History, Medieval History

Don’t Let People Steal Your History

saintfrancisassisiwithalkamil15thcenturyIn a recent sermon, I mentioned the work of Francis of Assisi and referenced an episode in which he traveled to Egypt during the Fifth Crusade solely to share the gospel with the sultan, Al-Kamil. (His full name was al-Malik al-Kamil Naser ad-Din Abu al-Ma’ali Muhammad; and the crusaders just called him Meledin.)

There is a firsthand account of Francis’s visit to Al-Kamil, written by Jacques de Vitry, the French bishop of Acre, and initially not a friend of Francis’s ministry. In 1220, before meeting Francis, de Vitry called his order “dangerous” because it did not submit to conventual discipline (theological training) but instead “attempts to imitate the pattern of the primitive church and the life of the apostles in everything.” (Letter 6) Just a few years later, however, de Vitry was praising Francis.

We have seen the founder and master of the Order, Brother Francis, a simple, uneducated man beloved by God and man, whom all othe others obey as their highest superior. He was so moved by spiritual fervor and exhiliaration that, after he reached the army of Christians before Damierra in Egypt, he boldly set out for the camp of the Sultan of Egypt, fortified only with the shield of faith…When that cruel beast [al-Kamil] saw Francis, he recognized him as a man of God and changed his attitude into one of gentleness, and for some days he listened very attentively to Francis as he preached the faith of Christ to him and his followers.” (Historia occidentalis, 1223)

Fielding Questions about Citing Saints

Understandably, I received a question from a member of our congregation. I won’t get into the details of the question except to say that it was thoughtfully and respectfully offered as an area of concern because the person asking it was a former Catholic.

Questions like this arise from a simple struggle.

How can a baptist minister lift up a Roman Catholic saint as an example of preaching the gospel? Or as a paragon of holiness?

For those who were fettered by the sacramental, hierarchical approach to faith that is the core of the modern Roman Catholic Church, this is a valid question – even a crucial question.

If you are reading this and you are a part of the Roman Catholic Church, I mean no disrespect. You must understand that there are distinct theological differences between what the RCC teaches and what the Bible says. It is core Roman Catholic doctrine that one receives grace through the administration of the sacraments and that there is no salvation outside of the Roman Catholic Church. For this reason, I would never defend the Roman Catholic Church as an institution.

Reclaiming My History

So, returning to the question, how can a baptist minister lift up a saint as an example of the gospel and holiness? The answer is pretty straightforward, and I will state it here and then explain.

I refuse to allow the institutional Roman Catholic Church to steal my history.

By “my history” I mean the history of faithful believers who might have disagreed with me on some doctrinal matters but nevertheless demonstrated a clear faith in Jesus Christ and a commitment to the work of spreading the gospel.

What we, from our modern point of view, must remember is that the idea of a “Roman Catholic Church” with the pope as a single head was only realized in Europe in the century before the Protestant Reformation. Post-reformation, the history of Europe has been repeatedly rewritten to extend this kind of papal supremacy back in time; but in reality, papal supremacy existed only mostly on paper. Most of Europe operated quite independent of the papacy in Rome for most of the medieval period. At various times, European secular rulers deposed, replaced or supplemented the papacy in Rome almost at will.

While there are certainly a large number of Roman Catholic “saints” who supported the Catholic institution as supreme – such as Bernard of Clairvaux and Anselm of Canterbury – there were also a large number of troublemakers and non-conformists who have since been co-opted by the institutional church and made “saints” through the process of accumulated hagiography – apocryphal and often mystical writings associated with their canonization.

These non-conformists did not start protestant movements like Martin Luther, so people tend to think they must have fully embraced the Roman Catholic doctrines; but often they stood in opposition to what they saw as extra-biblical doctrine, corrupt hierarchy and the oppression of people. That was not always the case; but it did happen.

I admit that I find a certain affinity with these non-conformists, even though I disagree with many of them on some doctrinal points. This group includes people like:

  • Nikolaos of Myra (St. Nicholas) who famously was reported as punching Arius during the Council of Nicaea.
  • Augustine of Hippo (St. Augustine) who constructed most of what became medieval Christian theology during and after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.
  • 1896746_10152412861964050_607838845_nPatrick of Ireland (St. Patrick), a Romano-Celtic slaved turned evangelist in Ireland.
  • Peter Abelard, who is not revered as a saint but was one of the great minds of the late medieval period and spent his life getting kicked out of monastery after monastery.
  • Desiderius Erasmus, while also not a saint and also more of a Renaissance thinker than a medieval one, was a faithful son of the Church until his death even though his published Greek New Testament was one of the main causes for the Protestant Reformation.

The first three of these, along with Francis of Assisi and several others, have been co-opted into the medieval Roman Catholic thing; and as a result, their acccomplishments as ministers of the gospel is often obscured by the layers of hagiography.

So, What’s with Francis of Assisi?

Here’s the thing. Most of what people “know” about Francis is wrong.

As near as I can tell, he never made any mention of talking to animals or receiving the stigmata. There are no contemporary accounts of these things. The reference to it comes from the works of Thomas of Celano, who wrote a commissioned hagiography of Francis (Vita Beati Francisci) for Pope Gregory IX for Francis’s canonization as a saint. The canonization of Francis was a political move, part of a process of bringing Francis’s followers more and more into alignment with the secular clergy, which held land and political sway. This was something which Francis himself did not approve of. Celano wrote two more, progressively more mystical and supernatural lives of Francis; and by the time of the last one (1257), Francis had been completely transformed from a historical person to a mythical entity.

Here’s what we do know about Francis.

In 1206 or so, Francis of Assisi was converted from the nominal Christianity of his day to a radical faith. He abandoned his family fortune and became a mendicant beggar, eventually establish an order known as the “Lesser Brothers.” His simple life of devotion and worship (he and his friends were known for singing a lot) attraced a huge following in Italy.

The order, which openly disavowed any claim upon property or power, was the first such order to receive papal recognition in 1209 (although one wonders how much of that was more due to Innocent III giving them recognition to prevent them from becoming a domestic problem while he had larger issues to deal with). Papal recognition, however, seems to have messed up Francis’s original intent; and the final rule of the order (1223) was so different from his original rule that Francis retired in a bit of a funk over it.

When you read Francis’s writings, there is certainly a medieval Italian, Roman Catholic perspective. He advocated supporting the priesthood (“The Testament”). He viewed the Eucharist as a sacrament – although what he meant by that is sometimes veiled (“To All Custodes”). He held to confession and absolution (“A Letter to a Minister”). These are things I certainly disagree with on a fundamental, biblical level.

At the same time, it is important to weigh these views in the scale of context. For Francis, who was not a canon lawyer or a theologian and, as near as we can tell, did not possess a Bible, these were givens. Even in the midst of his theological issues, Francis constantly reminds his correspondents that nothing should detract from “the Spirit of prayer and devotion” (“To Anthony”, 1222).

Additionally, the words he offered to those who wished to follow him resonate strongly with the Scriptures. Here is a selection of lines from his “Admonitions”:

But in this we can glory: in our infirmities and bearing daily the holy Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. (5)

Those are given life by the spirit of Sacred Scripture who do not refer to themselves any text which they know or seek to know, but, by word and example, return everything to the most high Lord God to Whom every good belongs. (8)

What a man is before God, that he is and nothing more. Woe to that religious who has been placed in a high position by others and does not wish to come down of his own will. (20)

It is difficult to read Francis’s words and not see someone who, despite his flawed theology, was seeking to live out the gospel of Jesus Christ. Despite being a part of the Roman Catholic Church and voluntarily submitted to the rule of the priesthood, he nevertheless was aware of the corruption that existed in it; and in his final “Testament”, he warned his followers against giving into the corrupting powers of the institution.

Considering the Medieval Horizon

Thomas F. Madden once wrote that in medieval Europe the world was defined by your horizon. This was true physically but it was also true ecclesiastically. The idea of forming a church that would compete with the Catholic Church was simply not something that would occur to people. Instead, reformers and renewers worked within the existing Catholic Church.

Back then, “Catholic” was not a denomination. It was an identifier of the core Nicene, orthodox faith – defining the trinity, the canon of Scripture, and the method for dealing with heresy. Within the Catholic Church, there was tremendous diversity depending on location and time period – including married clergy, services in the vernacular language (as opposed to Latin), local ecclesiastic authority, and even personal Scripture ownership. Patrick’s Celtic Christianity was much more like a monastic version of modern evangelicals than medieval Catholics; but it too was co-opted several hundred years after Patrick to present a unified church history.

So for Francis, there was no need to separate himself from the Roman Catholic hierarchy or to spend a great deal of time studying differing views of the Eucharist and the priesthood. By his own admission, Francis was not interested in changing theology – only behavior. He wanted people who claimed to be Christians to act more like Christ.

Why This History Matters, and Why We Should Not Let People Steal It

With all of that said, it is worth noting however just how Francis impacted Protestantism. It was the organization of Francis’s order of Lesser Brothers that prompted the Roman Catholic Church to consider how it was dealing with these various unofficial order that existed throughout Europe. In the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Church decreed that these movements had to live in community and adopt a rule. Therefore, a number of movements came together to form the Augustinian order, receiving official sanction in 1243. Later, this order was freed from the rule of local bishops, which allowed them to establish canon schools, which eventually became universities. One of those universities, in Wittenberg, Germany, was where Martin Luther – an Augustinian friar – studied and eventually taught.

Extraordinarily, without Francis of Assisi and his peaceful non-conformist faith, there might have never been Martin Luther and the Reformation. Without the Reformation, Europe would not have gone through the upheaval of the religious wars; and the non-conformist sects – among them the Baptists – would never have been able to emerge.

In some ways, we are indebted to Francis and his flawed devotion to the gospel. While he never really looked beyond his own horizon and remained faithful to a system we consider in error, he nonetheless was one of the pioneers who paved the way for our continued process of theological correction and clarification. He is a part of our history; and we should not allow others to co-opt him.


4 thoughts on “Don’t Let People Steal Your History”

  1. It’s pretty irrational, imo, to claim that the original western Christian church is ‘stealing’ something it had long before the invention of the many later sects of western Christianity. When they arose, or broke away or were invented by kings to suit their personal (and largely secular) desire for power, they simply maintained the texts of the older church to some extent. Of course you’re welcome to admire pre-Protestant era western Christians, and post-Protestant ones too. It’s silly for Christians to squabble among each other like this, and makes the Christian church as a whole look petty in the eyes of the world at large.

    1. Is the modern Roman Catholic Church “the original western Christian Church”? Or is it a product of the medieval period which has evolved steadily away from its roots? I would contend it is the latter; and the continual existence of restoration movements within the Church during the medieval period would seem to indicate this to be so.

      1. erik – it’s not a matter of contention, but of simple history. The western church has a history, and that history includes the fragmentation of an original church into the various national or individually-inspired sects. Of course there were continual efforts at renewal – Francis of Assisi signalled one, and he himself came awfully close to being declared a heretic before receiving public approval. But the historical break-up of the western church is only perceived/excused/rationalised as ‘renewals’. It was a period of schism within what had been a single church . The history of the original church is plain enough and it’s the Catholic church whose lineage extends in an unbroken line back to the early centuries AD. I think the western church was already a long way from Christ’s message by the 3rdC – but the fact is the original western church is the Catholic church. I’m a nonconformist myself, but I see no reason to pretend that the meeting I attend isn’t part of a movement which began in the eighteenth century.

      2. I think you’re misunderstanding my intent here. I have a master’s degree in church history, and much of my work was on the medieval church. I am not saying that the Reformation or the post-Reformation restoration/renewal movements are the original church or anything like that.

        My argument is that “the Church” was not a monolithic, hierarchical institution like we tend to think of it today. That idea existed only on paper for most of history and only became a reality in the late medieval period with the rise of papal monarchy and then again post-Avignon. At the same time, there were increasingly vocal groups opposing it – groups like the Lollards, Hussites, and eventually the Protestants.

        So, the history of people like Patrick of Ireland and Francis of Assisi is part of our history as non-conformists, as much as it is part of Roman Catholic history. While hagiography revises and adds to history to make someone “worthy” of being a saint, with all that stripped away, the historical figures are still part of the history of the Church – which includes us.

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