The Response of the Christian Church to Significant Changes in World History
Introduction: One of the themes in world history is continuity and change over time. The Christian Church emerged during the first century during a time when the Roman Empire was flourishing during the Pax Romano. The first centuries of the early church were faced with persecution, death, and a deliberate effort by the government to prohibit it. In 313 A.D. Emperor Constantine issued the Edict of Milan ending the persecution of Christians. The Edict of Thessalonica in 380 A.D., the Roman government recognized Christianity as an official religion. Historical events lead to change and the Christian Church is now in the third millennium of historical time. However, the Christian Church is not static or passive; instead its role is one of change in response to world events.
In the first part of the 21st century, the world is experiencing an historic event that will likely change the lives of humans around the world in a significant way. This event is the arrival of a powerful and pervasive virus, COVID-19, which is already changing government budgets, the way people respond to information, educational institutions, and our consumer economy. The global pandemic will also change the institution of the Christian Church (and other religious institutions) and may also affect the way people respond to the message of the Christian Church. There is no “normal” for the coming years and likely the “new normal” will evolve over a decade or longer. After the Attack on America on September 11, 2001, the way people traveled changed dramatically.
This point of view essay may be used as a discussion with small groups interested in the evolution of the institution of the church over time.
The Renaissance took place over many years, even centuries, in Europe. However, if we were to document a date for when the Christian Church began to change, it would likely be December 25, 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or we could use the year the Crusades ended with relinquishing Acre (in Syria) to the Muslims in 1291 A.D. The date is less important than how the Renaissance changed the Church.
During this time the Christian Church (the Roman Catholic Church) was the most powerful institution in Europe. It was a time of trade with China and the Middle East, people were moving to towns, cathedrals were constructed in these new towns, universities developed, and merchants emerged as a new class. It was also a time of a short life expectancy (perhaps 35) because of unsanitary conditions, plagues, pollution, and crowded living conditions. As a result, people looked to the messages of the Church in the promise of baptism, faithful and obedient worship, and Christian burial.
The teachings of church councils and Pope were perceived as infallible. Anyone who challenged the teachings of the church was likely declared a heretic and put to death. Kings received their power from the blessings of popes and in return they used the threats of excommunication and interdicts (excommunication of a large territory) to check the power and decisions of kings. As a result of the political and religious power of the Roman Catholic Church, corruption was widespread. Because the corruption (bribery, immorality, nepotism) involving the clergy was well-known, it negatively impacted the laity or the masses. Although monasteries continued in some places, many were closed and properties sold in northern Europe and England. The Reformed or Protestant churches allowed the clergy to marry.
The Christian Church supported the ideology of scholasticism. The Scholastics combined the truth of the Holy Bible with the reasoning of church councils and theologians. The source of truth came from reason, experience, and authority of Church Councils and the Pope. When competing ideas or arguments emerged, universities provided the forum for debates and disputations as did church councils. This pattern of reason would continue in the 16th century until it was challenged by the Christian humanism of Martin Luther.
The Church also changed as a result of the Renaissance as three-dimensional images were created to educate the illiterate about the teachings of the Bible, the lives of saints, and the printed word. The Renaissance motivated the “Golden Age” of religious art in painting and sculpture. While the 15th century was dominated by Roman Catholic artists, the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century became the catalyst for the humanistic art of Durer, Rembrandt, Bruegel, Cranach, Gerung, and Holbein. The Protestant Reformation and the translation of the New Testament into the languages of the people in Europe contributed to new styles of music and literature. The music of Bach, Mendelssohn, Gerhardt, Schutz inspired the faith of people that sustained Christian worship for centuries.
The Renaissance changed worship from passive worship to active worship. As people left Europe because of persecution and religious wars for the opportunity to worship freely in America, the Christian Church faced new challenges with Native Americans, the absence of trained clergy, and theocratic governments in some of the colonies.
Why did Scholasticism become discredited as a source of truth?
How did music, literature, and the translation of the Bible significantly change the way people worshipped?
Did the Christian Church capitalize or miss opportunities in the settlement of North and South America?