Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: The Church of Rome

Tree of Life – Level 1, Lesson 7: The Church of Rome

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In our last lesson, we studied Ancient Apostolic Christianity from Pentecost to the Council of Nicaea. This lesson is about the growth of the church at Rome.

Paul visited Rome and started a church there. It grew among the last terrible years of the Old Roman Empire. Through persecutions and trials, the small company grew and became the center of Western Christianity.

The Master told Peter who is considered by the Roman Church to be the founder of the Church of Rome, “…thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” And it is from this that the Church of Rome claimed supremacy over all other sees in Christendom.

At first, however, the Church at Rome was composed of the lower classes and was just one of the seven cities which had large numbers of believers. By the time of the writing of Hebrews, the church at Rome had begun to acquire some authority. Ignatius of Antioch, an early Christian writer, used respect in his letters to Rome a few years after Hebrews was written.

By the second century, the Church at Rome had taken predominance over the churches at Antioch, Ephesus, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Corinth, and Constantinople. Latin was being used in Church correspondence instead of Greek. And the Church at Rome had gone from the time when there were more than twenty bishops in Rome to having one as their head who held the power through the keys which Christ had given Peter.

It is not hard to trace the development of authority. Records and minutes of synods, councils, and meetings contain letters and other correspondence from the Bishop of Rome stressing this point or that point with authority! This also had political motives, for as the power was moved to Constantinople by Constantine, the sole authority in Rome and the West was the Bishop of Rome.

Through all the many divisions and so-called “Christological controversies,” the church at Rome grew. There are many reasons for this, but here are the essential ones. First, the Church at Rome had the best structural set-up. Its priests were well trained and knew the workings of the law in a practical way. They built upon the existing Roman Laws.

(Many of the Eastern priests became so engrossed in mysticism that their students and congregations fell away into this school or that teaching.)

Second, the Church at Rome, as already mentioned, was away from the center of government by the fourth century. The Bishop of Constantinople and the Bishop of Rome had many quarrels over who had the authority. Yet, the Bishop of Constantinople was under the constant surveillance of the Emperor while the Bishop of Rome was not only spiritual head of the West, but to a large degree, political head also.

Third, because of the first two reasons, the Church in the East was never allowed to grow outside the protection of the state while the Church of Rome was forced to fight tooth and nail for everything, and at times, it seemed, against everything. By the seventh century, the Eastern Church would lose to the zeal of the prophet Mohammed, while the Western Church was able to absorb the shock of losing North Africa plus the Eastern Church, and still grow and lead the West.

Thus, in the East the Emperor was the final arbitrator in both political and spiritual matters. And it followed that after the Emperor’s death, the Church would not have the authority since it was based upon the throne and who ruled.

When Justinian became Emperor of the Roman Empire, he arbitrated the church disputes, and in effect, strangled the Eastern Church by his insistence that the creeds and doctrines be interpreted the way he saw.

This did not happen in the West. By the time of St. Augustine, the Empire in the West was falling apart. Invasion after invasion came and even Rome was sacked in 415 C.E. Thus, Augustine talked of two cities in his famous City of God.

St. Augustine showed that the Church was not responsible for the destruction of civilization. He states that the old order is dying. Those intent on the city of earth will perish, but those who dwell in the City of God, which is the Church (though not the institutionalized Church) will live. Those who will live in this new city with Christ Jesus will be those who can control their love in life. This was known through revelation from God.

Between the Fall of Rome and the year 800 C.E., the faith was kept alive in monasteries. They were the centers of learning, not only for the Church, but for all of Europe. Many of the ancient teachings were kept alive in this way.

The year 800 is important for it was then that the Pope crowned Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor. By this move, two things were accomplished.

First, the Pope hoped that by making Charlemagne Emperor, he would increase his control through the only developed state in Europe, and thus, be able to spread Christianity to England and what is now Germany and Scandinavia. Second, by raising the banner of the Empire again to that of being consecrated by the Church, the state could gain the use of the knowledge of the monks and Church scholars, and its structure. This is the way it worked.

Yet, the kings and popes quarreled. This is called the “Investiture Controversy.” Simply, it centered on who had the right to invest clergy and bishops – the pope or the king. There is a long chronology of events, but it finally ended with the state having its say over the Church. But this did not happen until the nineteenth century.

We must remember that from before the fall of Rome in 415 C.E. through the period in this lesson, the Church was undergoing many hardships. There were invasions from the Huns, the Moslems, and the Vikings. There was seemingly unsurmountable missionary work to be done – a whole Continent with many different peoples and races to be reached. There were divisions within the Church. And, there was the constant struggle between the Church and state.

The teachings of the Church, based upon what the Master said, were painfully copied by monks in monasteries (including the Bible). By the twelfth century, scholars and teachers were using a large written body of lessons on the Scriptures. One of the most famous of those works was called the Sentences. It was written by a monk named Peter Lombard. He stated in this work that there were seven sacraments.

By the time of the great scholar St. Thomas Aquinas, a period called “Scholasticism” had reached its peak. Everything was studied using Aristotle’s philosophy as its norm. Here, even the Lord’s Supper was broken down into philosophical parts. The doctrine that emerged from this is called “transubstantiation.” This was given full dogmatic authority at the Fourth Lateen Council in 1215, where many of the doctrines were defined.


Besides these writers, who were called “schoolmen,” there existed both within their ranks and without a large number of mystics. It is said that when St. Thomas Aquinas was finishing his theology, which runs into forty volumes, he had a “mystical experience” one day at his office. Soon after, he dismissed his secretaries and quit writing, stating that there were no more words to be said!

Among the most influential mystics was Meister Eckhart (1260 – 1327). He was a German Dominican serving in Paris. The Church tried to convict him of heresy many times and finally condemned many of his teachings after his death. He was Neo-Platonic for he believed that which is real in all things is divine. The soul of man is a spark of God. This is the true reality in man and all individualizing qualities are mostly negative. Man should, therefore, lay these aside and struggle to have God born in his soul and enter into full communion with it to come under the control of the indwelling God. Christ is the pattern and example. He also said good works do not make you righteous since the soul is already righteous.

A pupil of Eckhart’s, John Tauler (c. 1300-1361) traveled throughout Germany preaching this. He tried to show the people that they must have God born within them.

Many of the German mystics leaned towards pantheism. They were, on a whole, neutral on rites and rituals although some were openly against anything that had to do with the Church.

In the Netherlands, the mystics turned another direction. John Ruysbroeck (1293-1381) worked closely with the German mystics. His disciple, Gerhard Groot (1340-1384), set forth teachings that an Order, the Brethren of the Common Life, was founded upon. They lived a monastic life, but without vows. They had exercises of a religious nature, copied books and were involved in teaching.

Perhaps the best known book which came out of this movement was Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. The book, in simple language, is a handbook on the mystical devotion to Christ. It has been used ever since as a handbook for those seeking The Way.

By the time of the Council in 1215, learning was still in the hands of the Church, but it had emerged from the monasteries into small schools called universities. These were located in Paris, Padua, Oxford, Pisa, and Rome. They taught Theology, Law, and Medicine. Most of the teachers were either Dominicans or Franciscans.

The beginnings of what is called the Renaissance, or re-birth of the West, began at this time (c. 1250 C.E.) Trade increased due to the rise of the nation-state. Men had more time in which to pursue the study of the arts and sciences (including the occult sciences.)

This was also the period of the Crusades. They were stimulated by economic conditions, for there were forty-eight famine years between l058 and l095, plus an urge to migrate within the populace as a whole. These troubles led people inward to find a deeper meaning in life. Religious feelings were high. This was added to by the capture of Jerusalem by the Moslems and the desecration of many holy places that had been traditional shrines.

During that time, the fight to wrestle Spain from the Moslems started. Men’s minds turned to war and conquest with the spoils of victory. It started with an appeal by the Eastern Emperor and was only frustrated by the Investiture Controversy. But, soon an army was raised and traveled across Europe killing many innocent people in its path. It reached Constantinople, but was stopped soon afterwards.

The idea was to take by force the holy places in the Middle East. An army did succeed in capturing Jerusalem in July, 1099. The military orders, like the Knights Templars, helped much in these Crusades. The Crusaders attempted to follow the feudal structure as they had used in Europe and set up kingdoms in the lands they captured.

A Second and Third Crusade followed with bitter feelings towards the Eastern rulers since Europe blamed them for the failure of these Crusades. One reason for the early success of the Crusades was a divided Mohammedanism. But it united, and it followed that the Crusaders were defeated time and time again.

There were other Crusades, the “Children’s Crusade” being among the most famous. On the whole, they were failures. They divided the Eastern Empire so that it was rendered ineffective; it failed to stop the advancement of Mohammedanism and it showed Europe how cruel men could be by the quarreling and killing that went on.

Yet, without the Crusades, Europe would not have grown. Trade increased, new land was cultivated, towns grew into importance, and the mind of man was stimulated by the contact with another and more advanced civilization.

By the year 1300, the popes had become very corrupt. They were more interested in building kingdoms on earth rather than guiding the spiritual growth of Christianity. The popes knew they could no longer hope to rule Europe, so they tried to build a state within Europe from which they could influence all other temporal affairs. They did this through treaties, concordances and promises.

Things became so bad that in 1292, when the hermit Peter Morrone was elected Pope and called himself Celestine V, he quit and went back to his cave outside Rome after a few months.

After the pontification of Innocent III when the papacy reached the height of its temporal power, it fell apart. The Pope moved to a city called Avignon in southern France. The different cardinals voted by nation, rather than by listening to Self. One of the popes at Avignon, Clement V, ordered the total destruction of the Knights Templar for political reasons!

Soon, each group had their own pope. At one time, there were four popes all claiming to hold the keys of Peter. A Hundred Years War had drained both England and France politically so that they moved through the church structure to obtain their goals.

Finally, at the Council of Constance in 1414, the church had one pope again. But, most of the reforms made at this council were soon forgotten. The popes became ever more interested in worldly affairs. It was not unnatural that reformers of the Church should come forth.

John Wycliffe, an Englishman, was born in 1330 and studied at Oxford University. With the support of the king of England, he attacked the abuses in the church. He formed a company of lay preachers called Lollards who went around the country preaching and healing. For this, he was condemned and excommunicated by five papal bulls.

He said that the Church was becoming too institutionalized. It was no longer the servant of mankind. Wycliffe also said that the pope should profess poverty and should no longer try to become a secular ruler. He attacked the institution, not the doctrine. He also made an English translation of the Bible.

In Prague, John Huss used Wycliffe’s ideas and gained a great following. Huss, like Wycliffe, preached against the secular interests of the church, and he, like his English contemporary, had nationalistic backing. He was excommunicated and the city of Prague was put under a papal interdict because of his teachings.

In De Ecclesia, he stated that the congregation of the church are made by hope, faith and charity through Christ Jesus. Huss also said the pope was not infallible. We can see why the actions of the popes led him to this conclusion. He also said indulgences were not valid. He was killed by the church at the Council of Constance in 1414 by being burned alive after being given a safe conduct guarantee.

The different events were slowly being drawn together. The rise of the nation-state, the Renaissance, the reformers all were pointing to something. It came to a head in the person of an Augustinian monk by the name of Martin Luther.


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