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Survey of the Christian Church

The study of more than 2,000 years of Church history may appear a daunting task, but when distilled into a basic chronological framework, the task is far more manageable. In the survey of Church history which follows, only the most prominent features of the life of the Church have been considered. For the more serious student of Church history, greater detail will be supplied by a more careful study of momentous events and the individuals who helped to shape those events. It is hoped that the following outline will be regarded as an invitation to a more detailed consideration of the hand of the eternal God in the life of His Church.

At the end of the twentieth century and now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Christian faith is under attack from without and within. It is no surprise that other world religions continue their assaults against Christianity. What is a surprise is the level of animosity which has been and is being generated against the evangelical faith which birthed America. The last half of the twentieth century witnessed repeated attacks by public courts in an attempt to marginalize and suppress a public acknowledgement of the Christian faith.

Within the church, the liberal theology of the early twentieth century has merely arrayed itself in new suites of clothes and continued its assaults against the supernatural revelation of the Bible. As a result, the life changing message of Christianity has lost its appeal and power. In an attempt to make Christianity more relevant to the masses, the Church Growth Movement has attempted to denude the faith of its sacredness and closely associated it with the transitory forms of society. It is embarrassed by any dissimilarity between the observances of the Church and culture. But only those who know little or nothing about the Christian Church are embarrassed by its history.

The following pages are not an attempt to provide a detailed outline of the history of the Christian Church, but rather a thumbnail sketch of its life.

Table of Contents

Historical Setting of the Christian Church

I. Religious Influence of the Jews (ca. 1446 B.C.)

Many conservative Bible scholars suggest that about 1446 B.C., the Passover was instituted as the Israelites left Egypt. Though this date is not universally accepted among scholars, this traditional date still finds wide acceptance. The strongest influence upon the life and thought of the Christian Church has been Judaism and its revealed Scriptures. For this reason, it is no surprise that the primary contribution of the Jews to the Christian Church was religious.

II. Cultural Influence of the Greeks (332 B.C.)

In 332 B.C., Alexander the Great Crosses the Hellespont, which signaled the Hellenization of the eastern Mediterranean world. The primary influence of the Greeks upon the early Christian Church was cultural.

III. Political Influence of the Romans (63 B.C.)

In 63 B.C., the Romans conquered Palestine, and as a result, they were the controlling political force in Palestine during the life of Jesus and for the first four centuries of the Christian Church.

The Ancient Church (ca. 5 B.C. – 590 A.D.)

I. The Apostolic Church (Ca. 30-95)

Initially Christianity was centered in Palestine and regarded itself as the continuation and development of Judaism. From the death of Christ to the end of the first century, the Church was directed by the apostles and their successors.

II. The Church Fathers (Ca. 95-451)

The period extending from 95 (or the end of the apostolic age) to the Council of Chalcedon (451) is the era in which the “fathers of the Church” defended the faith against unbelievers (known as apologe­tics) as well as false doctrine within the church (polemics). Generally these apologists and polemicists were bishops. The study of the life and works of these men is known as patrology or patristics.

A. The Apostolic Fathers: Edification (95-150, Ca.)

The first era of patristics concerns itself with the teachings of the “apostolic fathers.” The apostolic fathers were men who knew the apostles and the doctrines which they taught and continued the important task of writing Christian literature. The most important objective of the apostolic fathers was pastoral and practical; “edifica­tion” is the central intent of the writings of the apostolic fathers.

B. The Apologists: Explanation (120-220, Ca.)

The apologists were those church fathers who explained the Christian faith to the Roman state, philosophers, and Jews. Their main task was to explain the faith to those who were attacking the church from outside. Many apologists were converted from paganism and defended the faith in philosophical or rational terms.

C. The Polemicists: Refutation (180-250, Ca.)

The Apostolic Fathers attempted to edify the church, the Apologists sought to explain and defend Christianity against the unbelieving world, while the Polemicists sought to refute the error which was arising within the church.

III. Theological Centers

A number of regions developed as centers of theological debate. Among these numerous centers, three cities emerged as having especial importance to the development of Christian life and theology.

City Dominant Language Notable Fact
Alexandria, Egypt
Associated with the Platonic tradition
Antioch, Cappadocia (Turkey)
Known for its approaches to Christology and biblical interpretation
Carthage, Western north Africa
Major writers in the region include Tertullian, Cyprian of Carthage, and Augustine of Hippo

IV. Ecumenical Church Councils (325-787)

Following the Edict of Milan (313), political and ecclesi­astical leaders of the church attempted to resolve theological differ­ences through ecumenical councils. Since 325, numerous councils have sought to establish the orthodox teachings of the church; however, only seven councils are regarded as ecumenical. From 325 to 787, the conciliar or universal creeds were devised by representatives of the entire church.

The Medieval Church (590-1517)

The period in which the medieval era of the church began is not universally agreed upon by scholars of the church. Some suggest that the Middle Ages began in 313 and the Edict of Milan while others point to the Council of Nicaea (325) as a demarcation. Some regard the battle of Adrianople (378) between the forces of the Roman Empire and the encroaching Visigoths as a boundary between the ancient and medieval churches, and still others to the fall of the last Roman emperor in 476. However, the consecration of Gregory I as bishop of Rome in 590 is used here given the fact that this act ushered in a new era of ecclesiastical power in the West.

I. European Expansion of the Church (Ca. 375-1066)

Between 375 and 1066, the Church faced the mass movement of the barbarian Teutonic,[1] Viking, Slav, and Mongol tribes which moved into and within Europe. The movement of these people groups challenged the culture in which the Church was birthed and also confronted the Church with the task of carrying the gospel to the barbarians. The following discussion is an attempt to both describe the movement and settlement of these barbarian tribes and the attempts to evangelize them.

II. The Emergence of the Holy Roman Empire (800)

Under the Merovingian and Carolingian Dynasties, the Roman Empire in the West was revived. The emperor, however, is not Roman, but Frankish. The Franks, having migrated from the eastern bank of the Rhine River, had been part of the barbaric invasions which had begun in the late forth century (375-1066). They had managed to conquer Gaul, but had accepted the Roman culture of their victims.

III. Scholasticism (1050-1500)

Between 1050 and 1500, one of the most despised intellectual movements, known as scholasticism, emerged in Europe.[2] The term “scholasticism” appears to have originated with the humanist writers of the Renaissance in an attempt to cast aspersions upon a significant movement in the “Middle Ages”. Humanist writers regarded the “Middle Ages” as an intermission between the cultural magnificence of antiquity and its revival in the Renaissance.

Sixth and seventh centuries. At the close of the sixth and beginning of the seventh centuries, the character of Christian theology changed. With the close of the sixth century, theological productivity had ceased in the church—no essential element of the Christian faith had been left undefined. Through the efforts of the Church Fathers and ecumenical councils, the Church had identified its faith.

That theology which arose during this era down to the Reformation may be regarded as the theology of the middle ages. However, “medieval theology” and “scholasticism” must never be regarded as being synonymous. Scholasticism forms only one part of medieval theology—from the end of the eleventh century to the beginning of the Reformation.

IV. The Renaissance (1350-1650)

An important attempt at internal reform can be seen in humanism. In many of the important countries in Europe, an enormous preoccupation with literature and art emerged as the treasures of classical Greece and Rome were rediscovered. This movement was known as the Renaissance. It expressed the idea of a rebirth of culture. More broadly stated, the Renaissance was a cultural reorientation in which a religious and corporate view of the world was replaced with a modern secular and individualistic view.[3]

The Modern Church (1517-present)

I. The Lutheran Reformation (1517)

The Protestant Reformation began as a reaction to the decadence of the Medieval Church. Though there were many who preceded and foreshadowed the Reformation, Martin Luther is regarded as its author. The origin of the Protestant Reformation was inconspicuous.

An agent of the pope, John Tetzel by name, had arrived in their area of Germany who began to sell indulgences to the people. An indulgence was a written statement granting forgiveness for sin. He was helping the pope to raise the funds needed to renovate St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. To receive all the money he could, he granted indulgences for past sins and even future sin yet uncommitted. In addition to this, a man could buy indulgences to release dead relatives from purgatory, the presumed place of temporary punishment.

Luther was outraged by Tetzel’s attempts to raise money for the pope by allegedly selling forgiveness. Elector Frederick, the ruler of their area in Germany had collected various sacred relics and was displaying them in Wittenberg in preparation for the Feast of All Saints (All Saints Day), on November 1. The day before All Saints Day, on Oct. 31, 1517, Luther walked at noon to the Wittenberg castle church and nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the church. This was a well-known way of presenting issues to the public. Luther had only intended that these ninety-five statements questioning the doctrine and practice of the Roman Catholic church to be debated in the university, but several groups copied his writings and translated them from Latin in to German. Within four weeks, news of his protest had reached Pope Leo X at Rome. Soon his name was a household word.

II. The Swiss Reformation (1522)

Switzerland proved to be the seed bed for many of the larger denominations which would eventually emerge from the Protestant Reformation. Within Switzerland, three significant Protestant movements began to emerge, two of which would merge to produce the Reformed tradition. In northern Switzerland, the German-speaking cantons followed the theology of Huldreich or Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). In the French-speaking cantons of the south, Calvin held sway at Geneva. A third and more radical form of thought emerged with the rise of the Anabaptists, who had initially, the Anabaptists worked with Zwingli in the northern cantons.

III. The Radical Reformation (1522)

Church historians have identified at least three major groups within the Anabaptist tradition (or “left wing” of the Reformation): the Anabaptists proper, the spiritualists, and the religious rationalists. However, it must be acknowledged that because of the diversity of opinions among the Radicals it is difficult to classify each group in one of the foregoing categories.

From 1522, the Anabaptists impaired Zwingli’s progress in reform. The Anabaptists insisted that converts had to be rebaptized, and in 1525, the city council of Zurich forbade their meetings and banished them from the city. In 1527, Anabaptist, Felix Manz, was executed by drowning. From Zurich and north Switzerland, the Anabaptists moved to Moravia, Holland, and other lands. The Anabaptists are the spiritual and familial ancestors of the Mennonite, Amish, and Hutterite churches around the world.

IV. The English Reformation (1534-1662)

Unlike the Protestant Reformation on the continent, the Anglican Reformation began as a lay political movement under King Henry VIII. The Anglican church which emerged during the English Reformation is neither Roman, nor entirely the Protestantism of Luther or Calvin, though it bears resem­blance to each. The church which began to emerge in the sixteenth century and culminated in the seventeenth century was a via media between Catholicism and continental Protes­tantism.

V. The Counter Reformation (1517-1648)

The Counter Reformation was a revival of the Roman Catholic Church in reaction to the Protestant Reformation. The Counter Reformation extends from the early to middle part of the sixteenth century to the Thirty Years War (1618-1648).

VI. The Age of Orthodoxy: The 17th Century (ca. 1660-1730)

Between 1660 and 1730, Protestantism, especially in Lutheran Germany, developed a cold intellectual expression of faith. Rationalis­tic philosophy and empirical science led to rationalism and formalism in religion as well. Frequently this era in Protestant church life is known as Scholasticism—comparable to the Scholasticism of the Middle Ages. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there were two responses which arose within the church to the cold dead orthodoxy of Protestant Scholasticism.

VII. The Age of Reason and Revival: The 18th Century

The developments of science during the Renaissance had further in­fluence beyond that time period. Many other sig­nificant personalities continued to shape scientific thought; it became increasingly apparent that different schools of philosophy were also effected by science’s method of obtaining knowledge. For exam­ple, Re­ne Des­cartes (1596-1650), a French philo­sopher and scientist, rejected the Scholastic tendency to establish be­liefs on recognized au­thorities. Descartes affirmed the a­bility of man to attain truth and knowledge by un­aid­ed rea­son and sci­entific meth­od.

The term, Second Great Awakening, refers to a series of religious revivals which emerged in America in the late eighteenth century. It is distinguished from the Great Awakening which occurred in the 1730s and 1740s and continued until the beginning of the Revolutionary War. For the most part, the First Awakening was confined to New England and the Middle Colonies, but the Second Great Awakening knew few boundaries. Just as the two awakenings were geographically different, they also were different theologically. Calvinism dominated the First Awakening, while Arminianism carried the day in the Second Great Awakening. To more clearly understand the Second Great Awakening, its rise and progress has been organized under three interconnected phases.

VIII. The Age of Science: The 19th Century

A. Romanticism

While political and military events captured public attention of late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Europe, significant intellectual developments were beginning to emerge as well. Romanticism was among the most significant of these intellectual developments which affected art, literature, philosophy, and religion. Whereas the eighteenth century was marked by an interest in rationalism and the mind, the nineteenth century was characterized by romanticism with its stress upon emotionalism, sensuality, fantasy, and, imagination.

Rousseau and the Storm and Stress school in German, of which Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) and Friedrich von Schiller (1759-1805) were representatives, laid the foundation for Romanticism. In Britain, Romanticism found exponents in William Wordsworth, Samuel Coleridge, and Sir Walter Scott.

Romanticism is credited with having enhanced nationalism. After 1800, German writers began to assert the superiority of German culture. This assumption on the part of the Germans was initiated and fostered by Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803) and J. G. Fichte. Herder—without any political agenda—merely advocated that each people who shared a common language possessed a unique Geist (spirit or genius) which produced a Volksgeist (national character or spirit). Following Herder’s lead, other German authors began to explore their law, folklore, and religion, but it was not until about 1800 that such investigations began to assert German superiority.

B. Liberalism

In contrast to the Romantics, the liberals were greatly influenced by the rationalism of the Enlightenment. Romantic Hegel rejected the individualism associated with the American and French Revolutions and emphasized national unity. The liberals, unlike Hegel and other Romanticists, stressed individual freedom.

C. Darwinism (1859ff)

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his On the Origin of Species. This work pointed theological and religious studies in new direc­tions. Darwin’s Origin and subse­quent general evolu­tion­ary theories placed great stress on traditional theological and philosoph­ical categories. American reaction to Darwin was somewhat delayed due to the Civil War (1861-65); however, following the war, reaction was swift. Darwin’s colleague, T. H. Huxley, gave the theory of evolution its stamp of scientific orthodoxy.

IX. The Twentieth Century

A. The Bible Conference Movement

The Niagara Conferences,[4] a series of summer conferences, were the progenitors of Bible and prophecy conferences in the United States and Canada. In 1869, a group of evangelicals, led by millenarians James Inglis and George C. Needham,[5] began to schedule summer conferences for the sake of Bible study and fellowship. The conferences were first organized as the Believers’ Meeting for Bible Study and was first opened to the public in the mid-1870s.

B. Liberal Theology (ca. 1900-1930)

The last fifteen years of this century witnessed a change in the theological leadership of American Methodism. It signaled the end of one theologi­cal era and the beginning of another which would characterize the twentieth-century church in America.

Liberalism reached its zenith in America between 1890 and the First World War. The first quarter of the twentieth century witnessed the triumph of liberalism. Schleiermacher, Ritschl, and Harnack were the dominant figures of this era. World War I, the Great Depression of 1929, and the influence of existential theology of Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) on Karl Barth shattered the idea of human progress through humanistic means.

Throughout the 1920s, Henry Emerson Fosdick (1878-1969, a prominent American preacher in the Presbyterian and American Baptist churches, gained national fame at the Riverside Church in New York City. Fosdick was seen as a modernist by Funda­mentalists for his attempts to reconcile science and religion, but he criticized modernism for its moral inepti­tude and intel­lectualism. In 1922, Fosdick delivered his challenge to conserva­tive Christian theology in his sermon “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

C. The Rise of Pentecostalism (1901)

The holiness-pentecostal movement began under the influence of Charles Fox Parham, a Kansas-based holiness preacher. He began to advocate the idea of a baptism in the Spirit beyond the works of jus­tification and entire sanctification. Parham had attended a Methodist school and received Methodist license to preach. It appears he was influenced by the holiness revival as well as his wife’s Quaker relatives. Restora­tionism (the restoration of the Apostolic ideal), perfectionism (in its Wesleyan denotations), and premillennialism (the desire for the baptism of the Spirit and endowment with power), collided to form Pentecostalism.

D. Fundamentalism (1910)

The doctrinal foundation of American Christian Fundamentalism was laid at the Niagara Bible Conference in 1895. This conference was a conservative response to the growth of liberalism in the late nineteenth century. Here conservative scholars affirmed their belief in the virgin birth of Christ, the substitutionary Atonement, inspired Scripture, physical resurrection, and the physical second coming of Christ. This movement gave rise to what is known as American Fundamentalism.

E. Neoorthodoxy (1919)

Neo-orthodoxy was the dominant theological current from about 1930 to the 1950s. By the 1960s, it had lost much of its momentum. Neo-Orthodoxy began to blossom in America in the 1920’s but came to fruition in the 1930’s. Important figures in the movement include Karl Barth (1886-1968; father of neo-orthodoxy), Emil Brunner (1889-1966), Paul Tillich (1886-1965), and Rudolf Bultmann (1884-1976).

F. Vatican II (1962-1965)

The Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), in four separate sessions, convened from 1962 to 1965. The decisions of this Council demonstrate a moderating tendency toward Protestant and the Eastern Church.

G. Theological Trends from the ’60s to the ’80s

On the heals of neo-orthodoxy arose the radical, secular, and humanistic theologies of the 1960s, including Secular Theology, “God is Dead” Theology (mid-1960s), “Honest to God” Theology, Theology of Success (Late 1960s), Liberation Theology (Mid-1960s), Feminist Theology, and Process Theology (Late 1960sff).

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[1]Germanic people groups.

[2]The term “scholasticism” was very likely a disparaging termed coined by the humanists of the Renaissance. Some scholars suggest that scholasticism flourished between 1200 to 1500.

[3]McGrath, Reformation Thought, 40-66.

[4]Reid, Dictionary of Christianity in America, s.v. “Niagara Conferences.”

[5]These evangelicals were associated with the millenarian journal, Waymarks in the Wilderness.

Written by Dr. Stephen FlickNumber of posts: 186
Stephen Flick heads Christian Heritage Fellowship, a national organization dedicated to reclaiming America’s Christian Heritage and celebrating the life-changing influence of the Gospel around the world. Concerned with the cultural decay of America, Dr. Flick has sought to provide answers to fellow Christians (and unbelievers) concerning the questions and objections to Christianity often posed by secularists and the irreligious. Dr. Flick is a writer and speaker and has authored numerous articles and books on America’s Christian heritage. He earned his Ph.D. from Drew University in history and Christian theology and has taught at the graduate level as full professor. He has been a licensed minster for nearly forty years and resides in East Tennessee with his wife, Beth. They have two grown, married children and five grandchildren.

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