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11. The Crusades

The Rise of Islam

Beginning in the seventh century Islamic conquests took over Arabia, Persia, Palestine, North Africa, Spain and modern-day Turkey. In 732 a Muslim army from Spain was defeated by Charles Martel of the Franks, his grandson son was Charlemagne.

Large swaths of the predominantly Christian Roman Empire were now under Muslim rule. Islamic tolerance towards Christians and Jews varied from ruler to ruler, but certainly reached a low point under Al-Hakim (d.1021, the sixth Fatimid Caliph). He ordered all dogs in Cairo killed, outlawed grapes, chess, and forced Christians to wear heavy crosses around their necks in public. The confiscation of all Christian churches followed, culminating in the destruction of the Church of Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, medieval Christianity’s most holy place. The Middle East was the birth place of Christianity and its intellectual foundation, but now had to learn to survive under Muslim rule. This would have a knock-on effect for the Bible. The dominance of the Byzantine text type in Greek NT manuscripts was secured after Islam’s conquests of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch and Caesarea. Greek NT manuscript production was now generally contracted to the area around Byzantium.

Investiture Controversy

According to Henri Pirenne, Muhammad made Charlemagne possible. The Latin Church began to look westward for its independence from the increasingly weak Byzantine Roman Emperor. On Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne in St. Peter’s in Rome as the new Roman Emperor (i.e. of East and West!). Papal and Imperial relationships would grow increasingly complex over the centuries.

A pressing question at this time in the church was whether the king had a divine right to appoint the bishops in his kingdom or did the pope? This became known as the Investiture Controversy. Pope Gregory VII excommunicated the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV over the investiture dispute. In 1080 the pro-imperial Synod of Brixen pronounced that Pope Gregory VII was deposed and elected a new pope Clement III. The Western Church now had two rival popes in power at the same time. This papal schism lasted until 1100 when Clement III died.

A Call to the Crusades

The immediate occasion for the Crusades was an appeal for help sent by Emperor Alexius I of Byzantium (1081-1118) to Pope Urban II (1088-99), which Urban then passed on to the assembled Council of Clermont (1095). This Crusade according to Pope Urban II was “for the remission of your sins, with the assurance of the imperishable glory of the Kingdom of Heaven.” An indulgence is the remission of the temporal punishment due to sin by performing works of merit. The Biblical basis for this teaching is completely without merit and flatly contradicts the call of Christ that “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.” (Matthew 16:24). Christ never called the Church to bring about the Kingdom of God through war.


Crusaders were encouraged by the grant of indulgences and by the status of martyr in the event of death. The cross was seen both as a sign of victory and as a mark of discipleship (see Matt. 16:24). The Western Church had progressively abandoned the original Christian hostility to war, and had come to a support and control the military aristocracy in Europe.

Outline of the Crusades

  1. The First Crusade was Led by Godfrey of Bouillon, and Robert of Normandy. Antioch was captured in June 1098, and Jerusalem on 15 July 1099. Godfrey was appointed as the first Latin ruler of Jerusalem, and on his death his brother Baldwin succeeded him and was crowned King of Jerusalem on Christmas Day 1100.

  2. The Second Crusade was provoked by the fall of Edessa (1144). This Crusade was called for by St Bernard of Clairvaux and led by Louis VII of France. However, it failed to relieve the situation in the Frankish East and in 1187 Saladin recaptured Jerusalem. Amazingly, the Greek Orthodox Christians offered Saladin their support and as a result all Latin churches in Jerusalem were given over to the Greek Orthodox Church.

  3. The Third Crusade 1189–1192 was led by German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa, Richard I of England (Lionheart), and Philip II of France. Once again betrayals by the Eastern Church undermined its success. The Byzantine Emperor, Isaac, signed a treaty with Saladin in 1189 to join forces against the Latin Crusaders. Isaac surrendered to Barbarossa in 1190 but the Crusade failed to capture Jerusalem.

  4. The Fourth Crusade was led by the Venetians but was deflected from its original objective of Egypt and attacked Greek Orthodox Christians in Constantinople, where a Latin Empire was established in 1204. This achieved a temporary "reunion" of the Eastern and Western Churches under the authority of Pope Innocent III. Its long-term effect was to increase the bitterness of the Great Schism, and to further weaken the Eastern Empire as a defence against Muslim expansion.

The irony should not be lost the Crusades were now being launched against Christians as well as Muslims. The Popes now began using Crusades against against Christian heretics within the Western Church. Five Crusades were launched against the followers of John Huss between 1420 and 1431. These Catholic Crusades met with little success and were ultimately replaced by the Inquisition.

Reactions within Christianity

Many followed the pope’s call to arms as legitimate and in the service of God. However, over time the heavy taxation required to fund crusades decreased their mass popularity. Some voices within the Church were critical of the whole idea of crusades as contrary to the Gospel. Such criticisms of the Crusades were often linked to criticisms of Papal power and the immorality of the Crusaders.

War as an expression of the Christian life was problematic for Christian theology as there was no such call in the NT. One of the most distinguished theologians of Germany in the twelfth century Gerhoh of Reichersberg (1093-1169) saw the failure of the second crusade as proof that it was not an undertaking of God but of the Anti-Christ. Ralph Niger (1140-1217) criticized the theological concept that the crusades were somehow punishing an injustice on behalf of God. God could do this Himself and maybe it was God’s will for the Muslims to rule Palestine? Killing in war as a means of penance was highly dubious theologically. The only way the Crusades might be orthodox is if they were a just war, but then the question had to be asked what was a Just War? In the 1260’s Roger Bacon argued that Crusading was counter-productive to the cause of converting Muslims. For the Papacy, the Crusade was a command of Christ through His representative the Pope and could not be questioned.

The Crusades were ultimately a political, theological and military failure – in 1453 Constantinople would fall to the Turks. The Holy Land was still under Muslim control, the Eastern Churches were left with bitter memories of the Latin Church’s intervention and temporary overthrow of Byzantine Christianity, and finally, the Western Church was left with many questions concerning the legitimacy of just war theory and the increasing power of the Papacy in the worlds of politics and theology.


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