In studying all these medieval corruptions of the faith, one needs to distinguish the late medieval and (usually identical) modern justification of each doctrine from the actual historical origin of the practice. In almost all cases, the historical record will show that the practice originated in the popular religious mind and practice, and percolated upward until it was finally justified and systematized by the theologians.

There are certainly examples of the other practice also -- a conscious policy of making Christianity more palatable by making concessions to the current religious practice. Cf. Pope Gregory's letter to Augustine (the archbishop of Canterbury, not the theologian).

  1. Reasons for Decline. Baker has a nice section entitled, "Reasons for Extensive Corruption of Christianity." He sees four major reasons for the corruption of Christianity:
    1. Rapid Growth. . First, many were brought into the church due to the prestige and influence of the local bishop. These elites brought the bishop even greater power and influence, and all kinds of worldly dangers. Second, sacramentalism was increased by the large numbers of former pagans who came in with a sacramental mind-set. Third, the rapid growth helped push aside the need for a new heart and helped replace it with extensive instruction and other institutional measures.
    2. Pagan Persecution. This brought about special classes of Christians, such as martyrs and confessors, as well as special classes of sinners, such as apostates, falsifiers, and the unfaithful. The first group helped increase the growth in veneration of saints, while the second group required extensive treatment of topics such as penance.
    3. Internal Conflicts. The struggle with false doctrine was not totally successful. The church assimilated rather than thwarted some of the false doctrines. For instance, Gnosticism's endless array of mediators between God and man was echoed in the developing doctrines of saints and Mary.
    4. Ecclesiastical Rivalry. Strife between bishops naturally inspired them to increase their power over territories, and to make alliances with other bishops. (We might add, to make alliances with worldly rulers!)
  2. Content of the Decline
    1. The Episcopal System
      1. The one-bishop rule. One-bishop rule appears to have first been taught by Ignatius in the early 2nd century. Writing at a time when other church writings appear to still preserve the Bible's definition of an elder and bishop being the same person, Ignatius moved on to a view which had the bishop being in the place of prominence in the local church.
      2. Metropolitan bishops were the next development. This was all covered in earlier classes. Bishops began to exercise power over several churches in a city or vicinity. Even before the end of the persecutions, they had often become leading citizens in their communities. With the end of persecutions and the establishment of the Christian faith as the main religion, bishops often became the citizens of their communities. With the breakdown of the Western empire, but even in the East as well, the bishop became the most powerful man around.
      3. Church pomp and prestige increased, not always in an evil way I'm sure, but nevertheless far removed from Jesus who didn't have a place to lay his head.
      4. The Papacy was the final development of this process. Originally there had been five major bishops, Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Constantinople, but with four of those cities located in the Eastern empire, the Roman bishop became the preeminent church leader in the West. Originally papa (father) could apply to any major bishop, but here it became restricted to the bishop of Rome. Several popes, including Leo and Gregory, enhanced the prestige of the office, which reached its zenith in the 1100's-1200's. Boniface VIII (1294-1303) declared in his bull Unam Sanctam (1302) that it was necessary for salvation that every human being be subject to the Roman Pope. But this power was not to last. European kings were finally coming into their own in the late Middle Ages, and they began to fight against his worldly power.
      5. One final note: the infallibility of the pope while speaking ex cathedra was officially declared by the First Vatican Council in 1870. This infallibility has been exercised
    2. The Eucharist -- The Mass
      1. Although this section could have been entitled Sacramental Theology so as to generally cover the expansion of the sacraments from two to seven, or the general pagan and superstitious nature of the sacraments as they developed in medieval popular and theological use, I choose to focus on just one sacrament: the Lord's Supper or Holy Communion.
      2. This sacrament is acknowledged by both Catholics and Protestants as the key sacrament instituted for the Church's use. Even baptism is performed only once; the Lord's Supper is repeated again and again for the building up of the believer. We can all agree on this.
      3. The early church seems to have started (or very early arrived at) an understanding of the Supper that had a mystical element. The body and blood of the Lord were in view, but it was not quite sure how. It was very important, however; everyone agreed to that. At times a belief in what would now be called the Real Presence seems to be implied, but at other times not. Certainly a good Calvinist who, following the Protestant Reformers (but not Zwingli or the Anabaptists), believes that we partake of Christ's body and blood by faith, does not have to feel uncomfortable with much early church teaching.
      4. However, the other element was there and continued to increase. A belief in the Real Presence implied a belief in the efficacy of the sacrament to do things to the believer. Ignatius called the sacrament the "medicine of immortality."
      5. By the time of the Middle Ages this mystical element had all but taken over. Nevertheless there was a strong tone, following Augustine, that the supper was still a spiritual one, i.e. if an unbeliever were to eat the sacrament, he would eat bread and drink wine and nothing more (except perhaps judgment upon himself!).
      6. This understanding began to change in the Middle Ages, and not before. Pelikan's discussion of this topic is invaluable. It was Paschasius Radbertus (c. 785 - c. 860) who first outlined the true doctrine of transubstantiation -- the idea that the bread and cup are indeed transformed, literally and physically, into the body and blood of the Lord. In this case the authority of Augustine was overthrown and a new doctrine was set up.
      7. Radbertus was opposed in writing by a monk of his own monastery, Ratramnus (died c. 868), who advocated strongly a doctrine of symbolic transformation of the elements. The transformation, which Ratramnus agreed was performed by the clergy in the consecration of the elements, was perceived only by faith and only by the faithful. It was not a physical, literal transubstantiation.
      8. We know who won this argument. Eventually, around 1000, Ratramnus' book was condemned. It was known to the Protestant Reformers and used to their advantage. Britannica notes that the Catholics placed it on the Index of Forbidden Books from 1559 until 1900.
      9. In 1215, at the Fourth Lateran Council, the doctrine of transubstantiation was enshrined officially in Catholic dogma.
      10. Thomas Aquinas gave the doctrine its final polish, using teachings of Aristotle make a distinction between the substance of the elements, which are physically transformed into the body and blood, and the accidents of the elements, which retain their appearance as bread and wine.
      11. To us, this is sheer sophistry, and so it was to the Protestant Reformers.
      12. Without this growing magical interpretation of the Lord's Supper, the corresponding doctrine of the Mass could never have developed. Since the Lord's body and blood were indeed upon the altar in the church, the idea developed that the church was offering to God the actual body and blood of the Lord -- AGAIN. In fact, the sacrifice of the cross was re-performed every time the priest celebrated Mass. This was a meritorious act before God with saving significance to those that were in attendance, or those for whom the Mass was performed (e.g., rich people who paid to have masses said for their souls). This remains official Roman Catholic doctrine.
      13. To us Protestants, this two-pronged doctrine, as much as any other, constitutes the chief offense of the Roman system. It departs so radically and so completely from the early church, that in and of itself it begs for a new doctrine of the church, one in which the church may infallibly proclaim new dogmas at any point in its history, regardless of any scriptural or even historical precedent. And in fact, the Roman Church indeed has just such a doctrine of the church, and has recklessly used its dogma-making powers in many other ways, such as the constantly increasing elevation of Mary, which proceeds even to this day.


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Copyright © 1998, 1999 by Mark S. Ritchie. Permission is granted to use materials herein for the building up of the Christian Church. Bibliographic entries for published works quoted may be found in Bibliography page.