The Gospel According To Church History (Part 7) By Nathan Busenitz

The articles in this series have surveyed church history from the book of Acts through the early Middle Ages, asking the question, “What did church leaders from the apostles through the  church fathers believe about the essence of the gospel?” Time after time, we have found a common theme repeated: that sinners are justified before God by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. That was the fundamental message recaptured during the Protestant Reformation.




But how did this message get lost in history, such that the Reformation was necessary? The answer to that question is complex—because the shift took place gradually over centuries of time, as manmade traditions began to obscure the purity of the gospel.




Even in the ante-Nicene period (prior to 325), certain legalistic tendencies had begun to surface. But serious problems began to pour into the church in the fourth century, when the Roman Empire was “converted” from paganism to Christianity. Many former pagans simply Christianized their earlier idolatrous practices, and thus introduced dangerous errors into the church. Once planted, those pagan seeds eventually gave birth to all sorts of corrupt traditions in the medieval church (like the veneration of icons, prayers to the saints, and the elevation of Mary).i Moreover, in an environment where everyone professed to be a “Christian,” medieval preaching naturally focused more on the fruits of a righteous life than on the root of justification by faith.ii Over time that emphasis on external fruit led to a type of moralismiii from which the full-blown sacramental legalism of Roman Catholicism emerged complete in the thirteenth century.




The Development of the Papacy


Contributing to this doctrinal corruption was the rise of the papacy. In the west, the city of Rome was the most important center of theological and ecclesiological influence. Initially, that influence was kept in balance by other important Christian centers: Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. But those cities were all in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. When the western half of the Roman Empire fell in 476, Rome became isolated. Its authority went unchecked, and as a result the bishopric of Rome was elevated to unprecedented (and unbiblical) heights—developing into the papacy of the Middle Ages.




As early as the mid-400s, Leo I made the argument that the bishop of Rome held a position of elevated authority based on a supposed line of apostolic succession. Being a bishop of Rome himself, Leo contended that Peter was “the rock” in Matthew 16:18—something the early church fathers had not taught.iv Later Roman bishops built on Leo’s arguments; eventually contending that the pope was the most important spiritual leader in the church.




In the late 700s, a document known as the “Donation of Constantine” surfaced. The document claimed that Emperor Constantine (272–337), before he died, had bequeathed the western half of the Roman empire to the bishop of Rome. The Donation was later proven to be a forgery. Nonetheless, from the 8th–13th centuries, popes used it to assert both their religious and political authority in the west.




The 9th and 10th centuries were a period of particularly perverse corruption for the popes of Rome. Those interested in the darkest of the dark ages will find E. R. Chamberlin’s treatment of The Bad Popes (Dorset, 1993) to be especially eye-opening (and disturbing). Suffice it to say, the papacy was fought over by rival groups in Rome who were willing to do it whatever necessary to gain a position of such great political power.




Papal arrogance and corruption resulted in the irreconcilable breach between the eastern and western halves of the Roman church. In 1054, Pope Leo IX sent a delegation to Constantinople demanding that the Patriarch of Constantinople recognize him as the head of all the churches.


When the Patriarch refused, the cardinal leading the delegation excommunicated him. In response, the Patriarch excommunicated the Roman delegation. The Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches have been split ever since.




Around 1230, the western church adopted the idea of a Treasure House of Merit in heaven, from which the pope could dispense indulgences (pardons) to whomever he wished. This system of indulgences became a fundraising opportunity for the Roman popes, providing the means for opulent building projects (like St. Peter’s basilica). The indulgence system allowed corrupt popes to use their religious position to extort money from spiritually desperate people on the false notion that sinners can purchase God’s grace for a price.




Papal authority and the corrupt system of indulgences would prove to be a major point of contention during the Reformation. In fact, it was the sale of indulgences that motivated Luther to write his 95 Theses; and in one of his Table Talks Luther explained:




“The chief cause that I fell out with the pope was this: the pope boasted that he was the head of the church, and condemned all that would not be under his power and authority. . . . Further he took upon him power, rule, and authority over the Christian church, and over the Holy Scriptures, the Word of God; [claiming that] no man must presume to expound the Scriptures, but only he, and according to his ridiculous conceits; so that he made himself lord over the church.”v





In contrast, the Reformers insisted that Christ alone is the head of the church. Any other self- proclaimed “head” constituted an imposter and a fraud.




The Official Adoption of an Apostate Gospel


Though the Councils of Orange (in 441 and 529) condemned the synergism of semi-Pelagianism, the medieval Catholic church eventually came to define justification in synergistic terms (meaning that the church presented salvation as a cooperative effort between God and man).




In the thirteenth century, at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), the Roman Catholic church officially made salvation contingent on good works by establishing the seven sacraments as the means by which sinners are justified.




As Norm Geisler and Josh Betancourt explain in their book, Is Rome the True Church?:





Roman Catholicism as it is known today is not the same as the Catholic Church before 1215. Even though the split between East and West occurred in 1054, most non-Catholics today would have been able to belong to the Catholic Church before the thirteenth century. Regardless of certain things the church permitted, none of its official doctrinal proclamations regarding essential salvation doctrines were contrary to orthodoxy.


While the development of Roman Catholicism from the original church was gradual, beginning in early centuries, one of the most significant turning points came in 1215, when one can see the beginning of Roman Catholicism as it is subsequently known. It is here that the seeds of what distinguishes Roman Catholicism were first pronounced as dogma. It is here that they pronounced the doctrine of transubstantiation, the primacy of the bishop of Rome, and seven sacraments. Many consider this a key turning point in the development of Roman Catholicism in distinction from non-Catholic forms of


Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), who was born ten years after the Fourth Lateran Council, also contributed greatly to confusion on the true nature of the gospel. As Gregg R. Allison explains:


More than anyone else, Thomas Aquinas set down the medieval Catholic notion of justification and its corollaries of grace, human effort, and merit. Although a substantial departure from Augustine and the Augustinians of the Middle Ages, his theology became determinative for the Roman Catholic Church. . . . [Thomas] emphasized the grace of God yet prescribed an important role for human cooperation in obtaining salvation. Certainly, God exercises the primary role in achieving and applying salvation, but people have their part to play as well. God moves by initiating grace in a person’s life; then that person moves toward God and moves away from sin, resulting in the forgiveness of sins. Thus, Aquinas believed in a synergy, or cooperative effort, between God and people in justification.vii


To base salvation on a cooperative effort between God’s grace and our good works presents a major problem—since it distorts the biblical teaching about grace. As Paul explained to the Romans, “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace” (Romans 11:6).


To add works into the equation is to frustrate grace. Certainly, good works are the fruit of salvation, but they are not the foundation of it. And it was at that very point that the Catholic church of the late Middle Ages muddled up the gospel.


Coming Full Circle


To our earlier list of twenty-five church fathers (in parts 5 and 6 of this series), we might add several voices from the later medieval period. We will briefly consider two well-known medieval theologians whose work greatly influenced the Reformers.


Anselm of Canterbury (1033–1109) is perhaps best remembered for his articulation of the Satisfaction Theory of the Atonement (on which the Reformers built their doctrine of Substitution). In his famous work Cur Deus Homo (Why God Became Man), Anselm explained that it was impossible for fallen human beings to satisfy God’s justice through their own efforts. As he said it, “A sinful man can by no means do this, for a sinner cannot justify a sinner.”viii Anselm further noted that remission for sin could only take place “by the payment of the debt incurred by sin, according to the extent of sin.”ix The debt of sin was of such a magnitude that only God could pay it. Yet, Anselm reasoned, only a man could represent mankind in making such a payment. Thus, the Incarnation was necessary so that Jesus Christ—as the God-Man— could both pay an infinite debt and do so on behalf of sinful men and women.


Anselm’s conclusion was that the only way human beings can be saved is through faith in Christ. To those who do not believe the gospel, he argued: “Let them cease from mocking us, and let them hasten to unite themselves with us, who do not doubt that man can be saved through Christ; else let them despair of being saved at all. And if this terrifies them, let them believe in Christ as we do, that they may be saved.”x


Anselm rightly understood that Christ purchased salvation for sinners through His death. He alone could “remit the debt incurred by their sins, and give them what their transgressions had forfeited”xi—namely eternal life. Thus, the sinner’s only hope was Christ. As Anselm explained in another place,  “[If God] shall say that you are a sinner, you say: ‘Lord, I interpose the death of our Lord Jesus Christ between my sins and you.’”xii In other words, the believer’s eternity rests not on his own good works, but on the perfect work of Christ.


A second medieval theologian, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153), similarly emphasized the justification that comes only by grace through faith in Christ. Four hundred years later, Martin Luther would emphasize this same theme.xiii Consider the following statements from Bernard:


“What is hidden about us in the heart of God will be revealed for us and His Spirit testifies and persuades our spirit that we are the children of God. But He convinces us of this by calling and justifying us by grace through faith.”xiv

[Speaking of Christ] “Your justice is mine, because you are made my justice from God.”xv


“For the sake of your sins He will die, for the sake of your justification He will rise, in order that you will be justified through faith and have peace with God.”xvi


“Nobody will be justified in His sight by works of the law. . . . Conscious of our deficiency, we shall cry to heaven and God will have mercy on us. . . . And on that day we shall know that God has saved us, not by righteous works that we ourselves have done, but according to His mercy.”xvii

“Because he believed the one promising, with confidence he repeats the promise, which, arising out of mercy, must be fulfilled out of justice. Hence, the crown Paul awaits is a crown of righteousness, but of God’s righteousness, not his own. It is only that He should deliver what He owes and He owes what He promised. This is the righteousness Paul is relying on, the promise of God, lest, in any way despising it and seeking to establish his own, he might be failing to submit to God’s righteousness”xviii


“The fragrance of Your wisdom comes to us in what we hear, for if anyone needs wisdom let him ask of You and You will give it to him. It is well known that You give to all freely and ungrudgingly. As for Your justice, so great is the fragrance it diffuses that You are called not only just but even justice itself, the justice that makes men just. Your power to make men just is measured by Your generosity in forgiving. Therefore the man who through sorrow for sin hungers and thirsts for justice, he will let him trust in the One who changes the sinner into a just man, and, judged righteous in terms of faith alone, have peace with God.”xix


Yet, in spite of glimpses like these (and from the earlier church fathers), the medieval Catholic Church lost sight of the true gospel. As we have already seen, by the thirteenth century, clear testimony to the true gospel within the mainstream church was largely eclipsed. The problem was compounded by the fact that the Scriptures were being held hostage in Latin.


All of this brings us back full circle to the pre-Reformers. By the middle of the twelfth-century, already, the Waldensians were questioning certain errors that they saw in the Roman Catholic Church. They were also translating the Bible and preaching in the language of the people. In the 14th-century, John Wycliffe began doing the same. In the 15th-century, John Huss followed his example, even though it cost him his life. Then, in the 16th century, Martin Luther carried the torch they had passed to him.


All of this returns us to the place where this series started. Did the Reformers invent something new in church history when they emphasized salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?


Clearly not.


In fact, the Reformers were themselves avid students of the church fathers. They were absolutely convinced that the Reformation was as much a recovery of patristic teaching as it was of apostolic truth.


To make that point, we close with a final comment from John Calvin. In the preface to his Institutes, Calvin insisted that he could easily defend Reformation teaching using nothing but the church fathers to make his case. Calvin said it this way:




Moreover, (the Roman church) unjustly set the ancient fathers against us (I mean the ancient writers of a better age of the church) as if in them they had supporters of their own impiety. If the contest were to be determined by patristic authority, the tide of victory — to put it very modestly —would turn to our side. Now, these fathers have written many wise and excellent things. . . . [Yet] the good things that these fathers have written they [the Roman Catholics] either do not notice, or misrepresent or pervert. . . . But we do not despise them [the church fathers]; in fact, if it were to our present purpose, I could with no trouble at all prove that the greater part of what we are saying today meets their approval.xx





i     For more on this, see Nathan Busenitz, “Pagan Saints” The Cripplegate (July 19, 2012). Online at:


ii   Roman Catholic author Robert Markus notes the change that occurred in the centuries following the Christianization of the Roman Empire: “Gregory the Great, at the end of the sixth century, . . . was fond of saying, in this time of easy conformity, now that the age of persecutions was over and the Church was at peace, everyone was a Christian. There might still be some who did not carry the Christian name; but if there were such, they were marginal, and Gregory was more interested in those who did bear the name but were like the iniqui who ‘deviate from righteousness by the wickedness of their works,’ who were Christians in name only, from outward conformity.  . . . Gregory’s world was the result of some two hundred years of cultural development since Augustine’s time, and we must consider this, however briefly, before considering its end-product, the society in which ‘everyone was a Christian’” (Robert A. Markus, Christianity and the Secular [Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 2006], 77–78).


iii    This, for example, explains the development of monasticism after the Christianization of the Roman Empire. As  Douglass J. Hall explains, “In the heyday of Christendom, when virtually everyone was a Christian by birth, it was understandable that those who intended to take faith seriously should have found their Christian calling in [monastic] communities that at least gave promise of being different from the status quo” (Douglas J. Hall, Professing the Faith [Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1993], 234).


iv   For more on the patristic understanding of Matthew 16:18, see William Webster, The Matthew 16 Controversy (Calvary Press, 1996).


v   Martin Luther, The Table Talk of Martin Luther, trans. and ed. by William Hazlitt (London: Bell & Daldy, 1872), 203–4.


vi   Norman Geisler and Josh Betancourt, Is Rome the True Church? [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 53–54.


vii    Gregg R. Allison, Historical Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 505.



viii    Anselm of Canterbury, Cur Deus Homo, 1.23. Medieval Source Book. Online at: XI.




ix     Ibid., 1.24.


x   Ibid., 1.24.


xi   Ibid., 2.19.


xii    Anselm of Canterbury, Liber meditationum, Consolatio, PL 158:687; cited from Thomas Oden, The Justification Reader, 58.


xiii    Roman Catholic author Franz Posset recently noted the link between Bernard and Luther in his book The Real Luther (Concordia, 2011). According to Posset, “The historical Luther’s doctrine of justification is identical with the one of Saint Bernard” (127).


xiv    Bernard of Clairvaux, Dedicatione Ecclesiae 5, 7 (SBO 5, 393). Cited from Else Marie Wiberg Pedersen, “The Significance of the Sola Fide and the Sola Gratia

in the Theologies of Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153) and Martin Luther (1483–1546),” online at:


xv    Bernard of Clairvaux, SC 61, 5 (SBO 2, 151).


xvi    Ibid., SC 2, 8, (SBO I, 13).


xvii     Ibid., SC 50, 1, 2, (SBO 2.79).


xviii     Bernard of Clairvaux, On Grace and Free Choice, 14, 51.


xix    Bernard of Clairvaux, On the Song of Songs, II, Sermon 22, 8.


xx   John Calvin, “Dedicatory Letter to Francis I,” Institutes, section 4.

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