 6 for the famous story of the oak tree he cut down in the name of God.

The Life of St. Patrick — Similarly, the Celtic tradition of Ireland and Scotland had its famous characters, chief among them the man known as St. Patrick.  This link gives you his biography, written by a 7th-century monk.

Pope Gregory I on Mission Work in England — One of the important influences on British Christianity was the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons.This is a rather famous section from the Ecclesiastical History written by Bede, the seventh-century English monk, regarding Gregory’s sending missionaries to the Angles and Saxons.  Note the pope’s instructions regarding native worship: don’t destroy everything, but see how it can be converted to the worship of the True God.  For more on Bede’s text, see this link.

Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne — One of the towering figures of early medieval Christianity is the Frankish king Charlemagne.  Happily, we have a biography of him from his contemporary Einhard.  Here’s a link to Einhard’s work, with a handy, click-able table of contents at the top, so you can scan for something that you’d like to read about.

Vikings in England — Not long before the turn of the second millennium CE, folks we call “Vikings” appeared on the shores of Western European lands, including Great Britain.  Here’s a link (including a nice map) that describes the Vikings’ raids into England, and the effects of those raids.

Gothic Architecture — An important development in medieval art was Gothic architecture, but you may not remember as much about it as you’d like.  Here’s a little more information, with images, about this style of architecture that became so influential and widespread in the High Middle Ages.  The language is somewhat technical, but I think it gets its information across.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris — One of the most famous examples of Gothic architecture is the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris.  This link is the official website of the Cathedral — in the English version.  You might find especially interesting the tab called “Cathedral for Art and History” — lots and lots of images there, including panoramic views of the structure.

More on the Crusades — One of the darkest episodes in all of church history is the Crusades.  Here’s more information on that movement.  The site is nicely organized, but it can be a little challenging to tell what is a link and what is just a heading, but it’s still useful.

Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae — This is a free online version of the great Dominican’s Summa Theologiae, perhaps the most famous single work of theology in all of Christian history.  It has a table of contents and links to each section, so that you can get an idea for how big this work is, and you can also peruse different articles within it.

Quodlibet Disputations — One of the great contributions of the medieval period to the modern world is the university.  However, medieval universities weren’t always peaceful places, as regular “disputations” were held — something like academic debates

.  These disputations can be revealed in written form in a variety of texts, but one that is interesting is what is called the “quodlibets” of medieval writers.  “Quodlibet” literally means “whatever,” and it refers to a semi-annual tradition in some universities where students could come and ask “whatever” question they wanted — essentially a “stump the professor” session.  Some of these sessions were recorded.  This link has translations of some of the quodlibets of Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval teacher.  Peruse the table of contents for something interesting to you.

More on the Waldensians — Here you can find more information on the Waldenses, or Waldensians, that group that was accused of heresy and also provided an important forerunner to Luther’s Reformation.  This site is run by Anabaptists, who are not historically related to the Waldensians.  But they do have some affinities with them, and so they have an investment in understanding this group more fully.

Two Perspectives on the Inquisition — This link is to the old version of the Catholic Encyclopedia’s article on the Inquisition.  For material connected the Inquisition’s work against heresy (its original function), scroll or click down to the section called “The suppression of heresy by the institution known as the inquisition.”  For an interesting Jewish perspective on the Inquisition, see this link.

More on Indulgences — This site is an interesting one, as it considers famous historical trials.  One of those trials is that of Martin Luther, and one of the resources it includes is a page called “Questions & Answers Concerning Indulgences.”  For a modern Catholic perspective sympathetic to the use of indulgences, see this link.

The Borgia Family — You may have heard of the Borgia family, who were involved with “political corruption and immorality” to “unbelievable heights,” as one church history textbook has it.  If you’d like to know more about them, including Roderigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), see this link.

John Wycliffe’s English Translation of the Bible — Another important forerunner to the Protestant Reformation was the work of John Wycliffe, who among other things advocated the use of the Bible in the vernacular to aid in people’s understanding.  If you would like to read some of Wycliffe’s translation of the Bible into English, see this link.  Granted, it is written in a form of middle English, so it might be challenging.  You might start with a book with which you’re familiar — like maybe “Romaynes” or “1 Corinthis,” or perhaps one of the Gospels.

Image credit (Girolamo Savonarola; edited by the blogger):

Suggested next click: the next set of links (the Reformation period)

Luther: Bondage of the Will (Part 2)

Welcome back to the CHEF!  We are finishing up Martin Luther’s Bondage of the Will in today’s post.  In the first post I introduced the text, described the person to whom the text was addressed, discussed a couple of issues related to the various translations of the text, and made some introductory comments on a variety of topics.  Today’s post will be more focused: in addition to making some miscellaneous comments, I’ll be looking at the overall message of the treatise, especially considering its theological ideas and the implications of Luther’s own position and the one that he is attacking.  Let’s dig in!

What Luther is Trying to Say

So, as I discussed in the first post, this text is quite long.  The length of the treatise, along with the amount of polemic embedded in it, can make it hard to really get to the meat of what Luther’s trying to say.  But, in a nutshell, it seems to be this: humanity’s “Fall” has so damaged us, that we basically have no such thing as free will at all anymore — unless you mean freedom to do evil.  Luther had begun to articulate this position in prior years, especially in his conflicts with the Popes, and it seems to grow from his sense of the importance of justification by grace alone.  For the believer, though, Luther says, “if God works in us, the will is changed, and being gently breathed upon by the Spirit of God, it again wills and acts from pure willingness and inclination and of its own accord, not from compulsion,” and we are thus able to do good.

Now, Erasmus had offered a moderate view in his initial response to Luther’s preaching.  He certainly acknowledged the problem of the “Fall,” but he said that it merely weakened our wills.  In other words, the problem of sin is that it makes it more difficult to do the things that God has commanded of us — not impossible, just more difficult.  But Luther rejects that position as essentially “wimpy” — as though Erasmus wasn’t willing to go “all the way” to a full rejection of free choice in any matter related to salvation.  Luther does occasionally allow for some amount of free will — but only insofar as it enables us to do the evil that is implanted in us by the “Fall” (see, for example, section 25).   If you want a MUCH more thorough explanation of both men’s arguments, you can check out this resource; it’s got a lot of great detail on both Luther’s and Erasmus’s texts.

Why Luther is Making This Argument

There are several reasons that Luther is making this set of claims.  Some are theological presuppositions that he holds, which I’ll get to in a moment.  But there’s a more pressing, historical reason: the medieval church had held a cooperative view of salvation for centuries.  Through a variety of means, the church had taught that God and humans work together for our salvation — God does God’s part (e.g., sending Jesus, giving us the church, etc.), and we do our part (being baptized, living good lives, etc.).  The most famous example is in the situation regarding indulgences that Luther had rejected so strongly.  And he was right about the danger therein: while millions of Christians today still hold a view like this, we can sometimes believe that we can “earn” their salvation in some way.  Luther was strongly aware of this danger, and he wanted to do away with it completely by making us depend entirely on God’s work in Christ for our salvation.

But beyond Luther’s own life experience, he also held some theological ideas really strongly — ideas that (in his mind) meant that humans couldn’t possess any amount of free choice toward their own salvation.  These included the following:

  • Scripture is abundantly clear in its pronouncements, and it doesn’t need any fancy interpretive strategies to understand it (see especially sections 3, 35-36, 38).  (Since Luther thinks that Scripture agrees with him, then Erasmus is [in Luther’s mind] kind of foolish for not being on board, too.)
  • God is unbelievably powerful and has an immutable will (see, for example, secs. 8-9 on God’s will, and sec. 93 on God’s omnipotence and foreknowledge).  Obviously, Luther is reading Scripture here, but he is also thinking of that “merit industry” that characterized medieval Christianity in the West.  If we can earn merit, then that might take away from God’s power to save.  If we want to emphasize God’s power, then it behooves us to reject any claims of power for ourselves.
  • As a result, God’s actions are efficacious — they get something done.  If we believe that God is working in the world, then that accounts for the good that the saved do, and it accounts for the evil that the unbelievers do.  (This is an interesting argument, found in section 84: when God acts, something happens, and if unbelievers are only predisposed toward evil, then God’s motive action will result in evil-doing… but it’s because of the unbeliever’s prior disposition, not because God is at fault.)
  • God chooses the church — we don’t choose ourselves.  One of God’s sovereign actions is to choose the saved.  Obviously (Luther would say), we don’t choose to be part of God’s family — that’s a gracious gift of God — and so it also must be true that we can’t resist God’s choice, weak as we are.  The result of this belief that is the members of the “true church” — the “elect” — are only known to God (sec. 34), and so we can’t try to earn our way in.
  • As the corollary of God’s magnificence and might, human beings are pretty weak and foolish.  We see this in sec. 38, where he argues that the reason so many intelligent people have misunderstood the Scriptures is that, because of sin, our hearts are darkened.  Also, in sec. 52, Luther follows Paul in rejecting the arguments of “human reason.”  We need to depend on what he sees as the clear pronouncements of Scripture, rather than leaning on our own weak wisdom.

What Luther is Rejecting

Holbein-erasmusDeep stuff, huh?  Let’s come at this from one more angle, and hopefully we’ll have a good sense of the overall picture.  One last way to think of this problem is to ask what Luther is rejecting in Erasmus’s ideas, and why.  As I see it, there are a couple of reasons that Luther himself keeps coming back to — Luther thinks Erasmus’s ideas aren’t found in Scripture, and he is working from a very “black-and-white” sense of the world, which leaves no room for ambiguity.  But what we find in the work much more often are what Luther sees as the problematic implications of Erasmus’s argument.  Here are just a few of them:

  • If we have free choice toward our own salvation, then that means we should do works that direction… which suggests that God’s grace isn’t enough for that salvation (section 7).
  • If we aren’t aware or certain of what God is doing for us and our salvation, then we miss opportunities to give God the glory and praise that God deserves (secs. 7, 12, 28), and we could suffer the anxiety of a guilty conscience, uncertain of our salvation (sec. 164).
  • If we have such a high opinion of ourselves, then we can think that God doesn’t care about our actions, thus encouraging us toward greater sin (sec. 23) — maybe even thinking that God is basically asleep while we sin (sec. 81)!
  • If we think our works help save us, then we are usurping the proper role of grace and the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (sec. 44, where he invokes the Pelagian heresy as a parallel).
  • If we aren’t deeply aware of our own sin, then Scripture loses its power as a beautiful source of comforting words (sec. 62).
  • And perhaps most troublingly: if we think that we are “good,” then we might be tempted to think that we don’t need Jesus as savior — or that maybe only a part of us needs Jesus as savior — then we essentially render Jesus weak, superfluous, or even unnecessary.

Some Reflections

This post is already pretty long, so I’m going to restrict myself to just a few evaluative comments.  First, when I read this text, I find myself attracted by the deep devotion to Scripture that Luther clearly possesses; that’s a feature of the movement of which I’m a part, too, and so I applaud that emphasis.  Second, I fully agree with his desire for us to lean fully on Jesus as our Savior; it’s way too easy for us to look to other things to save us, when Jesus is really the only one with power to save.  And finally, I need to hear his call to humility; if I depend on my own works (even just subconsciously), I can become proud and end up depending on myself.

That said, I have some quibbles with Brother Luther — a number of which have to do with his comments and ideas about Scripture.  First, while he does hold a very high view of Scripture (woo!), and while he does think it’s clearly understandable (errr…), he also has a very “flat” view of it — that is, he seems to think that all Scripture is essentially the same, and he doesn’t account for genre very well.  For example, he treat texts from the Psalms, Genesis, and Paul in essentially the same way: looking at what the writers said, without asking why they said those things.  Second, I think Luther is simply wrong that — at least on this topic — Scripture speaks with one voice.  Erasmus tried to make that point, and Luther brushed it aside, but I think that was because the latter had already decided his conclusion and was forcing the Scriptures to back it up.  For example, in section 46 and following, Luther considers a passage from Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 15.  In my mind, this text is an excellent example of a passage that absolutely does tell us we have free will, and it must be considered alongside texts in Romans 9-11 that suggest otherwise.  But Luther brushes it aside, twisting the passage to make it say what it doesn’t say.  What’s frustrating is that that’s exactly what he accuses Erasmus of doing — in his whole section about “tropes” (secs. 77 and following).  Pot?  Meet the kettle.

If you haven’t guessed from the previous comments, I’m not convinced by Luther’s arguments.  Now, I grew up an Arminian, and I remain one today — but for more reasons than just preserving my heritage.  I believe we have free choice because of what I see in Scripture — the calls to repentance, the narratives of conversion, the commands to act in certain ways (even from Paul!), etc.  But I also believe because of my life experience.  Sure, some parts of our lives seem pre-determined (by “fate,” chance, our circumstances, social conditioning, etc.), but in so many other areas, we actually have choices.  I don’t think that’s a part of the “Fall” — I think it’s how God wants the world to be… because that’s how God’s world and salvation are arranged.  And unlike Luther, I think that’s good news, because it lets us choose to be in a relationship with God, rather than God forcing Godself on us.  Maybe that’s my American love of freedom talking, but I’d like to think it’s a theological position, informed by Scripture, theology, and experience

So (if you’re still reading by this point), feel free to do a couple of things.  First, if you want to go deeper on this text, check out this article, which contains reflection on the Bondage of the Will and also meditations on contemporary Christianity.  Second, weigh in!  What arguments have been most important for you in thinking about the difficult problem of free will and determinism?  I’ll look forward to your comments!

Image credits: (for the PlayMobil Martin Luther action figure), (for the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger), and (for the Frozen meme)

Suggested next click: Reading Group home page

Noll, Ch. 7: The Diet of Worms (1521 CE)

Compared to chapter 6, chapter 7 probably did not surprise you at all in terms of its appropriateness for the book. Most Western Christians belong to either the Protestant or Catholic families of the Christian faith, and no matter which side one is on, the events of Martin Luther’s reforms have shaped our expressions of that faith irrevocably. Protestants look back to this event (and those surrounding it) as the beginning of pretty much everything. Catholics long saw this event as a great apostasy but more recently understand it as a catalyst for reforms in their own church, some of which took place at that time and some of which only came with the Second Vatican Council (see chapter 13).

Further, this set of events may have been familiar to you via the excellent 2003 film entitled simply Luther. Starring Joseph Fiennes (and featuring Peter Ustinov and Alfred Molina, among others), the film tells the story of Luther’s life up until the acceptance of the Augsburg Confession. The scene of the Diet of Worms is particularly powerful, even if it does (inevitably) take a bit of artistic license. (By the way: the film also presents the most compelling picture of how the sale of indulgences would have worked, and why it would have been attractive to people beyond just the simple possession of forgiveness of sins.)

Noll is right, though, that countless people have looked back at this particular meeting as crucial for Protestantism and modern individuality. The fact that Luther appeals to Scripture rings true to Protestants; that he appeals to reason and his own conscience mirrors the later Enlightenment and the resultant modernity. But Noll is also right to include the response that Luther received (which does not appear in the film, incidentally). The Catholic response was prescient in terms of the sad fragmentation that has marked the Protestant branch of Christianity ever since.

Luther’s 95 Theses might be useful for you; if so, you can find them here:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on this gripping chapter:

  1. Noll notes that, at the Diet of Worms, church leaders responded that Luther’s teachings would remove all certainty from Christianity. Has history borne out this assessment? How have you seen the challenge of uncertainty in matters of faith manifest itself?
  2. Luther promoted violence against Jews (and Anabaptists). How do these actions color your reading of his life and work? Is it possible for a theological writer to have merit despite promoting grievous evils?
  3. When we read about people with whom we disagree, it can often be challenging to sympathize with them. If you are a Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into the viewpoints of the Catholic hierarchy in their reaction to Luther? If you are not Protestant, are you able to sympathetically enter into Luther’s viewpoint? Or, taken from a different viewpoint: did you at any point find your sympathies “cutting against the grain” of your own religious background?
  4. In America, Protestant theology is largely the “default mode” of Christianity in the broader culture, affecting even non-Protestants. How do you think your cultural as well as religious background colors your reading of this part of church history?
  5. Noll acknowledges how his own commitments as a Protestant shape his reading of this time period of church history. How do you think our religious convictions shape our understanding of church history? Is it necessary for people to acknowledge their religious commitments before assessing church history?

Image credit for Lucas Cranach the Elder’s portrait of Luther:

Suggested next click: Chapter 8