The Church, Judaism and Islam in the Middle Ages

In Volume IV of Will Durant’s The Story of Civilization he introduces Chapter 3, “The Progress of Christianity” at page 44, he observes:

The foster mother of the new civilization was the church. As the old order faded away in corruption, cowardice, and neglect, a unique army of churchmen rose to defend with energy and skill a regenerated stability and decency of life. The historic function of Christianity was to reestablish the moral basis of character and society by providing supernatural sanctions and support for the uncongenial commands of social order; . . .

Augustine and His Influence upon Both Catholic Theology, and Later, Protestant Theology

Next to Constantine, St. Augustine had the greatest influence on the church, and not just the Catholic Church, but even the subsequent Protestant churches. His best-known work is his Confessions, in which, for my tastes, at times he seems to make himself more base to make God all the greater; and at other times, he seems almost to be brag of his brazen rejection of his mother’s prayers for him. In that work, he acknowledges that he prayed for chastity, “but not yet.” He was well schooled in Greek philosophy and was a disciple of Manichaean dualism until it was outlawed by the Roman Emperor, as the Empire, through Constantine, adapted Christianity to its political purposes. Indeed, I find that his rejection of Manichaeism is on grounds that bear strong resemblance to his finely retooled Christian theology.

Augustine found Greek philosophy to be much more consonant with Christian theology, perhaps influenced by Paul’s announcement to the Athenians that he was revealing to them the Christ, who the pagans represented as the “unknown god.” Drawing upon his philosophical background, which, it would appear, was not a threat to Roman authority and therefore Roman authority was not a threat to it, he provided an Aristotelian justification of church doctrine, as refined by himself. He adopted the doctrine of original sin first introduced by Paul. He argued that Adam’s sin had left man corrupted merely by being children of Adam; that only through the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus, God’s only Son, could mankind be redeemed; that only by the free grace of God could the stain Adam’s sin be erased and salvation gained; and that only by intercession of the prayers of the Virgin Mother.

His was a dogmatic complexity which would stain Christian theology for all time, rooted in a doctrine of original sin in all offspring of “Adam.” For all his youthful excesses, in his more mature, converted state, sexuality was part of the fallen, sinful state of man. He wrote a treatise On Free Will in which he argued that although God for saw the choices that man would freely make, nonetheless, man was free to make the choices.

Following the political collapse of Rome, many asked how that could have occurred. Some blamed paganism, others blamed Christendom. Many Christians were shaken in their faith by Rome’s fall. Augustine made his own attempt to make sense of that chaotic aftermath in City of God. He struggled with the work for 13 years. Will Durant makes the following observations and assessments at page 72:

He published it in piecemeal installments; the middle of it forgot the beginning and did not foresee the end; inevitably it’s 1200 pages became a confused concatenation of essays on everything from the First Sin to the Last Judgment; and only the depth of its thought, and the splendor of its style, lifted it out of its chaos to the highest rank in the literature of Christian philosophy.

Over the next two centuries, Rome would see the final dissolution of the Roman Empire, and the Catholic Church would take up its political remnants to combine with its ecclesiastical power. Europe descended into its Dark Ages

The Rise of Byzantine Culture and of the Greek Orthodox Church.

As the Roman church consolidated its ecclesiastical and political power in the West, there also arose theological and political differences between the church at Rome and that at Constantinople. In 867 the Byzantine Emperor called a church council which denounced the Roman Catholic Church and excommunicated its Pope. In 897, Pope Stephen the VI “got even” by having the corpse of Pope Formosus exhumed, adorned in purple robes and tried, convicted, and the corpse mutilated.

With the decline of the Roman Empire, Roman Church political power increased. Byzantium also struggled with invasions from the East and the West. Finally, at the beginning of the 11th century, the Greek Empire consolidated its control of Byzantium, and through its stability, Byzantine commerce again dominated the Mediterranean. Constantinople thrived. Byzantium enjoyed a renaissance. Although the Byzantine church prohibited sculpture and art, generally, Christian Orthodox iconoclastic representations were allowed and thrived. Its icons were viewed as an aid to worship. Politically, Constantinople provided a buffer between Europe and Islam and thrived until it was plundered by the Crusaders in 2004.

The 11th century found the Roman church in spiritual disarray. The church sold its services for a price, it sold purported relics, it’s clergy was caught between marriage and concubinage,, and the Papal States became militarily engaged for its own political as well as religious purposes. In that century, the Schism between East and West churches was formalized. Although the Church did not encourage it, nonetheless, the populace adored the Virgin Mary. Her maternal image softened some of the harsh realities of life and teachings of the Roman Church.

Toward the end of the Middle Ages, the roots of various nationalities throughout the European region were developing. The German emperors claimed that their political power was divinely granted. The fine line between Church and Empire had become blurred, and rather than direct political and military action, the Church ruled indirectly, meeting conflict with excommunication, and obtaining favor by the blessing of the Holy Roman Empire.

In Europe, feudalism yielded to chivalry and the Crusades; fiefdoms and manors yielded to villages and then to city states. In preparation for a cultural renaissance, Europe was realizing an economic revolution in which merchants gained more power, and commerce permitted cultural enrichment by contact with other societies.

In his The Story of Civilization, Volume IV, The Age of Faith, Will Durant begins Chapter XX VI I, the Roman Catholic Church,

In many aspects religion is the most interesting of man’s ways, for it is his ultimate commentary on life and his only defense against death. . . . Men hoped vaguely for heaven, but vividly feared hell.

In both Islam and Christianity, a sign of the times was the theological notion that there are the elect, selected by God before birth, but then there was the majority that would go to hell. Even St. Augustine was of the opinion that an unbaptized infant was destined to hell.

Of this time, Will Durant observes, “The power of Christianity lay in its offering to the people faith rather than knowledge, art rather than science, beauty rather than truth.” In the latter part of the Middle Ages Christian theologians were influenced by Jewish and Islamic philosophy and theology, particularly that of Moses Maimonides.

See The Nicene Creed at and The Need for Creeds at

The Christian Mystic, Eckhart von Hochheim (c. 1260 – c. 1327)

Meister Eckhart was a Christian Mystic theologian of the Dominican order. He was a Neoplatonist scholar who studied humanism, which became during the Renaissance a strong influence on the arts. The Dominicans are known for their sound scholastic orientation. He saw the truth of the Bible, not as literally read, but as metaphorically significant. In that dynamic sense, he emphasized the balance between the mysteries of the tri-unity and its manifestations. Like with his predecessor, Moses Maimonides (1135 – 1204), he addressed the inability of language to describe anything positive about the divine.

The author of The European Graduate School post entitled Meister Eckhart – Biography, which may be found at, articulates Eckhardt’s contribution to Christian mysticism:

Eckhart taught that man’s great need is that his soul be united with God, and that finding salvation requires that one attains the teaching of religion in and through his own understanding. In accord with this orientation, Eckhart spoke little, and quite possibly, thought little, of church ceremonies.

The Deity, he claimed, was the highest object of thought precisely because no finite predicates, or predicates derived by finite beings, are applicable to the Deity. This claim, however, is not a simple negation or emptiness. It is not the Deity that is negation, but finite beings as such which are emptiness and negation. The Deity is the negation of finite beings, and as such, the negation of the negation, that is, it is the absolute fullness of being. There is an apparent contradiction in Eckhart’s proclamations that God is the absolute being and the denial that He is a being. The contradiction, however, is reconciled in so far as he claimed that while the essential elements of finite beings are in God, they are so only in an exalted degree and thus in a manner that cannot be apprehended by man.

Eckhart also refers to the absolute, unqualified being, as unnatured nature, which manifests itself in the Trinity. The Trinity, therefore, is the self-revelation of the Deity. Eckhart draws a distinction between God and Deity, along the lines of actuality and potentiality. Although such language is not explicitly used by Eckhart, and moreover, he explicitly claimed that God excludes all potentiality, this division nonetheless follows from his conception of God as actus purus.

This self-manifestation of God in the Trinity is followed by His manifestation in His creatures. Although everything true and real in them is of God’s eternal being, God’s eternal being is not manifested in them in Its fullness. In so far as all finite beings are negations, then if God were to withdraw, they would disappear much like a shadow projected onto a wall would, if the wall itself was removed.

The unqualified Deity, Trinity and Creation, Eckhart claimed, were three immediate moments, which followed one another conceptually, but not temporally. Eckhart posited a hierarchy of being, in so much as he claimed that while something of God was even in irrational beings, His divinity resided only in the soul. That is, the soul was the place of God in man, and hence in the soul God is subjective, while in the rest of creation He is merely objective. In the soul, he claimed, was the divine spark. This spark exists eternally in God, but through grace enters into the temporal realm, that is, into the soul.

Perfection, however, was not the result of some primary original unity, but of a return. Man must turn to God in order for the divine spark in him to be truly realized – it is not enough to be His creation, one must also become His son. Christ was not born as the son, but became him, for no reason other than he made a place for God in his soul.

Sin, for Eckhart was not the cause of the incarnation. Sin, instead, is the turning away from God. In turning in the direction of finite being and pleasure one refuses God his place in the finite soul, and as such sins. Redemption, accordingly, is when a finite being makes room in his soul for the work and word of God. To sin or to become the son, forms the polarity of man, with respect to God. When God enters the finite soul he births the son; this is the fulfillment of the soul’s destiny – the soul’s destiny, we can say for Eckhart, is its anatomy.

Of Eckhart, the site,, in a post entitled, Medieval Christian Mysticism, the author states:

One of the most influential mystics of the Middle Ages, Meister Eckhart, wrote “God is infinite in his simplicity and simple in his infinity. Therefore he is everywhere and is everywhere complete. He is everywhere on account of his infinity, and is everywhere complete on account of his simplicity. Only God flows into all things, their very essences. Nothing else flows into something else. God is in the innermost part of each and every thing, only in its innermost part.

Few of Meister Eckhart’s theological works were published until the 20th century. He is perhaps best known for his sermons, which have long been in publication. Concerning those sermons, Wikipedia at quotes him concerning his intentions for his preaching:

When I preach, I usually speak of detachment and say that a man should be empty of self and all things; and secondly, that he should be reconstructed in the simple good that God is; and thirdly, that he should consider the great aristocracy which God has set up in the soul, such that by means of it man may wonderfully attain to God; and fourthly, of the purity of the divine nature,

Later in life, Meister Eckhart was charged by the Roman Catholic Church of being a heretic. He fell victim of the Inquisition, which was heavily influenced by leaders of the Franciscan order. He is said to have logically defended himself well, but he died before verdict in his trial was rendered.

To this day the Church maintains its censure of his work and ideas, although many over time have attempted to remove that censure and to recognize him and his work. Nonetheless, Meister Eckhart has had a great influence upon contemporary theologians, particularly, Matthew Fox, the psychiatrist and writer, Eric Fromm, and the former Secretary General of the United Nations, Dag Hammarskjöld. Some contemporary scholars see parallels between Meister Eckhart and Buddhism.


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