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.


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