The Critique of Institutional Religion in the Later Middle Ages

In 1530, less than a decade after the excommunication of Martin Luther, the German historian and philosopher Sebastian Franck made this announcement:

Three distinct faiths have arisen in our time...: the Lutheran, the Zwinglian, and the Anabaptist. A fourth is now well on the way. This one will reject as unnecessary all external preaching, ceremonies, sacraments, excommunication, and vocations. It will establish a purely invisible and spiritual Church...gathered from all peoples and governed solely by the invisible, eternal word of God without any external means...[1]

Sebastian Franck
Sebastian Franck
The radical programme envisaged by Franck -- nothing less than a new form of the Christian faith which would jettison its own institutional anchoring -- was scarcely conceivable before the sixteenth century. It presupposed the coming together of social and intellectual developments which had not flowered until then: the possibility of communication -- by means of the printed word -- outside the framework of an organization; the recognition of the individual as the centre of human consciousness; and, following the voyages of discovery, the encounter with an amazing polyphony of human values, beliefs, and self-images.

Historic undercurrent of Christian anti-institutionalism
At the same time, from the very beginning the Christian religion had contained within itself an undercurrent of anti-institutionalism, an undercurrent which from time to time rose to the surface and threatened to disrupt the stability of its ecclesiastical mainstream. Sebastian Franck was not mistaken when he reminded his readers that Jesus himself had been a heretic and had sought to subvert the established religion of his contemporaries. Primitive Christianity, particularly in its Pauline and Johannine varieties, stressed the in-dwelling power of God's spirit within the individual over any legally-defined relationship between God and an institutional community. Certainly Saint Paul had no misgivings about confronting ecclesiastical authority. Writing about the problems he had experienced in dealing with the founding apostles Peter, James and John, he observes, with a certain note of sarcasm, that these saints "were reputed to be pillars," "were reputed to be something." However, he adds immediately: "what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality" (Gal. 2:6, 9).

Looking back from the time of Sebastian Franck over the two centuries which preceded the Reformation, where do we find this latent critical, anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional impulse breaching the apparently impenetrable edifice of the mediaeval church? I pose my question with Franck as a point of reference for this reason: the critique of institutional Christianity in the later Middle Ages can be best understood if it is seen not simply as random, disparate instances of revolt, but as manifestations of a personalistic and inherently critical religiosity which will lead, under the material and cultural conditions of the sixteenth century, first to the revolt of Luther and soon afterwards to the much more radical programme of Sebastian Franck and related thinkers.

From this perspective it is possible to identify three schools of religious thought in the later Middle Ages that provided a theoretical basis for challenging either the validity or the necessity of the Church's institutional apparatus. These are: the evangelical reform movement associated with Wyclif and Hus, the popular form of mysticism that was practised in the German Rhineland, and the eschatological movement initiated by Joachim of Flora which flourished among spiritual Franciscans of the late thirteenth century.

These movements inspired some of their followers to disengage from any kind of ecclesiastical community. But their founders did not formulate a systematic theology of non-institutional religion such as we find among the radical spiritualists of the Reformation period. That is why I have said only that they provided a theoretical basis for challenging the ecclesiastical institution. In my following remarks I shall examine this theoretical basis; in other words, I shall focus on aspects of these three movements that point in the direction of, and lay the foundation for, the non-ecclesiastical spiritualism of the sixteenth century.

First, however, I must point out that already in the twelfth century certain heresies exhibited anti-institutional features. For our topic the most remarkable figure was Peter of Bruis, an itinerant preacher in southern France who repudiated the Old Testament, the veneration of the Cross, and church buildings. If historian J. V. Fearns is correct, Peter of Bruis was influenced by the dualism of the Bulgarian Bogomils, and his rejection of external religion was based on a desire to dematerialize worship[2].

A much more important Bogomil-inspired movement, the semi-Christian religion Catharism, cannot be considered intrinsically anti-institutional; it established its own rival priesthood and sacramental system.

On the other hand the numerous followers of Valdès (Waldo) of Lyons, at least those who were not eventually reconciled to the Church, must be mentioned here. The Waldensians of Lombardy and Savoy claimed, in the name of the apostolic life, for laymen and laywomen the right to preach, and in some cases to administer the eucharist and penance[3].

Another lay heretic, Ugo Speroni of Piacenza, was even more radical. Speroni taught his followers a purely internal, spiritual religion in which all sacraments and external acts of worship are idolatrouss. But Speroni did not call for open revolt. He allowed that even when attending mass is was possible for his disciples to pursue the interior communion with God[4].

The doctrine of the invisible church
During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the most conspicuous and effective adversaries of papal government and scholastic theology actually made use of an old and venerable orthodox doctrine in order to attack the hierarchical Church of their day. This was the doctrine of the invisible Church, a doctrine which had been formulated under the influence of neo-Platonic ideas, and which in its explicit form was found as early as the second century[5].

In the Latin West it had been given currency by St. Augustine, for whom the true Church was constituted by the angels in heaven and by human beings predestined to salvation[6]. The elect form, in Augustine's words, "an invisible community of love",[7] "the body of Christ in the proper sense".[8]. Excluded from this invisible community are the wicked members of the earthly Church. Hence the visible institution cannot be a perfect embodiment of the Church of Christ.

The evangelical movements of Wyclif and Hus
John Wyclif
John Wyclif
Augustinian themes lay at the heart of the thought of John Wyclif. The English reformer had begun his career as a philosophical realist, in the tradition of Augustinian platonism already well-established at Oxford (Robert Grosseteste and Thomas Bradwardine). In his seminal treatises on the Church and the sacraments, published from 1378 to 1380, Wyclif presents the true Church as being nothing other than the congregatio praedestinatorum, the invisible community of all those bound together in eternity by the grace of election[9]. The earthly Church, in contrast, is dominated by the other eternal congregation, that of the damned, the presciti. Since the true Church is made up of the elect who are known to God alone, one has no assurance that the authority exercised in the institutional Church by pope, prelate or priest is legitimate: any of these might very well belong to the congregation of the damned. On the other hand, a person who has been elected, even if only a layperson, possesses ipso facto all the prerogatives of priestly office[10].

Wyclif's ecclesiological doctrine is, to use the words of historian Gordon Leff, "the single most destructive and heretical feature of [his] teaching"[11]. Nevertheless, the Oxford heresiarch did not affirm that the external Church was devoid of all usefulness. Indeed the proclamation of the biblical word and the celebration of the sacraments presuppose its existence, and it is the duty of the magistrate to correct ecclesiastical abuses.

Jan Hus at the stake
Jan Hus
A doctrine of the Church similar to Wyclif's is expressed in the Thirty Articles of Faith which earned the Czech preacher Jan Hus his auto-da-fe in 1415. the first article defines the Church as the congregation of the predestined, and although Hus had added the words "in the strict sense, according to St. Augustine", this statement served as a point of departure for a whole series of theses that effectively undermined the authority of the Pope and the Church hierarchy.[12].

After the death of Hus, his disciples in the Bohemian community of Tabor developed an understanding of the Christian life that was much more radical in its challenge to institutional religion. Inspired by Jaochimite ideas -- which I shall refer to later -- the Taborites eliminated many outward ceremonies and practices, including baptism, vestments, images, and hymnody. By the end of the 1420s Taborite theology took on an apocalyptic character, and the sectarians came to believe that following a decisive battle between sinners and the elect, Christ would appear and replace all visible signs of grace with the real presence of the Holy Spirit.

Rhineland mysticism
Among mediaeval movements showing non-institutional tendencies, we must also count the "essentialist" type of mysticism which, during the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, flourished in the Dominican houses of the Rhineland. Eckhart, Tauler, Suso and other Rhineland mystics did not openly attack the structures and authority of the Church, but they did conceive the relationship between God and the human person in such a way as to render superfluous the role of an external agent mediating between the two. Without necessarily rejecting the objective means of grace provided by the Church mysticism has the potential, by its very nature, of relegating these instruments to a secondary position. Mysticism offers its adepts the possibility of directly experiencing the vision of God. Such an experience may take place without the agency of an outward rite or structure, and it proves for the mystic to be much more profound and real that institutionally mediated reception of grace.

Rhineland mysticism played an important role in the evolution of non-institutional Christianity, for more than one reason. First of all, on account of its popular character: its chief interpreters preached in the vernacular as well as Latin, thereby breaking out of the monastic (hence clerical and institutional) framework within which mysticism had traditionally been confined. Moreover, Rhenish mysticism gave rise to an anthropological theory that was to become a central feature of the fully developed non-institutional theology of Reformation period spiritualists like Sebastian Franck.

The human person, as Meister Eckhart understands him, has within his soul "something which is so much like God it is one with Him and not simply joined to Him. It is one, and has nothing in common with anything else or anything created"[13].
To designate this "something", Eckhart uses several images; the "ground" (grund), "spark" (fünklein), the "little castle" (bürglein) of the soul, the "tabernacle of the Spirit" (hütte des geistes). But in fact, he says, "it is neither this not that...It is free of all names and devoid of all forms." Because of this presence in the soul, the human person is able to overcome the limits of what Eckhart calls corporality (lîplicheit) and temporality (zîtlicheit) to dwell in the spirit and in eternity, Here he will hear the eternal word of God within. Whoever desires to hear this word of God must, in Eckhart's words, "be inside, must be in his own home, must be entirely abandoned (gelâzen)"[14].

For Meister Eckhart, and in a more attenuated way for Tauler and Suso, it is a question not only of a union between the soul and God, but of the unity of essential human nature and divinity (or gottheit). Clearly then, the human-God relationship does not depend on any ecclesiastical intermediary. for this reason the Rhenish mystics, despite their veneration of the eucharist, depreciate external works and practices. The seven sacraments can even be an obstacle to true spirituality, since those who become attached to physical elements run the rusk of not apprehending the reality of which these sacraments are only signs. "Truth," declares Eckhart, "is an interior thing and not to be found in outward appearances"[15]. Holiness does not come from the Church, but from the ground of the soul. Johannes Tauler put it this way: "Churches do not make the people holy, but the people make the Churches holy"[16]. When a person finds the truth within, we read in a sermon attributed to Eckhart, he may boldly drop all outward practices (üebunge).

The heresy of the Free Spirit
Sometimes the popular mysticism which had rooted itself in west European and especially German society translated itself into a more explicit anti-institutionalism. Such was the case for the so-called heresy of the Free Spirit, condemned by the Council of Vienne in 1312. This mystical heresy was apparently rife among the unauthorised lay religious communities of Beghards and Beguines, such as those to whom Eckhart had preached. According to the Inquisition, sectarians of the Free Spirit claimed to be divine and sinless; they rejected all laws and eliminated all outward religious practice. Some scholars -- I am thinking especially Robert E. Lerner's work (1972) -- now question the idea that the Brethren of the Free Spirit had any sort of unified programme of theology. Some of the condemned heretics were indeed antinomian or even libertine; others however were ascetic and perfectionist. Many of them certainly believed that mystical experience obviated the need for institutional religion. Marguerite Porete of Hainault, a Beguine who was executed for heresy in 1310, gives the following clear example: "This daughter of Sion [i.e., the liberated soul] desires no masses or sermons, no fasts or prayers...since God is everywhere with or without these things." "She does not seek God by penance, nor by any sacrament of the Holy Church"[18].

I might mention here a modern interpretation of the heresy of the Free Spirit presented in a book by the French "situationniste" philosopher Raoul Vaneigem: the movement was, in Vaneigem's reading, a refusal of spiritual economism, of a market-place ideology of guilt, fear and death; it was an affirmation of freedom in face of structured determinism.[19].

Joachim of Flora and the Joachimite movement
The final current of mediaeval religious thought which I shall consider under the rubric of anti-institutionalism is the Joachimite movement; named after the twelfth-century Italian abbot Joachim of Flora (Fiore) (1130-1202). The theology of Joachim was remarkable by reason of its eschatological perspective and its periodisation of history. He divided the history of the world since creation into three epochs (status). The first era, that of the Father, corresponded to the period of the Old Testament. The second, the era of the son of God, was, Joachim believed, drawing to an end in his own time. The third and final era, that of the Holy Spirit, would lead to the Last Judgment and the end of the world. The paternal or Old Testament age was in this outline an age dominated by the flesh: it was the age of law, servitude, suffering and fear, and it belonged to married men. In the Second Age the flesh and the Spirit rule together. This is time of grace, partial wisdom, filial obedience, action, and faith; it belongs to the priests and clerics. Finally, the Third Age -- the dawn of which was on the horizon -- will be the age of full grace, of complete understanding, of freedom, of contemplation, and of love; and this new age will belong to the contemplatives[20].

Joachim of Flora
Joachim of Flore
For Joachim, the dawning age of the Spirit or of "the everlasting gospel" will bring to the whole of human society the communal, egalitarian, and contemplative ideals of monasticism. The Church, of course, will be completely transformed in this tertius status. Pastors will be of a spiritual, monastic type, and external rites will give way to the reality of which they had till then only been the signs. Yves Congar puts the matter this way: "the coming of a new a dispensation...corresponds to the passing from the sign to the signified, from the sacrament to its res"[21].

It does not seem that Joachim of Flora had himself intended to contest the authority of the contemporary Church and its hierarchy: he envisaged the new spiritual Church as the inexorable outcome of a long historical process, and in fact as the flowering of the spiritual element present in the Church of the Second age. Nevertheless, Joachimite doctrine easily lent itself to interpretations that did challenge the existing institution. David Lotz refers to "the explosive ideological power of Joachimism" and "its perennial appeal to opponents of the hierarchical church"[22].

Within half a century of Joachim's death the Spiritual Franciscan Gerard of Borgo San Donnino published an introduction to the master's works in which he suggested that this new gospel would replace the Bible, and that contemplative Franciscan monks would replace the hierarchy[23].

In the context of the dispute over poverty among late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Franciscans, Joachimite theology surfaced as a major threat to the institutional stability of the Catholic Church. A leading spokesman for the Spiritual Franciscans at the end of the thirteenth century, Pierre-Jean Olieu (Olivi) of Narbonne, distinguished two Churches: the Ecclesia carnalis and the true Ecclesia spiritualis. The latter is not, as in the Augustinian tradition, the invisible communion of the elect. It is rather the community of true Christians which alone shows apostolicity by observing evangelical poverty. Olieu announced the imminent triumph of the spiritual Church over the carnal Church during an apocalyptic drama in which Saint Francis would vanquish the Antichrist.

Joachimism provided ideological weapons to an even more potent and revolutionary portest against institutions which erupted in southern Italy in the early 1300s. A group of laypersons following in a rigorous manner Franciscan ideals, the Apostolic Brethren, had attracted many followers since 1260. In 1300 Dolcino of Novara took over leadership of the Brethren, and led the group into insurrection. In this case the critique of institutional religion became subsumed into a general attack on social institutions and class structure. the Joachimite new age would bring nothing less than extermination of pope, prelates, clergy and monks. Dolcino and peasant followers in fact waged guerilla warfare from the mountains for the three years, until the rebel was captured and executed in 1307[24].

The impact of mediaeval anti-institutionalism
It is not within the compass of this short essay to describe either the course of mediaeval heresy, or the inquisitorial and other reactive measures to which the established Church recurred in its efforts to repress confine, or deflect mediaeval subversion of ecclesiastical Christianity. My intention has been to focus only on the theoretical aspects of the critique of institutional religion. In conclusion, I wish to comment briefly on the historical impact of these theories. The dictum of Karl Marx that the beginning of all criticism is the criticism of religion may be historically if not metaphysically true. Critical ideas which at first sight appear inconceivable outside the cultural milieu of mediaeval Europe find themselves adopted, transformed, and passed on to succeeding generations. The three main tendencies I have spoken of, the Wycliffite, the Eckhartian, and the Joachimite, come together in the thought of a Renaissance thinker like Sebastian Franck, whom the philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey has characterised as the first modern man. In turn, the school of thought to which Franck belongs, and here we must include a French Renaissance thinker like Sebastian Castellio, has clear links with Pierre Bayle and the early Enlightenment; in short, with ideas of toleration, autonomy, refusal of arbitrary authority, and with what French thought calls "libre examen". A distinct but related chain of ideas -- this one stressing social equality -- can be traced from Joachimism and Rhineland mysticism through Thomas Müntzer in the sixteenth century and Gerard Winstanley in the seventeenth to the Marxist ideology of more recent times.


[1] Cronica, Abconterfayung vnd entwerffung der Türckey (Augsburg, 1530), f. K3v.

[2] J. V. Fearns, "Peter von Bruis und die religiöse Bewegung des 12 Jahrhunderts", Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, XLVII (1966), p.329.

[3] Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus, (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977), pp.79f.

[4] Ibid., p.81f.

[5] III Clement 14.

[6] Enchiridion, 15:56.

[7] De baptismo, 3:26.

[8] Contra Faustum, 13:16.

[9] Tractatus de ecclesia (1378), 1.

[10] De eucharistia (1380), 98-99. Cf. Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, (Manchester: Mancheste University Press, 1967), p.520.

[11] Loc. cit.

[12] Errores...Joannis Hus de Bohemia, in Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum (Paris: 1903), col. 1209-1211.

[13] "Twelfth German Sermon", in J. Quint, ed., Meister Eckharts Predigten (Stuttgart and Berlin: 1957), p.197.

[14] Ibid., pp.192f.

[15] German Sermon "Expedit vobis", in F. Pfieffer, Deutsche Mystiker des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, vol. II, Meister Eckhart (Göttingen, 1924), p.239.

[16] Sermon XXX, in A. Corin, Sermons de J. Tauler, (Liège/Paris: 1929), p.334.

[17] German Sermon "In his, quae patris mei sunt", in Pfeiffer, op. cit., vol. II, p.23.

[18] Le miroir des simples âmes, ed. R. Guanieri, Archivo Italiano per la storia della pietà, vol. IV (1965), pp.536, 586.

[19] Le Mouvement de Libre-Esprit (Paris: Ramsay, 1986).

[20] Condordia Novi ac Veteris Testamenti (Venice, 1519; reprinted Frankfurt, 1964), 5:84, p.112r.

[21] L'Eglise de saint Augustin à l'époque moderne (Paris: 1970), p.211.

[22] In W. Walker, R. A. Norris, D. W. Lotz, R. T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner's, 1985), p.320.

[23] Marjorie Reeves, Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages(Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1969), pp.187ff.; G. Leff, op. cit., pp.79ff.

[24] Lambert, op. cit., pp.194-5.

James MacLean,
Memorial University of Newfoundland.

Other essays by James MacLean

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