7 Heroes of the Faith Part 2A: Dark Times

Although he was far from perfect (as you will soon see), I regard Martin Luther as one of the great heroes of the Christian faith. In fact, if you are a Bible-believing Christian who has come to trust in Jesus alone for your salvation, you owe much to this German monk from the Middle Ages. To understand just how much, we need to dig back in history and uncover the spiritually impoverished condition of the institutionalised church at the time when Luther was born.[1]

By the Middle Ages, the worldwide Christian church was in a terrible state. It had become bogged down in superstition, hamstrung by bureaucracy, infected with immorality and rife with corruption. Worst of all, the gospel of grace had been largely obfuscated by an array of superstitious beliefs, an emphasis on good works and a reliance on man-made religious observances. The result was that very few people had any clear understanding of the gospel and the significance of the atoning sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world. The Christian church was like a tree that had been infected with wood rot and was barely clinging to life.

The start of the rot can arguably be traced back to 312 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine, was converted to Christianity. There is some debate as to whether his conversion was genuine or merely a religious whim, but either way, his impact on the subsequent development of Christianity was substantial. A year after his conversion, in 313 AD, he issued the Edict of Milan, which commanded the cessation of persecution of Christians and effectively proclaimed Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire. Initially, this proclamation was a huge blessing to the Christian church, which could now practise its faith openly and even build places of worship.

Gradually, however, the line between church and state became increasingly muddied. The proclamation of Christianity as the state religion led to its wholesale adoption by a populace who knew very little about it. Priests who had previously worshipped the Roman gods now conducted services to the emperor’s newly proclaimed Christian God, with little or no understanding of the Bible or the teachings of Christ. These biblically illiterate, unconverted pagan priests simply switched camps to the emperor’s new religion and brought with them many of their superstitious beliefs and pagan practices, unwittingly blending these into their expression of the Christian faith. They also brought with them their unconverted natures, including their love of ritual and their desire for self-aggrandisement. Consequently, over the ensuing centuries, the Christian church became increasingly bogged down in ritual and superstition, and the clergy became entrenched in hierarchical elitism.

The common people who transferred to the emperor’s new religion also brought with them many of the superstitious beliefs and practices of their previous religions. These included belief in the magical powers of relics and icons, and prayers to a multiplicity of gods – which quickly morphed into prayers to dead Christian ‘saints’.

By the end of the Middle Ages, in the 1500s, the established church had evolved into a monolithic establishment of immense power, governed by a hierarchy of priests, bishops, cardinals and, at the very top, the Pope. The ‘head office’ was changed from Jerusalem to Rome, and the church became the ruling authority of the western world, with Kings, rulers and magistrates subject to its dictates. The church levied taxes, raised armies, wrote and enforced laws, and carried out death sentences. The absolute power of the church was intoxicating for those who managed to ascend the heights of its ecclesiastical hierarchy.

Becoming a priest was the first step toward wealth and power. Families who could afford to do so, purchased their sons’ priesthoods, preferably in wealthy churches, enabling them to secure an income from the tithes and offerings of their congregations. Priests with influential families could then pay the church additional money to be made a bishop, with bishoprics in wealthy areas costing more than those in poorer regions. Adding to this scandalous state of affairs was the fact that most priests and bishops in the Middle Ages had not read the Bible. This was largely because the Vatican had, by then, declared that the sacred scriptures should only be translated into Latin, a language that only university scholars understood. As most priests had not reached this level of education, the Bible was simply not accessible to them and, consequently, many priests were not conversant with even the most basic aspects of biblical doctrines.

It is difficult to comprehend the astonishing ignorance of the average priest in the Middle Ages. Joshua J. Mark, co-founder of the World History Encyclopedia, writes:

“The priests were notoriously corrupt and, in many cases, illiterate parasites who only held their position due to family influence and favour.”[2]

Furthermore, the lifestyles of many priests were blatantly hypocritical, with some towns having brothels that were solely dedicated to servicing monks and priests. A letter by Bishop Guillaume le Maire in the thirteenth century reveals the detestable moral standards of many clergy:

“The Priesthood includes innumerable contemptible persons of abject life, utterly unworthy in learning and morals, from whose execrable lives and pernicious ignorance infinite scandals arise. The Church sacraments are despised by the laity, and in very many districts the lay folk hold the priests as vile.”[3]

Rampant greed, corruption and power struggles infected the entire ecclesiastical hierarchy of the church of the Middle Ages, with bishops and cardinals constantly vying for power, wealth and influence. Apart from a split between the Eastern and Western branches of the church in 1054 AD, there was really only one significant expression of Christianity on Earth. There were no denominations at that time, just the official Roman Catholic Church. The word “Roman” referred to its centre of government in Rome, and “Catholic”, simply meant “worldwide” or “universal”. By the Middle Ages, the Pope had been decreed to be the infallible representative of God on Earth – decreed by a succession of Popes themselves.

The period from 500 A.D. to 1500 A.D. is known as the Dark Ages of the church. During this period, a cascading litany of doctrinal decrees flowed from the Popes, which moved the church further and further away from the teachings of the Bible. The common people were told that only priests had the power to forgive their sins.

Supposed relics of dead saints were said to have magical powers, and the church charged money for people to touch them and worship them. Greed and corruption added further to the polluting of Christian doctrine. The church charged money for the forgiveness of sins, via a practice known as ‘indulgences’. These were official certificates, signed by a bishop, that people could purchase which ‘guaranteed’ forgiveness of sins for either themselves or a dead relative.

The church also introduced the concept of purgatory which significantly boosted the sale of indulgences, as people were promised that purchasing an indulgence certificate in the name of a dead relative could instantly free them from the flames of torment. One famous priest who was particularly effective in selling these indulgences on behalf of the Pope and various bishops, was Johann Tetzel (1465-1519), who used the famous catch-cry, “When a coin in the coffers rings, a soul from purgatory springs”. Under the Pope’s authority he even claimed that an indulgence certificate “could forgive even someone who has had sex with the virgin Mary herself!”

The sale of these Indulgences, as well as charges for access to relics, brought huge amounts of money into the coffers of the Roman Catholic church. Sadly, it also completely undermined the gospel of grace. People were taught to trust in superstitious relics, man-made certificates and religious observance for their forgiveness, rather than trusting in Christ. Dead saints were venerated and prayed to. Mary, declared by successive Popes to be sinless and perpetually virginal, was worshipped and became the focus of much prayer. For instance, the Catholic rosary, developed by Pope Gregory in the sixth century (and still used today), entailed five prayers to Mary for every one prayer to God. Both priests and laity alike knew no better. Those few individuals who did gain an understanding of the teachings of Christ and who dared to question these official teachings and practices of the Church were often brought before the Inquisition and charged with heresy.

It was truly a grim, dark period in the Church’s history. By the Middle Ages, the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ alone was almost completely obscured, buried under the accumulated weight of centuries of superstitious beliefs and unbiblical practices. But all of that was about to change: and much of that change was spearheaded by the bold actions of one courageous German monk.

(Part 2 coming next week).


[1] Much of the following information was previously published in chapter 2 of my book, “Rethinking the Gospel”.

[2] Joshua J. Mark, “The Medieval Church”, published on worldhistory.org, on 17 June 2019.

[3] Cited in G. G. Coulton, “Medieval Village, Manor and Monastery”, Harper and Row, 1960, p. 259.