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 Development of the Church during the Third Century

Key Points During this Time

  • After a long history of enduring sporadic persecutions, the mid-third century saw the first systematic persecution of Christianity in the Roman Empire
  • The cult of the martyrs developed in the last half of the third century, strongly impacting corporate and personal spirituality
  • Cyprian of Carthage engaged in a number of disputes regarding church order and discipline, composing treatises and letters that shaped western ecclesiology
  • Christian art and architecture began to flourish from the mid-third century, exhibiting styles and motifs common to the culture yet adapted to biblical stories and Christian purposes (especially funerary)
  • Manicheism posed a competitive threat to Christianity from the mid-third century
  • Texts such as Didascalia Apostolorum, and the work of leaders such as Gregory Thaumaturgus, Methodius, Lactantius, and Dionysius of Alexandria helped shape the church of the last half of the third century
  • Numerous internal and external factors appear to have contributed to the great success of Christianity in the third century


The third century was a time of tremendous growth for the church, although it faced some of the most severe challenges of its history. Under the emperors Decius and Valerian, Christianity was subjected to widespread and systematic persecution, resulting in numerous martyrdoms. Whereas the veneration of martyrs became a major feature of early Christian piety, the large number of apostates created a crisis in church discipline once the persecutions subsided. Cyprian of Carthage sought to find a middle way between the rigorist and laxist responses to those who denied Christ under threat of persecution, prescribing different manners of church discipline depending on the severity of the offense. Cyprian’s discussions of this matter and such things as the authority of the episcopacy made lasting contributions to church order and the practices of penance and church discipline in the western church.

The first identifiable Christian art appears around 200. Although much of it is funerary and therefore perhaps not entirely representative, surviving examples show that Christians adapted the motifs and style of their Greco-Roman context to create a body of highly symbolic art, much of which refers to biblical stories of rescue and themes of hope.

With its Christian elements and strong dualism, Manicheism posed a competitive challenge to the later third-century church. The later third century was also marked by a number of important texts, such as the Didascalia Apostolorum, and influential leaders, such as Dionysius of Alexandria and Gregory Thaumaturgus. Methodius and Lactantius wrote important texts that shaped the church of that era.

Scholars attempting to explain the success of Christianity in the third century adduce a number of external and internal factors contributing to the church’s growth and vitality. However, attempts to account for Christianity’s success turn out to be more descriptive than explanatory.

A Lucky Animal or know as Materialist Anthropologies

What Makes Us Human? A state of the theological debate, and a question that must be answered when studying anthropology. A fundamental shift is currently occurring in the West from a view of the self as a semidivine entity that transcends body, time, and change to a view of the self as a physical, malleable social construction of chemical interactions. Neither account is willing to receive identity from another—supremely God—as both a gift and a responsibility. Platonist or idealist ontology, with its spirit-matter dualism, has played a dominant role in philosophical and theological views of personhood. The real or “higher” self, which distinguishes humans from the nonhuman creation, is the immortal spirit (or soul or mind). This is also where the imago Dei (image of God) is centered. The body is something we inhabit and use for now but is not who we really are, certainly not forever. The closely related Neoplatonist distinction of persons into three aspects—spirit, soul, and body—a position known as trichotomy, has been a perennial temptation among a small minority of Christians.

If for Platonism all that is truly real is spiritual, then the opposite form of reductionism is materialism: there is no such thing as the soul or continued existence after bodily death. All we are and do as humans has a physical explanation. Modern science seems to support some form of materialism. Many liberal Protestant and Jewish scholars also suggest that the Old Testament is at best silent on the question of the soul and does not teach life after death. Reacting against Platonist dualism, some Christians advocate a modified monism, arguing that humans are such a unity of physical and spiritual that neither aspect may be separated or conceived distinctly from the other.

Scripture presupposes and directly affirms a distinction between the body and the soul or spirit (the dichotomy position), seen pointedly in the living soul’s presence with God after death, apart from the body. Dichotomy is not dualism; human nature is not to be identified exclusively or even primarily with the soul. The real self is the whole self, body and soul. Scripture addresses persons in their wholeness; we should not deny the (temporary) separability of body and soul in the intermediate state. While Platonism sees embodiment as a curse, biblical faith understands disembodiment as a curse.

Lincoln, Christians, & Slavery

The observations made by the friends and associates of Lincoln as a youth and young adult are consistent with letters and speeches later written by him. As a skillful writer, lawyer and politician, Lincoln, crafted documents. In several of Lincoln’s writings leading up to and through his Presidency, it can be seen that his decision to fight for the emancipation of the slaves was not based on him being a believer of the Christian faith. In a letter from Lincoln to Senator Stephen Douglas, he wrote:

“I have not allowed myself to forget that the abolition of the Slave-trade by Great Britain, was agitated a hundred years before it was a final success; that the measure had it’s open fire-eating opponents; it’s stealthy “don’t care” opponents; it’s dollar and cent opponents; it’s inferior race opponents; its negro equality opponents; and its religion and good order opponents; that all these opponents got offices, and their adversaries got none.[1]

The true meaning behind the statement can not be stated with absolute certainty by the writer, but could Lincoln be presenting his view of Christians? Could he wonder how those Bible-thumping Christians accept slavery as a way of life? “Religion” is often used synonymously with “Christianity.” Is it possible that all the pious Christians that Lincoln attended Church with as a youth and young adult, he felt, were hypocrites? His letter, one of his first anti-slavery writings places “religion and good order opponents” in a category characterized by groups that are contradictory to Christian principles.

[1] – Abraham Lincoln, “The Higher Object of This Contest,” in In Lincoln’s Hand His Original Transcripts, Eds. Harold Holzer and Joshua Wolf Shenk, (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009) 54.