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.


Saint of the Week: St. Bonaventure

For Lent and part of Eastertide (all of Eastertide?), I shall be alternating Anglicans and mystics for the saints of the weeks. Last week we had our Anglican in Dorothy L. Sayers, and this week we get a mystic.

St. Bonaventure (1221-1274) is one of the bright lights of the thirteenth-century. He was born five years before the death of St. Francis of Assisi (saint of the week here) and lived to carry on the great Franciscan tradition of mysticism and preaching as a biographer of St. Francis and as minister general of the Order of Friars Minor.

Ewert Cousins writes that “he flourished during that brief period when spirituality and speculation were not yet separated.” (2) This is to say, before dogmatic and mystical theology became separate discourses in the West, a separation never fully achieved in the East, as seen in the brilliance of St. Gregory Palamas (on whose conception of God, see here). Hopefully, by making acquaintance with saints like Bonaventure we can reunite these two aspects of the Christian reality in the West.

Bonaventure was baptised as John (he took the name Bonaventure when he took holy orders) and grew up in Bagnoregio, a small central-Italian town. In Bagnoregio, he is reputed to have received primary education from the Franciscans who had established a friary* there. As well, Bonaventure suffered from a serious illness when a boy from which his mother’s vows to the newly-canonised St. Francis snatched him. His contacts with the Franciscans are early, then.

He studied at the University of Paris in 1234 where he met the active Franciscan intellectual tradition founded by Alexander of Hales at that university. In 1243 Bonaventure became Bonaventure — ie. joined the Franciscan Order — and continued studying theology under Franciscan theologians there, whose combination of learning and intellect with the simplicity of St. Francis was very attractive to Bonaventure. 1248 saw Bonaventure licensed to lecture on the Scriptures, and in 1253-4 he became a master in theology. He took over the Parisian Franciscan school.

In 1257 he was elected minister general of the Order of Friars Minor (aka “Franciscan Order” — except that they have subsequently splintered like all Christian groups). He came to head the Order in large part because he was an antidote to the apocalyptic teachings of Joachim of Fiore (these teachings were so notable that they were denounced at Church Councils later on). He tried to regulate the Order through moderation.

In 1274, as a Cardinal present at the Council of Lyons, he passed from this life.

St. Bonaventure spent his entire career, even amidst the busy-ness of life as minister general, writing. He wrote his lectures at Paris, he wrote scholastic treatises, he wrote of things spiritual. All of these are a part of the whole of who Bonaventure was and what Bonaventure did. We must not divide the scholastic from the mystic, as so many often do. Indeed, the experience of the mystic is what grounds the scholastic — and vice versa.

Nonetheless, I’m around 550 words into this post, so we’ll focus on Bonaventure the mystic.

Bonaventure’s spiritual masterpiece is The Soul’s** Journey Into God, written around 1259. It’s inspiration was St. Francis’ vision of the sing-winged seraph when the Saint received the stigmata. St. Francis’ vision was itself a symbol of the ecstasy of St. Francis’ contemplative life. There are, then, six stages of the soul’s journey, with a seventh chapter of this work focussing on the goal of this journey.

The starting-point of this journey of the soul is Christ crucified, for good Christian mysticism is always focussed on Christ (without Christ we’d all just be Ians, which isn’t so bad, I s’pose…). The starting-point of this journey is not the world of the detached intellectual. No, this is the world of the burning love of the incarnate God who chose death so that we might live. The world of fierce glory that chooses painful suffering to bring others into that glory. Our souls have a place, as does our rational aspect, but mere cognition will not do. Not here.

We enter through the door of the crucified God and find Him through the contemplation of His creation (cf. my thoughts on the “Canticle of Brother Sun”). From contemplation of the created, material order, we move further along the journey into the world of sensation, thence to the spiritual aspect of our soul, and from there into God.

A lot like St. Teresa (saint of the week here), eh? These exact steps are not necessary for the soul, but they are certainly laid out as a typical path by Bonaventure. This is not unsurprising. God has revealed Himself to us everywhere. The Heavens declare the glory of God, after all. Furthermore, we were made in His image. And most of Christian history thought that meant our nous was the bit that looked like God.

How can we not, then, find God within us? The Kingdom of Heaven is, after all. The Kingdom of Heaven is also at hand. Furthermore, Christ is the Logos, the rational, ordering principle that rules and guides the universe. He is to be found in all men in all places.

This is not a plea for universalism. Neither Francis nor Bonaventure was a universalist. This is a call to remember that in hesychia, in quiet, in peace, after we have got beyond the lizards (Teresa), after we have ascended Mt. Carmel (John of the Cross), after we have entered the cloud atop Mt. Sinai (Gregory of Nazianzus), after we have united our heart and our soul (Gregory Palamas), the God who was manifest as Christ will be known to us. And we will discover that it was his grace drawing us to Him all along.

*A friary is like a monastery, only inhabited by Franciscans or Dominicans; these mendicant (“begging”) orders traditionally use the friaries as bases for their operations in the world, whereas Benedictines and other cloistered orders live within the monastery and do not necessarily enter the world for mission purposes (but they have been known to do so).

**Soul = mens = nous = untranslateable into English. That inner part of you that can connect with God.