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:
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:
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?
Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is on faculty at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He has written two books, dozens of articles, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and two children.