The soil of protest—Late Medieval Roman Catholicism

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Five hundred years ago this month, Martin Luther posted an invitation to an academic disputation on the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg. This act sparked a fire of protest that raged across Europe and caused a grievous schism in Catholic Europe that has never been healed.

The soil that gave rise to the protest was a uniquely Latin, Roman Catholic one. The questions of dogma, doctrine and state politics were questions that arose from conditions unique to the West.

Histories of the Reformation are often written from a Euro-centric perspective. They argue the issues from inside the debate. It is only when we step away from the Euro-centric view, and assess the Western tragedy from the perspective of the Holy Orthodox Church, that we truly begin to appreciate the aberrant nature of both late medieval Roman Catholicism and the Protestant Reformation itself.

What caused the soil that sparked the protest had its beginnings centuries earlier.

500 Years Earlier

The Church has always been governed through holy and anointed bishops who are answerable to Holy Tradition and to their collective colleagues. When there have been disputes as to the content of that Holy Tradition, the Church has called councils in order for the bishops to discuss and agree on the position of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

By making themselves answerable to both Tradition and their conciliar colleagues, the Holy Church ensures that Her teachings remain constant over time.

For a thousand years this method of government had delivered a united Church. Yet the Church’s Western Patriarch came to believe that the entire Church should be subject to him. Intending to make this point clear, the Patriarch of Rome initiated a dispute with the Patriarch of Constantinople in an attempt to force the Eastern Patriarch into submission. When the Eastern Patriarch declined to submit himself to his colleague, the Roman Patriarchal envoy served a bull of excommunication.

This gave rise to the fundamental schism between the Holy Orthodox Church in the East and Roman Catholicism in the West.

Having formally separated himself from his colleagues, the Patriarch of Rome began to operate as a unilateral monarch. By operating monarchically, he was freed to introduce dogmatic and doctrinal innovations that were unheard of in the East. These doctrinal innovations soon produced a soil ripe for protest.

True Theology

God is completely beyond our capacity to perceive. Our natural senses do not see Him nor recognise Him. Our logical capacities cannot conceive Him as He Is. He is utterly above and beyond our human capacity, yet the Church has always claimed “knowledge of God.” The Church’s “knowledge of God” does not come from observation of the world around us, nor from analysis of a text, but by direct revelation.

When the three disciples stood on Mount Tabor and saw the vision of the Lord Jesus shining with the Father’s glory (Matthew 17; Luke 9; 2 Peter 1) they received the knowledge of God in Christ.

When the Lord Jesus walked with Sts. Luke and Cleopas on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24) He gave them a way to read the Law, Psalms and Prophets that finds Him on every page of the Scriptures.

Later that day, as Jesus took bread and broke it during the evening meal, they recognised Him in the breaking of the bread. This is a Eucharistic revelation of Jesus Christ.

On the day of Pentecost, the Apostles of Christ were anointed by the Holy Spirit and He guided them into all truth (John 16:13). The result of this revelation can be seen in the transformation of the person and the preaching of St. Peter (Acts 2).

St. Paul received a revelation of the Risen Christ on the road to Damascus (Acts 9). Later he received visions that took Him into the “third heaven” (2 Corinthians 12).

Many years later, St. John received a fresh “revelation of Jesus Christ which God gave Him to show His servants” (Revelation 1:1). St. John communicated this revelation through the book now known as Revelation.

The Church’s Tradition is that theologians are those who know God, because all knowledge of God comes from God. Who is it who knows God? Those who unite with Him in prayer and humility; those to Whom God chooses to reveal Himself.

The Church has sought to communicate Her knowledge of God through teaching, preaching and writing. The Church has always sought to make disciples of all nations, baptising them and teaching them to obey everything Jesus commanded in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Matthew 24:18–20).

In explaining her knowledge of God, the Church has often sought to use people’s existing knowledge in order to express Her meaning. Thus St. John used a thought-form common within Platonic philosophy (“the Logos”) in order to communicate his revelation of Jesus Christ (John 1:1). Thus in the second through fifth centuries the Church Fathers leveraged elements of Platonic philosophy in order to communicate their inner revelation of God. This use of philosophy is part of what is meant by “the kings of the earth” bringing their “glory and honour” (Revelation 21:24) into “the holy Jerusalem” (vs. 10).

By the twelfth century, Roman Catholic scholars championed what they viewed as an innovative new way to “do theology.” Instead of theology being a mystical gift of God, they believed that man’s higher reasoning skills could come to a knowledge of God. Through contact with the Arab world, the works of Aristotle were recovered and studied anew.

The Roman Catholic scholars, whom we now call Scholastics, stripped away the Platonic trappings of Christian theology and re-clothed it using ideas from Aristotle. They became very concerned with formal definitions.

  • What is the legal form of baptism?
  • What is the precise moment at which the Eucharistic gifts are changed?
  • What happens when this change occurs?
  • What help is given through prayers for the dead?

All these questions were addressed through rigorous intellectual analysis and careful drawing of distinctions. It turned theology into a highly technical academic field. In this environment, innovative answers to questions could arise. And when the Roman Patriarchate, which by this time had become known as the ‘Papacy,’ sought fit to unilaterally dogmatise the outcomes of these Scholastic disputations, Holy Tradition was corrupted.

Human Nature & Salvation

Roman Catholicism’s fundamental assumption about the nature of fallen humanity is that humans inherit guilt. The inheritance of guilt darkened man’s soul, cutting him off from interaction with God. Thus the key salvation event for the West is Christ’s atoning Death on the cross, which is said to relieve Christians of inherited guilt.

This understanding of human nature stands in stark contrast to eastern teaching of the Church. For the Holy Church teaches that fallen humans’ inheritance from Adam is not guilt but death. And death, which was conquered in Christ’s resurrection, is abolished in us through our nature being united with Christ so that we may partake of His Life. This difference in emphasis brings about a different emphasis in the teaching of salvation. While the West emphasises Christ’s atoning Death on the Cross, the East emphasises His Incarnation and Resurrection.

When the Scholastics considered how man might be saved despite his inherited guilt, they proposed that man consisted of a hierarchy of faculties — body, soul, spirit, mind, reason — and it was man’s lower faculties that had been corrupted. They taught that man’s highest faculty, reason, could overcome some of the ill effects of the Fall by searching out and obtaining a knowledge of God.

This hierarchical approach is quite different from the Eastern perspective. The East teaches that man has a faculty, the nous, which is capable of perceiving and receiving the light and energies of God. The nous is not a rationalistic faculty — even though it encompasses reason — rather, the nous is the centre of the human being, the eye of the soul, capable of seeing God. What the Church means by nous is referred to in Scripture as man’s spirit — that which is capable of communing with the Spirit. The Church Fathers identifed the nous with the image of God in man, as the nous is the seat of the person, containing within itself the whole of human nature: spirit, soul and body. Thus the human is a unity of body, soul and spirit.

While mankind was originally made in the image and likeness of God, the Fall ruined humanity’s likeness to God and darkened His image in us. For the the Church, Salvation involves purifying and uniting the nous with the Life of the Trinity in Jesus Christ.

Transubstantiation

When the Lord Jesus said, “Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life” (John 6:54), and “Take, eat, this is My body” (Matthew 26:26), He revealed a Holy Mystery. As we’ve already seen, Sts. Luke and Cleopas discovered that it is in the “breaking of the bread” that Jesus is truly seen. Thus partaking of the Eucharist reveals the  Real Presence of Jesus that truly nourishes one’s soul.

How this occurs has always been a Holy Mystery. Yet the Scholastics sought fit to ask, “What actually happens when the Eucharistic elements are transformed into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ?”

To provide a formal definition of what happens when the elements are changed into the Lord’s Body and Blood they drew on Aristotelian philosophy to provide a formal philosophical definition of the operation.1 Scholasticism delved into questions for which the Holy Trinity had not revealed answers, and Roman Catholicism added this newly-defined Scholastic theory of Transubstantiation to Roman Catholic doctrine.

Satisfaction

Almost immediately following the Great Schism, Western Scholastics began to conceive of salvation in transactional terms.

God is “offended” at mankind. Man must “repay” God for Adam’s original guilt but cannot do so. Jesus came to “make satisfaction” to restore God’s offended honour.

Note the distinction between “God” and “Jesus” in the previous sentence? This is language characteristic of the West, indicative that the true concept of the “Trinity” had been broken. For the Church has never set “the Father” against “the Son.” It is the “Holy Trinity, one in essence and undivided” Who is the “Lover of Mankind” (Orthodox Church, Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom).

Satisfaction theory suggests distinctions between the will of the Father and that of the Son which destroys the idea of complete unity between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Penance

The idea that salvation requires a transaction between the Father and the Son gives rise to the idea that salvation also requires transactions between man and God.

Holy Orthodoxy teaches that God freely forgives sins for which Christians are repentant. Yet Roman Catholicism began to see “penance” as being a form of “payment” to God. The “payment” was made in order to purify the soul now, rather than wait for God to purify the soul after death.

Treasury of Merit

If some people died “in deficit” to God, then others—e.g. Saints—might die “in credit.” Roman Catholicism began to see itself as having a treasury of merit accrued from Jesus and the Saints which could be applied, at its discretion, to repentant Christians.

Roman Catholicism began to see itself as a bank, obtaining capital from Saints and applying it to benefit sinners.

Sale of indulgences

It was a short step between the idea of the Church as a treasury of merit, and the Scholastic idea that one might sell indulgences. Indulgences were contracts that promised remission of punishment for sin in return for money.

Scholastics considered indulgences to be so efficacious that a little song was created to explain their effect, “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.”

The line of reasoning that runs through this entire chain of thought became unmoored from the truth revealed to the Apostles on the day of Pentecost. Each step in the rational analysis seemed to make sense to the Roman Catholic Scholastics, yet the entire construction contained a monstrous mis-representation of the nature, will and salvific operation of the Holy Trinity.

Papal Politics and Corruption

In addition to the Scholastic doctrinal innovations, the Papacy of Pope Leo X caused many Christians to blanch. The likes of Erasmus and Luther advised people not to travel to Rome for fear that their faith would be shaken at the displays of wealth, pride and ostentation within the Papal court.

Pope Leo X, who was not a priest when elected to the Papal See, evidently loved pleasure and had a casual attitude to Papal office. A quote often attributed to him is, “Since God has given us the papacy, let us enjoy it.”

Compounding the worldly ways of the Papal court was the fact that the Popes of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries considered themselves to be earthly as well as spiritual rulers. They claimed to sit above kings and princes and to have the right to tax the subjects of the kingdoms of Europe.

Ostentatious displays of wealth, power politics, and spiralling Scholastic doctrinal innovations created a powder-keg in Europe. The West just needed someone to light a match, and Martin Luther inadvertently became that man.

 

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1. They claimed that the bread and wine are transformed in Christ’s body and blood in their universal properties (i.e. for real) while still having the appearance of bread and wine because they retained their incidental properties (i.e. what is materially apparent to us).