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§ 4. Genius of Mediaeval Christianity.
Mediaeval Christianity is, on the one hand, a legitimate continuation and further development of ancient Catholicism; on the other hand, a preparation for Protestantism,
Its leading form are the papacy, monasticism, and scholasticism, which were developed to their height, and then assailed by growing opposition from within.
Christianity, at its first introduction, had to do with highly civilized nations; but now it had to lay the foundation of a new civilization among barbarians. The apostles planted churches in the cities of the Jews, Greeks, and Romans, and the word “pagan” i.e, villager, backwoodsman, gradually came to denote an idolater. They spoke and wrote in a language which had already a large and immortal literature; their progress was paved by the high roads of the Roman legions; they found everywhere an established order of society, and government; and their mission was to infuse into the ancient civilization a new spiritual life and to make it subservient to higher moral ends. But the missionaries of the dark ages had to visit wild woods and untilled fields, to teach rude nations the alphabet, and to lay the foundation for society, literature and art.
Hence Christianity assumed the character of a strong disciplinary institution, a training school for nations in their infancy, which had to be treated as children. Hence the legalistic, hierarchical, ritualistic and romantic character of mediaeval Catholicism. Yet in proportion as the nations were trained in the school of the church, they began to assert their independence of the hierarchy and to develop a national literature in their own language. Compared with our times, in which thought and reflection have become the highest arbiter of human life, the middle age was an age of passion. The written law, such as it was developed in Roman society, the barbarian could not understand and would not obey. But he was easily impressed by the spoken law, the living word, and found a kind of charm in bending his will absolutely before another will. Thus the teaching church became the law in the land, and formed the very foundation of all social and political organization.
The middle ages are often called “the dark ages:” truly, if we compare them with ancient Christianity, which preceded, and with modern Christianity, which followed; falsely and unjustly, if the church is made responsible for the darkness. Christianity was the light that shone in the darkness of surrounding barbarism and heathenism, and gradually dispelled it. Industrious priests and monks saved from the wreck of the Roman Empire the treasures of classical literature, together with the Holy Scriptures and patristic writings, and transmitted them to better times. The mediaeval light was indeed the borrowed star and moon-light of ecclesiastical tradition, rather than the clear sun-light from the inspired pages of the New Testament; but it was such light as the eyes of nations in their ignorance could bear, and it never ceased to shine till it disappeared in the day-light of the great Reformation. Christ had his witnesses in all ages and countries, and those shine all the brighter who were surrounded by midnight darkness.
“Pause where we may upon the desert-road,
Some shelter is in sight, some sacred safe abode.”
On the other hand, the middle ages are often called, especially by Roman Catholic writers, “the ages of faith.” They abound in legends of saints, which had the charm of religious novels. All men believed in the supernatural and miraculous as readily as children do now. Heaven and hell were as real to the mind as the kingdom of France and the, republic of Venice. Skepticism and infidelity were almost unknown, or at least suppressed and concealed. But with faith was connected a vast deal of superstition and an entire absence of critical investigation and judgment. Faith was blind and unreasoning, like the faith of children. The most incredible and absurd legends were accepted without a question. And yet the morality was not a whit better, but in many respects ruder, coarser and more passionate, than in modern times.
The church as a visible organization never had greater power over the minds of men. She controlled all departments of life from the cradle to the grave. She monopolized all the learning and 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 mediaeval hierarchy centering in Rome re-enacted the Jewish theocracy on a more comprehensive scale. It was a carnal anticipation of the millennial reign of Christ. It took centuries to rear up this imposing structure, and centuries to take it down again.
The opposition came partly from the anti-Catholic sects, which, in spite of cruel persecution, never ceased to protest against the corruptions and tyranny of the papacy; partly from the spirit of nationality which arose in opposition to an all-absorbing hierarchical centralization; partly from the revival of classical and biblical learning, which undermined the reign of superstition and tradition; and partly from the inner and deeper life of the Catholic Church itself, which loudly called for a reformation, and struggled through the severe discipline of the law to the light and freedom of the gospel. The mediaeval 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” (Gal. v. 1).
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