MHT: Medieval and Reformation History

This post is part of an ongoing series reflecting on the appropriate approach to and method for historical theology.

Erasmus

Erasmus

In the medieval period, conceptions of the changelessness of the Church solidified through the works of Bernard of Clairvaux, the Venerable Bede, Dante, and Otto of Freising.[6] Rome—which was generally not thought of as “fallen” until Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire—was increasingly identified as the seat of the elect of history. Such a view was radically challenged by the Protestant Reformers and their heirs, who increasingly advocated a narrative in which, far from being changeless, Roman Christianity had fallen into corruption and was in serious need of restoration to the pristine faith of the ancient Church. This perspective is especially evident in a work like Edward Johnson’s The Wonderworking Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England (1654), wherein the Church of New England was called to recapitulate the true and atemporal nature of ancient Christianity by encouraging a return to the separation of Church and State.[7] In the post-Reformation years, Catholics and Protestants alike proclaimed a form of Semper Eadem, best summarized in the words of fifth century Father Vincent of Lerins, that the truth of the Church is “what all men have at all times and everywhere believed must be regarded as true.”[8]

The beginnings of the Modern era are popularly located in the writings of Descartes—for what is more Modern than cogito ergo sum? According to this narrative, the light of true philosophy gradually pushed back the shackles of religious intolerance and a new era of rational and critical thinking about the past was born. However, against this assumption that the historical consciousness of Modernity arose independent of theology, Thomas A. Howard argues that the theological application of critical scholarship to biblical hermeneutics influenced the rise of “secular” historical thinking.[9] Kenneth Parker traces the origins of the Modern historical consciousness back to the works of Reformation-era scholars such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Lorenzo Valla.[10] It was in the philological and historical works of Renaissance Humanism that Christian scholars began to recognize an important truth about history: things have not always been the same.


 

[7] Ibid., 122-35.

[8] Owen Chadwick, From Bossuet to Newman (Second Edition; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 1. In some instances, this required sentire cum ecclesia, the suspension of thinking for the sake of the church.

[9] Thomas Albert Howard, Religion and the Rise of Historicism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 4. This perspective is affirmed by Hennessey, 92-3.

[10] Kenneth L. Parker, “The Rise of Historical Consciousness among the Christian Churches: An Introduction,” in The Rise of Historical Consciousness among the Christian Churches, eds. Kenneth L. Parker and Erick Moser (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2012), 12.

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