Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Where was the Church during the Middle Ages?

Here's a different, non- Euro-centric approach to a common Roman Catholic historical objection to Protestantism1:

The result is that when someone asks, "Where was the evangelical church of Christ during those long 'Dark Ages' of Europe when the Church of Rome usurped the place of the Holy Spirit?" there usually follows a notable silence. The Iona colony of Scotland may be mentioned, or the later Waldenses of the Italian Apls, both involving small numbers. There is a better answer to the question, however, and the following narrative seeks to shed some light on it.

The story of the Church of the East's mission to Asia is one that needs to be told to today's church. It is the story of a dedicated missionary effort and the ever expanding witness of Christians from Antioch to Peking, nearly 6,000 miles by foot, until multitudes of Christians lived from the 30th to the 120th longitude in medieval times.

...

Here also is evidence that pitfalls to the church's mission always exist. Common examples are such things as an inadequate appreciation of the spiritual deadness of the natural man, failure to recognize the necessity of heart repentance and the meaning of baptism, the temptation to consider external acts of piety as necessarily representing inner holiness, the acceptance of liturgy and form in the place of justification by faith alone and identification with Christ, compromise with the world's secularism and other people's religious practices, sacramentalism, over-identification with a particular political regime, and concern with the elite that leads to failure to reach out to the common people.

...

The lesson of the gospel in the Near and Far East during the Middle Ages is that such failures as are referred to above can cause Christian communities where churches once flourished to disappear so completely that later generations not only do not know what the gospel is but are not even aware that it was ever present in their midst. In those cases the only witness to the living may be the testimony of the dead, written on tombstones. An illustration of such a voice out of the past is that of a ninth century Christian in a central Asian cemetery, where the gentle words still whisper, "This is the grave of Pasak -- The aim of life is Jesus, our Redeemer."2

As someone who is half Chinese, I appreciate the non-Western focus. Obviously the application of this work to specifically Reformed history is limited, so I don't plan on posting about it to a great extent. However, it does provide an additional answer (or two, really) to the question of historical continuity and a nice antidote to the Rome-centered history of Catholicism, and so to that end I'll relate interesting information contained therein (if any) as I proceed through the text.

________________

1. The following picture is Robert MacGregor's restoration of a silk painting found in 1908, in a cave sealed in 1036. It depicts a missionary bishop of the Church of the East.

2. John M. L. Young, By Foot to China: Mission of The Church of the East, To 1400 (Lookout Mountain, GA: Grey Pilgrim Publications, 1991), i-ii. This text may be found online for free.

13 comments:

Tim Enloe said...

I have always liked the answer of Turretin (not TFan, but the original), which I cannot locate at the moment, but which has been paraphrased this way:

Q: Where was your Church before the Reformation?

A: Where was your face before you washed it?

I've yet to get a decent answer from any Catholic apologist to this question. Usually they fly off into fits of consternation, or else just shut down, because they absolutely can't believe a Protestant could take any solace at all from Church history. Newman - or rather their uncritical understanding of Newman - has simply brainwashed them against taking any Protestant claim to respect history seriously.

Ryan said...

What you need, Matthew, is a snappy picture to get your point across. You can make one yourself, it's very easy. Example.

steelikat said...

Last Tuesday I found the website of the Nestorian "Assyrian Church of the East." Very interesting little group. Their headquarters are in Chicago because, I take it, their Patriarch probably wouldn't live very long in Iraq.

John Bugay said...

Matthew, I'm glad you're bringing this up, and I hope you'll continue to pursue it.

When it comes to discussions of "church authority," I believe there is no more extreme example of the principle "councils have erred" than the council of Ephesus. Not only did it err in many ways [including and especially in doctrinal ways], but the resulting splits in the church (including the split with "the Church of the East that you wrote about), immeasurably harmed that whole part of the world.

I've written elsewhere:

Samuel Hugh Moffett, writing in "A History of Christianity in Asia," describes this council:

"On Easter Sunday in 429, Cyril [of Alexandria] publicly denounced Nestorius for heresy. With fine disregard for anything Nestorius had actually said, he accused him of denying the deity of Christ. It was a direct and incendiary appeal to the emotions of the orthodox, rather than to precise theological definition or scriptual exegesis, and, as he expected, an ecclesiastical uproar followed. Cyril showered Nestorius with twelve bristling anathemas...As tempers mounted, a Third Ecumenical Council was summoned to meet in Ephesus in 431 ... [it was] the most violent and least equitable of all the great councils. It is an embarassment and blot on the history of the church. ... Nestorius ... arrived late and was asking the council to wait for him and his bishops. Cyril, who had brought fifty of his own bishops with him, arrogantly opened the council anyway, over the protests of the imperial commissioner and about seventy other bishops. ... "They acted ... as if it was a war they were conducting, and the followers of [Cyril] ... went about in the city girt and armed with clubs ... with the yells of barbarians, snorting fiercely ... raging with extravagant arrogance against those whom they knew to be opposed to their doings, carrying bells about the city and lighting fires. They blocked up the streets so that everyone was obliged to fee and hide, while they acted as masters of the situation, lying about, drunk and besotted and shouting obsceneties... (Moffet 174).

The anathemas of this council were directed at Nestorius; they ratified 12 "anathemas" that, as Moffett relates, had nothing to do with Nestorius's actual teachings.

This is a travesty of church authority, and yet as Moffett and others have written, this schism was far greater extent than either the 1054 split with the EO's or the Protestant Reformation. In this split, (effected by Cyril's armed thugs and a council that bore false witness against Nestorius), the entire eastern portion of the church (farther east than Jerusalem) was cast off and later left to die at the hands of Islam. Yet this church was far larger in numbers and scope than the churches surrounding the Mediterranean see. For more information, see:

Philip Jenkins: The Lost History of Christianity

Mar Bawai Soro: The Church of the East: Apostolic and Orthodox

The 27th Comrade said...

This is pretty much why I do not call myself a protestant, even though I whinge at people every day to the tune of “We are justified by Grace, a free gift of God, through faith in Christ Jesus; what we do or do not do—good or bad to whichever observer—is of none effect, but only faith in Christ matters.”
So, why don’t I call myself a protestant? Because who am I protesting against? Roman Catholicism? Insofar as it was not in line with the above truth, it was not something I related to any more than I related to Inuit fish worship or the like. Reforming what? Christianity never needed reforming, because it never went wrong.

Of course, I also therefore have the problem of not having a religion. I have beliefs—chief of which is faith in Christ alone sufficient on its own for full justification before God—but I am not sure that I have a religion. As for the Popes and their declarations, why should I answer to this European pagan religion before I talk to, say, the Rastafarians or the Buddhists or the African pagans?

Matthew D. Schultz said...

This is a travesty of church authority, and yet as Moffett and others have written, this schism was far greater extent than either the 1054 split with the EO's or the Protestant Reformation. In this split, (effected by Cyril's armed thugs and a council that bore false witness against Nestorius), the entire eastern portion of the church (farther east than Jerusalem) was cast off and later left to die at the hands of Islam. Yet this church was far larger in numbers and scope than the churches surrounding the Mediterranean see.

Thanks, John.

Incidentally, this serves as yet another example refuting the idea that the Church was united until heretic Luther shattered it into a million pieces. That narrative becomes more and more absurd the more I study church history. The Newman slogan about being deep in history is really just that--a slogan--vacuously bandied about in place of any real study of history.

John Bugay said...

The Newman slogan about being deep in history is really just that--a slogan--vacuously bandied about in place of any real study of history.

Vacuous is a good word here :-)

steelikat said...

However if you are protestant, medieval catholic history is your history, and the medieval catholic church is your church. Don't be afraid to claim it. Of course, As Tim said, that is a period of time when her face was pretty dirty.

Either that or you have to say your church is disconnected from history and has no historical legitimacy.

Matthew D. Schultz said...

No attempt here to admit any disconnect. If I may put it crudely, the Reformation was born out of particular medieval concerns in the provincial Western Church. As someone who came to a saving knowledge of the Gospel in the PCA, I certainly don't mind being an inheritor of that tradition. I gratefully feed on its modern fruits virtually every day, growing in the knowledge of Christ's deep and abiding love for his Church, of which I am a member and recipient.

However, given one-half of my family roots, I'm also an inheritor of a Christian tradition in China, one that seems shrouded in a good deal of mystery. I have no idea if it connects all the way back to the early Eastern Church or if it was spawned from later Western missionaries. Either way, I am (additionally, not exclusively) interested in the history of the Holy Spirit moving in areas beyond the traditional bounds of the medieval and Reformation debates.

But now we are arriving at concerns better suited for another time and another place. I offered this post simply to note another possible methodology to answering the historical continuity charges brought against Protestants by pop-apologists on the far side of the Tiber. I think these charges can (and have) been answered both on their own terms and by questioning the validity of the terms on which they are presented. So this alternative methodology merely relates an additional (and sufficient, I would claim) reply--that the medieval Church did not die out and the gates of Hades did not prevail. The Holy Spirit simply focused its attentions on the Eastern Church.

Viisaus said...

"In this split, (effected by Cyril's armed thugs and a council that bore false witness against Nestorius), the entire eastern portion of the church (farther east than Jerusalem) was cast off and later left to die at the hands of Islam. Yet this church was far larger in numbers and scope than the churches surrounding the Mediterranean see."


John, I have myself been often ready to sympathize with the plight of Assyrian "Nestorian" church that got a bum deal in conciliary schemings.

But I think you are now romantically exaggerating the importance of this outfit. No way did the Nestorian churches ever get "far larger in numbers and scope than the churches surrounding the Mediterranean sea."

And as of religious depth, many of their Asian converts were only shallow ones, like the Mongols who eventually switched to Islam or Buddhism without much fuss.

Moreover, many of the east-of-Euphrates Christians were actually Monophysites, the followers of Cyril who refused to accept Chalcedon. The Ethiopians and Armenians still are...

Viisaus said...

W.A. Wigram describes how Nestorians and Monophysites used to quarrel with each other in the Zoroastrian Sassanian empire (just before the onslaught of Islam):

http://www.aina.org/books/itthotac/itthotac.htm#c29

"Both sides prepared for the struggle, neither realizing in the very least, as far as we can see, that they were presenting perhaps the most melancholy and unedifying spectacle to the whole mournful history of oriental Christianity. Two varieties of Christians, disputing publicly about the sublimest mysteries of their common faith, not for truth's sake but frankly for controversial victory. The umpire a Zoroastrian, who despised both melets about equally (regarding both as the allies of his enemy), and who was no doubt delighted to get the two objectionable parties together, and to set them fighting. The prize, that the Christian victor should have the right to set that pagan power persecuting and oppressing the Christian vanquished.

Is any feature lacking to complete the justification for the sneering amusement with which every enemy of the Cross there present must have regarded the scene? Thackeray has imagined the one complete parallel to the situation that we can remember--the scene in "Vanity Fair" where the infidel Lord Steyne sets his son's tutor and his wife's confessor to argue against one another after dinner for his amusement."

John Bugay said...

Viisaus, I've made that claim before; what I posted here was a reposting from before, and I don't know the source quite off the top of my head. But the "Nestorian" churches numbered in the double-digit millions, and geographically it was far more widespread (throughout Persia, India, and extending at times into China). I would have gotten such an idea from either Moffett or Jenkins, both of whose works I linked to here. I'll try to look that up.

Needless to say, the church in this part of the world suffered severe persecution not only under Islam, but under other invaders from the east.

John Bugay said...

Nor do I doubt that they fought among themselves. And nor would I agree with everything they taught. But this was a huge portion of the Body of Christ that was cut off for what wasn't a good reason. Nestorius actually did not believe or teach the things that were attributed to him.