Unity (IV): Ecumenical Councils (1000-1520A.D.) Medieval Councils of the Western Church (1000-1300)

By Ron Halbrook

Major Contribution or Characteristic in Approach to Unity: Saxon King Otto I (962) restored the Western Roman Empire which became known as the Holy Roman Empire, and asserted German influence over Roman synods or councils. Otto and his successors “appointed their own popes” and introduced “Germanic features into Church organization” (Dvornik, p. 47). The princes scattered in various regions of the West viewed themselves as priest-kings, supreme over all spiritual and temporal affairs in their domain. Thus, “the synods of the bishops were transformed into national assemblies presided over by the kings” (Dvornik, p. 48). For over a hundred years after Otto, the Roman popes struggled to increase their own power “in order to save Western Christianity from becoming a conglomerate of national prestige of the papacy,” but allowed them no voice (Dvornik, p. 50).

The actions of Lateran synods in 1123 and 1179 established the triumph of the popes, in place of the emperors, over both temporal and spiritual affairs. Unity (spiritual and temporal) was then pursued by the popes and through general councils of bishops convened by the popes. In medieval times, the popes replaced the emperors as supreme over all affairs of church and state. Once emperors recognized popes, now popes recognized emperors. Claiming to be over all affairs of life, the pope certainly saw himself as the central figure in shaping unity. In 1302, Pope Boniface VIII said, “We therefore declare, say, define, and pronounce that it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman pontiff’ (Rouse and Neill, p. 29).

The Lateran Councils of Rome: 1123, 1139, 1179, 1215

The Lateran Councils were a series of councils “convened in the Lateran Church at Rome” by the popes (Rowe, p. 247). Civil authorities and the Pope agreed according to the Concordat of Worms (1122) to curtail the power of the civil authorities to appoint men to ecclesiastical offices, i.e. the right of investiture. The princes of the West had long considered this their prerogative, as suggested earlier. The Lateran Council of 1123 confirmed the Concordat of Worms restricting the civil power of investiture, thus beginning a new era in church-state relations.

As corruption grew in the Western Church, reformers began to arise. The Lateran Council of 1139 rejected the church-state reform views of Arnold of Brescia and opposed those who followed Peter de Brins’ religious reform views. The papal claims of Analetus II were set aside. Some clerical reform was initiated, as against simony (the buying of church offices) and concubinage.

Emperor Frederick Barbarosa I reasserted the right of investiture according to the traditional view of Western princes. But in The Peace of Venice (1177), he was forced to relinquish the power. The Lateran Council of 1 ? 79 confirmed The Peace of Venice. It also authorized military crusades against two tenacious groups of religious reformers, the Waldenses (followers of Peter Walde) and Albigenses (reformers in AN, France). As church historians have often observed, the blood of such martyrs only serves to spread their doctrines. The teachings of the Waldenses and Albigenses would continue to circulate in Europe and to stir the spirit of reform; this was one of the influences which eventually led to the Protestant Reformation, which could not be stopped by might or main!

The Lateran Council of 1215 confirmed the procedure of turning over condemned heretics to “the secular arm” (civil power). This necessity to resort more to torture, physical punishment – and even death – shows how widespread and entrenched the spirit of reform was getting to be. The Council authorized Crusades-milita. y campaigns with approval ana promise of spiritual blessings from the Church-against the Waldenses, Albigenses, and Egypt. In 1215, King John was forced in a great struggle with his underlords to sign the Magna Charta in England; this was a major breakthrough for the development of limited government. The Council roundly condemned the Magna Charta. More on the religious side, transubstantiation (at Mass the bread and juice miraculously turn into the actual flesh and blood of Christ) was made an article of faith. Also, annual confession and communion were to be required of all at “Easter.”

Council of Lyons, 1245

The Council at Lyons was called by Pope Innocent IV over the objections of Emperor Frederick II. Frederick claimed for himself what he denied to the Pope: supremacy over all spiritual and temporal affairs. The Council deposed Frederick (the last emperor-priest), released his subjects from obedience to him, and invited the Prince-Electors of the Holy Roman Empire to elect a new ruler. This action ended the famous Hohenstauffen dynasty in Europe. The removal of Frederick and replacement of the Hohenstauffen dynasty is “one of the greatest triumphs of the medieval, papacy (Dvornik, p. 57).

Council of Lyons, 1274

This council was called by Pope Gregory X. It effected a temporary reunion with the Greek or Eastern Church. A new Crusade against the Moslems in the East was called for. Several matters related to European and world politics were dealt with. Pressures for reform had some positive results within the Church, as can be seen by this council’s reform of the papal election procedure.

Council of Vienne, 1311

Pope Clement V convened the Council at Vienne as a concession to French King Philip’s demand for an end of the Knights Templars. This military order had served the popes during the Crusades of the past; but their continuing existence in Europe was a threat to the power of civil sovereigns. Extreme pressure from King Philip resulted in dissolution of the Knights Templars by the Council of Vienne. In order to blunt the impact of reformers known as Spirituals (followers of ascetic John Peter Olivis), some reforms were announced in the name of the Council. A call for new Crusades was issued, to continue the long-standing series of wars against the Moslems in the East. Promises were made by some secular rulers, but the call went unheeded as far as practical results; “the idea of a Crusade had lost its attraction” (Dvornik, pp. 64-65).

The Council of 1311 also established language chairs at main universities in Europe. These chairs in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Chaldean ironically encouraged the kind of scholarship which was later utilized to translate the Bible into the common tongues. Thus, indirectly and certainly unintentionally, this Council contributed to the power of Protestant Reformation!

Truth Magazine XXI: 42, pp. 663-665
October 27, 1977