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The Medieval Church Conundrum: How the Gospel was Preserved and Spread from the Frontiers

When the Empire made the Church into one of its institutions, how could the radical good news about Jesus the Christ continue to break out and change lives? Part of The Gospel in History series.

Charlemagne’s palace chapel was completed in 805 CE and later incorporated into the Aachen Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in northern Europe.
Image: Tobias Helfrich / Wikimedia Commons

Conundrum is a strange adjective, yet it is appropriate when one considers the state of the Christian message from AD 385/400 to 1452. The Edict of Milan (AD 313) ended the persecution of Christians and brought an era of peace for the Church. A tenuous relationship between the Christians and the ruling empire emerged. From AD 350 until 378, the year of the Battle of Adrianople, an increasing flood of invaders from Eurasia and from north of the Danube poured into the Mediterranean world. Some of the newer peoples integrated with existing populations and served in both the Roman and Byzantine armies. Some did not.

Increasingly, the Roman system destabilized and the only stability that existed was furnished by the diocesan system of the Christian Church. By the time of Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, Germanic peoples had crossed both the Danube and a frozen Rhine river. Those who crossed the Danube went southward into the Balkans and eastern Italy. Those crossing the Rhine swept westward into Gaul, the Iberian peninsula, and south into northwestern Italy all the way to Rome. Vandals and Alans crossed over the straits of Gibraltar into Northern Africa and moved westward to capture Carthage. The unsettled conditions, in large part, prompted Augustine to compose his masterful Civitate Dei (The City of God).

The expansion of the good news in the medieval age often happened where the influence of the church was weakest.

The newer rulers were various Visigothic, Alan, or Vandal chiefs. Both Odoacer and Theodoric were Visigoths. A few were Christians converts who were influenced by Arian preachers and teachers from the Balkans. With the conversion of Clovis, the Frankish ruler, in the sixth century, and especially with the conversion of Charles, a real puzzle emerges: an honest-to-goodness conundrum occurred with something of a convergence of church leaders and rulers. Under the rule of Carol (Charles) the Great, better known to historians as Charlemagne, an entity since identified as Christendom was forged.

Further muddying the waters of Christianity was the rise of Islam from the teachings of Mohammed in the seventh century. Islam armies swarmed out of the Arabian deserts, invading Persia to the northeast, Syria to the north, Byzantine areas northwest, and west across North Africa from the Sinai to what is now Morocco, and north into southern Spain. The armies devastated churches and massacred whole populations. The massacres prompted Christian leaders in Europe to strike back against the invaders who were sweeping into the Iberian peninsula and thrusting northward into the land of the Franks. This defensive movement, since known as the Crusades, had the purpose of driving the marauding Islamic forces out of southern France, out of the western Mediterranean, and out of the Holy Land. Among the supporters was Bernard of Clairvaux, an eminent Christian monastic scholar. It was a long, drawn out effort that lasted from the eighth century into the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The Crusades were, by no means, an offensive action as some scholars have interpreted them from John Julian Norwich to the present. Only recently, under the pains-taking scholarship of Rodney Stark, have the Crusades come to be seen as a defensive reaction.

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Category: Church History, Winter 2016

About the Author: Woodrow E. Walton, D.Min. (Oral Roberts University School of Theology and Missions), B.A. (Texas Christian University), B.D. [M.Div.] (Duke Divinity School), M.A. (University of Oklahoma), is a retired Seminary Dean and Professor of biblical, theological and historical studies. An ordained Assemblies of God minister, he and his wife live in Fort Worth, Texas. Walton retains membership with the Evangelical Theological Society, American Association of Christian Counselors, American Society of Church History, American Academy of Political Science, and The International Society of Frontier Missiology.

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