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Church History: A Biblical View
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Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 19 - Rising Papal Power

I. The Spread of Romanism

Since the growth of the Eastern Church was greatly inhibited by the advances of the Moslems beginning in the Seventh Century, the most remarkable instances of church growth in the early Middle Ages (600-1500) took place in the West. Initially, Irish monks, noted for their scholarship and zeal, were the most energetic in missionary efforts. Though the Church in Ireland made some relatively small beginnings prior to the time of Patrick (389-461), it was he who promoted, spread, and implanted the Church throughout Ireland so as to earn the epithet, "Apostle of Ireland." The Church was so firmly rooted in Ireland that when the Church in England collapsed with the fall of the Roman Empire and under the weight of Anglo-Saxon invasions, the Church in Ireland survived, flourished, and developed its own brand of religion in its isolation. Consequently, it was left to spirited Irish monks to plant the Church once again in the British Islands and the Continent - first in Scotland, then England, and in portions of the Frankish and Germanic kingdoms.

These Irish monks are credited with having introduced the practice of "private lay confession." This involved the laity confessing their sins to the clergy. Later, this type of confession would become mandatory and certain benefits would be attached to it. Of course, the New Testament knows nothing of a clergy/laity distinction (I Pet. 2:9), much less that the latter should be required to confess to the former (I Tim. 2:5). Instead, confession of sin was to be made "to one another" (Jas. 5:16) under the appropriate conditions (Matt. 5:23,24; 18:15; Lk. 17:3,4).

The first extensive "penitential books" were also developed in Ireland. Such books prescribed what had to be done by the sinner in order that he might provide satisfaction for his sins. The belief arose that, not only eternal punishment, but also "temporal punishment" was due for sins. God's forgiveness would remove the former but not the latter. Unless "satisfaction" were made for this temporal punishment, the soul would go to purgatory. Satisfaction might be made by prayer, church attendance, fasting, pilgrimage, almsgiving, or other good works. However, the New Testament teaches that when God forgives He forgives completely (Heb. 8:12); He punishes no more. It may be necessary to make amends to men for harm done to them in sin, but no making of amends needs to be made to God.

Through the efforts of missionaries sent by Pope Gregory in 596-7 the seeds of Romanism were planted in England. Because the Irish and Romanists had developed different religious forms there were clashes between them, but with the aid of political authorities the Romanists finally won the British Islands, which then became one of the staunchest supporters of Roman Catholicism in Europe.



II. Alliance of Church and Civil Power

The story of the growth of the Roman Catholic Church during the Middle Ages is one of increasing dependence upon, and then assumption of, civil power. Church and state were regarded as mutually supportive and interdependent, each directly promoting the cause of the other. Civil rulers became involved in Church affairs and Church leaders in civil affairs until the nations of Western Europe became, for all practical purposes, one, vast theocratic state. Roman Catholic popes eventually became the most powerful rulers in Europe. Never has the Roman Catholic Church been more powerful than it became during the Middle Ages.

Though the emperors of the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire had survived the fall of the Western Roman Empire (476), they were nevertheless isolated from Italy by the barbarian invasions and offered Rome no effectual support. Indeed, though Rome was nominally subject to Constantinople, they developed separate political existences, and the former fairly viewed the latter as a threat to its independence. Consequently, the Roman Catholic Church continued to groom the Frankish kings as its supporters and protectors. Of course, the Frankish kings also profited greatly from this relationship. When the Lombards captured parts of Italy and threatened Rome in 751, Pepin the Short of the Franks forced them to relinquish their conquests and withdraw because the Pope had crowned and anointed him king. These actions had far-reaching consequences, (1) A precedent was set for the official recognition and installment of civil rulers by the popes. (2) The popes became actual political leaders and territorial rulers. (Pepin had given conquered territories in Italy into the possession of the popes - whence the "States of the Church.")

These close ties between church and state were only strengthened during the reign of Pepin's far more famous son, Charlemagne (768-814). The Church continued to give support to the authority of the civil rulers and the civil rulers even took it upon themselves to enforce the decrees of the Church leaders - including the payment of tithes. Though not wholly to his liking (and somewhat to his surprise), Charlemagne was crowned emperor in Rome by Pope Leo III in 800. The idea was thus left that the emperorship was the gift of the papacy to bestow. As the Frankish empire began to decline following the death of Charlemagne, the power and independence of the popes only increased. Their reach extended far beyond anything given to God's servants in the New Testament (Matt. 22:21; Jn. 6:15; 18:36; Lk. 17:20,21; II Cor. 10:3,4; Eph. 6:12; II Tim. 2:4).

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) In the Middle Ages the scene of greatest church growth, led by ______ ______was in the _________________.

(2) The British Islands eventually fell under the control of the __________________.

(3) The "___________________" prescribed what one had to do to make "satisfaction for sins.

(4) What is "private lay confession," and what is wrong with it?




(5) What is wrong with the idea of making "satisfaction" for sins?




(6) What was the relationship between the Church and the state in the Middle Ages?



What was wrong with it from a Scriptural viewpoint?





(7) How did Pepin and the popes benefit from their relationship? What precedents were set?




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