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Christian history is like pizza.
At the right time—when you’re hungry, when it’s just out of the oven, when all’s right in the world—it’s filling, comforting, and maybe even a bit nourishing.
If you’re sick, or it’s been out on the counter too long, or total depravity’s taken away your appetite, the aroma alone can turn your stomach.
Reading about the ways Christians of previous centuries experienced the grace of God, from the miraculous martyrdom of St. Perpetua to the tender visions of St. Julian, can give you the strength to try another day of this “Christian life” thing. The Nicene Creed, the Gregorian liturgy, and Dante’s Divine Comedy have all fed my faith. I’ve been reminded over and over again that one reason I believe is that this path has been walked before. I don’t have to blaze it myself.
But then you turn the page, and you see medieval Christians violently murdering thousands of innocent Muslims in the Crusades in an attempt to reconquer the Holy Land. You see the medieval church amassing opulent wealth while peasants starve. You see schisms over theological minutia, vitriolic anti-Semitism, and exploitative teachings about penance and indulgences. You see hypocrites where you hope to see servants.
Sometimes, even this gives me hope. The church’s current problems aren’t unusual or new. It’s not just us who get our faith all twisted up with our disordered desires. God isn’t surprised when it happens. God has seen it all before. There is nothing new under the sun.
Usually, though, all this past violence and greed and corruption and selfishness smells like last Saturday’s stuffed-crust supreme.
In Reformed circles, I’ve noticed a tendency to be rather judicious about the church history we claim as our own. We’re happy to embrace thinkers like St. Augustine or John Wycliffe (proto-Protestants, we call them), and we cheer when we catch glimpses of our own theological preferences showing up in church documents, devotional poems, or scholastic treatises. (I mean, I cheer while reading scholastic treatises, don’t you?)
But when I think about the horrific acts of the medieval church, or even when my eyes glaze over while slogging through the detailed description of proper penance in Chaucer’s Pardoner’s Tale, I’m quick to say “Phew, thank God for Marty and John.” Thank God these aren’t my fellow congregants, my limb of Christ’s body.
There are some real dangers in this line of thinking. When we insist that we’re categorically different from those pre-modern papists, we wind up rejecting things we maybe shouldn’t. Medieval Christians, for example, understood the importance of physical spaces, objects, and actions in shaping our hearts and spirits in a way many Reformed Protestants have neglected.
Take church architecture. Gothic cathedrals were, of course, extravagant displays of wealth and political power—proof that the church reached closer to the heavens than any merely human institution. In that context, the Protestant (and especially Puritan) preference for bare worship spaces that recentered worshipers’ gazes on the cross, the text of Scripture, and the faces of fellow worshipers certainly makes sense.
Yet cathedrals like Chartres and Notre-Dame were also acts of communal worship and devotion. Their graceful arches and skyscraping towers draw eyes and hearts upward. Their stained-glass windows fill the worship space with “the visible reminder of Invisible Light.” To remove the sound of bells, the smell of incense, and the sight of artistic expression from worship is, perhaps, to worship with less than our full being.
Besides losses like this, though, there’s a larger danger in defining as entirely separate from the medieval church.
Drawing a hard line in 1517 allows us to look at horrors like clerical corruption, violent anti-Semitism, and the Crusades and see them as staining someone else’s legacy, not our own. We spoke out against all that, right? We were the good guys.
In our imagination, the Reformation was a theological split—a reassertion of the Pauline and Augustinian doctrine of salvation by faith alone against the church’s addition of works to the soteriological formula. It was this bad theology that led the Church to sell indulgences, to claim the power to forgive sins, and to ally themselves with powerful and violent political regimes. By reading Romans 9 and Ephesians 2 the right way, we’ve protected ourselves from those temptations.
But theology doesn’t exist in isolation, and it never has. The medieval church didn’t accidentally fall into a bad reading of scripture and then institute the practices of selling indulgences and slaughtering non-Christians as a matter of theological necessity. Rather, their political ambition, patriarchal traditions, and fear of the other shaped the way they read scripture.
And while Reformed churches have perhaps purged themselves of semi-Pelagianism, they have yet to shake off greed, selfish ambition, and vain conceit. All of the careful exegesis and Reformed hermeneutics in the world will not protect us from the temptations the church has always struggled with. Our hearts will still shape our theology more than the other way around, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.
The recent uncovering of rampant sexual abuse in both Protestant and Catholic churches is perhaps a painful reminder that we are still one church, united in secrecy, in violence, in the exploitation of God’s name.
If we are really going to take Christian unity seriously, then there’s no such thing as “someone else’s problem”—not across space and not across time.
Christ has one body, and it is ancient, medieval, and modern; Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox; abusive, greedy, and corrupt; holy, loved, and forgiven.
To claim only some of those words as our own and deny our connection to others is to slice up Christ’s body for our own protection and peace of mind. It is to turn our faces away from some of God’s most beautiful work and some of Christians’ most grievous sin in order to keep the edges of our own identity sharp. It is to refuse to see ourselves in both cathedral choirs and crusading armies.
After all, no matter who left the pizza on the counter after last night’s soirée, in the morning it becomes everyone’s problem.
I recently began attending an Episcopal church after years in the United Methodist Church. This switch was a greater change in my worship experience than I had expected. The weekly Communion, with its attendant priestly rituals, the collect from the Book of Common Prayer, the processional of the cross, the genuflecting, crossing oneself, bowing, the incense for holy days, the chanting of the Psalms, the weekly priestly blessings for birthdays and anniversaries, the brocades and fringed copes and albs, all of this took a lot of getting used to. Crossing over from low church to high church and vice versa is an enlightening experience which many could benefit from. Not only do you begin to see other traditions with new eyes, but your worship experience expands to embrace new meanings, barely conscious, rather embedded in the core of one’s being. Highly recommended.
Thanks for this cautionary post. Good reminder of the need for humility.
Thanks, Josh, for an insightful article. I guess you could say, the good, bad, and ugly of Christianity. But, I guess, you could say that of every religion. They all have their strengths and weaknesses, including Christianity. When we get to heaven, we will likely see people of every religion, including Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and on and on. We will all be there not because of what we believed. As, you point out, Josh, you can see where that got us. But we will be there in spite of what we believed. If there is a heaven, we will simply be there because is a loving God.
AMEN! A message we all need to hear and remember. I too often worship at an Anglican church to refresh my soul in ways it doesn’t necessarily get in my own (Reformed) church. Timeless lturgy and music can be so uplifting.
I like what you wrote, “Our hearts will still shape our theology more than the other way around, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise.” This should be a strong warning to us when we assume that we have the answers, just as it should have been to those in ages past.