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The Crusades

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul
The Truth Network Radio
February 15, 2022 12:01 am

The Crusades

Renewing Your Mind / R.C. Sproul

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February 15, 2022 12:01 am

As the centuries progressed, some Christians began to think it was legitimate to use force to advance the church and the Christian cause. Today, W. Robert Godfrey offers insights on the Crusades, one of church history's most dramatic periods.

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There's one period in ancient Church history that captures the imagination more than just about the Crusades. I think many of us would rather just ignore that period in Church history. It's difficult to understand how and why all that happened, but it is important to study these events and Church history in general. That's why we're featuring highlights of Dr. Robert Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. As he pointed out yesterday in his introduction, the whole history of the Church has shaped who we are as Christians today, has shaped the churches to which we belong, and the better we understand that history, the more we can really understand ourselves.

Here's Dr. Godfrey. We're looking at the broad theme of church and society, and we come to one of the most well-known and controversial elements of medieval experience, and that is the Crusades. What were the Crusades? What was the importance of the Crusades? Why were there Crusades?

It's interesting that as famous as the episode of the Crusades is in medieval history, there's still a fair level of controversy as to exactly how it happened. How did this come about? Why did it happen? What did it really mean? What were the driving motives behind it?

So we'll try to look at what happened and think a little bit about how this could have happened in this lecture today. The Crusades are a radical break with anything that had happened in Christian history up till that point. Up until that point, Christians had gone to war, but Christians had always gone to war in support of the state to pursue some political objective. They may have felt that their state was a Christian state and that therefore in going to war for the state, they were doing something that was good in the eyes of God, but they had never gone to war for the church.

They had always in fact believed that part of the separation of church and state was that the state was given power by God to protect the nation and to promote peace, whereas the church had a spiritual mission on earth. But with the coming of the crusading ideal in Europe, that idea began to change and Christians began to think that it was legitimate to use force to advance the church and the cause of Christ, not just to protect and to defend the state. There's a very interesting recent book that came out just last year on the subject of the crusades written by Jay Rubenstein, which probably means he's not a Christian apologist, but is a very fine historian. And he entitles his book Armies of Heaven, the First Crusade and the Quest for Apocalypse. And he argues in there that while to be sure under the surface there were many causes of the crusade, there are a number of factors that could and should be taken into account to understand the crusades, that at the deepest level the crusades were not an economic or political phenomenon in its deepest meaning. Let's not say there weren't economic motives for some people, there weren't political effects of the crusades, but he says when you go back and you study the records and you look at what people were saying about their own motives at the time, it was not political or economic in the first place. In fact, he says over and over again, you can see people who acted against their political and economic interests to become involved with the crusades. He also says that people did not join the crusades to earn the forgiveness of their sins. The church would come later to teach that people could receive time out of purgatory or forgiveness of sins for participating in the crusades. But he says that's not the initial motive. That's not what drove people initially to become interested in the crusades and to participate in the crusades. He says what was going on in the minds of many people was an apocalyptic expectation.

Say that three times fast. Apocalyptic expectation that the world was coming to an end, that the end of time would center in Jerusalem, and that it was time for Christendom to rally around the needs of Jerusalem and perhaps hasten the coming of Christ and the end of the world. I think that's very important. I think it's very insightful.

I think it's probably what was happening. After all, the crusading ideal began to emerge just before the 1100s. Christendom had been thinking about time. Christendom had been thinking at least a little, maybe not overwhelmingly, but a little about a millennium coming to an end, a thousand years. Christians had been thinking about time back in the early 700s.

The venerable Bede, an interesting historian in England. The venerable Bede in his ecclesiastical history for the first time said we should establish a calendar that begins with the birth of Christ. And we ought to call the time after the birth of Christ the year of our Lord, Anno Domini, A.D. And the time before Christ we'll call before Christ, B.C. So it was the venerable Bede in about 700 or so who really changed the way we thought about calendars and thought about time. And so time was on the mind of Christians.

Time was a reality that Christians took seriously knowing that there would be an end of time, that Christ was coming again. And now Christians began to say perhaps we are leading up to that moment and we begin to contemplate that the infidel holds Jerusalem. Now we might say well the infidel had held Jerusalem for centuries. Why all of a sudden would Christians begin to think that this was so traumatic, so significant? Well in part because in the ten hundreds Christians began to be more interested in pilgrimages. They began to be more interested in traveling to holy sites. They began to become convinced that this was a way to become more holy, to go to holy places. And one of the places the really hardy wanted to go to was Jerusalem to see the place where Jesus had died and where Jesus had been raised from the dead. And the really hardy because it was a long and difficult trip, expensive trip, the hardy knew that there was the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem built by Constantine's mother based on a vision that she had where the crucifixion had taken place. And they wanted to see those holy sites.

They believed it would be a blessing. It would make them more spiritual to be physically near to these holy sites. And so they wanted to travel there. And rumors began to come back to Europe that the Muslims were hassling and making difficult the pilgrimage of Christians to Jerusalem. It's difficult to know whether that's actually true or not, but that was increasingly the conviction of Europeans that the Muslims were interfering with Christian efforts to visit the holy places. And that began to build this sense that Christians ought to be going, ought to win again the holy sites where Christ had lived and died and been raised and that this would have eschatological significance to recapture the holy city. And so in response to the preaching particularly of Pope Urban II right at the end of the ten hundreds, about 1095, suddenly there burst out this energy and this passion to travel and to recapture Jerusalem for the Christians. And there is a kind of mystery in history.

I think we saw it. We talked very briefly about the rise of Islam. Why was it all of a sudden all of this energy amongst the Arabs, all of this expansionism amongst the people that had been very sort of quiet and not all that, you know, expansive before? Or we go back further to the Romans themselves. If you go to Italy today it's a little hard to think of the Italians being eager to go out and have an empire of the whole of the Mediterranean basin.

There seems to sort of come a moment in history, and I'm not sure we can always understand all of the mystery that's involved there, that suddenly there's a level of energy that's never seen before. That seems to be what happens with the Crusades. All of a sudden common people and nobility, great and small, rich and poor, powerful and insignificant, were gripped by this vision of doing something for Christ, doing, they thought, something really important for Christ by traveling to Jerusalem to capture it for Christ. Now some have said, and no doubt truly, that the popes were glad to divert the nobility.

This is just the time that's leading up to the investiture controversy that we already talked about. And it might be that the popes thought it would be nice to have an emperor or two out in the Far East, or for them the Far East, as opposed to being here in Europe. But that doesn't seem to have been the principal motivation. There seems to have simply been this ideal. And they didn't initially call it Crusades.

That was a word that was adopted later, maybe as much as a century or two later. But crusade captures the sense of it because crusade was a French word that meant the way of the cross. They saw themselves sacrificing themselves as Jesus had, taking up a cross, taking up self-denial to recapture the holy city for an eschatological purpose. It doesn't seem primarily to have been getting even with the Muslims for having attacked Europe, although as late as 841, St. Peter's in Rome had been sacked by Muslims who had invaded from North Africa up through Sicily into Italy. So the Muslim presence had been real, but after all, 841 was hundreds of years earlier.

It's not primarily revenge. It's this ideal of doing something for Christ. And it is estimated that perhaps as many as 100,000 Europeans headed east from Europe in that first crusade to try to regain Jerusalem. And the amazing thing is they succeeded. In the providence of God, the first crusade went forth at a moment of a great deal of internal dissent and weakness in the Muslim world. And the crusaders were able to enter Jerusalem on July 15, 1099. So the goal of the crusade was in this most remarkable way realized.

And it seemed then a validation of the vision, of the expectation, of the hope. And the capturing of Jerusalem was a terrible thing. The crusaders slaughtered people. The streets ran with blood. And the Muslim world has never really recovered from that vision of Christians slaughtering Muslims, but also slaughtering Jews and others in Jerusalem, other Christians in Jerusalem.

Again, this mysterious energy giving vent to this horror there in the city. Now of course, it seems to me in the interest of historical fairness, even though no one is actually interested in historical fairness, that it ought to be observed that after all the Muslims had captured the city from the Christians in the 600s. But they had not been as vicious and as violent as the Christians were when the Christians recaptured the city.

We have to recognize that. But to hold the crusades purely against the Christians as if the Muslims had never raised the sword in the proclamation of their faith is a little bit inconsistent, it seems to me. And I have been tempted to say, although I'm too smart to say it, except to you, just amongst ourselves, that if they're really opposed to crusading, I suppose they ought to give Istanbul back to us since they took it after the crusades from the West were over.

But reason never gets you anywhere in history. Now the history of Jerusalem had been a very curious history. In the second century, after the Jews had revolted against Rome, Rome put down the Jewish rebellion and forced all Jews out of the city of Jerusalem and renamed the city Elio Capitolina after a minor Roman goddess. And Jews were not permitted for a long time to live in Jerusalem. And only with the coming of Constantine was Jerusalem reconstituted as Jerusalem so that he could build the church of the Holy Sepulchre there, and it became then a predominantly Christian city until it fell in 638 to the Muslims. So Jerusalem had had quite a checkered history, and it had great varieties to it, and now it was in Crusader hands, and the Crusaders determined that one of the leading noblemen who had fought in the Crusades should be named King of Jerusalem.

And that man's name was Godfrey de Buillon, Uncle Godfrey, we call him in the family. He was actually from Belgium, and he was so pious that he said to be named King of Jerusalem was inappropriate for anyone except Jesus, and he wanted simply the title Baron of the Holy Sepulchre. So that Crusader kingdom was established in several areas of the eastern Mediterranean, and the Crusaders held Jerusalem until 1187, so not quite a hundred years. But in those days it passed into Crusader hands and was the first sort of holy war that the Christians had fought. In 1187, the Muslims who by that time had regrouped and restrengthened themselves were able to recapture the city, but the ideal in Europe did not go away, and there were some five major Crusades in the Middle Ages to try to recapture the city. We can't go into all the details of all of them, but we might mention briefly the Third Crusade, which is probably the one that has inspired the imagination of the West the most. It had the most glittering leadership. It was launched right after the fall of the city of Jerusalem.

It was launched in 1189 and went on for about some three years. It was led by the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa from the Holy Roman Empire, King Philip Augustus of France, and Richard the Lionhearted of England. So here are these three really prominent monarchs from Europe leading the Crusade to try to recapture Jerusalem, opposed by Saladin, the noble Muslim leader in that part of the world. And it's in that context of the Third Crusade that some of our favorite stories as children have emerged, the story of Robin Hood. It's while King Richard was away at the Crusade that wicked Prince John was on the throne and that Robin Hood had to rob from the rich and give to the poor to try to defend the interests of the realm against Prince John and all of his failings.

So that living sort of legend, there probably was a real Robin Hood, although not with all of the things we think we know about him today, but that living legend, you see, has cast such a long shadow. Almost a thousand years later, we're still talking, still thinking of the drama, something of the romance of this Third Crusade and its effort to capture the holy city. The Third Crusade was a failure.

They failed to capture Jerusalem. They had to return home in some disgrace, but not abandoning the crusading ideal. And only, really, a few years later in 1200, a Fourth Crusade was being mounted, a Fourth Crusade that would sail from Venice and would attack with a mighty navy on the coast near Jerusalem and recapture the city. The Venetians perhaps did not fully share in this crusading zeal and seemed to have been in it more for the money.

There was a lot of money to be made by shipping large armies to the east. And Venice not only saw money to be made, but also saw another political opportunity. Venice became aware that there was great confusion in the city of Constantinople.

Until the capital, 1200, of the Eastern Empire, there was a fight going on there over the succession to the throne. And Venice thought, well, maybe I can get some money from the emperor that we side with so that the emperor will cooperate with us, we'll make money, and the crusaders can march through his territory down to Jerusalem. The Venetians thought they had a deal, and then the emperor, who was on the throne a weak man, couldn't deliver, and the crusaders were livid, and they sacked Constantinople the way they had sacked Jerusalem in the First Crusade, weakening Constantinople in a way that in a sense it never quite recovered from. And if you want to see the treasures of Constantinople today, the place to go is Venice. If you've ever been to Venice or ever seen the glorious San Marcos church on the famous piazza there, the central piazza in Venice, and you look at that church and you see its splendor, rather eastern-looking splendor, and you see pillars of stone decorating all the front of this church, every one of those pillars was stolen from Constantinople. And when you see the great bronze horses, the four bronze horses on the balcony of San Marco, those were bronze horses that Constantine had taken from Rome to Constantinople, and then the Venetians stole in the Fourth Crusade and brought back to Venice. And you can go into San Marco and see all sorts of gold and cloisonné and other jewels that were pirated from Constantinople to Venice in the Fourth Crusade. It was a tragedy for Christendom, although maybe if those treasures had stayed in Byzantium they would all have been lost.

Who knows in the curious courses of history. But this sacking of Constantinople and then the establishment of what came to be known as the Latin kingdom of Constantinople that lasted for about 60 years, this was an offense that the Eastern Church has never forgiven the Western Church for, because there is still a Latin bishop of Constantinople in addition to the Greek Orthodox bishop of Constantinople. And the competition between these competing clergies never was really overcome, never really reconciled. And as I say, the Fourth Crusade greatly weakened Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire. The Last Crusade, we'll talk about the Fifth Crusade, led by the Emperor Frederick, negotiated and actually recaptured Jerusalem through negotiation, which he was able to hold only for about 15 years. That was the last time the West was able to hold Jerusalem. But the ideal, the ideal of the Crusades continued for centuries thereafter.

There were still efforts to mount crusades in the 15th and the 16th century to recapture Jerusalem. It's a curious moment, a curious development in Western experience and a major shift in attitude that it might be right to take the sword and shed blood to advance the church of Christ, not just Christian states but the church and the Christian cause. And it has left, I think, a very dark wound on Christianity in the mind of many and especially, of course, in the mind of Muslims. They tend to see Christianity as every bit as much cultural and political as religious because, of course, that's the way they understand their own religion. And so it is a battle of cultures for them, not just a battle of religions.

And as battles of cultures, there's no real way to ultimate toleration in that battle. So the Crusades both illustrate and cause a lot of problems that we still face today. That's Dr. Robert Godfrey, and you're listening to Renewing Your Mind. I'm Lee Webb, and I so appreciate Dr. Godfrey's open and honest treatment of a very dark time in church history.

This is one of the lessons from Dr. Godfrey's series, A Survey of Church History. It is a comprehensive 73-part series. When you contact us today with a donation of any amount, we'd like to send you part two of Dr. Godfrey's series. It is a two-DVD set with 13 messages covering AD 500 through AD 1500. Call us to make your request at 800-435-4343.

You can also make your request online at, and let me thank you in advance for your generous gift. At times, of course, the church has experienced oppression and persecution. At other times, as we discovered today, the church has been the source of persecution. Regardless, God has promised to present His bride without spot or wrinkle.

We can take great comfort and great hope in that. So contact us and with your gift of any amount request part two of A Survey of Church History. You can make your request and give your gift online at or when you call us at 800-435-4343. While you're at our website, I hope you'll share the program with a friend or a family member. Under the title of today's program, you'll see the Share button.

There you can post the program straight to your Facebook wall or Twitter feed. Again, find us at Well we were presented with quite a task here, weren't we, selecting only six of the 73 messages from Dr. Godfrey's series. But tomorrow's lesson, not difficult at all. We have to feature a lecture on the towering figure of John Calvin. So I hope you'll join us tomorrow for Renewing Your Mind.
Whisper: medium.en / 2023-06-04 20:13:58 / 2023-06-04 20:22:23 / 8

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