Having spent the last few weeks reviewing the life of the great Reformer Martin Luther, I thought it would be helpful to look back over the medieval Church. This covers the period from A.D. 590 -1517. This, I believe will give us an appreciation for the work Luther and the Reformers did.
The Medieval period, often called the Middle Ages, is the period that intervenes between the ancient world and modern times. For ecclesiastical history, it began with Gregory I (the Great), the last of the Fathers and the first pope in the modern sense of the term. Medieval Christianity on the one hand, is a legitimate continuation and further development of ancient Catholicism. On the other hand it is a preparation for Protestantism. The principal forms of medieval Christianity are the papacy, monasticism and scholasticism, which were developed to their height, and then assaulted by growing opposition from within.
At its introduction, Christianity had to deal with highly civilized nations; now it had to lay the foundations of new civilization among barbarian races. The missionaries of the dark ages had to visit wild woods and untilled fields, to teach crude nations the alphabet and to lay the foundation for society, literature and art. For this reason Christianity assumed the character of a strong disciplinary institution, a training school for nations in their infancy, which had to be treated as children. This is perhaps why medieval Catholicism was so legalistic, hierarchical, ritualistic and romantic in its character.
The Church monopolized all the learning and she made sciences and arts tributary to her. She took the lead in every progressive movement. She founded universities, built lofty cathedrals, stirred up the crusades, made and unmade kings, dispensed blessings and curses to whole nations. The medieval hierarchy centering in Rome reenacted the Jewish theocracy on a more comprehensive scale. It was perhaps a carnal manifestation of the millennial reign of Christ. It took centuries to erect this commanding structure, and centuries to tear it down.
Opposition came from several directions. There were the anti-Catholic sects, who, despite cruel persecution, never ceased to protest against the corruptions and tyranny of the papacy. Next there was the rising spirit of nationality that opposed an all-absorbing hierarchical centralization. Besides these there was a revival of classical and biblical learning, which undermined the reign of superstition and tradition and a struggle within the inner and deeper life of the Catholic Church itself, which loudly called for a reformation. The medieval Church was a schoolmaster to lead men to Christ. The Reformation was an emancipation of Western Christendom from the bondage of the law, and a re-conquest of that liberty "wherewith Christ hath made us free."
As the Medieval Period of Church History dawned a severe epidemic ravaged the Roman world. Gregory the Great’s predecessor died as a result of this plague. As the disease grew stronger a spiritual malady was brewing under the surface of the Church that far exceeded the severity of the deadly epidemic. Gregory began his administration with a public act of humiliation on account of the plague that had taken the life of his predecessor. Seven processions traversed the streets for three days with prayers and hymns. This was the first time in the Church’s history that prayers were officially offered to the saints, and, Oh! What results! Eighty priests were stricken dead of the disease during the procession. Gregory’s rule saw the introduction of other such unbiblical innovations in the church’s worship.
Gregory I (or, the Great) connects the ancient with the medieval church. He is also one of the best representatives of medieval Catholicism. He was monastic, ascetic, devout yet superstitious. He was hierarchical, haughty and ambitious, yet humble before God. He was indifferent, if not hostile, to classical and secular culture, yet friendly to sacred and ecclesiastical learning. He was just, humane, yet liberal to ostentation. Gregory was full of missionary zeal in the interests of Christianity, and the Roman see, which to his mind were indivisibly united.
When Eulogius, Bishop of Alexandria, addressed Gregory as "universal pope," he strongly refused the title, saying: "In the preface of your letter you apply to me the proud title of universal pope. I beg your most sweet Holiness to do this no more.” He objected to the expression, "as you have commanded," which occurred in his Eulogius’ letter.
On the other hand, however, even while he protested in the strongest terms the blasphemous title of universal bishop Gregory claimed and exercised, as far as he had the opportunity and power, the authority over the whole church of Christ, even in the East.
Perhaps we have no right to indict Gregory’s honesty. But he was clearly inconsistent in disclaiming the name, and yet claiming the thing itself. It is no wonder then that Gregory’s successors, less humble and more consistent than he, had no scruple to use equivalent and even more arrogant titles than the one he so solemnly protested against with the warning: "God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace to the humble." But it is a very remarkable fact, that at the beginning of the unfolding of the greatest power of the papacy one of the best of popes should have protested against the antichristian pride and usurpation of the system.
The popes from Gregory I until Gregory II were mostly insignificant and obscure men. Their rules were marked by no major issues and were all relatively short as well.