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Volume 12, Issue 1: Historia

Protestant History Dupes

Chris Schlect

We Protestants set ourselves up to misunderstand the Middle Ages. We approach that era of history following this method: 1) We start at the sixteenth century, setting our sights on our founding heroes. In that time we notice a whole lot of ecclesiastical ugliness—Boy, did that church need reform! 2) So we watch our heroes fight for reform, and we see the Roman church reject them along with their key ideas (justification, sacraments, scripture, church authority and polity, etc.). Luther and Calvin: yay! Roman popes and councils: boo, hiss! 3) From here we ask ourselves where all this sixteenth-century ugliness came from, and so we look to previous eras for little faults that will grow up big by the 1500s. Wouldn't you know, we find what we were looking for! Popes, crusades, monks, relics…eewww, yucky! 4) We conclude that what our heroes fought in the sixteenth century was alive and well for the previous thousand years, so we dismiss the whole millennium-long “age of faith” as an ugly papist era.

This method of reasoning is as common as it is wrong-headed, for it leads us to read later concepts and categories back into an earlier era. This is the same retroactive error committed by the fellow who runs across the words “gay” and “discriminating” while reading Shakespeare, and he believes the Elizabethan author was referring to homosexuality and bigotry.
We can illustrate the point by looking back to the turn of the second millennium. From any list of popes, we will discover that Pope Sylvester II reigned at the time. Looking deeper, we discover that this fellow did claim to be Vicar of Christ. Popery! we cry. But if we really studied the period, we would see that the bishop of Rome was not the only man called “Pope” at that time. In fact, in that day many bishops were called “Pope,” not just the one in Rome. In the East, even ordinary parish priests were commonly called “Popes”—after all, “Pope” comes from the Latin papa, which means “father”. “Vicar of Christ” is a similar title; it was held by every bishop throughout Christendom. This title was not reserved for the bishop of Rome for another quarter-millennium.
Now is it significant that Sylvester II was the first Frenchman to be elected Pope of Rome? We might ask how it could have been that the Cardinals would select a Frenchman to be Pope. But Cardinals, as we know them, did not exist in the year 1000. Bishops of Rome were elected by the clergy and laity of Rome—in good proto-presbyterian fashion. We might also ask whether this Frenchman used his weighty position to bring French influence into the Church. And again, after more study, we would find it hard to imagine how he could have. For as with any bishop of Rome in his era, Sylvester II could only nominate candidates for a few other bishoprics; he could appoint nobody, and even this he could do only for the small neighboring dioceses around Rome (and there were only seven of them).
Cardinals would come into the picture soon after Sylvester II, during the pontificate of Nicholas II (1058-61). Protestants want to read popery into this development, but we should view it as a clear move in the right direction. (We who have puritan sympathies should think so.) The change was necessary in order to reverse the trend of Roman bishops being little more than political appointees of the German emperor. The next two popes should be our heroes in this same battle, especially Gregory VII. Gregory’s epic collision with German Emperor Henry IV is touted in Protestant lore as emblematic of papal arrogance. In fact, what Gregory VII fought for was freedom of the church from state control. At the time, Europe’s political machinery had been obstructing Gregory’s program to reform or remove corrupt church officials. What’s more, Gregory’s program focused on local, grass-roots efforts that empowered the laity; it was not a heavy-handed program imposed from the top down.
When we analyze the papacies of Nicholas II and Gregory VII by imposing later paradigms upon them, we will find some seeds of compromise that bore bad fruit later. But our sixteenth-century paradigms do not permit a full picture of the eleventh century. Our own chronological snobbery gets in our way of realizing that these great church leaders fought for causes that we hold precious—causes which Rome abandoned a few centuries later. If we hold fast to our anachronistic assessments, we might as well criticize the Continental Army for its failure to deploy heat-seeking missiles against possible attacks from incoming long-range bombers.
The real problem with popular Protestant historiography is that we follow the lead of our Roman Catholic adversaries. Since the Reformation era, papists have claimed that their doctrines have not changed since apostolic times. When they present us with isolated bits of historical special-pleading, we are too gullible. They tell us that Gregory I and Gregory VII were Popes in the same way that John Paul II is a Pope, and we believe them. Instead, we should be laughing at them. Why do we let them mangle the facts like this? Against their assertions, we Protestants should declare our happy fellowship with our medieval brethren. True to our Protestant ideals, we should agree with our father Pope Gregory I when he said that, “whoever calls himself, or desires to be called, Universal Priest, is in his elation the precursor of Antichrist, because he proudly puts himself above all others”.

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