1: Medieval Background

The Protestant Reformation emerged out of a context steeped in theological education. Crucially, the Reformation is not simply a radical break from the past or the gateway to modernity, but the result of impulses slowly inculcated in an increasingly educated population seeking out what they understood to be the authentic Christian faith.

To make the case that theological education played a crucial role in the development and the success of the Reformation we will trace the history of theological education in the Middle Ages. We begin with the form theological education assumed in the early church, moving on to the early and then late medieval periods, and finally we will examine some factors causing dissatisfaction within the ranks of educated Europeans that sowed the seeds of dissension that would come to fruition in the Reformation.

I. Early Church Beginnings

Since the earliest times, education has played a central role in the Christian faith. There are Biblical precedents for this. Old Testament prophets established schools for their students and disciples. Jesus himself was called Rabbi, teacher.

i. From charismatic Church to Episcopal Education

The early church was apostolic in character and leadership primarily revolved around charismatic and spiritual gifts. The charismatic teaching of the prophets and apostles hardly required formal training as there was the sense that these figures were involved in powerful and direct relationships with God. With time focus shifted, even St. Paul had advocated for clerical teachers who should devote their time to that business and receive monetary compensation (1 Cor. 9). The early emphasis within the church on charismatic gifts came to be replaced with the methodical teaching of what came to be known as the highest art, the art of ruling souls.

The earliest theological direction within the church came from the bishops, and they were the original overseers of ordination. The role of the episcopacy in theological education remains prominent throughout the church’s history. Intimate relationships existed between the bishops and their pupils who both lived and worked with them. The prime example of this early model of communal life and learning was St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430).

St. Augustine of Hippo
St. Augustine of Hippo (Wikimedia Commons)

The bishop was understood to embody the full spectrum of clerical functions, and was conceived of as a father-in-God to both lay people and clergy members. The bishop served as a guide for the souls of the untrained clergy and laity and was involved in every aspect of their lives, providing a source of inspiration, and being an exemplar of the Christian life. However, practically speaking the clerical functions were mostly carried out by lower orders of clergy who emerged in this period. Testing and education of these minor orders began as well, where the role of deacon emerged as a stepping-stone to the role of elder within the Church community. In the third century, alongside the recognized roles of bishop, priest, and deacon, clerical functions were further subdivided into the minor orders of sub-deacon, acolyte, ostiarii (porters or doormen), lectors, exorcists and copiate (these last two were tasked with liturgical functions for the dead).

ii. Catechetical Schools

Alongside the growing complexity of the church’s structure, an increasingly self-aware community found itself embroiled in debates with pagans, Jews, and Gnostics. These debates, especially in urban settings, caused Christians to seek to define their own positions and clearly articulate what they believed to be true. These challenges prompted the foundation of the first formal theological schools in Alexandria and Antioch.

Map showing ancient Alexandria and Antioch
“Map showing ancient Alexandria and Antioch. With thanks to the University of Leiden Research Archive”

These were catechetical schools, based on the pagan model of the academy, which aimed both to educate new converts in the Christian faith, and to allow for the education and training of clergy destined for ministry.

St. Gregory depicted with the Catechetical School of Alexandria
St. Gregory depicted with the Catechetical School of Alexandria (Wikimedia Commons)

These schools have something of a legendary status, the Catechetical School of Alexandria in particular (pictured), was led by such luminaries as Clement of Alexandria (150-215), and Origen (184/185 – 253/254), figures whose renown in the church is felt to this day. The curriculum at these schools covered all the sciences then recognized: rhetoric, philosophy, and the study of the Bible, especially its allegorical interpretations.

While by the sixth century most of these catechetical schools had disappeared, and the Emperor Justinian (c. 452-585) complained that the training and examination of ordinands was being neglected, the schools represent a clear development in the history of theological education. The apostolic and charismatic character of the early church had given way to the governance of souls. Clergy were increasingly expected to be educated, and to act as educators. To be a Christian leader meant that one had a grasp of history and of the world alongside an understanding of Christian doctrine and the teachings of Scripture.

II. Early Middle Ages

The early medieval period (6th to 10th centuries) is characterized by the long, slow decline of Roman power, and the Christian inheritance of Roman culture that had become partially Christianized. The forms of intermingling that took place during these centuries created what we today understand to be the medieval church, a church characterized by ritual and pilgrimage, relics and symbols, and a gravitas befitting the holy.
The political developments of the age were such that the centre of gravity of the Christian world moved north and west, as the so-called ‘barbarians’ invaded old Roman territories, and eventually, the old Byzantine order capitulated to the new faith of Islam.

i. Monastic Schools

The story of the long collapse of Rome is also, however, the story of new people groups converting to Christianity and adopting the Roman and Christian culture. Christian training moved to cloistered communities, especially the monasteries, in times of uncertainty and lack of stability the protection afforded by learning in remote places gained a new value. Episcopal training remained as well, as the models of direct contact with pupils proved resilient and adaptable to new settings.

Conversion efforts through the European continent were accompanied by the founding of schools. The schools at the time were mostly monastic schools kept for lay people and minor figures within their orders. Ireland was a centre of monasticism and Irish monks travelled throughout Europe.

ii. Augustine of Canterbury

England was converted to Christianity gradually throughout the early medieval period, as were other Germanic lands. With conversion came Roman civilization, architecture, and writing. Augustine of Canterbury (d. 604) is usually credited with the conversion of England to Christianity, as this was the mission given to him by Pope Gregory in the 6th century. Augustine converted the king Ethelbert of Kent (560-616) and established a school, teaching interpretation of Scripture, Greek, Latin, music, and astronomy.

Augustine of Canterbury
Augustine of Canterbury (Wikimedia Commons)

Augustine’s episcopate in Canterbury was short, lasting only seven years. But the transformation he brought to England would change the course of its history. He effectively brought Latin Christianity and Latin civilization to England. He brought the culture not only with the innovation of stone building, and the Italian architectural style, but also he brought classical learning in the form of reading and writing. It was during his time that the first English laws were written down, known as the Code of Ethelbert.

iii. Sacramental Clerical Focus

Despite the proliferation of schools in the period, the predominant emphasis of the training available for clergy was focused on music, canon law, and competence in liturgical and sacramental functions, rather than scriptural study or theology. This state of affairs perhaps lends some truth to the claim that the German nations received a blended Christianity, with a Roman theocratic character grafted on.

The curriculum outlined, for example, in Gregory the Great’s “Pastoral Rule” focused on the liturgical and sacramental functions and its employment as a crucial textbook allowed for the atrophy of intellectual formation of clergy. This clerical ignorance was, as we have seen, the cause of some concern, prompting figures like Rabanus Maurus (780-856) to write works aimed at rectifying the situation. His work, De Clericorum Institutione, came to be used as the basis for syllabi throughout the continent. Therein he claimed that the minister of Christ ought to be: fully acquainted with Scripture and history, have a deep knowledge of the figures of speech and mystical sense of things, be educated in the liberal disciplines, and possess a character that will bear scrutiny. Here we see a continuation of the trend that as education and literacy spread throughout Europe, the concern for the ignorance of clergy went with it, and voices calling for reform encouraged better theological training.

III. Later Middle Ages

The High Middle Ages (11th to 13th centuries) marks a shifting of the landscape from the previous struggles and concerns of Christian civilization. Europe had become fully Christianized. The residual holdouts of pagan culture had diminished and the Roman Catholic Church reigned supreme. The emperor and the pope divided between themselves the affairs of the sacred and the secular realms, though the division between the two was rarely clear. It becomes difficult at this stage to isolate ministerial training from the training offered to those who would serve God in the state.

Monasteries continued to provide schooling, and priests led free schools in towns and villages. There were grammar schools associated with larger parish or collegiate churches, and the sons of wealthy families could be boarded there to learn from abbots or bishops. In general the facilities for attaining the rudiments of education were not so difficult to procure as one might imagine. Through these means the specifically ministerial knowledge of reading and writing in Latin and liturgical practice could be acquired.

i. Foundation of the Universities

A monumental transformation occurred in the 12th century with the founding of the universities. They were organized in places like Bologna, Oxford, and Cambridge, but the university at Paris came to be the most respected of the emerging scholastic age. In the universities, theology found a place atop the curriculum, and the duties of bishops to teach theology was largely transferred to the universities, which drew the best and brightest students.

Meeting of the Doctors in the University
Meeting of the Doctors in the University (Wikimedia Commons)

As early as 1207-8 Pope Innocent III (1161-1216) addressed eight doctors of theology and canon law at Paris, and by 1253 there were twelve professors of theology. The curriculum for a bachelor’s degree at the universities consisted in the Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric, and Dialectic) and the Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Astronomy, Music, and Geometry). The more specialized degrees of medicine, canon law, and theology were post-graduate studies.

ii. Theology in the Context of the University

The development of the universities brought along with it new challenges and transformations to understandings of theology and its role. Secular masters taught theology in the university, the full course in which could extend to sixteen years, rendering it more suitable for academic pursuits than for ministerial training. Aristotle was rediscovered by means of Arabic sources and commentaries in the 12th century. Medieval encounters with his work culminated in Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1265-74), marking a theological culture thoroughly immersed in scholasticism.

Image of an archbishop—presumably St. Anselm himself—in an illuminated manuscript of Anselm’s Meditations
Image of an archbishop—presumably St. Anselm himself—in an illuminated manuscript of Anselm’s Meditations (Wikimedia Commons)

In the 12th century, scholastic theologians felt ready to present Christian doctrine as a reasoned theological system as opposed to a historical, biblical story. St. Anselm of Canterbury was an important representative of this movement. His attempt to synthesize Aristotelian logic and Christian doctrine was instrumental in shaping the scholastic movement, as well as the form of Christian belief that has endured in the west.

The scholastics emerge from the context of the professionalization of theology; the secular masters of the universities were not monks, nor did they have pastoral obligations. Scholastic theology was designed for instruction in schools, rather than for contemplation or edification. According to Phillip Rosemann, (The Story of a Great Medieval Book: Peter Lombard's Sentences. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013, p.54): “The emergence, in the thirteenth century, of the university as a formally recognized body of masters, organized after the model of the trade corporations and increasingly regulated by statutes, did not all at once transform deeply lived Christian spirituality into an object of abstract knowledge that was taught for money in the schools. However, the tendencies toward greater efficiency and rationalization are undeniable.”

Peter Lombard
Peter Lombard (Wikimedia Commons)

Peter Lombard (1100-1160) emerged from the scholastic milieu as an extremely influential figure. He was the Bishop of Paris from 1159-1164. His Sentences, which he completed in 1158, became the standard textbook of theological education in universities and beyond from the early 13th to the 16th century. A large body of commentary grew up around the sentences over the years, and Martin Luther (1483-1546) was one of the last great theologians to comment on the work in 1509.

The Sentences are a collection of sayings of the Church Fathers, as well as passages from Scripture, arranged in a coherent system according to various themes that outline the doctrines of the Christian faith. Their great strength is that they fold the tradition back into the unity that it needed by the 12th century. By the thirteenth century, the Sentences were the ultimate standard of orthodoxy, placing limits around the Scriptural core of Christian tradition.

iii. Franciscan and Dominican Orders of Friars

Scholastic theology and the universities arose as a response to the inability of monastic schools in the countryside to meet the growing educational demands of urban centers, due to both their isolated location and their inward-looking spirituality, which did not encourage intercourse with the world. However, the newly founded religious orders of friars sought to compensate for the lack of pastoral care and the sacramental focus of ministerial training by making the cities the focus of their mission work. The orders of St. Francis and St. Dominic in particular were trained to combat heresy, to preach from experience as well as from books, and to minister to the masses in the sprawling 13th century cities.

Painting of St. Francis Praying by El Greco
Painting of St. Francis Praying by El Greco (Wikimedia Commons)

According to Thomas Aquinas, who was a Dominican, the orders of friars provided the training for clergy which reforming councils had repeatedly failed to provide. The association of the friars with the universities became a hallmark of European intellectual life, as the secular masters adjusted to their new mendicant colleagues.

The friars’ absorption into the universities mitigated their independent impact. Nonetheless, the new emphasis on preaching and pastoral work that the friars inaugurated, continued. At an earlier period, the verities of scholastic theology and canon law were uppermost. But in the late medieval period the sense of the cleric as a sacral specialist gave way to his role as pastor, preacher, and counsellor. In fact there was more preaching in the late middle ages than in previous times.

IV. Conclusion: Factors Leading To Reform

The specter of clerical ignorance raised its head again prominently in the late middle ages (14th and 15th centuries). As humanism took hold and classical learning and biblical studies were increasingly valued, new voices criticized the sacramental and liturgical orientation of clerical education. In fact, the clergy were likely the most highly educated up until that point, with large numbers of English and German parish priests holding university degrees, for example.

i. Erasmus and Changing Clerical Mores

The ignorance of the clergy is traditionally understood as a cause for reform, and ecclesiastical reformers were often associated with calls for more thorough education of clergy and lay people alike. As the educational infrastructure improved, it highlighted the inadequacies of clerical education. Celebrated humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam (1456-1536), and others like Dean John Colet (1467-1519) of St. Paul’s, London, were among the new school of humanists who sought a higher standard of education for all in the late medieval period.

Erasmus (Wikimedia Commons)

Erasmus was also the child of a clerical marriage. Priestly celibacy had had only mixed success in the middle ages. Fellow priests were often complicit in ignoring the practices of colleagues, and the hierarchy often turned a blind eye or, exploited the situation by imposing an annual fine or tax on priests who kept mistresses. Some reformers questioned the theological and religious rationale underlying celibacy, as well as its practicality. Pope Pius II (r. 1458–1464) is reported to have favored the reinstitution of clerical marriage. This growing crack in the church structure, and within the clerical estate, made reform of some kind inevitable and helps explain why so many Catholic priests either led or embraced the Protestant Reformation.

ii. Education and the Coming Reform

The proliferation of schools and their continued improvement changed medieval society. Some of the impetus for this came from the church, which through synodical legislation required parishes to educate children in the rudiments of the faith. Lay people were also a motivating force, hiring schoolmasters for their children outside the existing infrastructure of monastic and parish schools.

The Latin schools in the cities were increasingly influenced and financed by civil authorities, often considered a by-product of the northern humanist movement. England saw a significant growth in the number of its Latin schools, known as grammar schools, which benefited from significant endowments provided by benefactors. By the mid-seventeenth century, England had over 400 schools open to the laity, most of these being grammar schools. This figure compares with only slightly over 30 schools open to the laity in England in 1480. Changes in educational philosophy led to the founding of the university at Wittenburg on the new humanist model, which broke from the traditional model of the university, and privileged biblical studies and classical learning over scholastic theology. This university was to become a centre of the Reformation.

The Reformation was the result of a complex series of factors: social, political, and crucially, spiritual. There were mystical movements contributing to a diversification of spiritual experience. There was an internal split in the church with the period of exile in Avignon (1307-1377), followed by the Great Schism (1378-1417) in the church that witnessed multiple popes who were in violent conflict, contributing to a break down in trust in papal authority. Furthermore there were uprisings of peasants and labourers, increasingly taking on a distinctively modern flavour in the Hussite and Lollard movements.

All of these factors combined to demonstrate that the old medieval order was coming apart, and some kind of reform was inevitable. The increase in schooling and literacy throughout the medieval period had an important role as a driving force behind these transformations.