Medieval Christians and Evangelism

Article ID: JAF3432 | By: Nicole Howe


This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 43, number 2 (2020). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.


The word evangelism can cause many images to form in the Christian mind. Some people may think of committed missionaries who travel to the ends of the earth. Others may think of Paul, Peter, Stephen, and other martyrs of the early church who lost their lives for the sake of the gospel. Still others might imagine a man in a suit on a street corner with a bullhorn and a gospel tract. Probably few of us think of ourselves. However, all of us who bear the name of Christ are called to evangelize and spread the good news of the gospel to those around us.

Though sometimes overlooked, the medieval Christians in early Anglo-Saxon England heeded this call remarkably well. In St. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, we are given a detailed historical account of the numerous ways in which the Anglo-Saxons were able to influence surrounding pagan cultures. Their persistent passion for evangelism and their use of reason and imagination, as well as natural talent and supernatural power, together constitute an excellent apologetic example for Christians today.

It is a persistent myth that medieval Christians were anti-intellectual. As David C. Lindberg explains in his The Beginnings of Western Science, “one of the frequent charges leveled against the church is…that the leaders preferred faith to reason and ignorance to education.”1 This charge is a “major distortion,” says Lindberg, as Christianity was as much a religion for the educated upper classes as it was for the poor and disenfranchised.2 The medieval Anglo-Saxons had a vibrant and intellectual faith that allowed them to approach evangelism holistically, meeting people at their place of need — whether it be through reason and evidence or imagination and beauty. We see this holistic approach clearly in the conversion accounts of King Edwin of Northumbria (r. 616–632) and England’s first poet, Caedmon (c. 657–684).

Winning King Edwin

King Edwin exerted an enormous amount of influence. Bede tells us that Edwin “received wide additions to his earthly realm and brought under his sway all the territories inhabited either by English or by Britons, an achievement unmatched by any previous English king.”3 The Anglo-Saxon Christians recognized that Edwin’s wide reach meant that his religious conversion would also have a strong degree of influence. Consequently, they took their call to evangelism seriously. Though Edwin was hesitant to come to the Christian faith, he had previously said he would be willing to convert if his advisers determined that Christianity was holier and more defensible to God than their previously held beliefs.4 Medieval Christians rose to the challenge.

When the bishop Paulinus came to Edwin’s court, he actively sought to influence him, as well as the entire kingdom, through discussion and reasoning.5 However, the king was a “wise and prudent man who made a habit of sitting alone in a quiet room conversing with himself for long periods, turning over in his inmost heart what he should do and which religion he should follow.”6 Many twenty-first century apologists would be grateful for the chance to engage with someone so thoughtful. However, this also meant that Paulinus had to be “ready to give an answer” (1 Pet. 3:15) for why the king should consider Christianity over any other religion. Before he was willing to convert, Edwin wanted to hear from Paulinus, as well as his advisers, about the religion and why he should (or shouldn’t) join the faith. Paulinus and Pope Boniface V both presented strong cases for Edwin to renounce his idols and convert to Christianity.7 In addition to providing the king with full instruction on the tenets of the Christian faith, Paulinus made the most of every opportunity to demonstrate the truth. When the queen gave birth on the night of Easter, Edwin gave thanks to the gods. But Paulinus publicly thanked Christ, illustrating to the king that the Christian God is the one who gives life, as the Scriptures say. Boniface also instructed Edwin with a letter, crafting an apologetic for Christian truths such as the Trinity, the good news of Redemption, and the reality of God as Creator  of all. He then went on to reason with Edwin regarding the absurdity of worshiping powerless idols, which were mere objects made by the hands of men.

Paulinus “found it difficult to bring the king’s proud mind to accept the humility of the way of salvation or to acknowledge the mystery of the life-giving Cross,” yet he

persistently “continued, by words of exhortation addressed to men and words of supplication addressed to the divine compassion, to strive for the conversion of the king and his nation.”8 In other words, Paulinus was tenacious and didn’t give up.

It is in this integration of exhortation and supplication that we see where Paulinus’s witness was most effectual. Though the medievals were certainly not anti-intellectual, it was not through reason alone that the king was ultimately converted. It was through a supernatural vision that was revealed to both the king as well as Paulinus.9 The vision had occurred years earlier, while the king was still in exile. At the end of the vision, Edwin was instructed to remember a specific sign in which a man would place his right hand on Edwin’s head. When Edwin was still struggling to fully embrace Christianity, Paulinus placed his right hand on Edwin’s head and asked if he remembered the sign. In doing so, Paulinus was able to supernaturally affirm the vision that Edwin had received, and it was then that the king began to take the Christian faith much more seriously.

Edwin gathered his principal advisers and friends, and Paulinus was once again asked to provide his “teaching about God in greater detail.”10 As the wise counselors reasoned together on the merits of the Christian faith, the king was “full of joy at his knowledge of the worship of the true God,”11 and personally destroyed the false idols he had created.

Reason, Imagination, and the Supernatural in Caedmon

We see another beautiful example of the integration between reason and imagination in Caedmon, England’s earliest known poet. Caedmon was gifted by God with an incredible ability in that “if Scripture was explained to him by interpreters, he could quickly turn it into delightful and moving poetry of his own.”12 This is another remarkable example of the way in which reason and imagination were used to communicate truth. While Edwin’s imagination was sparked through a dream and the fire kindled through Paulinus’s exhortations, Caedmon’s imagination was also sparked through a dream. But additionally, the dream left him with the ability to sing beautiful verses “that he had never heard before,”13 thereby igniting the imaginations of all those around him. “These verses of his,” says Bede, “have stirred the hearts of many folk to despise the world and aspire to heavenly things.”14

Caedmon’s poetry was not merely beautiful; it was also grounded in truth. We see him actively seeking knowledge, then transposing that knowledge into a language that others could understand — both because it was in their modern tongue and because it spoke to the language of their imaginations, making the truth incarnational. For those not quite ready to investigate the truths of the Christian faith, the poetic words of Caedmon inspired them toward higher things, not merely because his poetry evoked emotion, but because his words were anchored in truth and reason. He “stored up in his memory all that he learned” and “turned it into such melodious verse that his delightful renderings turned his instructors into auditors.”15 The power of Caedmon’s witness was that it represented beauty and truth, faith and reason.

And like Paulinus, Caedmon was successful in communicating truth because he was not limited by his own capabilities. Instead, he relied on the supernatural power of God. Caedmon’s witness was made clear, not only by the words he wrote, but by the very fact that he could write them at all. After hearing an account of Caedmon’s story, even educated people agreed with the abbess that his gift was from God.16 Caedmon and Paulinus were effective apologists because of their focus on the imagination as well as reason and on the supernatural as well as the natural.

An Integrated Approach Today

We can learn a great deal from these medieval apologists and their integrated approach to evangelism. First, we must understand our audience. Like Edwin, thoughtful and prudent people need us to provide logical, clear, and convincing information before they can wrestle with Christianity’s truth claims. As Paul tells us in Romans 10:14 (NIV), “How can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?” In the Twitter world of 280 characters or less, too many arguments are reduced to name-calling and ad-hominem attacks. Christians should aim for better. Though reason alone is not enough, medieval followers of Christ understood the importance of an intellectual approach to the Christian faith. Even St. Augustine, who championed (rightfully) a proper focus on the celestial and eternal, recognized that “the temporal could serve the eternal by supplying knowledge about nature that would contribute to the proper interpretation of Scripture and the development of Christian doctrine.”17 Modern Christians often must combat the same myth charged to the medieval: that faith is born out of stupidity and ignorance. One of the best ways to fight against such error is to show, by means of an intelligent and coherent witness, that biblical faith “does not make up the deficiencies of evidence,” as philosopher Timothy McGrew puts it, but is well-placed trust in response to solid and persuasive evidence.18

Second, we must not forget the importance of the imagination. Unfortunately, in today’s culture, we do not often encounter people who are interested in hearing about the truth claims of the Christian faith. It is for this reason we need to follow Caedmon’s lead, transposing Christian truth into a language that inspires people to higher things. Using poetry, music, and literature to translate the truth of Scripture into something meaningful may be the first step in someone’s journey toward wanting to learn more.

Finally, we must do all of this in the power of the Holy Spirit. Like Paul, we must “strenuously contend” for the faith “with all the energy Christ so powerfully works” in us.19 Yet Christians today have unconsciously absorbed the materialistic worldview. Consequently, many have stopped expecting the Holy Spirit to provide us with the power to change hearts and open the eyes of the blind in ways we cannot accomplish with our own strength. As Leo Sherley-Price writes in his preface to Bede’s History, even “barbarians expected religion to be accompanied by miracles of one kind or another.”20 May we have at least the same level of faith and expectation. Modern Christians must fervently call on the power of the Holy Spirit to empower us to follow the example of the Anglo-Saxons, seeking to minister to the world through our intellect and our imaginations. If we do this, perhaps we might also be blessed to see the type of world-change worthy of being recorded in the pages of history.

Nicole Howe has an MA in Cultural Apologetics from Houston Baptist University. She is the editor of and a regular contributor to the quarterly publication, An Unexpected Journal, as well as a regular contributor to Cultivating magazine.

NOTES

  1. David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 148.
  2. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science, 148.
  3. Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Leo Sherley-Price, ed. D.H. Farmer (London: Penguin Books, 1990), 117.
  4. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 118.
  5. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 118.
  6. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 120.
  7. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 120–25.
  8. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 125.
  9. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 125.
  10. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 130.
  11. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 130.
  12. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 248.
  13. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 248.
  14. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 248.
  15. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 249.
  16. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 249.
  17. Lindberg, History of Western Science,
  18. Timothy McGrew, “The Formal Epistemology of Testimony: Beyond Hume and Earman,” lecture delivered August 23, 2019, in Schloss Fürstenried, Munich, YouTube, October 30, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GH11Ur8cjwM.
  19. Colossians 1:29 ESV; see also Jude 3.
  20. Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, 26.
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