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Advanced Historical Theology - After the Middle Ages a New Light and The End of an Era - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 18 – Advanced Historical Theology – After the Middle Ages a New Light and The End of an Era

Constantinople, the city of Constantine, was no more. In Spain, petty kingdoms were united, the Moor were gone, and new horizons were opening up in the West. The movable type printing press was just beginning to disseminate written materials all over the world at incredible speed, and many were now beginning to question the manuscript integrity of early documents and whether they could be relied upon.

During this time there is no uniform movement sweeping across the continents. God providentially was moving certain pieces of a providential puzzle in different areas for the same unifying purpose of regaining the light of the Gospel. This movement was scholastic as it was in many of the universities and monasteries, and was particular to the ad fontes movement (back to the sources) of looking at the original sources of a given text to understand its meaning. No more would men be looking through the eyes of others, rather, they desired not only to read the Latin vulgate, but also the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. This back to the sources movement was not isolated, but was pinpointed by different theologians for different reasons in different countries. Lefevere was preaching justification in France, Zwingli was finding the Gospel in Switzerland and Erasmus was translating the text of the Greek New Testament into a useable book. Here the reformers would emerge and Martin Luther would come upon the scene at just the right theological and political climate to upset the Roman world.

The End of an Era

The medieval age came to an end and one of the most significant advancements during this time was the birth of the modern nations. Spain, France, England, Germany Switzerland and other nations split the empire. Western Europe no longer could be thought of as a single empire where the emperor held the temporal sword and across the way the roman Pontiff held the spiritual sword. Now there were a number of countries to be reckoned with. Modern nationalism, as a result, was a significant factor in the dissolution of the medieval synthesis of emperor and pope, and opened the way for a religious rift that would come about with the Protestant Reformation. An added factor was the change in the development of commerce with neighboring countries, and a monetary economy that emerged.

After the reign of Pope Innocent III, the papacy was on its decline. Among the decline was wrought a financial crisis in which the future popes would have to repair. The popes of the Renaissance felt compelled to bring together as much of the wealth of Europe as they could into one locale. They had to devise ways to gain these funds and resorted to ecclesiastical taxation. Finally the sale of indulgences became common, and commonly abused, in order to gain funds for the pope.

During this pre-Reformation era also gave birth to the European mystics, among whom the sect called “The Brethren of the Common Life” was born. Erasmus of Rotterdam was actually schooled in one of their universities and his classical learning, meticulous scholarship and irenic spirit bore the mark of their “Christian way.”

One of the best litmus tests for the dissolution of the middle age era was the advancement of Nominalism. The Middle Ages was marked by the stress upon universals and how all things are ultimately united. Nominalists, on the other hand, did not deny the existence of universals, but focused more readily on the nature of reality and began to build a new system of theology on the basis of new premises not already established by the church at large. The most articulate work in this area was from the pen of Erasmus and his followers.

The Humanistic movement was one of the most important developments for the pre-Reformation era. This is not “humanism” as one would describe it in 21st century Christendom, but as a movement which characterized study, scholarship, and a desire to go back to the original sources in that study. This return to the sources took different forms, but was most advocated by Erasmus who insisted that Christians should return to the basic sources of the Bible – the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. He gave particular attention to context, and to exegesis, but never became a Protestant in these studies. This was not out of fear, but out of his own convictions that did not lead him that way. Instead, his reformation of sorts was around the idea of ethics, instead of dogma (where Luther would make reform). He certainly believed that whatever one believed it should make a difference. And Protestants of the day believed that if he really believed what he said, then he should join forces with them over the false teachings of the Roman Church.

Instead of becoming a Protestant, Erasmus simply opened the door for a new age. He laid the egg that Luther latter on would hatch. As a matter of fact, his writings were so close to the Protestant line in many ways that Pope Paul IV, 23 years after his death, marked his works as those that should be banned from reading.

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