Check out the new Convergence Church Network! 

Visit and join the mailing list.

All Articles

A.            Medieval Theological Controversies


The first two controversies were particularly significant in terms of the role they played in dividing East from West (something we will address more thoroughly in our study of Eastern Orthodox theology).


1.             The Iconoclastic Controversy [The word iconoclastic = lit., "image-breaker"] - Relics, images, statues and paintings of prominent biblical (primarily Christ, Mary, and angels) and historical figures were always present in the life of the church. The controversy erupted when people began to invest their worship and adoration in the image itself, attributing to the object a special sanctity and/or power. This appeared to many as a clear case of idolatry.


Initial opposition to the use of images or icons came from Leo III (a.d. 726), emperor in the east, who insisted that all such artifacts be removed from the churches (he believed their use was a clear violation of the Second Commandment). Their use was defended by Pope Gregory II as well as by the patriarch German of Constantinople (715-29) who distinguished between a profound religious "respect" or "veneration" (proskunesis) of an icon, which is permissible, and true "worship" (latreia) which is due unto God alone. Leo's son, Constantine V (741-75) brutally enforced his father's policy, resorting to torture and public humiliation of those who supported the use of icons.


John of Damascus, the last father of the Eastern church (675-749), also defended the use of icons, arguing that since God had made himself visible via the incarnation, it was his purpose to reveal himself through tangible, visible images, especially for the benefit of the uneducated. He wrote: "When we venerate icons, we do not offer veneration to matter, but by means of the icon, we venerate the person depicted."


Under the leadership of the Empress Irene (780-802), the Second Council of Nicea in 787 (also known as the Seventh Ecumenical Council) approved the honor and veneration of icons but insisted that adoration or worship (latreia) was reserved for God only. Unfortunately, when the results of this council were translated into Latin so that they might be communicated to the church in the West, the word adoratio (adoration) was used to render proskunesis (veneration). Since Charlemagne equated adoratio with true worship, he rejected the decrees of Nicea thereby adding to the rift between East and West.


2.             The Filioque Controversy - The Nicene Creed of 325 closes rather abruptly with the phrase, "And (we believe) in the Holy Spirit." In the enlarged form of the creed, traceable to the Council of Constantinople in 381, there is the additional phrase, "the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father." This form of the creed was adopted at Chalcedon in 451.


The controversy arose when some in the West (most likely in Spain) began inserting the phrase "and from the Son" (a patre FILIOQUE procedens). It was ratified at the Council of Toledo in 589 and spread rapidly into France, Germany, and was eventually endorsed by Charlemagne.


Orthodox believers regarded this as a violation of the finality and authority of the early ecumenical councils and the wisdom of the Fathers. They also regarded it as theologically untrue and a threat to the doctrine of the Trinity. On the one hand, it tends to obscure the distinctive characteristics of each person of the Trinity, for whereas both the Son and the Spirit have their source in the Father, the Son alone is begotten of Him and the Spirit alone proceeds from Him. In other words, would not the assertion that the Spirit proceeds from both Father and Son tend to fuse the two persons into one and thus resemble modalism? On the other hand, it could also point in the opposite direction to ditheism, for it would imply two independent sources (Father and Son) in the Godhead. Only by insisting that the Spirit proceeds alone from the Father (and, at most, through the Son) is the proper view of the Trinity maintained.


Part of the rift was pride and politics as much as theological conviction, for the Eastern/Greek church was offended that the Western/Latin church would alter or add to an ecumenical creed without their consent. Whatever the primary cause of the dispute, by the 9th century the Filioque was a permanent part of the Western church's creed and has served as a divisive factor between East and West ever since.


3.             The Predestination Controversy - The dispute centered around Gottschalk (805-68) of Orbais (in northern France), a vocal advocate of the theology of Augustine, and his adversaries, Rabanus Maurus and the archbishop of Reims, Hincmar (806-82). Concerning predestination, Gottschalk wrote:


“Just as the immutable God before the foundation of the world through his gratuitous grace immutably predestinated all his elect to eternal life; so in like manner all the reprobate who will in the day of judgment be condemned on account of their evil deserts has this same immutable God through his righteous judgment immutably predestinated to death justly everlasting” (in Hincm. De praed., 5).


“I believe and confess that God foreknew and foreordained the holy angels and elect men to unmerited eternal life, but that he equally (pariter) foreordained the devil with his host and with all reprobate men, on account of their foreseen future evil deeds, by a just judgment, to merited eternal death” (Shorter Confession).


“Those, O God, of whom thou didst foreknow that they would persist by their own misery in their damnable sins, thou didst, as a righteous judge, predestinate to perdition” (Larger Confession).


Gottschalk appeared before a Synod of Mainz (848) to defend his views. He was opposed by Hincmar of Reims, head of the monastery at Orbais. He was condemned as an incorrigible heretic, deposed from the priesthood, publicly whipped to the point of death, compelled to burn his books (while in a virtual state of delirium), and eventually imprisoned. While in prison he wrote two books reaffirming his Augustinian views. He died after twenty years in jail, unshaken in his faith.


Hincmar undertook a vigorous literary campaign to discredit both Gottschalk and his doctrine. The decisions rendered at two Councils of Chiersy and Valence (853 a.d.) supported Hincmar. The dispute was addressed repeatedly until in 860 at a council in Thuzey, presided over by Charles the Bald and Lothair II, a compromise was reached that failed to resolve the theological issues but effectively ended the controversy.


4.             The Monothelite Controversy - The Monothelites ("one will") were theological descendants of the Monophysites ("one nature"). If Christ had only one nature, as the latter argued, then he had only one will. Opponents of the Monothelites feared that their doctrine would diminish the reality of the two natures in Christ (human and divine). Thus, at the Sixth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (680), it was decided that Christ had "two natural wills or willings . . . not contrary one to the other . . . but his human will follows, not as resisting or reluctant but rather as subject to his divine and omnipotent will."


5.             The Miraculous Birth of Jesus - This dispute emerged when some began teaching that Jesus was not born of Mary in the natural way, but had somehow "sprung out of her womb" in a mysterious and miraculous manner. Ratramnus of Corbie responded that such a doctrine would lead to docetism. He insisted, in rather strange terms, that Jesus was born "by the natural door, yet without violating its virginal integrity." He insisted that Mary was a virgin “before the birth, in the birth, and after the birth.”


Paschasius Radbertus (842-53) likewise affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary but insisted that Jesus could not have been born as other babies but rather "came to us even while the womb was closed, just as he came to his disciples even while the doors were closed” (De Partu Virg. 1).


It was common to appeal to Ezek. 44:2 as referring to this miraculous phenomenon: “This gate shall be shut; it shall not be opened and no one shall pass through it, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore it shall remain shut."


The controversy ended abruptly with no final resolution.


6.             The Adoptionist Controversy - This debate, which existed primarily in Spain, turned on the question of whether Christ in his human nature was the Son of God in essence or only by adoption. Those who taught the latter were known as Adoptionists. They insisted that Christ is the true Son of God (filius proprius or verus) only with respect to his divinity. As man he is God’s adopted son (filius adoptivus or nuncupativus). Schaff summaries the issues:


“The fundamental point in Adoptionism is the distinction of a double Sonship in Christ – one by nature and one by grace, one by generation and one by adoption, one by essence and one by title, one which is metaphysical and another which is brought about by an act of the divine will and choice. The idea of sonship is made to depend on the nature, not on the person; and as Christ has two natures, there must be in him two corresponding Sonships. According to his divine nature, Christ is really and essentially . . . the Son of God, begotten from eternity; but according to his human nature, he is the Son of God only nominally . . . by adoption, or by divine grace” (IV:518-19).


Their opponents detected Nestorianism (Jesus was two persons) in their doctrine and vigorously opposed them. Sonship, the argued, concerns only the person of Christ and not his natures. Adoptionism was condemned at Regensburg (794), Frankfurt (794), Aachen (799), and Rome (799).


7.             The Eucharistic Controversy - The debate erupted with the publication of a treatise by Paschasius Radbertus (De corpore et sanguine domini; “concerning the body and blood of the Lord”), abbot of the monastery at Corbie (842-53), in which he asserted that a miracle of divine omnipotence occurs in the elements, a creative act, as it were. In essence, God effects or creates in the substance of the bread and wine the very flesh and blood of Jesus. Although he did not employ the term Transubstantiation, he defended the idea (the word itself first appeared in 1140 in a work by the man who would become Pope Alexander III). Through this miracle the daily sacrifice of Christ is continued and repeated. The flesh and blood present in the elements are the same in which Christ was born, crucified, buried and raised. The change is an internal mystery, hence the elements retain their natural physical properties such as taste and smell. But why, if the bread and wine are truly the body and blood of Christ, don’t they look and smell and taste like it? Two reasons were given:


·          The first reason, originally articulated by Ambrose in the fifth century, is known as horror cruoris, i.e., “the horror of blood.” Since God knew that humans could not bear the thought, much less the taste, of blood and flesh in their mouths, he miraculously retains the natural properties of the bread and wine.


·          Second, if the bread and wine actually looked and tasted like flesh and blood, what need would there be for faith on the part of the recipient? They are, in point of fact, flesh and blood, but that is something only faith can perceive. Thus, the miracle of transubstantiation was designed by God as a test and demonstration of faith.


Radbertus also appealed to stories of alleged miraculous phenomena associated with the eucharist to gain the support of the people. For example, he argued that the bread on the altar was often seen in the shape of a lamb or a little child; when the priest stretched out his hand to break the bread, an angel descended from heaven with a knife, slaughtered the lamb or the child, and let its blood run into a cup!


Objections came from Rabanus and Ratramnus of Corbie (d. 868), both of whom insisted that the elements were symbolic of the body and blood of Christ and that partaking of the Lord's Supper involved no more than an experience of spiritual union of the believer with the mystical body of Christ. The dispute persisted into the Scholastic period where the doctrine of Radbertus eventually won the day.


The Roman Catholic doctrine of Transubstantiation was officially made a dogma of the church by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.


"The body and blood are truly contained in the sacrament of the altar under the forms of bread and wine, the bread transubstantiated into the body and the wine into the blood by divine power. . . . And this sacrament no one can in any case administer except a priest who has been properly ordained."


There was a corresponding move to withdraw the cup from the laity: (1) to avoid chances of spilling the “blood” of Christ; (2) because the “whole” Christ is present in both elements (and withholding the cup would teach this to the laity); (3) it enhanced the unique spiritual privilege and authority of the priesthood above the laity.


Numerous superstitions and apocryphal stories emerged relating to the eucharist. For example, if a fly or spider should be found in the wine after its consecration, the insect must be removed, carefully washed, burnt, and then the water, mingled with ashes, thown away. Another story concerned a farmer who placed a piece of the consecrated host in his beehive. The bees built a miniature church with an altar on which they placed the bread. All the neighboring bees came and sang hymns together. The miniature church eventually was taken into the village and became a sacred relic! See Schaff, 728ff.


8.             The Development of Roman Catholic Sacramental Theology - McGiffert provides this helpful summary:


“The significance of the sacraments for the life of the Christians of the Middle Ages is impossible to exaggerate. They were not mere isolated rites; they were bound together by their common quality as signs and vehicles of divine grace. They constituted the very heart of Christianity. By means of them the channel of communication between God and man and man and God was kept open constantly. Where the sacraments were there was life and salvation; where they were wanting man was left helpless and alone. They accompanied the Christian from the cradle to the grave, sanctifying all life for him, equipping him for its duties and responsibilities, giving him grace to live as God would have him live, and when he failed bringing divine forgiveness and renewed assistance. They prepared him not only for life but also for death. Receiving the last rites of the church he could depart in peace assured of a blessed resurrection and the life eternal. What all this must have meant to the Christians of the Middle Ages anyone can imagine but only a Catholic can fully know” (A History of Christian Thought, 330-31).


Initially only baptism and the eucharist were acknowledged as sacraments. To these Abelard added confirmation and extreme unction. His pupils added matrimony. Robert Pullus (d. 1150) added penance and ordination. In The Sentences of Peter Lombard (book 4), these seven were given a final endorsement. They received official RC sanction at the Council of Florence in 1439 and again at Trent in 1545-63. The sacraments were efficacious ex opere operato, i.e., by the working of the thing worked. In other words, a sacrament did not depend for its efficacy on the merit or character of the priest who officiated (so long as was not in a state of mortal sin) but on the intrinsic power of the sacrament as ordained of God.


(1) Baptism – Baptism is one of the three unrepeatable sacraments (along with confirmation and ordination). It supposedly communicates an indelible mark on the soul. It has a double effect: it effects regeneration, a spiritual re-birth; and it effects the forgiveness of all pre-baptismal sin, both original and actual.


(2) Confirmation – This was initially joined to the baptismal experience but was separated and became a sacrament unto itself. Its purpose is to confer grace for the strengthening of the baptized believer. It is always accompanied with the words: “I sign thee with the sign of the cross and confirm thee with the chrism of salvation in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.”


(3) Eucharist – Thomas Aquinas said of the Eucharist:


“This sacrament is not only a sacrament but also a sacrifice. For inasmuch as in it is represented the passion of Christ whereby he offered himself a victim to God, . . . it has the nature of a sacrifice. Inasmuch as in it grace is truly conferred invisibly under a visible form it has the nature of a sacrament. Thus it benefits those who receive it both as a sacrament and as a sacrifice. . . . But others that do not receive it derive benefit from it as a sacrifice inasmuch as it is offered for their salvation” (Summa Theologiae, III.79:7).


The Council of Trent (16th century) issued the following declarations concerning the sacrament of the Eucharist:


"And since in this divine sacrifice, which is performed in the Mass, the same Christ is contained, and is bloodlessly immolated, who once offered Himself bloodily upon the Cross; and the holy council teaches that this sacrifice is propitiatory [emphasis mine], and that by its means, if we approach God contrite and penitent, with a true heart, and a right faith, and with fear and reverence, we may obtain mercy, and grow in seasonable succour. For the Lord, appeased by the oblation of this sacrifice [emphasis mine], granting grace and the gift of repentance, remits even great crimes and sins. There is one and the same victim, and the same person, who now offers by the ministry of the priests, who then offered Himself upon the Cross; the mode of offering only being different. And the fruits of that bloody offering are truly most abundantly received through this offering, so far is it from derogating in any way from the former. Wherefore, it is properly offered according to the tradition of the Apostles, not only for the sins, punishments, satisfactions, and other wants of the living, but also for the dead in Christ, who are not yet fully purged" (Session 22, chp. 2).


"If any one shall say that the sacrifice of the Mass is only a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, or a bare commemoration of the sacrifice made upon the Cross, and that it is not propitiatory, or that it profits only the receiver, and that it ought not to be offered for the living and the dead for their sins, pains, satisfactions, and other wants -- let him be accursed" (Session 22, Canon 3).


(4) Penance – This sacrament provides for the restoration of the baptized believer who sins. It entails four elements: contrition (sorrow for sin), confession (at least once a year), absolution (“I absolve thee in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost”, which conveys grace, removes guilt, and remits eternal punishment), and satisfaction (works such as fasting, prayer, giving to the poor, etc., designed to satisfy the temporal punishment for sin, whether here or in purgatory).


During the late middle ages, penitential handbooks were issued listing a wide variety of sins together with the length of penance to be performed. For example:


If a monk gets drunk and vomits, he must do penance for 30 days. If a deacon or priest does it, penance is 40 days. For an ordinary Christian, it is 15 days.


Bestiality requires penance of 10 years! Homosexuality also carries a 10 year penance. Lesbianism entails a 3 year penance. Incest is 15 years.


(5) Ordination – The sacraments of ordination and marriage exclude one another. The power and grace to rule the church and to perform its sacred duties are bestowed on the reicipient through seven successive acts of blessing.


(6) Marriage – This also conveys its own unique grace to the conjugal relationship in order to sanctify and enable husband and wife to bear one another’s weaknesses and to procreate.


(7) Extreme Unction – As baptism marked the beginning of the Christian life, extreme unction marks its close. According to Thomas, the sacrament “removes the remains of sin and makes a man ready for final glory” (III. 65:1). Its purpose is to secure forgiveness of all sins and to assure the dying individual of escape from the pains of hell.


B.            Scholasticism


The word “scholasticism” comes from the Latin schola (“school”) and “refers to the methods of thinking and speaking which were the legacy of the medieval schools” (Bell, Many Mansions, 34). These schools, notes Bell,


“taught three main subjects: grammar, logic, and rhetoric [known as the trivium]. Grammar enabled students to write and speak correctly; logic taught them how to present a reasoned argument; rhetoric provided them with the techniques they needed to win their case” (34)


But scholaticism was more than simply a method of education. The Scholastics sought to merge or integrate the philosophy of Aristotle with the theology of the church (i.e., reason with revelation), so that the Christian faith could be systematized into a logical and rationally coherent body of thought. Their stress was scientific and objective. Says Heick:


“The authority of the Scriptures, the Fathers, the councils, and the papal decrees were inviolable; they were considered divine law. Men were not concerned about seeking the truth but only about proving it and systematizing the divinely revealed metaphysics through methodical reflection” (265).


Jean Gerson (1363-1429), Chancellor of the University of Paris, was trained in medieval scholasticism but became a mystic. In his book, On Mystical Theology, he contrasts scholasticism and mysticism:


·          Scholastics derived their information about God and religion from God's "outward effects"; i.e., they studied the Bible and church history and commentaries. Mystics found their sources in records of God's "internal effects," i.e., "in evidence of divine presence in the recorded history and tradition of the heart" (Ozment, 74).


·          Scholastics relied on reason and distrusted the emotions, while mystics trusted the affections (provided they had been disciplined by true doctrine) and "believed that the reasons of the heart were closer to God than the speculations of the mind" (74).


·          Scholastics strove to behold God as "the highest truth". Mystics sought to embrace him as "the highest good".


Scholasticism is difficult to date (from @ 1100 through mid 15th century) as well as define. The following brief description by Shelley is helpful:


"The aim of the Schoolmen -- as these teachers are sometimes called -- was twofold -- to reconcile Christian doctrine and human reason and to arrange the teachings of the church in an orderly system. A free search for the truth was never in view since the chief doctrines of the Christian faith were regarded as fixed. The purpose of discussion was to show the reasonableness of the doctrines [as well as their compatibility with Aristotelian philosophy, especially in the case of Aquinas] and to explain their implications" (213).


For many of the medieval scholastic theologians and philosophers, “human reason could, with the help of God’s grace, discover the answers to virtually all conceivable questions of any real importance” (Olson, 312). Logic, regarded by all as a gift of God, was highly valued. No irrational or illogical assertions or propositions could be considered true.


Among the principal scholastic thinkers were the following:


Anselm (1033-1109) – Archbishop of Canterbury (1093); articulated the Ontological argument for the existence of God (he described God as “that than which none greater can be conceived”); author of Cur Deus Homo (“Why God Became Man”); defended the satisfaction theory of the atonement.


Peter Abelard (1079-1142) – In order to support himself while teaching in Paris, Abelard tutored the teen-aged daughter (Heloise) of a leading citizen. They fell in love and began an affair that produced a son. Although they had secretly married, Heloise’s uncle, a man named Fulbert, the priest of Notre Dame, hired a gang of thugs to break into Abelard’s home where they castrated him. Abelard eventually left Paris in humiliation and became a monk, and then abbott, of a monastery in Brittany. He is perhaps best known for advocating, contrary to Anselm, the moral influence theory of the atonement.


Peter Lombard (1095-1159)


Hugh of St. Victor (1096-1141)


Albertus Magnus (1200-1280)


John Bonaventure (1217-1274)


Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)


John Duns Scotus (1266-1308)