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

This is the conundrum, the riddle, the puzzle. The other side of the issue is that the atrocities of the Islamic armies drove Christians further south into the vast continent of Africa with Christians taking their faith in Christ into the Ethiopian highlands and south into the Sudan, and westward into the hinterlands of Algeria, Libya, and the mountainous country of Morocco. For most of us, this is an untold story. Out of tragedy came renewal and the spread of the gospel. Out of divisions, such as the schism between the Orthodox East and the Roman Catholic West, came renewal from out of the far frontiers.

The Four Evangelists from the Book of Kells.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

This is still an incomplete picture. In this period of time, the monasteries of the western church, through the Benedictine and other regular clerical orders (those under a rule [regula]), became hostels for travelers, universities, and scriptoriums (where the Bible was preserved and translated and copied). The monasteries of the eastern churches were centers of prayer, and under Basil the Great’s leadership, hospitals for the ill and infirmed. Basil established the first hospital. In Ireland, the Book of Kells was composed, an illuminated masterpiece of the four Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It was accomplished within the late 8th century. The monastery at Cluny in France became a center of Christian renewal. This was also a period of new preaching orders as the Dominicans under Dominic and the Franciscans under Francis of Assisi. For all the turmoil of the age, it was not a dark age as some writers have described it. It was productive in many areas and spurred new advances of the gospel into the further north, east, and south, and mostly from the frontiers of both east and west. It was also a time of reform and renewal. It was not a static time at all. The upheaval created by invasions, civic intrigues, and ecclesiastical problems created a situation that encouraged the rise of strong new forms of evangelism and also the voices of certain strong Christian individuals.

One of the new forms of evangelism that came into existence arose near the middle of the Medieval period was the use of literature. Cassiodorus, around AD 536, in his Institutiones, wrote “What happy application, what praiseworthy industry, to preach to men by means of the hand, to untie the tongue by means of the fingers, to bring quiet salvation to mortals, and to fight the devil’s insidious wiles with pen and ink!” In the same paragraph he went on to say “For every word of the Lord written by the scribe is a wound inflicted on Satan. And so, though seated in one spot, the scribe traverses diverse lands through the dissemination of what he has written.”

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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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