Hindsight is always 20/20, but when thinking about a past period in history, it is always important to be careful not to generalize or paint with a broad brush either praising or condemning an era.
Such is the case when evaluating the Middle Ages, a period in which, from an Evangelical perspective, many heretical theology and practice developed. Further, as a committed Baptist, I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state, and thus I do not condone the church/state union that took place during this period.
Nevertheless, the dominance of Christian thought during this period had some positive results culturally and even theologically that we must acknowledge and learn from.
The rise of so-called “Christendom” began with the Edict of Milan in 313 in which Roman Emperor Constantine I declared religious toleration in the empire. The formerly persecuted Christian church now began to enjoy new-found freedom, reaching its climax in 380 when Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the Roman Empire’s official religion. In 392 he outlawed any form of pagan worship, and the church thus became the controlling influence in the entirety of the empire.
Stuart Murray lists several important shifts that took place as a result of this new socio-political situation:
- The adoption of Christianity as the official religion of a city, state or empire
- The movement of the church from the margins of society to its center
- The creation and progressive development of a Christian culture or civilization
- The assumption that all citizens (except for Jews) were Christian by birth
- The development of the corpus Christianum, where there was no freedom of religion and where political power was regarded as divinely authenticated
- Infant baptism as the symbol of obligatory incorporation into this Christian society
- Sunday as an official day of rest and obligatory church attendance, with penalties for noncompliance
- The definition of “orthodoxy” as the common belief shared by all, which was determined by powerful church leaders supported by the state
- The imposition of a supposedly Christian morality on the entire society (although normally Old Testament moral standards were applied)
- A hierarchical ecclesiastical system, based on a diocesan and parish arrangement, which was analogous to the state hierarchy and was buttressed by the state
- The construction of massive and ornate church buildings and the formation of huge congregations
- A generic distinction between clergy and laity, and the relegation of the laity to a largely passive role
- The increased wealth of the church and the imposition of obligatory tithes to fund this system
- The defense of Christianity by legal sanctions to restrain heresy, immorality, and schism
- The division of the globe into Christendom and heathendom and the waging of war in the name of Christ and the church
- The use of political and military force to impose the Christian faith
- The use of the Old Testament, rather than the New, to support and justify many of these changes1
Although the church developed some serious theological and philosophical errors during this period, it nevertheless exerted a positive spiritual influence on western culture. Hirsch explains:
For all its failings, the church, up till the time of the Enlightenment, played the overwhelmingly dominant role in the mediation of identity, meaning, purpose, and community for at least the preceding eleven centuries in the West.2
This had certain cultural and social benefits for the West, but with western civilization governed to a significant extent by Christianity, the church lost its missionary impulse. Church buildings became the central focus of church life; people came to the church, and therefore there was no need for the church to go to the people.
Quentin Faulkner specifically highlights what this period did to music philosophy and practice:
- Financial support for the church was from taxes; in no way, then, was the church dependent on popular opinion. In fact, it dictated what popular opinion would be.
- All activities in the church (including music) were geared to the learned ecclesiastical aristocracy.
- The medieval church continued and intensified the conservatism of the early church.
- Christianity permeated all of life, including all artistic endeavors.
- Medieval Christians were just as fully world-conscious as their early Christian forebears.
- There was an almost total emphasis on God’s radical transcendence, to the exclusion of his immanent, personal quality.
- The church’s liturgy was splendid, ceremonial, and ritualistic in part because it was considered to be the divinely revealed earthly counterpart of the worship of God in heaven.
- Liturgy was to be as “perfect” as humanly possible. To the neglect of the heart.
- The clergy controlled and made all music in the church.
- Music practice followed theory and was carefully controlled by it.
- “Musicality” meant reflective of divine harmony rather than subjective expression.3
Thus it is important when looking at what happened during this period that we recognize and learn from both the good and the bad.
What positive and negative results from Christendom should we especially pay attention to, especially upon Christian belief and practice?
- Stuart Murray, Post-Christendom: Church and Mission in a Strange New World (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004), 76–78. Emphasis original. [↩]
- Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, 108. [↩]
- Faulkner, Quentin. Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church. 2nd ed. Simpsonville, SC: Religious Affections Ministries, 2012. [↩]