Many moderns like to speak of this period in history as the Dark Ages. This terminology, unfortunately, is almost completely misleading, and was popularized by those who hated the Christian faith. Such terms are never neutral. For a counterexample, the Enlightenment was thoroughly humanistic, and must consequently be considered by us as the Endarkenment. From the vantage of the Reformation, many corruptions had to be removed from the Church — and they were. But from the humanistic view of this period of history is not to be trusted at all. The Reformers capped this period (500-1500) by reforming the Church. The secularists had no desire to reform the Church, but rather to replace it.
“For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Tim. 4:3-4).
In the history given to us in Scripture, and in the history prophesied following the time of the apostles, we see the same pattern over and over. Paul warns the elders at Ephesus — “For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock” (Acts 20:29). Truth must be preserved within the Church before it can be effectively proclaimed to the world. The primary battle with heretics and false teachers has always been within the Church. This was not done as effectively as it should have been during this period. The issue is faithfulness to the Word over generations, and sadly this time represented a serious decline.
Luther estimated that the church had given way to corruption by the 8th century. This was a gradual downhill slide, and not a cliff-edge drop — but you can get as low either way. What were some of the key corruptions? The first was the papacy — Jesus had warned that ecclesiastical power was not to be wielded in a certain way. “But Jesus called them to Himself and said, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you . . .’“(Matt. 20:25-26). But just as Paul had predicted, savage wolves arose to tear the flock. Of course, the first men to hold this office were good and godly men, but it didn’t stay that way. Another corruption already mentioned was the veneration of images. The Second Nicaea in 787 admitted images into worship. But the Second Commandment outranks the Second Nicaean Council. “. . . you shall not bow down to them nor serve them” (Ex. 20:4-6). Note that the problem is not representational art, but rather men praying to or through the work of their own hands. In the Ten Commandments, the generations promised here are crucial for understanding God’s dealings with us in history. Bowing down to graven images is a generational sin, as the Second Commandment makes clear. And that is why other corruptions were able to take root in the Church. And third, not unrelated, the doctrine of transubstantiation was accepted, and the Host was worshiped as though bread were God. But only God is to be worshiped (Ex. 34:14).
In contrast to all of this, the Reformers identified three keys marks of the Church — the Word, sacraments, and discipline. The three areas above were corruptions of each of these — tyranny instead of discipline, images instead of words, and superstition over generations instead of covenanted and disciplined faithfulness over generations.
But this was also a period of great grace. Jesus promised that He would never forsake His Church. He promised to discipline her, but never to leave her house desolate. Wonderful evidences of this can be seen in a number of remarkable and fruitful men who ministered during this period. Some of these faithful witnesses were teachers within the Catholic Church, while others were drummed out in disgrace. All were used greatly by God.
Gottschalk (c. 805-868) was a German monk who began to preach the sovereignty of grace. He was very effective, and was condemned by a council at Mainz, Germany. He spent the last twenty years of his life imprisoned. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) was not what we would call a Reformer. At the same time, he played a critical role in the creedal development of what we now know as evangelical orthodoxy. He articulated clearly the substitutionary death of Christ. Peter Waldo (d.c. 1217) was a prosperous merchant of Lyons, France who took a vow of poverty and began to preach the gospel effectively. He gathered men around him, the “poor men of Lyons,” who spread the Word in the power of the Spirit. They were excommunicated by the pope in 1184. Hundreds of years later at the Reformation, the Waldenses joined up with the Reformed. Waldensian churches still exist in Europe. John Wycliff (c. 1329-1384) was the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” He thundered a number of the key doctrines of the Reformation, well before the Reformation began. His followers were called Lollards, and there were a great many of them. John Huss (c. 1373-1415) was a Bohemian follower of Wycliffe. He was very influential on the Continent; he was betrayed by the Church after having been guaranteed safe passage, and was burned at the stake.
This was indeed a millennium of decline and hope both. When a classical Protestant is asked, “Where was your Church before the Reformation?” he should reply with another question — where was your face before you washed it? Throughout this entire period, the dirt was clearly there . . . but so was the face, clear and recognizable.
S.M. Houghton commented on the influence of Wyclif from this period. “The hatred of the Roman Church for John Wycliff is perhaps best shown by an event which took place about forty years after his death. By order of the Council of Constance (1415) the reformer’s bones were to be dug up from their grave and refused reburial. This was carried out in 1428 when the Bishop of London burned the remains, and scattered the ashes upon the waters of the River Swift which runs through Lutterworth. It has been well said that, as the ashes were carried by the Swift to the Avon, by the Avon to the Severn, by the Severn to the “narrow seas,” and by the “narrow seas” to the ocean, so the reformer’s teachings and message reached out into all England, and from England into far-distant lands.”