Church Post-Constantine 2b: Medieval church targets

This is the second part of the second part of a series on the messy reality of Church History After Constantine. The others are: The Messy Reality of Post-Constantinian Church History and Church After Constantine 2a: The Late Antique Targets, with An Excursus on the Synod of Whitby, AD 664

Jan Hus is burned at the stake

This series of posts is considering those groups targeted by the official engines of the Church (be it ‘Catholic’ or ‘Orthodox’) following Constantine’s conversion in the early 300s. My main contentions, if you haven’t guessed by now, are:

  1. The church has been policing its doctrinal boundaries since long before Constantine
  2. Most of the groups targeted by the post-Constantinian Church are groups who would be considered heretical by the more doctrinally conservative Protestants who support the idea of the True Church having gone Underground in response to Constantine
  3. The use of force and encouragement of secular authorities to police the boundaries of doctrine and dogma are not, if you ask me, Good Ideas

So, who are the groups and persons whom the mediaeval church targeted? The Middle Ages are, after all, when we imagine the hard, vice-like grip of power by the papacy and its goons to really come down on worship and belief. Who are their victims? I have to admit that this is a much longer period than Late Antiquity, and I am less well-acquainted with it. However, here are some of the many groups and persons the mediaeval ecclesiastical hierarchy targeted. Is any of them the Underground Church?

Cathars/Albigensians. The Cathars were hailed in something I read (I forget what) as ‘the first Protestants’. I have a number of problems of trying to call a whole host of pre-Luther people ‘Protestant’, not least of which is the fact that the Cathars are, in fact, actual heretics, and not a reform movement. Their teaching is not unlike that of the Manichees. Indeed, experiments in dualism of one sort or other are an ongoing temptation in for adherents of the Christian faith.

Berengar of Tours and eucharistic controversies. I bring up Berengar of Tours (late 10th century) to make it clear the breadth of people who could fall under the hierarchy’s censure. In this case, an esteemed theologian who, while believing in the Real Presence, did not believe in a change of substance. For this, he got in trouble. He is not the only one. To see champions of differing views of the Eucharist as the Underground Church or Proto-Protestants is, nevertheless, problematic — they may have disagreed with the official organs of the Church over this issue, but were ‘Catholic’ in all other respects.

Peter Abelard (1079-1142) was, besides being lover of Heloise of father of Astrolabe (actual name of their son), a controversial philosophical theologian. I, personally, doubt Abelard was ever a real heretic, but his cleverness and eloquence and outspokenness got him in trouble as he sought to reconcile philosophical concepts and theological truths. Although some of his teachings were condemned, overall, I think Abelard was more of a dangerous thinker who danced too close to the edge of the boundaries of orthodoxy.

Peter Waldo (1140-1218) and the Waldensians. Waldo and the Waldensians were a group of people who believed in lay preaching, voluntary poverty, and strict Biblicism, as well as championing the vernacular Bible. Although they were condemned and excommunicated, their willing visit to the Pope reminds us that most of these movements, even when they espoused ideas compatible with much modern Protestantism, were more than willing to operate within existing church structures.

Joachim of Fiore and the Spiritual Franciscans. If you like your Christianity heavily sprinkled with apocalypticism, then Cistercian Joachim of Fiore (1135-1202) and the Spiritual Franciscans who are sort of a 13th-century successor movment are the people for you. Joachim was regarded as a prophet in his own lifetime. That we’re all still here proves him a false one.

Wycliffe and the Lollards. If anyone has been hailed as a Proto-Protestant in Anglophone literature, it has been John Wycliffe (1328-1384). Wycliffe lived and died a son of the church, although his promotion of lay preaching and vernacular Bibles puts him in a similar camp as Waldo. He and the spiritual movement inspired by him, the Lollards, were condemned as heretics at a church council.  I can’t find the docs right now, but much of what he was condemned for was to be taken up by many Reformers. Note, however, that he was no congregationalist!

Jan Hus (1369-1415). If you’re ever guaranteed safe passage to Constance, Germany, by a friendly-looking papal representative, run the other way. At least, if your name is Jan Hus, the outspoken Bohemian follower of Wycliffe’s teachings who found himself executed at the Council of Constance for heresy.

I think one of the things that typifies the only people here whom most Protestants would sympathise with — Waldo, Wycliffe, Hus — is that they were not Underground or parallel or congregationalist or any sort of modern Free Church-style adherent. They were trying to reform the Church into which they were born, from within, and would probably appeal more to Anglicans and Lutherans than to Baptists, Quakers, and Mennonites.

What were Eastern Christians/Byzantines up to in this period? After Iconoclasm was settled with the Triumph of Orthodoxy in 843, Eastern Christianity spent a lot of its energy coping with its proximity to (or existence under) the Caliphate and then the Seljuqs and then the Ottomans. And sometimes they were in disputes with Latin Christians, especially when they turned up ruling bits of the Middle East, Cyprus, and Greece. Their own, homegrown controversy was the Hesychastic Controversy, which the Hesychasts, as it turns out, won (the great champion hesychast was Gregory Palamas, subject of this blog post). I’m sure there were other controversies, but I’m not sure about them — except for this exciting Russian one:

Patriarch Nikon (r. 1652-1666) introduced various reforms into the Russian liturgy. Included in these was the adoption of the Greek practice of crossing oneself with the first two fingers and thumb together, other two fingers on your palm, like this:

This way of holding one’s fingers was introduced in the Greek Church as a response to Monophysism, the three fingers representing the Trinity and the two on the palm representing the dual nature of Christ. There was great protest in Russia when Nikon attempted to introduce such radical reforms. In 1666, the protesters divided from the Russian Orthodox Church and are called Old Believers. Here’s a famous photo of what looks to be a rude gesture but is, in fact, promotion of the old, two-finger way of crossing oneself:

That sums up my brief, whirlwind tour of this issue up the modern age. Although I, personally, do not believe in the use of force (to be dealt with soon), I do not believe that there was an ‘Underground Church’ hiding away from Constantine’s conversion until the Reformation when it sprang into view with the Radical Reformation. And if we follow the Trail of Blood that marks the groups and persons targeted by the Church, they are either full-blown heretics or bear little resemblance to modern evangelicals.

Of course, this is the messy reality we’re talking about in these posts, so a couple things remain:

Part three: Orthodox victims of imperial/secular governmental activity besides Athanasius.

Part four: Also, the Inquisition (Spanish and otherwise; did you expect that?). And thoughts on ecclesiastical-governmental relations at large.


5 thoughts on “Church Post-Constantine 2b: Medieval church targets

  1. I absolutely agree that Anglicans and Lutherans are much more accurate successors to Wycliffe and Hus than the radicals. If you are talking about the inquisition, I recommend this quick read from a Baptist Apologist (one who obviously isn’t big on Rome) but who does a fairly good job being a “myth-buster” on the subject:

    I am enjoying the series and mostly am in agreement I think.

    • Thanks for the link re Inquisition! I’ll read it, and by the end of the series hopefully clarify my position re church, state, and the patrolling of ecclesiastical boundaries. If I have time …

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