Mediaeval Church - Introduction

Introduction


THE stream is apt to imbibe, to some extent, the color of the soil through which it flows. So it has been with historical Christianity. If the life-stream has been divine, the channels have been human. The current has reflected the civilization through which it has passed. Apostolic Christianity, springing up on the soil of Judaism, exhibited, notwithstanding its distinctive character, something of a Jewish tinge; post-apostolic Christianity, in its more speculative attempts, took a coloring from the philosophic thought of the classic systems; and post-Constantinian Christianity, imbibing the leaven brought in by heathen multitudes suddenly professing conversion, admitted elements affiliating with the common heathenism of the classic world. A deplorable taint of idolatrous superstition was carried forward into the next period. But this is no disproof either of the pure essence of Christianity in itself, or of the providence of God. The Author of Christianity must take such conditions as a world of free agents affords. He cannot be asked to keep the stream, as it hows through earthly soil, free from all mixture of earthliness. He can only be asked to keep the stream moving on down through the centuries towards those better conditions which His power, wisdom,and love may be able progressively to introduce.


In the period upon which we now enter, Christianity strikes upon a new soil, goes forward into the midst of a new series of modifying conditions. These may be described by a single comprehensive term, barbarism. The encounter of Christianity with barbarism is the next great phase of history. This encounter, we can readily believe, was no easy one. It was not a stationary barbarism by which Christianity was confronted, -not a passive subject waiting quietly in its own domain to be leavened by the gradual absorption of religious truth. It was rather a moving barbarism, rushing an tumultuously into the domain of Christianity itself. There was no remaining at a distance; intermingling was unavoidable. The contact was of necessity intimate, and it might be expected that the modifying influence would be correspondingly apparent.


Barbarism in itself is not specially interesting. The curious exhibitions of human nature which it affords may excite and gratify the attention for a time; nevertheless, it is comparatively a barren field. But barbarism coming into contact with Christianity, hordes of rude warriors bringing their spears and battle-axes into the presence of the cross, men of the forest crossing the threshold of the sanctuary and passing under the shadow of Christian and classic institutions,--in this there is manifest such a crisis in history, such a group of fruitful beginnings, that the most interested attention is warranted, and cannot fail of being repaid. Here was laid the foundation of the modern world to which we belong. Both as students of the Christian religion and as students of modern civilization, we cannot afford to neglect this era of the juncture of Christianity and barbarism, this age of transition, of new departures, of the germs of things to come.


We may find much of darkness and confusion, but we shall not find a state of continuous stagnation. There was plenty of movement. A variety of important events claim our attention, such as the migration and conquests of the barbarian tribes, great missionary enterprises, the rise, spread, and encroachments of Mohammedanism, long-waged and significant controversies like the Iconoclastic, the alliances of Church and State, the opposing claims and mutual usurpations of Church and State, the growth of the papal power, slid the construction, or at least outlining, of the whole framework and enginery of mediæval discipline and worship.