An Outline of Church History to 2020
Updated: Oct 8
Rev. Dr Rowland S. Ward
Version as at 6 October 2020
BEGINNINGS AD 30-325 From the Resurrection to the First Creed of Nicaea
The Book of Acts aims to show the spread of the Christian Church from Jerusalem to Rome (Acts 1:8), which occurred in the space of 30 years. By the end of the first century there were churches in Palestine, in what we now call Turkey and in Italy, Greece and Egypt. The second century saw further growth and also movement into North Africa, Gaul (France) and later Spain and Britain.
The church was created by the Holy Spirit blessing the Word of God already written in the Old Testament and the Word of God preached by the apostles. Gradually the writings from the apostolic circle which form the Word of God in written form (our New Testament) were circulated - most before AD 70. At first, not all parts of the Church had all the writings. Occasionally there were scruples about one or other of the books near the end of our NT. The Muratorian Fragment (AD 190) shows that the NT as Protestants accept it was regarded as the canon (or rule) of faith in the Church of Rome at that date, although there was a scruple over Revelation and a book ascribed to Peter (probably 2 Peter). However, the task of the Church was simply to bring out the evidence from the first witnesses and from the internal character of the books, and express its mind accordingly.
Some books were circulated among Christians which are called Apocrypha (‘hidden’). These books were written in Greek after the time of Malachi (c.400 BC), and mainly in the 200 years before Jesus’ birth. They were not accepted by the Jews as part of the canon of the OT, and their content shows they are not inspired. One of the best (1 Maccabees) states that there no prophet in Israel. There was useful material in some of them but they were not used to fix any doctrine.
Persecution began with Nero blaming the fire at Rome in AD 64 on the Christians, many of whom were killed by him. Polycarp of Smyrna (AD 158) and Justin of Ephesus and Rome (AD 165) are two of the many martyrs of the second century. Persecution tended to be spasmodic. There were persecutions under Decius (250/251), Valerian (258/260) and a widespread one under Diocletian (303/305). Early Christian writers included Clement of Rome (c.96), Justin the Martyr, Tertullian of Carthage (160-222) - the first major writer in Latin - and Origin of Alexandria (185-254), who died as a result of the Decian persecution. Emperor Constantine issued an edict tolerating Christianity and other religions in AD 313.
The NT shows that tensions and problems always confront the Church. The persecutions led to veneration of martyrs and their relics, as well to a rigorous reaction against those Christians who had recanted during persecution but later repented. Some other issues were the claim to ecstatic prophecy (Montanism) from around AD 180, against which the norm of Scripture was affirmed; the idea of Christian baptism actually effecting regeneration; and belief in the difficulty or impossibility of forgiveness of sin after baptism (which led to baptism being delayed until late in life). The most important issue was the question of the nature of Christ, as a movement led by Arius taught Jesus was not truly God but only a creature. It was the great work of Athanasius of Alexandria to lead opposition to this widespread error and to remind the church that her very salvation depended on the Saviour being truly God as well as truly man. Hence the importance of the Creed of Nicaea.
RECOGNITION 325-600 From the Creed of Nicaea to Pope Gregory of Rome
Emperor Constantine died in 337 and the Roman Empire was eventually united under one of his sons, Constantius. Emperor Theodosius I made Christianity the only religion of the Empire in AD 380. Pagan sacrifice was generally banned by 400 but the impact of the old paganism was evident in the Church. Pagan gods were replaced by Christian saints, and pagan holy days were Christianised (eg. Christmas). The approval of the Church brought many rather nominal people into it. The idea of separation from the world rather than from the sin of the world contributed to the rise of monasticism.
The vast Empire was divided permanently between East (Greek) and West (Latin) following the death of Theodosius in 395. The sack of Rome by pagans in 410 was a psychological blow. The Bishop of Rome was able to assert his authority in the West as the Empire there broke up later in the 5th century. In the East the patriarch of Constantinople was more directly under the Emperor since the machinery of the Empire was centred there.
The organisation of the Church continued to follow the hierarchical example of the Empire. The New Testament bishop or overseer (simply the elder described in terms of his function rather than his maturity) became a distinct officer who ruled groups of churches, although he was still elected popularly. Bishops of more important centres had more influence, and the bishops of the most ancient Christian centres - Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria and Rome - became known as patriarchs (in Latin papa, hence popes). Constantinople was added to the ancient centres because it had become the capital of the empire in the East, a kind of New Rome. The patriarchs clashed somewhat, and Pope Gregory of Rome (590-604) denounced the Patriarch of Constantinople’s claim to the title of Universal Patriarch. He thought it was the spirit of Antichrist and the name of blasphemy, but it was eventually used by the Popes.
Some of the Christian leaders of this period were: in Italy Ambrose of Milan who promoted monasticism and was one of the earliest hymn-writers; in Cappadocia (central Turkey) Basil of Caesarea (330-379), his brother Gregory of Nyssa, and Gregory of Nazianzus contributed to trinitarian thought, and Basil stressed monastic life; in Constantinople John Chrysostom (‘golden mouthed’) was a great preacher made bishop against his will in 397. In North Africa Augustine (354-430) was made bishop of Hippo in 388, also against his will; his was the greatest mind in the early centuries and is still influential. In Bethlehem Jerome produced a new Latin translation of the Hebrew and Greek; in Alexandria (Egypt) Cyril was patriarch from 412; in Ireland Patrick (c389-461) was a pioneer missionary from Britain.
The early Roman Creed gradually evolved to reach its final form after 500 AD, and is known as The Apostles’ Creed because it contains a brief summary of certain of their teachings.
Localised copying and the perpetuation of distinctive copyists’ errors resulted in distinct types of NT manuscripts in different parts of the Church. However, the differences are of minor significance in practical terms. Some of the early centres were early overrun by Islam, while Rome soon used Latin so most surviving manuscripts reflect the form of text used in Greek-speaking Constantinople.
CHRISTENDOM 600-1300 From Pope Gregory in Rome to Pope Clement in France
There are seven Church councils commonly regarded as ‘ecumenical’ (that is, belonging to the inhabited world):
The doctrinal conclusions of the last three are not necessarily accepted by Protestants. The churches of the Middle East (Syrian, Egyptian = Coptic and Armenian) did not accept every aspect of doctrine as affirmed by the 4th council and broke away. Various language, philosophical and personality factors entered into this division. By 800 Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were outside the boundaries of the Eastern Empire as a consequence of Islamic invasions which also affected Spain and Portugal. This left Rome and Constantinople as the remaining ancient patriarchates, and they were rivals. The 6th Council excommunicated Pope Honorius (625-638) for heresy. Popes were not then regarded as infallible in teaching any more than they were always moral in life.
In 800 the Bishop of Rome crowned Charlemagne, king of the Franks, as Emperor in the West. As the papal grip on the West tightened tensions with the East increased. In 1054 mutual excommunications resulted (lifted over 900 years later in 1965). Conflict occurred in Europe with the rise of nationalism and the growth of towns. Papal relations with the French king were such that the Pope excommunicated the King. In 1305 a Frenchman was elected Pope but prudently stayed in France at Avignon. The East did not have the same focus for disunity. While many of the old areas were lost, the Greek Church expanded into Russia (988) and the Slav lands. These remain largely Eastern Orthodox to this day. The Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic differ largely in this: the East has changed little since the 8th century whereas the West continued to develop its traditions.
In 1095 the Eastern Emperor appealed to the Pope of Rome for help against the Turks who were threatening Constantinople. The request was turned into a Crusade to recover the Holy Land. Jerusalem was captured in 1099. The motives were religious but were not based on a true understanding of Biblical Christianity and were exploited by papal ambition. The crusading movement continued for over 150 years with some seven significant crusades. In the later period the Pope used crusades against European Catholic rulers who had incurred his displeasure.
This period shows increasing corruption in the organised church and lack of a clear grasp of Biblical teaching. There were of course significant thinkers. John of Damascus (652-750), Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-74) immediately come to mind.
4. DECAY AND RENEWAL 1300-1690 From the Avignon Papacy to the Revolution Settlement
The Pope returned to Rome in 1377 and the Papacy continued in its centralising way. It became more interested in raising money in exchange for spiritual favours than in teaching and preaching the pure message of Christ. Inner division resulted in the Great Schism in 1381 with a Pope and cardinals in France and a rival in Rome. Europe was divided in allegiance until 1417 when the Council of Constance forced out rivals and elected Martin V. Meantime, Islamic expansion continued and Constantinople was captured in 1453 causing Christian scholars to flee to the West bringing Bible manuscripts with them.
The corruption and abuses led to many cries for reform, particularly as the Renaissance (or Rebirth) of learning and scholarly investigation was under way. The rise of nationalism and the growth of towns and trade were also important. John Wycliff of Oxford (1329-84) translated the Latin version of the Bible into English. Jan Hus of Prague (1374-1415) was burned at the stake for urging reform. Thomas à Kempis of Zwolle (1380-1471) wrote ‘The Imitation of Christ’. Lorenzo Valla of Italy (1405-57) showed that certain documents allegedly proving Papal claims over secular rulers were forgeries. He also showed the weaknesses in the Latin translation of the Greek NT (eg. ‘do penance’ instead of ‘repent’). The first book printed in Europe was a Bible (1456). Girolamo Savonarola (1452-98), although Catholic in theology, sought reform in Florence but was put to death. Erasmus of Rotterdam (1467-1536) was a scholar and humanist and not specially religious. His work in producing a printed edition of the Greek NT in 1516 contributed to reform.
Martin Luther (1483-1546), was an Augustinian monk and Professor of Theology in Germany who discovered the truth of God’s justification by grace through faith in Christ through his studies of the Bible. He put up 95 propositions for scholarly debate on 31 October 1517. Translated and widely circulated, there was ultimately a crisis of authority - Scripture or the Pope. Luther was excommunicated but an irresistible movement had begun. Luther translated the Bible into ordinary German and kept several printers busy producing his writings. In 1529 the term ‘protestant’ was coined for those who stood on the authority of the Word of God. Luther stressed salvation through the merit of Christ alone, with good works a fruit of the new relationship not a means of establishing it. He emphasised the priesthood of all believers and rejected the sacrificing priesthood that had developed in the Church after NT times. The Church of Rome convened the Council of Trent (1545-63). It made some practical reforms, but condemned the position of those who followed Scripture alone. It also established as fixed doctrines teachings which had not been previously so defined.
John Calvin of Geneva (1509-64) was a second generation Reformer, and probably the greatest mind God had given his Church since Augustine. Seeking a thorough reform according to the written Word of God, the churches which were influenced by him and others of like mind were called Reformed. In Britain, where the doctrine of the Church of England became Reformed but its government remained episcopal (rule by bishops), Presbyterian (rule by elders) was the term used. John Knox (c1514-72) was the great reformer of Scotland where the reformation was accepted in 1560.
The Reformation involved many factors but was essentially a great religious awakening. The Reformers did not reject what was valuable in the past, and were generally very well versed in the theological history of the Christian church. Since church and state were so closely allied, heretics were regarded as unfit to remain in society. A strange genius and provocative denier of the Trinity, Michael Servetus, escaped from the Roman Catholics and came to Geneva in 1553 where he was tried and burnt at the stake. Calvin supported this (although he argued for beheading) and was praised by Catholics and Protestant alike.
Generally it was the Protestants who suffered in the religious wars of this period. Reform was crushed in places such as Spain and Poland. In 1555 the Peace of Augsburg gave German rulers the right to decide the faith of their subjects within limits. Calvinists achieved legal rights under the Peace of Westphalia, 1648. In France peace was established by the Edict of Nantes 1598, but this was revoked in 1685 and resulted in many French Reformed (Huguenots) fleeing to England, South Africa and elsewhere. The Dutch knew the cruel oppression of the Spanish but achieved peace in 1648.
Puritans were those who stayed in the English church but wished greater reform; separatists were those who broke away. Thirty-five of the 102 colonists who sailed to America in 1620 (the Pilgrim Fathers). Were separatists. Others regarded water baptism as a sign of the believer’s response rather than as the sign of God’s covenant, hence the Baptist distinctives arose. The English Civil War lasted from 1642-49. Under Oliver Cromwell as Protector the foundations for civil and religious liberty were laid. The Westminster Assembly met 1643-53 to reform the church in the British Isles according to the written Word of God, but when the monarchy was restored in 1660 dissenters were persecuted and the Reformed character of the English Church supplanted. Nearly 2,000 Puritan ministers were forced out of the episcopal Church of England in 1662 and the Stewart king, Charles II, sought to impose rule by bishops on the presbyterian Church of Scotland. This led to the covenanting struggle in Scotland in which perhaps many hundreds were killed, and many others had to flee the country or were banished. When William and Mary came to the throne in 1688 the period of conflict in the British Isles was brought to a close, other than those who still adhered to the Stewart dynasty.
5. REASON, REVIVAL & REVOLUTION 1690-1990 The Modern World: Isaac Newton to Communism’s collapse
The Reformers’ approach to the Biblical text insisted on its grammatical and contextual meaning and rejected the uncontrolled spiritualising and allegorising characteristic for many centuries. This in turn encouraged the examination of the world of nature on its own terms rather than as simply a source of spiritual lessons. However, the earlier religious life of the Reformation period had become somewhat formal and scholastic, and the late 17th century saw the rise of Deism. It thought of God as a distant God who ruled by natural laws and occasionally intervened with a miracle. The 18th century is often referred to as ‘the Enlightenment’ but in reality there were varieties of ‘enlightened’ approach from those who used their God-given minds and maintained orthodox Christian belief to those who rejected Divine revelation and made man the measure of all things. The sciences began to make progress but as time went on many considered God was necessary only to explain the gaps in our present knowledge.
A devotional piety arose in Europe about 1675 in reaction to the wars of religion and the decay of vital spirituality. This Moravian movement (as it was called) made a marked contribution to religious life, and influenced the evangelical revival in Britain, which began in 1738. It furthered a weaker and broader attitude to doctrine in favour of felt experience, and furthered a populist biblicism that downplayed an educated ministry and reflected a pragmatic approach to church order. The Methodist movement led by John Wesley separated from the Church of England in 1795 after Wesley’s death. Here spiritual experience tended to primacy over doctrine. In France the rationalistic man-centred revolution in 1789-1795 was followed by Napoleon, who was defeated at Waterloo in 1815.
The Brethren movement arose about 1830, rejecting the ordained ministry and having great interest in unfulfilled prophecy which had been stimulated by the Napoleonic wars.
In reaction to emotional revivalistic excesses on the American frontier, particularly among Methodists and Baptists, and to sectarianism among established bodies, the Church of Christ/Disciples movement arose in America in the 1820s and spread elsewhere. It held a novel view of the nature of faith and baptism and an interest in a Christianity without formal written creeds – although it had a rather definite unwritten one!
The first formal division in the Reformed Church in the Netherlands occurred in 1834. Although small it was to be part of a revival of Calvinism in that country during the rest of the century. An Anglo-Catholic revival (the Tractarian movement) occurred in the Church of England in the 1830s, while a major division over state interference led to about 40% of the Church of Scotland forming the Free Church of Scotland in 1843. There were revolutions in France, Italy and Germany in 1848. The Pope lost the Papal States in 1870, the same year the First Vatican Council, dominated by Italian bishops, proclaimed the Pope’s infallibility in matters of faith and morals under certain conditions.
The science of geology was fairly well established by 1800 and was not a major difficulty to Bible believers at that time: belief in an old earth and a relatively recent humanity could co-exist well enough. In English-speaking lands evangelicalism in one form or another enjoyed a resurgence, but sometimes it was too allied to middle-class values. However, in the years following Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), the impact of the theory of biological evolution was considerable, particularly from the 1880s. Evolution was frequently regarded as the opposite of creation rather than as a possible method of the divine procedure. Christianity, which had been the friend of science and produced many leading scientists, was increasingly seen as anti-science. The old clear lines of Biblical teaching were blurred through accommodation to changing ideas, and divisions occurred in many denominations. Nevertheless, the modern missionary movement grew steadily right through the 20th century.
An optimistic theology of the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man (Modernism) was common by the 20th century. Some evangelicals reacted by continuing to emphasise the great facts of historic Christianity, such as the virgin birth, deity of Christ, and his atoning death, real resurrection and second coming, but neglected the full-orbed Biblical world-view. Some, particularly in the USA, who held a rather literalistic approach to aspects of Biblical interpretation, were called Fundamentalists, and often seemed pre-occupied with speculations over unfulfilled prophecy.
Atheistic communism became influential and gained sway over millions, but soon demonstrated its bankruptcy. It could only maintain its power by force. In the aftermath of the First World War liberal theology offered little hope. Karl Barth’s voice sounded like the old orthodoxy and brought about a return to some of the truths of Scripture although in a philosophical framework which left ambiguity and uncertainty. After the Second World War the resettlement of many Europeans to places like North America and Australia contributed to a more varied religious landscape in these countries.
The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) wrought significant changes on the liturgy and general life of the Roman Church without touching its doctrine. Decline in active following is now very evident in the Roman communion as it was a generation ago in Protestant circles in the developed world. However, evangelicalism has grown rapidly in Africa, South Korea and South America. Despite the expulsion of Western Missionaries in 1949/52, China in the early 21st century had an estimated 5% or more mainly Protestant Christian population.
The initial optimism associated with technological advances and material prosperity led to a period of permissiveness in the 1960s. But startling new technology went hand in hand with seemingly intractable social and environmental problems. Disenchantment with science and interest in ‘new age’ spirituality, that is not rooted in God’s Word but akin to eastern mysticism, soon abounded.
The rise of Pentecostalism early in the 20th century had faltered by the 1950s, but experienced a remarkable resurgence from the 1970s as people sought for spiritual answers and a sense and experience of reality in an uncertain world. Many mainline mixed or liberal denominations continued to decline despite efforts at organisational unity (the ecumenical movement) popular in the 1960s and ‘70s; the acceptance of practicing homosexual clergy only furthered decline. There was also a recovery of Reformed theology in many churches from 1960, although sometimes with aspects which owe more to other influences.
6. INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY Secularism, the challenge of Islam 1990-2020
Secularism in the West has accelerated since 1990, regular church attendance declining by as much as a third or more 1990-2020 so as to be around 8% in Scotland and Australia, below 5% in England and even less in Scandinavia. Attendance is higher in North America (perhaps 20%) and in countries like Poland and Ireland (40%), but in many cases attendance is a mark of cultural and national identity rather than true belief in Jesus Christ. Only a clear Biblical teaching can cope with the aggressive secularism characteristic of this age.
Islam has experienced a resurgence of influence as independence was obtained by Muslim states during the 20th century, but the dispossession of the Palestinians and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 remains a source of considerable tension.