The Dark Ages?

John H. Armstrong


As the church moved beyond the early centuries into the era of the medieval world, several things began to change, both in the world and in the church. In this chapter we will consider these shifts and how they prepared the way for the great divide that would come in the sixteenth century.

Evangelicals often think of the medieval era as a time of spiritual darkness across much of Europe. It is thought that the church was cold, lifeless, and dead. That the true story is quite different surprises such people.

In the early centuries the church was a persecuted minority By the time it entered the medieval world it was an aggressive component of the establishment. This shift had begun with the conversion of Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century By the eighth and ninth centuries, the church had won its battle with pagan culture, and its thought and life became associated with the cause of victory. Triumph brought with it a distinct theological emphasis upon the language of victory over the devil, sin, and death! It also brought the related problems of ecclesiastical triumphalism, a kind of celebrative spirit connected with victory over others.

Regarding these developments, historian D. Clair Davis concludes, “Though conditioned by the church’s history, this theology of the early church faithfully reflected an important aspect of the biblical teaching of salvation. It stressed redemption — how God delivers His people from their bondage into the freedom of life with Him”.

As the old Roman Empire broke up and more familial ways of thinking and living developed in Europe, people became concerned about right thinking regarding their personal relationship to God and to the church. As surely as the doctrines of God, Christ, man, and sin had occupied the attention of the early centuries, so now the church would address in a more focused way the doctrine of salvation. How was the great disruption between man and God to be resolved? How do I enter into fellowship with an offended, holy God?

All this led to considerable discussion of the doctrine of the atonement — the nature and design of Christ’s death and how God redeems lost human beings — by the church’s best theologians. The development of the church’s thinking followed a discernible path — from God and Christ, to humanity and sin, and finally to grace and salvation.

Humanity’s fall, the resulting depraved nature, and the need of divine grace had all been considerably debated in Augustine’s response to Pelagius. Augustine, a bishop in North Africa, was an important theologian. Pelagius, also a significant figure in this era, was a fifth-century heretic who denied the necessity of sovereign grace in salvation precisely because he failed to properly understand the biblical teaching of the bondage of the human will to sin. Augustine became the champion of reigning grace precisely because he so clearly understood the nature of sin and its effects upon human beings.


Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury (ca. 1033-1109), is perhaps best known for his insistence that Christian reason must trace its journey back to faith in Christ in order to determine what it knows and understands. Philosophic speculation could not help the church unless it was submitted properly to faith. By this he meant, simply, “I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe that I may understand: for this I also believe, that unless I believe I will not understand.”

Anselm contributed significantly to the historically developing doctrine of the Atonement. He argues in his classic book Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man?) from the facts of the Incarnation and the Cross back to God’s purpose in sending Christ and the reason for His death. The uniqueness of the person who died at Calvary requires that the event — that is, His sacrificial death — be unique as well. Only Christ as the God-man could bear the wrath of God and pay the full penalty of sin. Because God is holy, sin violates His honor. Because His honor is violated, His wrath is just and perfect. Because of His wrath, sinners must have a perfect atonement made for them.

As in many theological conflicts through the ages, orthodox views often engender rival views. In the case of Anselm, his chief antagonist was Peter Abelard (1079-1142). Abelard was a scholastic philosopher and theologian who sought to reconcile faith and reason. For Abelard “the value of the Atonement was in the individual’s personal response to what Christ had done for him. As he came to appreciate and bow in gratitude at the extent of God’s love for him, he would respond in turn with his own love to the God who had loved him so much”.

Does God require satisfaction, or payment, in order for sin to be atoned for? Or is the Cross merely a display of the love of God, a point of persuasive appeal for people to trust Christ? Put another way, is the Cross a place where God actually redeems lost men and women by atoning for their sin?

Evangelical Christians have always insisted that the love of God is demonstrated by the Cross. Many of our hymns reveal this truth. But we also insist, with Anselm and his theological tradition, that the love of Calvary is not simply a generic display of deep affection for humanity It is a specific and particular action taken by God to actually remove His holy wrath from those He saves through the death of His Son. This is done by the Father, mysteriously, pouring out all His wrath upon His Son.

One hymn writer, Philip P Bliss, captures this understanding well:

“Man of Sorrows,” what a name
For the Son of God, who came
Ruined sinners to reclaim!
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned He stood;
Sealed my pardon with His blood;
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Guilty, vile, and helpless we;
Spotless Lamb of God was He;
“Full atonement” can it be?
Hallelujah! what a Savior!

Lifted up was He to die,
“It is finished,” was His cry;
Now in heav’n exalted high;
Hallelujah! what a Savior! (1875)


Human beings must be brought face-to-face with God’s wrath and their own sin. When, by the Spirit, this happens, they cry in deep anguish, “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). During the Middle Ages the church sought to apply an objective theology of the Atonement to the subjective question, “How can I lay hold of what Christ has done in His death? How can I make this event my own?”

Over the preceding centuries the church had answered this question by increasingly encouraging penitent believers to look to the sacraments of the church. The reasoning went like this: Christ had died. He had given His authority to the bishops of the church, especially the bishop of Rome, who some later argued was Peter’s successor. Here the power to bind and loose people from their sins was inherent. This power was given to the bishops who in turn gave it to the priests who presided over the sacraments.

The sacrament of baptism, where grace was first received, was critical to bringing one into a relationship with Christ and His church. The Supper (or Mass, as it was eventually called) was the central channel of grace for all baptized believers who wished to receive grace and remain savingly united with Christ. But receiving the Mass would not, in itself, save a person. There must be true faith and repentance in the heart. Grace must be received in a proper (worthy) manner. But that implies that salvation comes by human effort, not by grace. As a result of this type of thought, medieval theologians developed what was conceived to be an indispensable sacrament for coming properly to the Mass — penance.

In penance the faithful had their repentance made whole and complete. Inadequate repentance was changed — through penance it became heartfelt, real, complete. The same was true for faith. Small or weak faith — we might even say superficial faith — becomes genuine love through penance. This transformation might not even be perceptible, but it was real.

This whole concept, which had developed in the Monastic movement, wherein men consecrated themselves to a life of sacrifice and suffering, was intended to help people fulfill Paul’s injunction to “put off” and “put on” the old life (see Colossians 3:8-17).

Penance was intended to change behavior, but in time it was identified with punishment for what the confessing person had already done. In many ways it became a virtual synonym for repentance, but with a legalistic bent. People began to travel to holy sites to observe ancient relics and in general to strive for greater holiness in order to receive grace. Eventually substitute penances were devised that relied on a monetary payment to the church. These were called indulgences. They were often used for the removal of future sins.

D. Clair Davis is helpful once again. He summarizes the problem well:

Technically, only the temporal penalty for sin was being dealt with (the punishment due sin this side of eternity including that endured in purgatory), but for practical purposes that was all that anyone knew about anyway. Knowledge that one’s eternal punishment had been dealt with (the assurance of salvation) was available in any case only to those few — the saints — to whom it had been revealed by extraordinary revelation. The gap that penance was devised to bridge was, in the end, still a great chasm: How can a weak sinner come to a holy Christ?

First, the medieval church said a person was saved by receiving grace in the Mass if the person had sincere faith and repentance. But when the penitent asked the question “Is my faith and repentance sincere?” he could not know for sure. To solve this problem, he or she added penance. But what if his penance was incomplete, his faith not genuinely holy? The answer was this: if his or her faith was at least sincere, he would be granted what was called “congruous grace,” the grace God gives to those who are sincerely trying to please Him. “But how can I know that I am sincere?” With this approach, there can be no real assurance of salvation. The great theologian Augustine had written of election and predestination, of an invisible church made up of those who truly know the grace of God. “But how can I know that I am truly a part of the body of Christ?”

What resulted from all this was the desire to do one’s best with the most sincere effort possible. Unintentionally salvation had become the joint effort of grace and human effort. And theology the study of God and His revelation, appeared as “unknowable . . . an irrelevant puzzle”.


All this led to the spark that finally lit the fire of the Reformation — the sale and commercialization of indulgences. To understand this we need a better comprehension of the medieval mindset behind it. If nothing else, the church was consistent with medieval theology in its development of the doctrine and practice of indulgences.

What, exactly, was behind the sale of indulgences to ordinary Catholics? The medieval church’s definition of sin (which to a large extent still exists in today’s Catholic Church) helps to answer this question. If a person died with mortal sin (murder, adultery, even missing Mass, and so on), he or she was on the road to perdition. Mortal sin kills the life of grace begun in baptism, though confession may bring back the life of grace. Unconfessed venial sins (lying, petty theft, unkind words, and so on) meant that the person would need to spend time in purgatory, a place for cleansing (purging) from remaining sin.

All sins, even those confessed and absolved by the priest, incur a debt of temporal punishment, a finite amount of time to be spent in purgatory. It is here that indulgences came powerfully into the picture. Jesus Christ, the Blessed Mother, and the saints are all believed to have earned an abundance of merit through their holy lives. From this excess of stored merit believers might receive additional help. This help could be received through certain prayers, the veneration of relics, and the use of religious articles, such as rosaries, crucifixes, and medals.

During the Middle Ages paying money to the church for indulgences would also bring divine help. This money would not only assist the cause of the faithful giver but would assist the church in her work of mission. It was the admitted abuse of this practice that led to the steps taken by Martin Luther that precipitated the great divide in the Western church.


The decline of medieval Christianity was gradual. The more serious errors came in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The results of this descending darkness were serious. Even before the career of Martin Luther in the early 1500s, Gregory of Rimini (a monk) and Thomas Bradwardine, the Archbishop of Canterbury, challenged the whole notion of synthesis in regard to salvation. What arose was a return by some to Augustine’s insistence upon the sovereign grace of God conquering people’s sinful rebellion. These theologians reasoned that, if one relied upon sincere cooperative efforts with God and the church, in the end it was not grace that saved. Reliance upon various kinds of preparation for grace was viewed as a form of self-righteous human effort. God did not need help, even sincere human help, to save the sinner.

Out of this theological confusion and corrupt practice the medieval church began to face serious abuses. So a providential historical context of criticism, which helped bring about the great change, was already in place when Luther began to speak out regarding the matter of indulgences.

But the changes that were needed eventually issued in a sad division. Catholics do not think that this division was necessary. Evangelicals, however, believe that the reforming of the historic Christian church led to this division because Catholicism refused to make the necessary changes in both doctrine and practice.

Table of Contents

The Great Evangelical Recovery (chapter 3)


John H. Armstrong (M.A., Wheaton Graduate School; D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary) was a pastor for twenty-one years. He is the director of Reformation and Revival Ministries. The author of Can Fallen Pastors Be Restored?, he was also the general editor of Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us. He and his wife live in the greater Chicagoland area.

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