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Advanced Historical Theology - Eastern Theology to the Fall of Constantinople and Theology in the later Middle Ages - by C. Matthew McMahon

Historical Theology Articles

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Part 17 – Advanced Historical Theology – Eastern Theology to the Fall of Constantinople and Theology in the later Middle Ages

The church considered many times to unite again with the West. However, many of the Eastern theologians did not want to see this happen because it would happen in compromise. Twice did the ecclesiastical and civil authorities of both East and West achieve the formal union of their churches – at the Council of Lyons in 1274, and at the Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439. However, though attempts were made, real union never came about. Pope Nicholas III demanded more concessions of the Greeks and as a result the union did not transpire.

Further controversy arose between the East and the West when Western Scholasticism took issue with Eastern mysticism. Theologians who were trained in scholasticism took issue with mystic experiences that Eastern teachers said were of importance. For example, Gregory of Sinai’s method of attaining spiritual ecstasy consisted in sitting with his chin resting on his chest, looking at his navel, and holding his breath as much as possible which constantly repeating “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon me.” The intellectuals of the day simply could not put up with such nonsense.

The Russian church of the day was in a state of chaos. The Mongol conquest left Russia crippled, never to rise again. The most interesting developments for the Russian church were the emergence of the Strigolniks in the 14th century and the Judaizers of the 15th century. The Strigolniks seems to have begun by criticizing the clergy for practice of charging fees for ordinations and other ecclesiastical services. This group in turn rejected the sacraments and in turn they decided to confess their sins to the Earth instead. The Judaizers were another group that denied most of the major theological teachings of the church – the divinity of Christ, the past advent of the Messiah, the Trinity as well as refusing to honor the cross, the icons or the saints.

Theology in the later Middle Ages

John duns Scotus was the main theologian during the Middle Ages. He came onto the scene while the scholasticism of the day was declining, and while Augustinianism was gaining a greater foothold in the monasteries and universities.

Faced by the general decline of the spiritual authority of the church, believers sought solutions to this problem in various ways. Some hoped that a general council would fix the problem, others desired to reform the church. A third group of pre-reformers emerged, such as Hus, Wickliffe, and Savanarola, who sought a more general renewal and reformation, but were lead into great conflict with the established authorities.

John duns Scotus was an Augustinian-Franciscan who helped this movement reach its height in medieval theology. Duns Scotus merited the title of “Subtle doctor” by which he is known. He wanted to enforce an Augustinian theology while not making too much in terms of conflict with the Aristotelians that were already lining the universities. Theology for him was a practical discipline, not just something to ponder or write about.

Duns Scotus dealt with questions about how the human intellect worked and that its primary idea is that of being. One must understand being first, before it can understand other “things.” Being is something all things possess in one manner or another. He sets out to prove the existence of God by this method of being, and in doing this combines some of Anselm’s arguments with some of Thomas’ arguments. He also though the incarnation was the primary object of the divine love. Thus, the incarnation is not simply the focal point in the history of humanity as it had unfolded, but also of the focal point of the entire purpose of God even apart from human sin. His theology is marked by an attempt to create a systematic whole apart from the politics of the day.

Another philosopher of note during the nominalist and conciliar movement was William of Ockham (c. 1280-1349). He attempted to drive a wedge between reason and revelation. He made a distinction between God’s absolute power and His ordinary power, and by doing so, he thought he was guarding the will of God over the reason of God. His readers would find that he applied this concept to all of his theology.

Around this same time arose the mystical piety of medieval mysticism. John Eckhart, the Dominican is noteworthy here. He was a scholar who studied at the university of Paris. Thomas Kempis who wrote The Imitation of Christ was also of this sort. Eckhart was accused of being a pantheist and was condemned as a heretic by Pope John XXII. It was his overemphasis on a direct revelatory communion with God that had him condemned. This was not simply “communion” but a direct connection, much like a New Age idea, that the theological community began to frown upon. It was actually more hurtful as an undercutting to the scholasticism that was going on at the time rather than a help to Christian piety.

The last group to look at during this time were the local reformers. John Wickliffe was a native of Yorkshire who spent most of his life teaching at Oxford. He was a student there and then a teacher. He devoted most of his time to scholarship in both theology and philosophy. He became increasing radical in his condemnation and criticism of the abuses in the local church. He had some political support from John of Gaunt, but as his views on the church and transubstantiation changed, Gaunt found him to be less useful. After the peasants’ revolt of 1381 he found himself increasingly isolated. He withdrew to Lutterworth where he trained his poor preachers, or Lollards, to go out and preach the Gospel carrying with them the English version of the New Testament that he finished translating from the Latin Vulgate. Wickliffe suffered a stroke, and though he was sentenced by the Roman Church as a heretic, and to be sought out and burned at the stake, a second stroke claimed his life in peace. The Roman church excavated his bones, burned them and threw them into the river called Swift 40 years after he was initially buried.

Wickliffe’s work was carried on into Bohemia by a monk named John Huss (Jan Hus). Because the Catholic Church was so torn against destroying the doctrines of Wickliffe, they sought out Huss and set him before a Roman council. He was found guilty of the same “blasphemies” of Wickliffe, and was burned at the stake even though notable theologians entered in on his behalf (men like Pierre d’Ailly and Jean de Gerson).

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