Medieval Missional Paradigm

Categorizing one thousand years of anything is a daunting task. Especially something as complex as the missional paradigm of the church in Europe during the Middle Ages. However, David J Bosch fearlessly sums up what he calls the “Medieval Roman Catholic Missionary Paradigm” (Ch. 7) with a single verse.

And the master said to the slave, Go out into the roads and hedges and compel them to come in, so that my house may be filled. –Luke 14:23

The interpretation of this text underwent a particular and fateful development, due mainly to the Donatist controversy, the fall of Rome in 410, and Augustine’s City of God. Although born in 354 AD, Bosch echoes Krister Stendhal in identifying Augustine as the harbinger of the medieval paradigm and “the one who placed an indelible stamp on the entire subsequent Western theological history.”

Circumstances, like plate tectonics, are powerful forces that can reshape continents.

Augustine wrote his oceanic, twenty-two volume work as a sort of “literary tombstone” and critical response to the downfall of Rome. It ended up shaping the whole of the Middle Ages.

Marriage of Church and State

Since the conversion of Constantine, the empire and Christianity were inextricably wed and from then on conceived of as a composite whole. When Rome fell to the Goths, the stability of the church was questioned. The City of God was intended as a defense to safeguard the primacy and endurance of the heavenly city despite what may happen to its earthly analogue. What it led to in practice though was homogenization and the emergence of the church as a Roman institution. This begins to explain the rationale for the Crusades—the extension of Rome meant naturally the extension of the kingdom of God.

Missionary Wars

In the case of the Donatists, invoking Luke 14:23 was the logical development of Cyprian’s earlier doctrine of “no salvation outside the church.” Those who had left the Catholic church (like the Donatists) were apostates who should be compelled to return. Eventually, this mentality was generalized to include both apostates (those who left the church) and pagans (those who had not yet been subject to the church).

The language of this missionary enterprise became increasingly more severe—persuade, compel, force, conquer. “Just discipline” on apostates took the form of fines, increase of rent, confiscation of property, jail time, and exile. However, the theological kaleidoscope was turning fast and by the time of Charlemagne (772) just discipline had expanded to direct missionary war against pagans (the Saxons in this case). And since the state was the extension of the church, the mechanism of mission became the empire conquering under the pope’s blessing. Those conquered by Rome were simultaneously conquered by heaven and were therefore baptized, often against their will.

Colonial Expansion

The medieval missional paradigm, once fully ripened, provided the theological justification for the First Crusade to break forth in 1096. And when the Crusades had failed, the spirit of this paradigm was reincarnated as Colonialism.

The roots of the later conquistadores and the entire phenomenon of the European colonization of the rest of the world lay in the medieval teachings on just war. On closer inspection one might even say that colonization was the “modern continuation of the Crusades.” In the words of M. W. Baldwin, “Although Crusade projects failed, the Crusade mentality persisted.”

–David J Bosch, pp. 226-227

The turbulent history of the church in this thousand year period shows how powerful a paradigm can be. It also shows that a whole lot of people can be using a defective interpretive model to make sense of Christianity.

5 thoughts on “Medieval Missional Paradigm

  1. After our conversation about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, and now Augustine’s powerhouse City of God–both of which started with the greatest of intentions, and ended with less than desired results–this makes me think twice about writing anything anymore. After this comment, I mean 🙂


  2. Pingback: The Gospel as Invitation | life and building

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