Early medieval Christianization mimicked the methodology and philosophy of empire expansion more than the evangelistic processes of the early or primitive church.
Christianity had been thoroughly absorbed into Rome and mirrored almost all of its ethnocentric prejudices by 500 C.E. The 600’s saw an almost complete superimposition of a curiously familiar sociopolitical philosophy and procedure over religious ideology, duty, and mission. The result was a systemic sort of Christianization, rather than compassion driven evangelization. Approved belief and creedal perfection replaced the original movement toward diverse unification and care for the needs and souls of neighbors. The Church became a new kingdom cut from a fading empire’s cloth.
Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora are examples of the priority placed upon creedal perfection. John of Ephesus records the incredible lengths each take to ensure the proper Christianization of the Nobatai. Justinian is pro Chalcedon; Theodora is not. The mission becomes less about the Nobatai and more about rival beliefs. John writes, “But when the king heard that the person she intended to send was opposed to the council of Chalcedon, he was not pleased, and determined to write to the bishops of his own side in the Thebais, with orders for them to proceed thither and instruct them, and plant among them the name of the synod” (Ephesus 118). Theodora meanwhile sent her own creedal team to Nubia behind orders for the duke of Thebais to prevent Justinian’s team from arriving before her own. Failure to do so would cost the duke his life. It is difficult to believe that Theodora was driven by heartfelt concern for neighbors as she shows herself willing to kill one to reach another.
It also seems likely that Rome’s invested interest in the Christianization of the Nobatai was the result of observed and strategic political benefits more than any sort of real spiritual concern. Nubia was the recipient of a Roman subsidy on the “condition that they do not enter nor pillage Egypt” (Ephesus 118). A Christianized Nobatai would not require a subsidy to convince them to behave properly. They would act as appropriate as the Church demanded. The political benefit of Christianization should not be overlooked.
The early medieval church continued to mimic empire expansion during the reign of Reccared, the king of Spain. In the beginning of the king’s opening address to the Third Council of Toledo he expressed joy in the removal of heresy and the subsequent unity which made Synod opportunities possible: “For although in times past the heresy that threatened the whole catholic church kept synods from meeting, now that God has been pleased to use us to remove the obstacle of heresy, he has directed that the church’s ordinances be restored” (Coakley and Sterk 253). The church then turned toward the Christianization of the Goths soon after the “obstinacy of infidelity” had been “expelled” and the “fury of discord” had been removed (Coakley and Sterk 254).
Reccared, the king of Spain, says concerning the Goths:
“For present here is the renowned nation of the Goths, whom all other nations consider to possess genuine vigor. Even though the depravity of their teachers has thus far separated them from the faith and unity of the catholic church, now they join their assent to mine and participate together in the communion of the church, which receives the multitude of diverse nations in its material bosom and nourishes them with the breasts of charity … Nor is it only the conversion of the Goths that has added to the sum of our reward, but also that of the great multitude of the people of the Suevi, whom with the help of heaven we have subjected to our kingdom; although they had been led astray in the vice of heresy, our zeal has recalled them to the fount of truth” (Coakley and Sterk 254).
The Acts of the Third Council of Toledo possess as many sociopolitical overtones as it does spiritual and/or religious sentiment.
The fact that early medieval Christianization seems to be cut from the same philosophical and methodological cloth used for empire expansion does not mean the church has lost its shared connection with the early church. The early medieval church still exhibited a few characteristics of the early movement.
Many, apart from powerful Christian kings and rulers, undoubtedly adhered to a loving devotion of their Christ. The wandering Irish monastic Columbanus expresses a great deal of humility, devotion and authentic religious/spiritual insight in his letter to the bishops in Gaul in 603 A.D. Columbanus does, however, let loose a streak of serious ethnocentric prejudice, albeit briefly: “Far be it then that I should maintain the need to quarrel with you, so that a conflict among us Christian should rejoice our enemies, I mean the Jews, or heretics or Gentile heathen - far be it indeed, far be it …” (Columbanus 257). Apart from this unfortunate human detriment, Columbanus reflects the spirituality, piety, and devotion characterized by the early church well.
The free choice of salvation also seems to have its supporters and sustainers in the early medieval period. In a time of coerced mass conversions some still held onto the early church’s belief that salvation must be the personal decision of the one being saved.
Bede, in Ecclesiastical History, records the story of England’s conversion to Christianity by a group of Pope Gregory commissioned monks. A monk called Augustine, according to Bede, established a see in the king’s city. The king and many others were converted as a result of “the truth of which they confirmed by many miracles” (Columbanus 260). The king and many others believed and were baptized into the church. Bede then goes on to write: “Thenceforward great numbers gathered each day to hear the word of God, forsaking heathen rites and entering the unity of Christ’s holy Church as believers. While the king was pleased at their faith and conversion, it is said he would not compel anyone to accept Christianity; for he had learned from his instructors and guides to salvation that the service of Christ must be accepted freely and not under compulsion” (Columbanus 260). The king did not listen to the wise monks. He instead “showed greater favor to believers because they were fellow citizens of the kingdom of heaven. And it was not long before he granted his teachers in his capital of Canterbury a place of residence appropriate to their station, and gave them possessions of various kinds to supply their wants” (Columbanus 260). One cannot say the monk didn’t try.
The early medieval church looked less like the early/primitive Christian church and more like a religious empire. This is not to say a remnant didn’t remain. The church still was occupied by many faithful believers who held onto and perpetuated the ideas, spirituality, and properly directed devotion of the early Christian Church. It just begins to become much, much harder to see.
This material raised questions for me concerning my own ethnocentric prejudices and how they are subconsciously incorporated into my own Christian expressions. I must be careful to not allow these culturally inherent things to become the universals they were never intended to be. Christianity is bigger than ethnocentric prejudice.
Coakley, John Wayland, and Andrea Sterk. Readings in World Christian History. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004.
Columbanus. Columbanus, Letter 2. Readings in World Christian History. Eds. John Wayland Coakley and Andrea Sterk. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004.
Ephesus, John of. The Evangelization of Nubia (Ecclesiastical History). Readings in World Christian History. Ed. Andrea Sterk. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2004.