Something to Consider Teachers

When the student forgets the content, what will remain? A good teacher expects a loss of memory, but not a loss of form. If your students forget the content, you are not a bad teacher. If your students are not being formed and shaped, however, that forgetting is pure tragedy.

Source: Students Will Forget What You Teach, But So What?

HT: Trenton D. Leach


The Lost Tools of Learning and Vocational Education

If you ever apply to teach at a private school that uses the classical model of education, you will be asked to read Dorothy Sayers’ essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” and write a response to it. Recently I took the time to re-read “The Lost Tools of Learning” and write down some reflections. 

Understanding of the Content
Dorothy Sayer’s “Lost Tools of Learning” serves as a metaphor to compare the state of modern education to the classical model of education, commonly called the Trivium. Sayer’s presents its three stages; Grammar, Dialectic (sometimes called Logic) and Rhetoric. The grammar stage focuses on memorization where the basics building blocks are given to the student, with language, namely Latin at its center. The Dialectic stage focuses on reason where such building blocks are considered and used in argumentation and debate, with Formal Logic at its center. The Rhetoric stage focuses on the students freedom of expression, in speaking and writing. This is best seen in the art of oration and presentation of a thesis and defense. It is here that Sayer’s does not provide a center to its stage, but allows for freedom depending on the student’s future aspirations.

Reflection of the Content
To realize that the British public education system was struggling in the 1940’s with actually being able to educate their citizens well and that there were those who were picking up on it who were outside of the education community is both a relief and a concern.  A relief in that you hear a fellow laborer voicing the same concerns you feel in your heart and a concern in that it was almost 70 years ago that this was voiced and there has been no adequate answer. My faith in the Lord, this speech, the gullibility of the American public in a vote for change, and a memory of a destroyed, hopeless, and uneducated Germany after WWI has awakened a passion in me to be a part of the education of my fellow Christians. May we all learn to think critically and answer logically so we can answer intelligently for the hope that is in us and dispel the myth of the hope that is thought to be found in “government.”

A Practical Application
Sayer’s mentions the Quadrivium at the beginning of her and near the end of addressing the Rhetoric stage in the Trivium. Sayer’s writes, “What this amounts to is that the ordinary pupil, whose formal education ends at 16, will take the Trivium only; whereas scholars will take both the Trivium and the Quadrivium. Is the Trivium, then, a sufficient education for life? Properly taught, I believe that it should be.” I think Sayer’s brings a question that classical educators should consider or maybe re-consider when dealing with a student’s future. Does the student plan to enter the world at the age of 18 or pursue higher education? Often teachers (and parents) assume their students will (and must) go on to college to pursue their future aspirations and vocation. Sayer’s reminds her readers that not every student will go one to pursue higher education. In a country where college education has increased tremendously over the past ten years, students need to seriously consider if their future aspirations and vocation require higher education or would specialize and vocational education meet their needs. Teachers in classical education, who often lean towards higher education should encourage students that career and technological education is as admirable as higher education when it comes to choosing one’s vocation. 
Imagine a classically trained mind molded to be used as an electrician or plumber, maybe even a heavy machine operator that will likely be compensated greater than yourself, a classical educator.

The Liturgical Classroom and Virtue Formation

In this presentation The Liturgical Classroom and Virtue FormationJenny Rallens of the Ambrose School (Boise, ID), describes the ways in which educators can employ traditions, practices and routines (rooted in church liturgical practices) in order to enliven and deepen education and cultivate virtue in students. Those educators who have read James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom and Teaching and Christian Practices will find this presentation “required training” as Jenny has masterfully employed the insights of those books in her own classrooms.

Liturgies of Your Classroom
My dominate liturgies are One, setting up the class in a short burst of instruction (Rallens calls explanation) allowing for questions to be asked about its content and application every 10-15 minutes. Classes that may be longer than an hour, I often will attach a personal story, for example, to break up the time span of explanation to the students so that they find class both serious but humorous as well. Another liturgy I have used in the past is taking the first five minutes of class or at the end of class to ask the students how their weekend went, or what they are looking forward to. In the past, this has allowed for the class to get settled, learn about one another, and provides an experience to see their teacher cares more than only the class lecture and lesson, aka explanation.

Liturgies Practiced
Rallens idea of the liturgy is relative to the class and grade you are teaching (maybe because her examples all have something to do with literature and I am coming from a logical, historical and theological classroom setting). I do not see her fifth-grade example of experiencing a play while teaching Shakespeare to be as helpful in an upper school unless you have a class who in majority enjoys the fine arts. That may be common in classical education but is not the norm in other private and or public educational settings. What I mean by relative here is that the teacher needs to know the personalities of their students each year and within each class. The same liturgy’s experience the teacher provides his class will not always work year to year in applying the use of the topic’s explanation.

One of the liturgies I have implemented when teaching logic is the use of debate. I have taught Logic, an introduction to the informal fallacies and an introduction to building an argument to seventh and eighth graders in the past. Using debate allows the students to find fallacies within their opponents arguments and provides an opportunity where they can implement the use of building a proper argument for their constructive speeches in a debate. A second example of the liturgy is the use of a class covenant within my bible and theology classes. This allows for me to lay out a class structure that includes theological themes where the student might witness first hand the blessings and curses of following or at times breaking the rules of our class covenant.

Using Liturgies
History can use liturgies that place the student in the same ethical, moral, and historical setting where they have to discuss among their peers the situation and provide an answer on how they best would deal with the historical situation. Theology can use liturgies that apply truth to current day situation within the current moral decay of our nation. Logic can use the liturgies that apply the class content within a debate.

The way you learn what you learn is important for the student to both experience the truth and have it explained to them. Liturgy: To train affections, teach with experiences as well as explanations; The way we learn something is more influential than the something that we learn; The form of a lesson teaches as much as its content, or The way to a person’s heart is through their body. Thinking of the elective that I am schlepped to teach this coming fall semester on World Religions, one of the liturgies that come to mind is applying the various world religions of the Affiance, Yogic, and Abrahamic Traditions through the lens of a Christian worldview. For example; when covering Affiance primal religions on karma, provide real life situations for the students to consider where Christian’s allow for a pagan ideology such as karma to influence their Christian worldview. Allow for an assignment that grants the student and opportunity to share an experience within their own life where they may have allows world religion ideologies to indulgence their own Christian worldview and how they might re-consider their past experience.

Example Layout
Lectio: Chose and read a primary text from an African primal religion on karma.
Meditatio: Pray as we examine the texts and discuss its content in class.
Compositio: How do the texts and its ideology differ from a Christian worldview and theology.

Consider Discipline Before Disciplining

For those who teach pre-K through 12, the act of discipline is something teachers deal with weekly, if not at times daily in a classroom. In today’s culture, the role of the parent has either been nearly lost in public education or at times overly control by parents in private education. I recently listened to a helpful lecture,”The Heart of Covenant Discipline” by Matt Whitling at  

Understanding of the Content
Matt Whitling begins his lecture on “The Heart of Covenant Discipline” by asking his listener’s “what is their paradigm for parenting?” From there he establishes his premise that God’s covenantal relationship with mankind is how a parent might understand their role as a father and mother parenting a child. As Christian parents, we are called to imitate God, Ephesians 5:1, “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children.” This covenantal structure and imitating God is passed on to the teacher when a father and or mother places their child in the classroom of a teacher. This paradigm of God and his children gives parents and teachers the example in how they are to follow God in disciplining his children in love.

Reflection of the Content
Since discipline is an expression of love (Proverbs 13:24) and parents have entrusted us, as teachers, with their precious children, it is fully necessary that we follow through with discipline in the classroom. Discipline, as that specific portion of discipleship wherein a negative consequence is brought to bear against a specific sinful action, should be meted out in such a way that it helps the child to expose the idol that he is allowing to rule his heart at that time. By assisting the child to see what he was viewing as most important at the time he was in sin he can be directed through scripture to repent of a particular sin and begin the process of reconciling with God and the sinned against party(ies). If that discipline is met with rebellion the principal and ultimately the child’s parents will need to be notified so that that discipline can continue to be followed through with at home. The teacher should be in prayer for the child’s repentance and restoration throughout this process.

A Practical Application
The most practical application in Whitling’s lecture is the role of the teacher with the student’s parent(s). At times, I find myself on the defense when I receive emails or phone calls from a parent regarding a student in my class. Whitling’s argument is that if teachers were to understand their role in discipline, they would see such emails and phone calls as an opportunity to work with parents in training their children. When parents faithfully train their child, it should be seen as an act of love. Likewise, the teacher having been given a parent’s student should consider in every act of discipline how love is displayed like that of God dealing with his people. Here lies where the teacher looks forward to working with mom and dad in properly, in love, disciplining a child/student so they might see Christ greater afterwards than they did before.

Why Downplay Jihad for the Sake of Tolerance?

Popular writers in Western societies frequently argue that the term jihad does not mean “holy war” but, rather, a spiritual struggle. Attractive as this argument may be, there is little backing for it in either the traditional Muslim texts or in the work of more recent writers whose influence shapes modern Islam. Sunni and Shiite Muslims share a similar perspective that both jihad and the establishment of Sharia law are means of bringing freedom to all people so that they are free to choose to serve God. Jihad provides Muslims with a practical way of imposing God’s law (Sharia) on society to free people from their own evil inclinations and the evils encouraged by rulers who do not acknowledge the true law of God.  Jihad thus brings freedom through creating the conditions for the imposition of Islamic law on all people.

Despite popular Western interpretations that seek to dismiss anyone who holds such views as “extremist,” today’s perspectives are misleading. Jihad is indeed primarily a form of warfare waged in defense of Islam so that it is highly misleading to dismiss someone like Osama bin Laden as “extremist” or claim that he “didn’t understand Islam.” The truth is, those like bin Laden and their followers are convinced that Islam is under threat from the West and that Western values are undermining Muslim societies. In their own eyes, therefore, they are fighting a legitimate war (jihad) in defense of Islam. No matter what the intent of those who minimize the military aspects of jihad may be, it is misguided in light of both traditional interpretations and current Muslim understandings of jihad.

Islam, for Muslims, is a religion of peace in the sense that the imposition of Islamic rule brings areas under Muslim control to peace and order in accordance with Islamic teachings about the will of God. It is, therefore, a Pax Islamica which imposes peace by dominating all opponents by force. Areas remaining free from control by Muslim rulers are viewed as the “realm of war,” awaiting subjection to Islamic rule and the administration of Sharia law.

This is why Muslims throughout history have regarded “the Conquests” of the first century of the Muslim era as the second greatest miracle of Islam, after the reception of the Qur’an. To say “Islam is a religion of peace” is not at all the same thing as saying “Islam is a peaceful religion.” Nowhere in Islamic teachings will you find statements such as those made by Jesus to “love your neighbor as yourself” or “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” For the majority of Muslims worldwide, the primary meaning of jihad is a war on behalf of Islam. That being said, there are indeed small pockets of Muslims who prefer the notion of jihad as “spiritual struggle” rather than its traditional meaning of literal, physical warfare, but they are few and in-between. 

Eternal Punishment or Pluralism?

In this era of common grace, neither salvation nor condemnation are consummated. But God in his patience is not ignoring human rebellion; when Jesus returns, he will separate all humanity as sheep and goats, the former “into eternal life,” the latter “into eternal punishment” (Matt. 25:31, 41, 46). The Bible’s images of the last day are apocalyptic, but that does not mean they are unreal.

Contemporary views on salvation and condemnation may be classified as follows.

  • Pluralism—All religions are paths to God.
  • Inclusivism—Salvation comes through Christ but not exclusively through explicit faith in him.
  • Particularism—Salvation comes only through faith in Christ.

Most Christians who demur from particularism embrace inclusivism, which tends toward universalism without necessarily denying the possibility that some may be lost.

The concept of apokatastasis,or universal salvation, was taught in the early church by Origen but condemned by an ecumenical council. It has had some admirers throughout church history, although perhaps not going as far as Origen in positing the eventual salvation even of Satan. Some have located their universalism in God’s sovereign grace (verging on fatalism). Barth’s doctrine of universal election in Christ logically leads to this conclusion, although he would not explicitly endorse it. Moltmann is less reticent to advocate universal salvation. Arminian inclusivists, such as Clark Pinnock, believe that all God’s attributes are subservient to his love and that his will is the salvation of every person. Unlike for Barth and Moltmann, this means that salvation is in part dependent on the exercise of free will and that saving revelation can be mediated apart from the gospel.

There is no biblical warrant for pluralism; though redemption progresses and expands its scope throughout history, idolatry is never tolerated. As for inclusivism, apostolic preaching announces forgiveness for all who believe but also warns that apart from faith in Christ there is only a fearful expectation of wrath. While the reality of human rejection and rebellion is treated too lightly by inclusivists like Barth, human choice is given ultimate significance by those like Pinnock.

Still, we cannot conclude that God absolutely cannot save apart from explicit faith in Christ, for the following reasons.

  1. God is sovereign in his mercy and its exercise.
  2. Believers should not doubt the salvation of their infants whom God calls out of this life (see, e.g., 2 Sam. 12:23).
  3. We have no knowledge of what God may do in special cases (e.g., those who are mentally unable to understand his Word); we do not know what God might choose to do in any given circumstance, but we know he has promised to save all those who call on the name of his Son—alone—for salvation.

The doctrine of annihilationism does not question the scope of God’s mercy but questions the nature of the punishment of hell (annihilationists may be particularist or inclusivist). This view interprets Scripture as teaching that unbelievers are raised on the last day for final destruction rather than for everlasting, conscious torment. Because they are destroyed forever, Scripture can still speak of the everlasting nature of hell’s torments. Annihilationists claim that the notion of everlasting, conscious torment stems from the Greek idea of the intrinsic immortality of the soul. They argue for conditional immortality, granted only to the heirs of everlasting life. Various passages of Scripture speak of death and destruction as the ultimate fate of the wicked (e.g., Matt. 10:28; John 3:16).

Jesus’ language concerning the final separation of the saved and the lost describes punishment and life as equally “eternal” (Matt. 25:46). If everlasting life is unending, conscious joy, then the burden of proof lies with annihiliationists to explain why punishment should be understood as otherwise in duration. The critical point to be made from Scripture with respect to eternal punishment is not its degree or its duration but its horrifying reality as God’s personal judgment that is final and forever.

When Christ returns, cleansing the land in a final judgment, everything will be holy to the Lord. Revelation 21–22 describes the New Jerusalem as similar to the temple in Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 40–42), except that it is immeasurably more glorious and, crucially, it will be the final dwelling place of God with his people. The “Lord God Almighty and the Lamb” will be its temple (Rev. 21:22), and all who dwell there will eat freely from the Tree of Life, no longer suffering the curse or its consequences. The city and the temple encompass the heavens as well as the earth (Isa. 65:17; 2 Peter 3:13), built of countless living stones fashioned by God’s own hands (1 Peter 2:4–8) and filled with the knowledge and worship of the triune God.

Scripture’s portrait of heaven is far from bodiless spirits floating on clouds, playing harps. Nor should the apocalyptic language of 2 Peter 3:10–13 be taken to mean the literal disintegration of the present cosmos; Peter points us to the world’s radical transition from one condition (this present age) to another (the age to come). The hope of bodily resurrection underscores our anticipation of the final state as the redemption of nature rather than its oblivion. This creation will be wholly saved, yet wholly new.

More Than a Memory

Covenant meals both celebrate and ratify the treaty that has been made between the parties (e.g., Gen. 14:17–20; Exodus 12; 24:9–11). Those who receive by faith the reality the Lord’s Supper communicates—Christ and all his benefits—are sealed in the passage from condemnation and death to justification and life. Those who eat and drink without faith still receive Christ, but as Judge rather than Justifier (1 Cor. 11:29).

In our Western intellectual heritage (aka American Evangelicalism), “remembering” means recalling to mind a no longer present reality. This is worlds away from the biblical, Hebrew conception, which recognizes that “Do this in remembrance of me” denotes participating here and now in certain events that define and confirm both our past and future relationship with our covenant Lord. Like baptism, the Lord’s Supper is an eschatological sign and seal; we not only are nourished by Christ now but are being prepared for the wedding feast of the Lamb when Christ returns and ushers in the new creation (Luke 22:16, 18; 1 Cor. 11:26; Rev. 19:5–9).

Those who tend to separate the creaturely signs from the divine things they signify (e.g., Barth and many contemporary evangelicals) break apart the visible, historical, institutional church and its practices, on one hand, and the relatively unknown and unknowable true spiritual community of believers, on the other. This separation has often been linked to a weak doctrine of the work of the Spirit.

Those who tend to confuse signs and what is signified (e.g., Roman Catholicism and the Radical Orthodoxy movement) transform consecrated creaturely reality into something substantially different and replace the particular, natural body of Jesus Christ with his ecclesial body. The church’s proclamation is no longer the One who died, rose, and will come again but our own present manifestation of Christlikeness. Christ with all his benefits communicates himself to us, creating a church that is united to him but cannot replace him. We do not complete or continue Christ’s person and work but receive it and share it with others.

Challenges to Preaching

There is a dangerous tendency even in evangelical circles to reduce preaching either by one, to an expression of the minister’s personal experience or two, a general instruction in religion and morals (although example and instruction are good in themselves) moralism is not.

Remember, preaching is a means of grace only as the preacher repeats the Word he has received from God. Faith comes not by feeling, speculating, seeing, or striving, but by hearing the Word preached (Rom. 10:14–17).

A Means of Grace to Consider

Conceived by hearing the gospel (Rom. 10:17), the church never stops receiving its redemption and its identity from the living voice of God. The “two words” of the Word accomplish different things: the law convicts and directs, and the gospel justifies and gives life.

The new creation is effected in the church but not by the church; like the faith and new birth of its members, it is a creation of God’s Word (creatura verbi). Conceived by hearing, the church never stops receiving its redemption and its identity from the living voice of God. God’s both creative and redemptive. God’s Word is never inactive or ineffectual; by the Spirit’s power, it always accomplishes what the Father has spoken in his Son (Isa. 55:11). There is no opposition here between divine and human action. Within the appropriate covenantal context, the words of commissioned representatives—whose personality and characteristics are not overwhelmed in the process—actually bear God’s Word, accomplishing what it speaks. Only the written Word of the prophets and apostles occupies inspired canonical status, but the subsequent preaching of ministers communicates exactly the same Word, illuminated by the very same Spirit.

Preaching involves teaching, but it is much more; its sacramental role as a means of grace underlies the Reformation understanding. The proclamation of the gospel not only calls people to faith in Christ; it is the means by which the Spirit creates and strengthens this faith. It is critical to recognize that the “two words” of the living and active Word of God—the law and the gospel—accomplish different things. By speaking the law, God silences and convicts us; by speaking the gospel, he justifies and renews us. While everything that God speaks is true, useful, and powerful, only the gospel of God’s mercy in Christ gives life (Rom. 1:16; 10:15, 17; 1 Peter 1:23–25).

The Word of creates His community. Although private prayer and meditation on Scripture is crucial to the Christian life, God’s saving action is public and social from the outset—creating genuine community in Christ by the Spirit, rather than merely an aggregate of individuals who have decided to come together for excitement or convenience. The Word heard in preaching and visibly signified and sealed in the sacraments creates and sustains the community, as those who are called out of themselves to God and one another.

Prayer a Means of Grace or Not

Prayer is not strictly a means of grace but the fundamental expression of faith, in Spirit-enabled response to what God does through those means. Prayer is indispensable to our fellowship with God. Strictly speaking, it is not God’s means of grace toward us but their result: our Spirit-enabled response of believing and loving communication with him, whether in the form of joyous praise and thanksgiving or heartfelt lament. Prayer is also the link between God’s ministry to us, through the means of grace, and our ministry to others.

The goal of theology itself is a form of prayer—invocation, calling on the name of the Lord. And prayer is the original expression of true faith: coming boldly to the throne of grace without fear, through our gracious Mediator, who has given us the Spirit who moves us to cry, “Abba! Father!”

Abraham’s Clearer View of Christ’s Day

If the Messiah be anywhere symbolized in the Old Testament, he is certainly to be seen upon Mount Moriah, where the beloved Isaac, willingly bound and laid upon the altar, is a lively foreshadowing of the Wellbeloved of heaven yielding his life as a ransom. We doubt not that one great intent of the whole transaction was to afford Abraham a clearer view of Christ’s day; the trial was covertly a great privilege, unveiling as it did, to the patriarch, the heart of the great Father, in his great deed of love to men, and displaying at the same time, the willing obedience of the great Son, who cheerfully became a burnt offering unto God.

** Quote taken from C H Spurgeon, Christ in the Old Testament (Chattanooga, TN: AMG 1994), 39.

From Summit to Plummet

I cannot speak for the others, but I cannot get over the continual failure and falling of the once fighting fundamental classical dispensational school know as Baptists Bible College, currently named Summit Univeristy (of Pennsylvania), and to be named differently at a later date. Some have argued that it might show the better part of wisdom to refrain from making any type of comments on a public medium such as the blogosphere, Facebook and or Twitter. In this case, it might show the better part of wisdom to judge a school’s decision making; especially its constant wasteful spending. Sarah Hall covering the story writes,

Before Baptist Bible became Summit University last April, school officials knew of the Summit University in Montana, but thought the new official name — Summit University of Pennsylvania — was a big enough distinction.

How do you not check with the other school beforehand? The facts on Summit Univeristy’s part are not being given. But here is what is known to be true: One, SU knew the name was trademarked prior to changing it from BBC to SU, hence the additional “of PA” they included on the end of their name change. Two, SU was informed weeks after having made the name change that it was trademarked, and they could not keep it. Three, instead of changing it, to save face they hired lawyers to defend their name change. Four, After not having a case, here they are with 30-60 days to settle or else. One who might say “Didn’t Paul have something to say about things like this… aka, lawsuits” but consider a trademark is a trademark. The name Summit University was already trademarked, and taking that is nothing short of stealing. It is a shame the decision makers did not do basic due diligence while choosing a name. An alumni recently commented on SU’s issue;

Regardless of the facts of this particular situation, it says something about BBC/SU when you see the overwhelming response of alumni to such news. Most schools engender a certain amount of pride that cause their alumni to tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. The jokes, face palming, and head shaking is telling about what the legacy of the school is beyond the particular details of this case.

As an alumni, I cannot imagine the tens of thousands, possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars, spent on branding and re-marketing the school. In my opinion, everyone who was a part of the re-branding should be fired, including the CEO, but perhaps in this instance, it is probably not possible to find another CEO willing to take the job? If they ask alumnus opinions for re-naming, I recommend, The Classical Dispensational and Fighting Fundamental General Regular Baptist College of Pennsylvania. One, no one else will have trademarked it, and two, it will help quicken Summit’s rather painful to watch plummet to exist. Mel Walker, Vice President of SU comments on the issue, “We want to do the right thing… We’re committed to doing the right thing.” If such were true, then he’d own up for making such a pricy mistake. I’d rather see my alma mater continue forward, and not cease within the coming years. Maybe if they cared enough of their alumnus opinion’s they would not continue to make the same ill decisions over and over again.

Evangelicals and Millennials Rock the Vote

Recently, USA Today ran a piece  “Rock the Vote poll: Millennials’ agenda for the next president” summarizing four important issues at hand during the 2016 election. They write,

Get serious about converting to renewable energy, the under-35 generation says by an overwhelming margin, and require every gun buyer to undergo a background check. They endorse putting body cameras on police officers and accepting refugees from war-torn countries such as Syria.

While it is hard to nail down Millennials political ideology, baby boomer evangelicals find themselves in a similar confusing identity. Recently, Rev. Dr. John Piper provided an example of this confusion; Is an evangelical a political or theological commitment, and do not say both?

From his spiritualizing anti-gun post resonating with Millennials nationwide, “Should Christians Be Encouraged to Arm Themselves?” to his recent, unexplained justice tweets:

If “Black Lives Matter” matters, know why from their own website. . See What We Believe and Herstory.

“Slaves, obey your masters.” Really? 1 Peter 2:18-20 Look at the Book.

The enemy called terrorists kills his dozens in America. The enemy called love of self-preservation kills millions–forever.

The Western Medieval Church and Portents of Decline

Key Points during this time

  • The papacy of Innocent III marked the peak of papal power in the Middle Ages.
  • The mendicant orders represented the latest wave of ascetic renewal in the thirteenth century, expressed in the careers of Dominic and Francis of Assisi, and in the priorities and impact of the movements they started.
  • The intellectual revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries culminated in the development in the thirteenth of the universities, a third force in Christendom alongside the empire and the priesthood.
  • The career and legacy of the Dominican Thomas Aquinas constitute the crowning achievement of medieval Scholasticism; his project to synthesize Christian theology and Aristotelian thought was singularly influential in western Christian intellectual history.
  • The Franciscan order produced scholars who preserved Augustinian emphases on divine illumination, mysticism, and love, providing a counterpoint to Aquinas: Bonaventure, Roger Bacon, and Duns Scotus.
  • The Gothic art and architecture of the period emphasized harmony, verticality, space, and luminosity.
  • In the face of diminishing popular confidence in the structures of the church, numerous lay religious movements arose in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, prompting the Roman Catholic Church to attempt various measures of control, including the Inquisition.
  • The church and medieval structures of power struggled to cope with diverse religious elements in society, including Jews, the Cathari, expressions of vernacular theology such as the women’s Beguine movement, and expressions of female mysticism.
  • In the face of the Mongol conquests, the missions and vitality of the church in central Asia and China was sharply reduced.
  • The Second Council of Lyons met in 1274, ostensibly to further a project of reunion between West and East, but without lasting results.
  • Effective pastoral care and worship were in serious decline in the thirteenth century, as eschatological speculation and fanaticism increased.
  • In terms of its claims, the papacy of Boniface VIII marks the pinnacle of the development of medieval papal theory; in terms of actual effectiveness in the face of emerging national monarchies, it marks a period of grave decline.

Chapter Summary during this time

In several key areas, developments of the eleventh and twelfth centuries came to full fruition in the Western church of the thirteenth century. The papacy enjoyed the greatest measure of power and influence, best expressed in the accomplishments of pope Innocent III. He exercised a great deal of influence over major lay leaders, organized the Fourth Crusade, presided over the Fourth Lateran Council, and accommodated the emerging mendicant orders. These expressions of power matched the lofty claims he made concerning the role and authority of the papacy in society.

 In the thirteenth century, mendicant orders represented the latest wave of ascetic reform in the church. Emphasizing apostolic simplicity and resisting communal property, the mendicants exploited an increasingly urban society and monetary economy in order to establish highly influential orders. Dominic was a Spaniard whose followers (Dominicans) focused on preaching, the care of souls, combating heresy, and training in theology. Francis was the son of cloth merchant in Assisi. An early conversion experience led him to marry “Lady Poverty” and pursue a life of simplicity, and humility, preaching good news to the masses. Francis’ movement became very popular, also attracting women into a second order, the “Poor Clares,” and laypersons into a Third Order of people who sought to live by Francis’ ideals in secular life.

The intellectual revival of the Middle Ages culminated in the development of the universities in the thirteenth century. By organizing teachers and students into guild-like entities in such academic centers as Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, the universities became a third force in Christendom, alongside the empire and the priesthood. The presence of the mendicant orders and the availability of the entire corpus of Aristotle reinforced these developments. The greatest expression of Scholasticism in the universities was the person and work of Thomas Aquinas, a Dominican whose project to reconcile Aristotle with Christian theology made a deep impact on learning and Christian theology for centuries. By contrast, Franciscan scholars in the Augustinian tradition, like Roger Bacon, Duns Scotus, and especially Bonaventureemphasized divine illumination, mysticism, and love, providing a counterpoint to Aquinas’ Aristotelianism.

Lay piety in the thirteenth century was nurtured by devotion to the saints’ lives and Books of Hours. The contexts for Christian worship also changed, as Gothic art and architecture overtook the past Romanesque style. Gothic architecture emphasized harmony, verticality, space, and luminosity. The abbey church of St. Denis, the cathedrals of Chartres, Rheims, and Salisbury, and the striking design of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris exemplify the Gothic style. Stained glass was used to declare faith-forming narratives, and art that favored the suffering savior became more common. Mary was increasingly depicted as the queen of heaven, and the last judgment was depicted as an event offering salvation, not just condemnation.

In the wake of the dynamic developments of the twelfth-century, the thirteenth-century church saw numerous indicators of decline and difficulty. Among the most significant was the emergence of lay religious movements and vernacular theology, largely in response to the malaise of the institutional church. Groups such as the Humiliati and Flagellants appealed to those who sought more extreme expressions of piety. The Waldenses opposed the worldliness of the clergy, emphasizing poverty, vernacular scriptures, and public preaching. The emergence of women’s movements such as the Beguines, with distinctive female patterns of mysticism and religious experience, strained the church’s ability to acknowledge sincere piety on the one hand and cope with unusual forms of authority on the other. The presence of such diverse religious elements as the dualist Cathari (Albigensians) and influential Jews complicated the church’s struggle to find ways of dealing with the growing dissent without exacerbating the problems. The Inquisition was instituted to detect and punish heresy, and came under papal control in the thirteenth century.

The Byzantine emperor Michael Paleologus joined forces with pope Gregory X to attempt a reunion of East and West. Their aspirations culminated in the Second Council of Lyons (1274), though the council produced few tangible results. In central Asia and China, Mongol conquests sharply diminished the presence and impact ofChristian mission in those regions, and a brief period of renewal in the Syrian Orthodox church was followed by significant decline in vitality. The establishment of the “Solomonic dynasty” in Ethiopia (1270) ushered in a golden age of art and literature for the church in that realm.

Pastoral care and worship seemed particularly ineffective in the thirteenth century. The use of drama in worship and non-liturgical drama (e.g. Miracle Plays) were efforts to engage and instruct the laity in Christian belief and practice. Eschatological speculation and fanaticism flourished in the thirteenth century, inspired partly byJoachim of Fiore’s elaborate periodization of history and partly by the enthusiasm of “spiritual Franciscans,” who looked for the dawning of a new age and judgment against a corrupt church establishment. The Florentine magistrate Dante Alighieri made a pilgrimage to Rome in 1300; his disgust for the corruption of the papacy led him to write Divine Comedy, a poetic synthesis of the thirteenth century.

Although many looked to Celestine V as a potential savior, he was an ineffective pope. His ambitious successor Boniface VIII sought to counter the rising power of national monarchies by issuing a bull to limit the ability of lay leaders to exercise authority over clergy, and another, to state the unparalleled authority of the papacy. The latter bull, Unam sanctam, well summarizes the developed papal theory of the Middle Ages and even insists that salvation is contingent on submission to the pope. Yet Boniface’s efforts were largely ineffective, and shortly after his death the papacy was moved to Avignon, where it resided for nearly seventy years, under the influence of French monarchs.

The Papal Reform Movement, The Rise of Scholasticism, Monastic, Literary, Political, and Cultural Activities

Key Points during this time 

  • The papal revival of the eleventh century climaxed in the papacy of Gregory VII.
  • Conflict over lay investiture became the defining issue, expressing competing views of kingship and the proper relationship between church and state.
  • Numerous factors help explain the significance of the conflict between King Henry IV of Germany and Pope Gregory VII over lay investiture, including the imperial and papal revivals, the church’s entanglement in feudalism, and politics in Germany and Italy.
  • Through a display of penance, Henry IV gained a tactical victory over Gregory VII, but the papacy won the moral victory in securing the symbol of imperial humility before the pope.
  • Multiple factors played into the development of the First Crusade, including the evolution of penance, changing views about the church’s role in warfare, the influence of Islam, the practice of pilgrimage, and a desire to reunite the church.
  • Pope Urban II responded to the Byzantine emperor’s pleas for help by preaching the First Crusade, offering papal indulgences to crusaders and helping mobilize French nobles to lead the armies.
  • Although the First Crusade contributed to the deterioration of many relationships, the capture of select targets brought western military rule to the Holy Land for a period. Knightly monastic orders arose to protect the conquered lands and safeguard pilgrims.
  • The twelfth century saw an intellectual revival in medieval culture and the Western church, based on the kind of teaching and learning that occurred in cathedral schools.
  • Scholasticism was based on confidence in human reason and used a dialectical method of disputation to engage authorities and arguments in order to resolve problems, particularly those connected to the philosophical question of universals.
  • Scholastic methods and changing positions on the question of universals transformed the ways scholars engaged and debated such doctrines as the Eucharist, the incarnation, the church, and the atonement.
  • Anselm of Canterbury and Peter Abelard are the most significant representatives of early Scholasticism, whose work and teaching shaped the assumptions, aims, and methods of intellectual inquiry in western culture for centuries.
  • Church reform and renewal in the twelfth century was triggered largely by increased monastic vitality and new expressions of monasticism, the most influential of which was the Cistercian reform of Benedictine monasticism.
  • The Cistercian leader Bernard of Clairvaux was the guiding spiritual influence of the age.
  • A lasting synthesis between the monastic spirituality of Bernard and the dialectic methods of Abelard was achieved through the work of such luminaries as Hugh of St. Victor and Peter Lombard.
  • Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements, to shape the Christian art and architecture of the tenth through twelfth centuries.
  • A growing preoccupation with saints, their sites, and their relics—and especially Mary—shaped the popular piety of western Christianity, along with developments in music and poetry.
  • Rhythms of competition, antagonism, and cooperation continued to characterize church-state relations in the twelfth century, most evident in the relations between the papacy and emerging national monarchies. The Third Crusade was a failed expression of the impulse to cooperate.
  • Key developments occurred in the national Eastern churches in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. 

Summary of events during this time

Pope Nicholas II (1058–61) was apparently the first pope to be crowned like a king or emperor, signaling strong development of the papal monarchy in the eleventh century. The eleventh-century papal reform reached its climax in Gregory VII, a staunch opponent of simony and advocate for church independence from lay control. Gregory VII’s ambitions to fortify a strong papacy were best expressed in his fight against lay investiture. Lay investiture was the bestowing of the symbols of spiritual office in the church by lay rulers. Due to the church’s continued entanglement in feudal society, lay investiture had become a normal practice, but Gregory VII rejected the view of church/state relations it implied; Gregory affirmed a view of kingship that kept it subservient to spiritual authority, and to the pope in particular.

Triggered by Gregory VII’s excommunication of certain advisors of Henry IV of Germany as “simoniacs” due to their lay investiture, pope and emperor exchanged condemnations, resulting in the pope’s excommunication of the emperor and the pronounced deposition of the pope by Henry’s clerics. The conflict culminated in an episode at Canossa in 1077, where Henry walked barefoot through the snow in an apparent effort to gain Gregory’s forgiveness. Grudgingly, Gregory declared Henry forgiven, after which Henry continued to behave as authoritatively as before. Gregory fled in exile, but through his efforts the papacy gained the potent symbol of an emperor humbled before the pope. A final settlement of the issue of lay investiture was reached by Henry V and Callistus II at the Concordat of Worms in 1122, a decision later ratified at the First Lateran Council of 1123.

Numerous factors helped form the background to the First Crusade, including developments in the sacrament of penance, the acceptance of a Christian’s participation in warfare, the expansion of the role of knights, the influence of Islam’s concept of holy war, the papalization of warfare, the practice of pilgrimage, and the desire to reunite the church. Prompted by the Byzantine emperor’s plea for help and a host of background factors, Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade at Clermont in 1095. A number of French nobles combined forces and set out in 1096, fighting to conquer Nicaea, Dorylaeum, Antioch, Edessa, and Jerusalem, which fell in 1099. They established Latin states and Latin patriarchs, securing key cities and routes for transit and pilgrimage. 

In many respects, the Crusades hindered relations between Christians and Muslims and even between the Eastern and Western churches, though they did promote a greater sense of unity in Western Europe, strengthened the papacy, and helped trigger an intellectual revival in Western Europe. Knightly monastic orders, such as the Knights Templar and the Hospitallers, combined the crusader warrior culture and the ideals of monasticism. They functioned to protect crusader interests in the Holy Land, to care for the sick and injured and to provide safe corridors of passage for pilgrims.

As learning moved from monastic environments to cathedral schools, an intellectual revival occurred in western culture, marked by the rise of Scholasticism. Focused at first on the interpretation of authoritative biblical and patristic texts, Scholasticism presumed a high confidence in the ability of human reason to acquire knowledge. Using the method of dialectical reasoning and collecting authorities and arguments on a question, Scholasticism sought to establish knowledge on the basis of reason alone. The scholars were particularly concerned with the question of universals and their relationship to particular things. Extreme realists (e.g. Anselm) held to the Platonic notion that universals have a real existence apart from and prior to individuals; nominalists (e.g. William Ockham) held that universals are merely inferences drawn from observation and have no real existence; moderate realists (e.g. Thomas Aquinas) held to the Aristotelian notion that universals are real but always exist in actual individuations.

Within the framework of Scholasticism, discussions about universals shaped the formulation of such basic Christian doctrines as those of the church, Trinity, incarnation, atonement, and Eucharist. In the second eucharistic controversy, Berengar taught against the popular belief of the real presence of the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, on the basis of Aristotle’s understanding that the accidents of the bread cannot exist apart from the bread’s substance. Building on the counter arguments of Lanfranc, Cardinal Humbert, and others, Guitmund defended the popular view using the new scholastic methods, explaining that the substance of the bread was changed into the body and blood of Christ. This understanding of the transformation (transubstantiation) became official dogma of the Western church, confirmed in the Fourth Lateran Council (1215).

 Anselm of Canterbury is considered the “Father of Scholasticism” due to his attempts to demonstrate the doctrines of Christianity on the basis of reason. Although routinely at odds with the English royalty in his desire to assert the church’s independence, Anselm found opportunity to write major texts that influenced the shape of scholasticism and the adoption of its methods. Characterized as “faith seeking understanding,” Anselm’s approach brought him to argue the case for God’s existence in the Monologion and Proslogion, and to present a theory of the atonement in Cur deus homo: the satisfaction/sacrificial theory. Couched in contractual terms and using the categories of feudalism, the satisfaction theory became more popular than either Abelard’s moral-exemplary theory or the ransom theory of the church fathers, helping to secure the place of the Eucharist and penance as the main sacraments by which people understood and participated in the meaning of their Christian belief.

 Peter Abelard represents a further development in Scholasticism. A brilliant teacher in Paris, Abelard’s character, personality, and views made him highly controversial. He sought an even higher place for human reason than Anselm allowed, pursuing a program of “doubting in order to know,” and attacking perceived errors and inconsistencies in the thinking of others and in the traditions of the church. Abelard’s love affair with Heloise resulted in scandal that disrupted his academic career; his unconventional teachings, tinged with personal arrogance, brought him into conflict with Bernard of Clairvaux and the pope. Condemned at a council of Sens in 1140, Abelard was eventually reconciled to the church. In Sic et non, he arranged opposing quotations from the Bible and the church fathers on various questions, inciting controversy but also establishing Scholasticism’s favorite method of studying a problem. Abelard proposed a disciplined method by which to treat differences in texts, in Know Yourself he upheld the importance of motives in assessing ethics, and he presented the moral-exemplary theory of the atonement. But his influence was primarily that of a teacher, since many of his students came to be influential scholars and church leaders. Although in many respects the forerunners of modern academics, scholastic theologians did not distinguish sharply between philosophy and theology. Furthermore, they nearly all had an element of mysticism in them.

The twelfth century saw a kind of “renaissance” in many different facets of culture and Christian practice. An increase in conversions to the monastic life and new expressions of monasticism infused the church with fresh vitality. Groups such as the Camaldolese, the Carthusians, and the Premonstratensians emphasized radical expressions of austerity. The Augustinian Canons provided skilled and committed clergy for the cathedrals. Most influential of all were the Cistercians, a dynamic reform that sought to recapture primitive Benedictine monasticism through simplicity, hard work, and seclusion. Bernard of Clairvaux was the most important Cistercian leader. Bernard warned against the excesses of ostentatious art, ornate liturgy, wealth and the dangers of the new dialectic and an exaggerated confidence in human reason. Focusing on traditional theology and personal devotion, Bernard became the guiding spiritual influence of the age. He stressed humility, devotion to Mary, and a loving, mystical relationship with God.

Hugh of St. Victor and the teachers of St. Victor’s in Paris achieved a synthesis of the new dialectic and traditional personal spirituality. He composed the first medieval synthesis of theology, a Christocentric treatment of sacraments that underscored the sacramental nature of all creation. Peter Lombard pursued Hugh’s agenda further, yet in ways that relied even more deeply on Abelard’s dialectic. His Four Books of Sentences constituted a clear and systematic treatment of Christian doctrine. It won official approval and came to serve as the basic medieval textbook in theology. John Gratian’s Decretum became the standard treatment of canon law. Aristotle was more fully disseminated and integrated into Christian thought by Otto of Freising and John of Salisbury. Though female, the abbess Hildegard of Bingen effectively preached her prophetic visions of judgment and composed a number of influential writings. Arabic philosophers and Jewish thinkers made significant contributions to western learning in the twelfth century as well.

Romanesque style combined Roman and Byzantine features with local elements to produce a distinctive art and architecture. The buildings were solid, simple, and permanent. Sculpture and painting were abstract, solemn, and majestic. Sacred music became more complex due to the development of polyphony; vernacular poetry celebrated courtly love, both affirming and subverting social norms of virtue and gender. Canonizing saints became the prerogative of the pope in the twelfth century.Saints were central to popular piety, especially Mary, revered as the Queen of Heaven. The practice of pilgrimage grew alongside devotion to the stories of the saints and the power of their relics. Pious activities and good works were understood to impact positively a person’s experience of purgatory.

 Church-state relationships continued to be tense in the twelfth century, most evident in the ongoing rivalries between the papacy and the emergent national monarchies. Though led by strong, flamboyant rulers, and giving rise to many romantic tales, the Third Crusade was a failure, accomplishing little. A tragic indicator of the strained relationship between the state and the church was the assassination of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, by king Henry II’s agents. As secular governments became better organized, the institutional life of the church did so as well. In the East, the Christian cultures of Georgia and Armenia reached new heights, the Serbians became staunchly Orthodox, Greek Orthodox scholars had significant accomplishment, and Eastern monasticism was revitalized. 

Western Church from the Seventh to Eleventh Centuries

Key Points during this time

  • In the clash between Celtic and Roman styles of Christian expression, a hybrid form emerged, loyal to Rome and Roman forms yet retaining many elements of the Celtic spirit.
  • Missionary-monks from Ireland and England helped restore, reform, and expand the church on the European continent.
  • The reign of Charlemagne and the Carolingian dynasty marked a season of relative peace and stability for much of Western Europe, with significant developments in Christian expansion, church-state relations, Benedictine monasticism, scholarship, theology, and church organization.
  • By the ninth century, Christian ritual and belief was coming to pervade the daily lives of many in medieval Europe, though various non-Christian elements persisted.
  • The Carolingian period saw a number of theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the Eucharist, the filioque, and religious art.
  • In the seventh–ninth centuries, the papacy moved decisively towards a papal monarchy, and the groundwork was laid for the medieval synthesis of church and state.
  • After a period of marked decline in the ninth and tenth centuries, revival in the institutions of monasticism, the imperial office, and the papacy set the stage in the eleventh century for the medieval synthesis.
  • The Norse and Viking invasions disequilibrated medieval culture, though the invaders were converted and Christianized in the tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Church structures, especially the papacy, descended more deeply into feudalism during the ninth and tenth centuries.
  • Largely as a result of its autonomy from feudal structures, the monastery of Cluny was able to promote a sweeping reform of monasticism, thereby transforming the church’s impact on the society of the late tenth and eleventh centuries.
  • Imperial power passed from the Franks to the German Ottonian dynasty, key representatives of which supported church reform.
  • Reform-minded monarchs supported the installation of reforming popes such as Leo III, who transformed the papacy and helped lift it out of its feudal entanglements.
  • During an era when reforms in the Western church supported an independent papacy, tensions with the Eastern church came to a head in the controversy between Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Michael Cerularius, resulting in the Great Schism of 1054.

Summary of events during this time

Though Christianity came to Britain prior to the collapse of the western Roman Empire, the withdrawal of Roman troops and subsequent invasions did not allow for its continued flourishing there. A Celtic form of Christianity came from Ireland to impact Scotland and northern England in the sixth century. Its clash with the Roman mission in England, brought by Augustine of Canterbury in 596, resulted in a sort of hybrid form of Christianity, combining Roman loyalties, structures, and liturgy with Celtic elements of passion, mission-mindedness, and a concern for purity. Anglo-Saxon missionary-monks like Winfrid (Boniface) ventured to the European continent, gaining the patronage of kings and popes in order to accomplish the work of restoring and reforming the church in some areas, while converting pagans in others. In many respects, they and their monastic foundations acquired the task of Christianizing the many converts from paganism, who struggled to distinguish the requirements of their Christian identity from the practices and attitudes of their pre-Christian society.

In the eighth century, Frankish power shifted from the kings of the Merovingian dynasty to the descendants of the Mayor of the Palace, Charles Martel, i.e. the Carolingians. An alliance between the pope and Martel’s son Pippin III, confirmed by papal anointing in 754, culminated in the Pope Leo III’s crowning of Pippin’s son Charlemagne as emperor in Rome on Christmas day, 800. Charlemagne was an ambitious and capable ruler, inspired by Augustine’s City of God, who saw his temporal role as integral to the purposes of God’s kingdom in the world. As a result of Carolingian rule, a period of peace and stability enabled wide-ranging developments in church organization, art, architecture, literature, and theology. The Carolingian renaissance saw the creation of schools, especially the court school at Aachen under the scholar Alcuin, as well as numerous other intellectual developments. These included several theological controversies, including debates about predestination, the true nature of the elements in the Eucharist, the filioque, and the place of religious art in worship. Charlemagne required the baptism of Saxon infants, assisted the church in such tasks as the collection of tithes, and took an active role in appointing church leaders, defining organizational boundaries, and settling theological disputes.

While the Carolingians consolidated power and influence, the papacy also moved towards a papal monarchy, assisted by the extensive claims of the mostly forgedPseudo-Isidorean Decretals. The partnership between the pope and Carolingian rulers was occasionally tense, yet it served to synthesize further the aims of church and state, blending the character of political and religious offices. By the end of the ninth century, the foundations for medieval Christian Europe had been laid.

Largely due to the invasions of Norseman and Vikings, Western Europe was greatly destabilized in the ninth and tenth centuries. The church became deeply entangled in the feudalism that developed in response to the instability. Imperial weakness and clerical corruption was paralleled by a significant decline in the character of the papacy. The migrating Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Czechs, Poles, and Magyars were converted and Christianized.

The establishment of the Benedictine monastery of Cluny in 909/10 was a watershed for renewal. Granted autonomy from lay interference, the monks of Cluny developed a program of reform that focused on clerical celibacy, the church’s independence from lay interference, and the need to Christianize society more fully, through such practices as the restriction of bloodshed and feuding.

The Saxon kings of the Ottonian dynasty instigated an imperial revival, adopting the imperial title and becoming involved in church affairs. Otto I (the Great) in particular was an advocate of Cluniac reform in the church, strengthening abbots and bishops partly for the sake of controlling the dukes and counts. The Saxons were succeeded by the Salian dynasty, of which Henry III provides a link between the imperial and papal revivals. Henry III worked to lift it out of its entanglements in local Italian politics, though he did so by means of controlling appointments to the papacy himself.

Leo IX represents the culmination of the cycles of revival as they impacted the papacy. Designated by the emperor, he insisted on receiving the election of the Roman people before assuming office. He brought Cluniac ideals to the papacy, along with a number of like-minded, strong associates. Internationalizing the college of cardinals and filling it with reformers, he consolidated a dynamic new vision for the church at Rome and its role in Christendom. A strong advocate of papal primacy, Leo sent his associate Humbert to Constantinople to treat with Patriarch Michael Cerularius, ostensibly for the purpose of achieving unity between the increasingly estranged Western and Eastern churches. However, the socio-political contexts of the two churches were so different and the issues so intractable that the result of the mission was an exchange of excommunications, marked by the Great Schism of 1054.

The Nature of Union with Christ

The nature of union with Christ may be described according to three aspects.

  1. Mystical—Our individual and corporate union with Christ far transcends all earthly relationships in its spiritual intimacy, its transformative power, and its everlasting blessings; this also clearly distinguishes Christ’s mystical body from his personal human body.
  2. Legal—When a person trusts Christ, he or she is granted the complete and everlasting inheritance of the sons and daughters of God; this is the basis for God’s righteous bestowal of all the other gifts of union
  3. Organic—On the basis of justification, the Spirit grants all the other gifts and benefits of Christ; being grafted into the vine, we now draw sustenance from him and bear good fruit in him (John 15:1–17)

Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

Key Points of Understanding Eastern and Western Churches

  • After the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, the Eastern church experienced a three-way split between the Church of the East (“Nestorians”), Chalcedonians, and Miaphysites/Henophysites, each with its key leaders and trajectory of later development.
  • During the emperor Justinian’s reign, the empire experienced its first flourishing of Byzantine culture.
  • Justinian sought to achieve unity in the empire, involving himself in the Theopaschite, Origenist, and Three Chapters controversies, without accomplishing lasting theological unity.
  • Justinian’s Byzantine culture saw marked developments in law, reconquest of territories, architecture, liturgy, art, theology, and popular devotion.
  • The monastic legacy of Benedict of Nursia and the “monkish papacy” of Gregory the Great combined to establish structures, practices, and expectations that would characterize ecclesial leadership through the Middle Ages.
  • The great liturgies were formalized in the sixth–seventh centuries, with the result that several distinct families were in use in different areas.
  • From the time of the barbarian invasions of the fifth century, Eastern and Western expressions of Christianity may be distinguished according to different theological emphases, organization, and engagement with society.
  • The monotheletism promoted by church leaders and emperors as a means by which to accomplish unity was condemned in the Sixth Ecumenical Council, Constantinople III (680–81), defeated by a lasting reticence to revise Chalcedon and by the Christology typified in Maximus the Confessor.
  • The rise of Islam and its dramatic spread in the seventh and eighth centuries transformed the shape of the empire, posed significant challenges to the church, and prompted a series of Christian responses.
  • The iconoclasm sponsored by military emperors in the eighth and ninth centuries was refuted in the Seventh Ecumenical Council, Nicaea II (787), defeated by popular piety and by the incarnational theology typified in John of Damascus.
  • The Photian Schism illustrates the complexities of Byzantine church politics and the growing differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church.
  • Middle Byzantine culture saw developments in monasticism, literature, liturgy, popular piety, art, and architecture that would characterize the Byzantine church from that period forward.
  • Byzantine missionaries and missionaries from the Church of the East established Christianity in Moravia, Bulgaria, Russia, Central Asia, China, India, Korea, and Japan.

Summary of Events

Before Justinian came to power, in the aftermath of the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, three different groups could be clearly distinguished in the Christian East.The Church of the East rejected Ephesus in favor of a stronger emphasis on the duality of Jesus Christ (“Nestorians”). The Chalcedonians adhered to the formulation of 451 and enjoyed a strong measure of imperial support. The Henophysites/Miaphysites (“Monophysites”) understood themselves to be more faithful followers of Cyril of Alexandria. They upheld an emphasis on Christ’s unity, rejecting Chalcedon and thereby prompting official repression. Each of the three streams experienced distinct processes of development, guided and informed by its own leaders. The Church of the East flourished in Persia and outside the Roman Empire. Within the empire, attempts on the part of emperors and church leaders to find a formulation that would satisfy Henophysites and Chalcedonians were ultimately unsuccessful.

Justinian’s rule (527–65) saw the first flowering of Byzantine culture, with major developments in law, art, liturgy, architecture, and theology. His efforts to regain lost territory brought Byzantine influence into Western provinces. In the face of continued disunity, Justinian got involved in several theological controversies, culminating in the Fifth Ecumenical Council (553), the result of which was the condemnation of the Three “Nestorian” Chapters. His efforts to reconcile Miaphysites were unsuccessful. Justinian’s time was marked by the construction of grand church buildings and monasteries, creative developments in art and liturgy, and the growth of Mariology. In the West, the career and influence of Benedict of Nursia (d. 540) supplied the foundation of Western monasticism for centuries. With papal support, the Benedictine style of monasticism, with its emphasis on stability, authority, and moderation, came to be adopted throughout Western Europe. Gregory the Great (590–604) brought monastic ideals to the papacy and established lasting patterns for the functioning of the papal office and the Roman church. Combining ascetic discipline and strong administrative capabilities, Gregory’s leadership was characterized by a strong sense of the need for pastoral care.

The great liturgies arose in the fourth-fifth centuries and were formalized in sixth-seventh centuries. A number of factors favored the use of fixed liturgies, and several different families developed in both Eastern and Western churches. More pronounced than liturgical differences were the deep differences between the Eastern Orthodox and the Western Roman Catholic churches. Partly due to the impact of barbarian invasions in the West, the two branches of Christianity proceeded along different trajectories, in theological emphasis, organization, and conceptions regarding the proper place of the church in its social context.

During the era of the great emperor Heraclitus, continuing efforts to unify Chalcedonian and Miaphysite Christians in the empire led to the proposal of monotheletism, emphasizing the unity of will in Jesus Christ. The view was ultimately rejected in the sixth ecumenical council, Constantinople III (680–81), at which the Christology of Maximus the Confessor was adopted instead, becoming deeply influential in Orthodox theology. The Roman church worked to affirm the orthodox legacy of monothelete-leaning Pope Honorius.

The rise of Islam was sudden and devastating to the Byzantine Empire and church. As a preacher of radical monotheism, Muhammad attracted many followers, who conquered large portions of Persian, Byzantine, and even Roman territory. Christian response to Islam shows a rapid process of development in thought and engagement. Certain militaristic Byzantine emperors adopted iconoclastic policies for the sake of purifying Christian practice, though the lengthy and difficult battle over the use of icons as objects of devotion resulted in the affirmation of icon veneration at the seventh ecumenical council, Nicaea II (787). John of Damascus’ incarnational theology prevailed, shaping Eastern Orthodox attitudes towards icons, religious art, and worship.

The Photian Schism resulted from the complexities of Byzantine church politics and conflicts between Orthodox and Roman churches. It illustrates the deepening differences between Byzantine and Roman expressions of Christianity and church. The Middle Byzantine period saw a dramatic flourishing of culture, expressed in Orthodox asceticism, church buildings, mosaic art, iconography, literature, and liturgy. In contrast to Roman missions, Eastern missionary efforts allowed churches to organize themselves along national or ethnic lines, in terms of language and polity. During the seventh–eleventh centuries, churches were established in many different regions, including Moravia, Russia, Hungary, India, China, Central Asia, Korea, and Japan.

Germanic Migrations, Doctrinal Developments, and the Papacy

Key Points during this time

  • The church was one of the principal institutions in Western Europe to survive the collapse of the ancient Roman Empire.
  • Ulfilas converted many Goths to a Christianity that was largely Arian, and its church exhibited distinctive features of organization, belief, and practice as a result of its Germanic context.
  • The movements and conquests of German tribes transformed Western Europe during the fifth and sixth centuries, the most impactful being the Franks under Clovis and the Ostrogoths under Theodoric.
  • The Germanic invasions had lasting effects on society and the churches; a number of Christian authors sought to explain the significance of the Germanic conquests in different ways.
  • The Augustinian-Pelagian controversy was practically resolved in favor of a “Semiaugustinianism” championed by Caesarius of Arles, a compromise view that would come to dominate the Western medieval theology.
  • A combination of circumstances and strong leadership contributed to the elevation of the role of Roman bishop (pope) to a status of primacy among Western bishops.

Various dates are proposed for the beginning of the Middle Ages, and different views exist as to why the Western Roman empire collapsed, but historians agree that deep transitions occurred in society and the church in connection with the empire’s decline. The church was the principal institution to survive the end of the empire. Ulfilas brought an Arian interpretation of the Gospel to the Goths, translating the scriptures into their language, and adapting early Germanic Christianity to its context. Clergy organized according to the clan culture, functioned as military chaplains, and supported “proprietary churches” closely associated with lay patrons.

Different tribes moved into various parts of Europe in the fifth and sixth centuries. The Vandals settled in North Africa, persecuting catholic Christians and threatening Italy. TheVisigoths dominated Spain, where a synod in Toledo added the filioque clause to the creed, fortifying the Son’s divine status. The Franks settled in what would become Northern France. Their king Clovis and his men converted to catholic Christianity in the late fifth century; his long and effective rule strengthened the Merovingian dynasty. The Ostrogothsmoved into Italy. Under Theodoric, they preserved aspects of the late Roman culture they admired. For instance, statesmen and scholars such as Boethius, Dionysius Exiguus, and Cassiodorus helped transmit the learning of past generations into the Middle Ages. The Lombards moved into Italy in the late sixth century.

Literary responses to the barbarian invasions exhibit three basic viewpoints: that of Augustine, who held that political success and failure are irrelevant to God’s purposes; that of Orosius, who held that Christianity was meant to be the guarantor of the empire’s welfare; and that of Salvian, who saw the invasions as an expression of God’s punishment of the empire. Germanic incursion had marked effects on society and on the church. The church disappeared from some places, yet where it had been well established it adapted to the emerging rural economy, took over many public services, and supplied a universal sphere of authority that transcended that of local kings.

The Pelagian-Augustinian controversy culminated in the formulation of “Semiaugustinianism,” championed by Caesarius of Arles and upheld in the Synod of Orange (529). This view became the prevalent medieval view. It confirmed original sin and the need for prevenient grace, yet it held that baptism renews the ability of human beings to choose and do good, thereby supporting a pastoral emphasis on the efficacy of good works. The fourth and fifth centuries saw dramatic development in the role and status of the bishop of Rome, i.e. the papacy. The need for strong leadership in Rome became especially acute as the structures of empire dissolved. Over time, the pope came to be elevated above other bishops, acquiring the status of appellate court, the highest teaching office, and the vicar of Peter, responsible for pastoring the other bishops. These conceptions were more compelling in the Western church, and largely contested or ignored in the East. The church and especially the papacy enjoyed a greater independence of action and status from the state in the West. Leo I was “the first pope;” his methods, policy, and ideals outline the powers and role of the future papacy.

Understanding Augustine, Pelagius, and Semipelagianism

Key Points during this time.

  • Augustine of Hippo came to be one of the most influential thinkers in western Christianity, shaped by a variety of life experiences culminating in his dramatic conversion to Christianity.
  • Augustine left a voluminous quantity of writings that have become classics in western Christianity, addressing theology, ecclesiology, exegesis, and spirituality.
  • In response to Donatism, Augustine formulated influential understandings of the sacraments and the church
  • In response to Pelagianism, Augustine formulated controversial but impactful understandings of divine predestination and election, salvation, and human sexuality
  • Pelagius and Celestius were moralizing reformers whose views on human free will prompted fierce controversy, especially in Rome and North Africa, resulting in their condemnation in multiple councils
  • John Cassian, Vincent of Lerins, and others reacted to Augustine’s extreme views on divine election, holding to a position that allows a greater role for human free will in salvation, a view known as “Semipelagianism”

Due to the personal reflections he composed, we know more about Augustine’s life background and journey to Christian faith than we do most other patristic writers. His voluminous corpus of works illuminates our understanding of his pastoral career as bishop of Hippo and of the critical controversies of his setting. His writings have had a profound effect on western Christianity in most of its facets, covering theology, spirituality, exegesis, and numerous items involving pastoral care.

In response to Donatist emphases on purity, Augustine argued for an objective understanding of the sacraments’ effectiveness. He taught that a sacrament properly done, with the correct words spoken, was fully effective to the activity of God, irrespective of the purity of the administrator or the faithfulness of the church. Originally formulated to address the damaging effects of the Donatist schism, Augustine’s objective view of the sacraments became standard in western Christianity until challenged during the Reformation.

Pelagius was a moralizing reformer from Britain who taught in Rome and Palestine; his follower Celestius was also in Rome, in North Africa, and Sicily. They taught that humans had freedom of will to choose the good, that Adam’s sin laid down a bad example but did not convey actual guilt or weakness to other people, that it is possible for humans to do what is right and that some had in fact lived without sin, even before Jesus Christ. In response, Augustine formulated doctrines of original sin and divine election that came to exercise deep influence throughout the Middle Ages. He taught that Adam’s sin involved the entire human race in a fall, transmitting original sin through sexual activity, so that people are incapable of acting good or even exercising true faith on their own, without the intervening grace of God. In his grace, God elects some for salvation, working in their souls to trigger faith and restore their free will. Augustine points to the church’s tradition of infant baptism as evidence for his doctrine of original sin.

Though Pelagius, Celestius, and other followers of Pelagianism were condemned in multiple councils, not everyone followed Augustine’s extreme understandings of divine election either. Leaders such as John Cassian and Vincent of Lerins represent a “semipelagian” position, which allows a greater role for free will in human salvation. Cassian was also known for formalizing the fourfold method of reading scripture and Vincent for formulating the classic statement of the church’s doctrine on the role of tradition, both of which exercised great influence throughout the Middle Ages.

The Spirit’s Ongoing Ministry

Fulfilling Christ’s Pledge in the Upper Room Discourse (John 14–16)
Just as the Spirit is at work upholding creation and bringing about its fruitfulness even amid sin and corruption, so the Spirit also brings about the reality and fruitfulness of the new creation, inwardly convicting us of God’s judgment and convincing us of God’s mercy in Christ. In John 14–16, Jesus highlights three aspects of the Spirit’s mediation of Christ’s gracious reign.

  1. The Spirit’s ongoing ministry is judicial (16:8). The Spirit is sent to convict sinners of their sin and to convince them of God’s judgment and the free grace of Christ’s righteousness.
  2. As the Son is the embodiment of all truth, the Spirit guides into all truth (16:13). The Spirit does not replace or displace Jesus but unites us to Jesus and makes us children of our heavenly Father. The Spirit is not at our disposal but speaks only what he hears from the Father: the truth of the Son spoken in the Word.
  3. The Spirit glorifies the Son (16:14)—Just as the Son has glorified the Father by his work, so now the Father and the Spirit glorify the Son, and the Spirit brings us into enjoyment of this glory with the triune God; though Christ our Head is bodily absent, the Spirit continually joins us to him and keeps our faith fixed on what we do not yet see.

From John 14–16, we also see that the ascended Christ carries out the work of his offices by the power of the Spirit, making effectual Christ’s prophetic (e.g., 16:8), priestly (e.g., 14:16), and kingly (e.g., 16:33) activities.

Christological Controversies to Chalcedon (451)

Key Points During this time

  • Each of the four ecumenical councils contributes a distinct piece to the Christian doctrine of the incarnation, functioning to preserve mystery within certain parameters.
  • The Antiochene and Alexandrine theological traditions differed in significant ways, producing different interpretations of Nicaea that were difficult to reconcile and triggered widespread Christological controversy.
  • The backgrounds and circumstances of the Christological controversies demonstrate the shifts occurring in how major religious conflict would be handled in the late empire. The consequences would include deposition of leaders and condemnation of entire traditions.
  • The clash between Nestorius and Cyril in the Council of Ephesus (431), the results of which were played out further in the “Robber Synod” of 449 and the Council of Chalcedon (451), highlighted the terms of debate between the Word-flesh Christology of Antioch and the Word-man Christology of Alexandria.
  • Chalcedon established a compromised definition, affirming the two natures (human and divine) in the one person of Jesus Christ.
  • Chalcedon and its canons impacted the church’s understanding of the role of ecumenical councils, the relationship of monks to the ecclesial hierarchy, and underscored the tensions between Constantinople and Rome as prestigious sees.

Summary of events

The ecumenical councils of the early church sought to clarify Christian beliefs about God and Jesus Christ. In particular, the first four ecumenical councils affirmed both God’s essential unity and the Trinity; they affirmed the unity of Jesus in one person and his duality in two natures, human and divine. Ostensibly, the councils attempted to preserve a large degree of mystery in the Christian understanding of the divine, while guarding against apparently extreme positions. The Councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451) are especially significant watersheds in the process—Nicaea laying the crucial groundwork, and Chalcedon culminating a lengthy process of discussion regarding the implications and boundaries of the Nicene formulation. The process involved numerous factors, including strong personalities, theological exploration through debate, specialized terminology, and the politics of church and empire; yet the church believed the power of God to be active in the process.

The process was complicated by diverse understandings of divinity and of Jesus Christ, especially those of the Antiochene tradition, typified by Theodore of Mopsuestia and Nestorius, and the Alexandrine tradition, typified by Cyril of Alexandria, Eutyches, and Dioscorus. These two traditions were distinct in a number of ways. As their representatives disputed the best ways to describe the incarnation, bishops and emperors alike felt compelled to achieve unanimity of belief. The ensuing controversies resulted in great difficulties, including imperial enforcement of orthodoxy, the depositions of bishops, the condemnation of dissenting branches of the church, and lasting estrangement between those branches. A broad consensus of belief was achieved by the Definition of Chalcedon (451), held by much of the church in East and West to be the definitive interpretation of Nicaea. Yet it was unable to contain those of a more miaphysite persuasion, who have been routinely called “monophysites;” and those with an even more striking dyophysite leaning (so-called “Nestorians”) had previously been alienated from the fold by the Council of Ephesus (431). Chalcedon was important not only dogmatically, but also had conciliar, monastic, and constitutional aspects that achieved lasting impact in the church.

The Church in the Fourth and Early Fifth Centuries: Monasticism, Expansion, Life, and Worship

Key Points during this time

  • Under the influence of key leaders and through a variety of expressions, Christian monasticism shaped Christianity in significant ways.
  • The fourth and fifth centuries saw one of the most significant periods in Christian missions, with major expansion occurring in Syria, Persia, Armenia, Georgia, and Ethiopia.
  • Although Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in the late fourth century, the Christianization of religious practices, moral behavior, and methods of rule was generally slow and gradual.
  • In the aftermath of persecution, the cult of the saints, observing saints’ days, the veneration of holy sites, and pilgrimage became major expressions of Christian piety.
  • In the fourth century Christian worship became more elaborate and the distinction between laity and clergy more pronounced. In particular, the sacraments of baptism, Eucharist, and chrismation received greater attention and significance.
  • Practices of penance, ordination, and the church calendar became more formal and more complex during the fourth and fifth centuries.


Although some disciples of Jesus adopted lifestyles of rigorous discipline from the earliest times, the fourth century saw dramatic developments in Christian asceticism and the widespread growth of monasticism. Numerous tributaries of pagan, Jewish, and Christian origin influenced the shape of monasticism. The solitary expressions of anchorites and hermits, typified by St. Anthony of Egypt, grew alongside the communal monastic expressions of the cenobites, of whom Pachomius was an influential pioneer. A number of other early leaders contributed to the theory and practice of Christian asceticism, some of whom, like Basil of Caesarea in the East and John Cassian in the West, helped the mainstream church appreciate the contributions of monasticism to Christian culture and leadership.

Alongside and often assisted by the expansion of monasticism, Christian missionary efforts established churches in lands beyond its primitive range, including Syria, Persia, Armenian, Georgia, and Ethiopia. In some instances, it is apparent that Christians had been present in these environments long before the fourth century, yet the changed political and social location of the church in the Roman Empire facilitated the adoption of Christianity among the social elite outside the boundaries of Rome. These efforts saw the translation of the Bible and other sacred texts into local languages and the development of distinct forms of liturgy, belief, practice, and polity.

The dramatic growth of Christianity in the Roman Empire during the fourth and fifth centuries set the stage for an exchange of influence, in which the church impacted society and society impacted the church. Most emperors saw themselves as patrons of the church and sought to support the church and reform society according to Christian principles. Reforms in sexual ethics, the theater, and violent games were accompanied by the establishment of charitable institutions and provisions that discouraged paganism and limited Jews. Yet Christianity did not deeply impact fundamental economic structures or the often brutal practices by which the imperial office governed. The rigors of church discipline and moral standards relaxed, providing further impetus for the adoption of monasticism on the part of many believers who sought radical expressions of commitment to Christ.

With the end of persecution in the empire, monks and bishops came to be venerated alongside the martyrs as saintly exemplars. The cult of the saints grew to become a major expression of popular piety in the late antique church. Saints’ days, the building of martyria over saints’ tombs, the increased circulation of saints’ lives, and the veneration of relics all expressed enthusiasm for the saints as models and aids to faith and life. Pilgrimage to holy sites also became more common in the fourth and fifth centuries.

During this era, corporate worship practices became more elaborate, adapting to the changed circumstances of much larger congregations, an elevated social location, and worship spaces modeled on the basilica style. The outline of Christian liturgy took a form that would have lasting influence for centuries. Procedures associated with the sacraments of baptism, the Eucharist, and chrismation became more formal and complex. Catechetical and mystagogical texts from the period reveal a high degree of deliberate reflection on the meaning and significance of the sacraments and corporate worship for individual faith and in the life of the church. Alongside pastoral concerns, the need to confess orthodox belief about the incarnation shaped practices and theology. The church calendar, previously oriented largely around Easter and Pentecost, developed so that Epiphany, Palm Sunday, and the birth of Jesus (Christmas) were more prominent.

The Church in the Fourth Century: Doctrine, Organization, and Literature

Key Points during this time

  • In the period following the Nicene council—and especially after Constantine’s death—the Arian controversy continued to create disunity in the fourth-century church, which saw many councils and at least four different major positions on the relation of the Father to the Son.
  • Through the work of key figures like Athanasius and the Cappadocian Fathers, and the involvement of sympathetic emperors, Nicene orthodoxy came to be affirmed and generally accepted by the time of the Council of Constantinople (381).
  • Throughout the fourth century, church organization became increasingly formal and its clergy more distinct in role and status from laypersons.
  • The “great patristic century” (fourth–early fifth centuries) saw the production of great works of lasting influence on the part of several major writers and church leaders: in Greek: Athanasius, Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, and John Chrysostom; in Syriac: Ephraem the Syrian; and in Latin: Ambrose, Rufinus, and Jerome.

In the years following the Nicene council, the Arian controversy continued to create conflict in the church. Some felt that crucial positions had been betrayed, and the language by which consensus was supposedly achieved was open to varying interpretation. Hoping to achieve unity, Constantine sought to accommodate even some of those who had been condemned by the council; after his death, the division of his empire between his sons created further disruption, as they did not agree together on the Arian question. Throughout the fourth century, disputants settled into four major parties: the homoousians, who saw the Son as being of the same substance with the Father; the homoiousians, who saw them as being of similar substance; the homoeans, who would only go so far as to say that Father and Son are alike; and the anomoeans, who held that they are unlike. In a series of smaller councils, the Nicene Creed was repeatedly criticized, prompting its supporters to construct a coherent defense of its legitimacy and value.

Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria emerged as the most potent champion of Nicene orthodoxy through the middle years of the fourth century. His experience of enduring five exiles demonstrates the volatility of the period, as well as the role played by emperors in the conflict. Yet through his obstinate advocacy and his writings, he helped check the Arianizing positions and create support for Nicaea. In the last half of the fourth century, other church leaders and theologians—particularly the Cappadocians—helped consolidate support for Nicaea. Their efforts culminated in the Council of Constantinople (381), at which the Nicene position was affirmed. Theodosius I’s sponsorship of the council and his decree making Christianity Rome’s official religion (380) demonstrate the extent to which the empire would continue to be a major player in church affairs. Throughout the fourth century, church organization continued to become more formal and the roles and status of clergy more identifiably distinct.

The century and a half following Nicaea is the “Golden Age of Patristic Literature,” due to the number and quality of Church Fathers’ contributions to Christian thought. Although the various authors writing in Greek, Latin, and Syriac were diverse in personality and in the nature of their contributions, the literature they produced achieved a classic status within a short time and continued to inform Christian thought and practice for centuries. Despite the burgeoning growth of material in the Christian tradition, the Bible continued to take pride of place as the central resource for the Fathers and their heirs.

Diocletian and Constantine

Key Points during this time

  • During a period of imperial reform in the late third and early fourth centuries, Christians underwent the most severe and widespread persecution yet.
  • Though the person and motives of Constantine the Great are complex and somewhat mysterious, he achieved sole authority in the Roman Empire, ended the persecutions, favored Christianity, and ushered in Christendom.
  • The church was largely unprepared for the many challenges accompanying the change in church-state relations.
  • The Donatist controversy exem
    plified the way in which state involvement could affect church affairs, as rigorist and laxist factions faced off in North Africa and experienced the impact of imperial intervention.
  • Many bishops met in the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 to debate the theological views of the subordinationist Arius, resulting in the Nicene Creed and signaling new developments in the ways church and state leaders would tackle issues affecting Christianity at large in the Roman Empire.

When Diocletian became emperor in 284, he undertook a reorganization of the empire, establishing a new provincial map and distributing power through a tetrarchy. His colleague Galerian instigated the “Great Persecution” of Christians, the most systematic persecution yet, culminating in an edict requiring that all sacrifice to the gods or suffer severe penalty.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAAfter a period of civil war and continued internal strife, Constantine the Great emerged as the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. His mother Helena had been a Christian, and Constantine began to favor Christianity in his reunified empire. Various theories seek to explain Constantine’s motivations, with perhaps the most likely being those that correlate his personal piety with his desire to have concord in the empire—under his solitary and God-given reign. In any case, the persecutions stopped and Christians began to be favored in a variety ways by the state, inaugurating an era of Christendom for which the church was not especially well prepared. Constantine sponsored grand Christian building projects and got involved in church affairs, including the Donatist schism of North Africa. In Carthage, tensions between laxist and rigorist groups, exacerbated by personal issues, came to a head in the contested election of the bishop, resulting in the emperor’s intervention by means of the Synod of Arles (314), the first church council called by an emperor. The synod found in favor of the more laxist party, causing their rigorist Donatist opponents to fracture away from the catholic church and form a schism that was actually a majority force in some parts of the North African church—a schism very suspicious of Christendom.

More far-reaching was the Council of Nicaea (325), also called by the emperor as part of his strategy to find and maintain unity in church and empire. Although political rivalries between the churches in Antioch and Alexandria fueled the controversy leading to this council, the presenting problem had to do with the teaching of the subordinationist Arius in Alexandria, who taught that “there was (once) when Christ was not.” Various perspectives met to discuss the matter at Nicaea, the majority being suspicious of new formulae, wanting to preserve unity, and desiring to defend monotheism and the divinity of Christ. Therefore, Arius and his supporters were condemned, and a creed was prepared using the term, homoousios, by which the council sought to preserve the belief that God the Father and God the Son shared the “same substance.” Despite the council’s decisions, the creed, and the emperor’s backing, the politics of the emerging new situation ensured that the controversy would continue to gain traction through much of the rest of the fourth century.

As the first “ecumenical council,” Nicaea marked a shift in the way the church discussed and enforced decisions about doctrinal matters that were central to the church everywhere. It is symbolic of imperial involvement in church affairs, and it also marked an important development in doctrinal history, through its enforcement of the creed with anathemas for any who would reject it.