Where Were The Church And The Truth Between The Fathers And The Reformation?

The pre-Reformation church was not “Roman Catholic.”

The Reformation did not drop out of the sky. It was a tapestry the threads and fabric of which was drawn from the entire pre-Reformation tradition. We inherited vocabulary from Lombard and distinctions and categories from Thomas. We revised Anselm’s account of the atonement. If you know the first 12 questions of the Heidelberg Catechism, you know the outline to Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo. Our theologians modified and used Bernard’s account of free choice. They sought to recover the earliest post-canonical practice of Christian worship. We could go on.


Johnny Carson was a kid from Nebraska, who hosted The Tonight Show from 1962–92. One of his more famous recurring gags was Carnac the Magnificent, ostensibly a magician—Carson had a magic act as a high school and college student—who was able to determine through telepathy what was in the envelope he had just received. As part of the set up his sidekick (Ed McMahon) proffered that that the envelope had been hermetically sealed in a jar on the front porch of Funk and Wagnall’s (an encyclopedia publisher). That is the way some, perhaps many evangelical Christians have been given to think about the history and nature of the church between the Fathers (roughly 100 AD to 500 AD) and the Reformation (beginning in the early 16th-century). They think that the truth and the true church was hermetically sealed, in a jar, in the Alps among the Waldensians or somewhere else. It is true that there were theologians in the 16th and 17th centuries who also said things like this but most of them also thought that the earth was at the center of the universe and that the natural order of things requires a state-established church. To the degree they taught such things, they were wrong. The earth is not at the center of the universe and the true church and true faith was not kept in a jar in the Alps. It was always in, with, and under the whole church.

Why Some Think This Way
This way of seeing the history of the church is relatively popular for a variety of reasons. One of them is that though evangelical scholars have been engaging the early Fathers over the last three decades or so, they have not engaged the medieval theologians with the same vigor. Further, the academic engagement with the Fathers has not yet filtered down to the laity. One result of this break in the transmission lines is that evangelicals tend to think of the 2nd century AD (the 100s) and relatively pristine but they begin to lose interest in the 3rd century. There are some reasons for that. For one thing, most evangelicals assume/believe that the biblical view of redemptive history, of the church, and of the sacraments leads to believers’ baptism. They believe that was the New Testament practice. Because of the relative silence of the second century they infer that to be the practice but by the early 3rd century it becomes increasingly clear that infant baptism was relatively widespread and not controversial. From this it is inferred that the church and her theology was already becoming corrupt. So, the thinking seems to be, the interlude between the truth as it existed in the 2nd century and the Reformation (or pick your favorite point in time) the  becomes that much longer.

Second, apart from a relatively small band of scholars, evangelicals who have been told anything about the Middle Ages, have been given to think that it was a time of unrelenting theological, ecclesiastical, and moral corruption. Again, the rhetoric of the sixteenth-century Reformers (and their orthodox successors) could contribute to this perception. Add to those factors the relative absence of direct experience with medieval theology in most evangelical schools, and we have a recipe for fairly pervasive ignorance of the medieval theologians and traditions. To be sure, until recently, it has not been easy for English-only readers to access a good bit of medieval theology but we may be thankful that is changing. Now there is an English translation of Lombard’s Sentences. Other texts that were essential to the medieval understanding of Scripture and development theology are becoming more readily available. Still, many undergraduate and even seminary church history courses barely touch the medieval period. I suppose that it is a black hole in the education of most evangelical pastors, thus there is little or nothing to mediate to the laity. This likely contributes to the Funk & Wagnalls approach to telling the story of the church. When Abelard (the great villain in many narratives—no hero to be sure!), Anselm, Bernard, Peter Lombard, and Thomas Aquinas remain utter strangers reduced to a few paragraphs in a survey text or covered in a single 45-minute lectures, it is easy to see them as bad guys.

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