I sent out a tweet last week that read: “Today, the 27th of February, in AD 380, Theodosius proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire.”
Then I added “#gamechanger.”
And it was.
Some would say for the worse but, as Dominic Selwood noted in The Telegraph, this was one of the ten most important decisions that has shaped the post-Roman world. In essence, it turned Christianity into a global religion.
Not many speak of the relationship between religion and state in positive terms and, for many reasons, rightly so. But the decision of Theodosius – and the way it accelerated and took root in the early Middle Ages – is a story seldom told in light of the caricatures that abound.
So let’s try and tell it.
The concept of a “Middle Ages” can be found as early as Francesco Petrarca (d. 1374), known more commonly in English as Petrarch, a Renaissance scholar who tended to define historical periods in cultural terms.
He perceived that art and language had fallen into decay since the fall of the Roman Empire, which he equated with the sack of Rome in 410. Petrarch defined the period between 410 and his own day of “rebirth” as an “Age of Darkness,” which is why for so long the medieval era was termed the “dark” ages.
In truth, the medieval era was anything but dark. It witnessed the birth of the university, including Cambridge and Oxford; it produced the great writings of Augustine and Aquinas; it provided the context for the founding of the influential monastic movement, including the Benedictines and the Franciscans; it gave rise to the engineering marvels of the great cathedrals.
But the brightest light illuminating the Middle Ages was the light of Christ, for the medieval world was a profoundly Christian world. While the religious beliefs of the common people were less refined than those of the educated churchmen – often a mixture of pagan thinking and Christian philosophy – it remained, nonetheless, thoroughly spiritual.
And not just any spirituality.
While many would argue against the Middle Ages as being a “golden age of faith,” there is little doubt that a common understanding of the world based on Christian foundations was firmly in place. Reflecting on the popular religious sentiment of the day, historian Christopher Dawson notes that “religion was not a particular way of life but the way of all life.” Fellow historian Johan Huizinga contends that the “life of medieval Christendom is permeated in all aspects by religious images. There is nothing and no action that is not put in its relationship to Christ and faith.” Huizinga adds that everything was “tuned to a religious understanding of all things in a tremendous outpouring of faith.” He even goes so far as to call it a “supernaturalized atmosphere.”
Men and women who lived during the medieval era carried a deep and intense sense of carrying out their lives in open view of the living God. Medieval historian Jeffrey Burton Russell writes that a “sacred, rather than a profane, view of the world was generally assumed. Everything was created by God, and, as God was immanent in the world, everything was an expression of God.”
So while men and women still sinned and fell short of the glory of God, many without shame, they knew they were falling short – and of what, and most importantly, Who. This should not be surprising, as “Medieval culture was a culture of the Book,” reminds Norman F. Cantor, perhaps the most widely read medieval historian, “and in the Middle Ages, the Book was the Bible.”
Few mediums provide a clearer window into the soul of an age than art. In our day, film presents the clearest view. During the Middle Ages, the canvas told the tale. Considering the nature of the time, it should not be surprising that the most depicted scene during the Middle Ages was the crucifixion of Christ. But it is difficult to find art during the Middle Ages that was not informed by the biblical text. And not simply the text, but by a profoundly theological understanding of the world and humanity’s place in it. Grappling with the nature of sin in relation to the holiness of God, human beings became inconsequential for artistic representation. Human beings remained the object, but not the subject, of art for nearly a millennium.
A worldview rooted in the reality of a living God so permeated social thinking that there was no doubt of an absolute moral law. Men did not make laws, they discovered them. When a human law conformed to the divine law, it was considered just. When it did not, it was unjust. Little wonder that theology reigned as the queen of the sciences, and would remain on this throne throughout the medieval era.
Eventually the deeply entrenched awareness and acceptance of God developed into the full-blown idea of a Christian society. From this, “Christendom” was born. Following the edict of Emperor Theodosius in 380 mandating that all under his rule profess Christianity, “Orders of society, sacred and secular, interpermeated each other,” writes historian Martin Marty. “The question was no longer whether society would be Christian, but rather how this was to be realized.”
Thus came the medieval theocracy, with various twists and turns along the way, but culminating on Christmas Day in 800 when Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne as Emperor with the titles that had been reserved for the Roman rulers of the past. This was the strategic union of church and state, religion and society.
Though it would quickly descend into a feudal society, and become littered with papal and imperial conflict, for the next 800 or more years, the politics, learning, social organization, art, music, economics, and law of Europe would be “Christian.” Not in the sense of fully incorporating the values of the gospel; no one should romanticize the piety of the individual or community during the Middle Ages. In fact, it would be the worldliness of the institutional church toward the end of the Middle Ages that would provide much of the fuel for the Reformation.
But the decisively Christian nature of self and society should not be trivialized as merely political, either. No matter how much the back and forth went between pope and emperor, or church and state, it never entered anyone’s mind to establish a secular society. “Even when laymen attacked churchmen,” notes J. M. Roberts, “they did so in the name of the standards the Church had itself taught them and with appeals to the knowledge of God’s purpose it gave them.”
This “medieval synthesis,” as it has sometimes been called, brought together the secular and the sacred spheres of life. Historian Mark Noll writes that it was an “integrated view of life in which everything – politics, social order, religious practice, economic relationships, and more – was based on the Christian faith...and protected by the actions of secular rulers.”
So despite tensions over power and control, the high point of Imperial authority under Henry I (ruled 1002-1024) and Henry III (ruled 1039-1056) was no different in vision from the height of papal authority under Gregory VIII (pope from 1073-1085) and Innocent III (pope from 1198-1216). The vision, for all, was for a Christian society, and to live and act and think Christianly within it.
This was the beginning of our culture.
Now, understanding the West’s deeply Christian roots is not meant to envision a return to medieval Christendom, or to unduly glorify what was, in truth, a society with many deficiencies.
But it is important to establish where our culture began in relation to things of God, and Christianity in particular, in order to grasp how our culture is changing, and in which direction.
So as for Theodosius?
I’ll stand by the hashtag.
James Emery White
For more on this, read James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).
“This is the man who turned Christianity into a global religion. Do you even know his name?,” Dominic Selwood, The Telegraph, February 27, 2014, read online.
Christopher Dawson, Religion and the Rise of Western Culture.
Johan Huizinga, The Autumn of the Middle Ages, translated by Rodney J. Payton and Ulrich Mammitzsch.
Jeffrey Burton Russell, A History of Medieval Christianity: Prophecy and Order.
Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages.
Michael Wood, Bruce Cole and Adelheid Gealt, Art of the Western World: From Ancient Greece to Post-Modernism.
Martin Marty, A Short History of Christianity, Second Edition.
Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity.
J.M. Roberts, The Illustrated History of the World, Vol. 5: The Far East and a New Europe.
James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, which he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, The Rise of the Nones, is now available for pre-order. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church and Culture blog, visit www.churchandculture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on twitter @JamesEmeryWhite.