Church History in Brief

by Bruce L. Shelley

A capsule overview of the movement Jesus started, seen mostly from a Western perspective.

[Christian History originally published this article in Christian History Issue 28 in 1990 ]

TODAY, after two thousand years, Christianity is the faith, at least nominally, of one-third of the earth’s population. From a handful of fishermen, tax collectors, and youthful troublemakers in an obscure province of Judea, the faith has spread over the globe to claim the loyalty of almost two thousand million inhabitants of our planet. The Age of Jesus and the Apostles The way forward usually meant a studied look backward, back to the image of God revealed in the story of Jesus. Christians have always considered the age of Jesus and his apostles a kind of model for all the other ages. It gave to the church its faith in Jesus, the resurrected Messiah, and the hope of forgiveness of sins through him. And the age demonstrated, in the life of Paul, that the gospel of grace recognizes no boundaries of nation, race, sex, or culture.

The Age of Catholic Christianity (70–312)

The catholic Christianity, which accepted this truth, spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean world. It confronted the alien ideas of Gnosticism, Marcionism, and Montanism and called a lie a lie by appealing to the apostolic writings and to the orthodox bishops who guarded them. At the same time, Christians faced the persecuting power of Rome and dared to die heroically as martyrs, witnesses to other believers to follow in their train. This seed of martyr’s blood, as Tertullian called it, eventually bore abundant fruit in the conversion of the Empire.

The Age of the Christian Empire (312–590)

The Imperial Age began in 312 when Constantine caught a vision of Christ. Before the fourth century closed, Christianity became the official religion of the sprawling Roman state. A church in the catacombs was one thing, but what does Christianity have to do with palaces?

Under the emperor’s tutelage, the church learned to serve the seats of power by formulating the faith for the masses. Hence the age of great councils. Those Christians who had no yen for palaces headed for the wilderness in search of another way to grace. Revered hermits soon found themselves in the vanguard of a movement, monasticism, the wave of the future.

The Christian Middle Ages (590–1517)

Most Christians, however, saw the hand of God in the happy wedding of Christian church and Roman state. In the East the marriage continued for a millennium. A mystical piety flourished under the protection of orthodox emperors until 1453 when invading Muslim Turks brought the Byzantine Empire to its final ruin. The fall of Constantinople, however, meant the rise of Moscow, the new capital of Eastern Orthodoxy. In the West it was a different story. After the fifth century, when barbarian Germans and Huns shattered the Empire’s defenses and swept into the eternal city of Rome itself, men turned to Augustine’s City of God for explanations. They found a vision for a new age. We call these centuries “medieval.” People who lived in them considered them “Christian.” Their reasons lie in the role of the pope, who stepped into the ruins of the fallen empire in the West and proceeded to build the medieval church upon Rome’s bygone glory. As the only surviving link with the Roman past, the Church of Rome mobilized Benedictine monks and deployed them as missionary ambassadors to the German people. It took centuries, but the popes, aided by Christian princes, slowly pacified and baptized a continent and called it Christendom, Christian Europe.

Baptized masses, however, meant baptized pagans. By the tenth century spiritual renewal was an obvious necessity. It started in a monastery in central France called Cluny and spread until it reached the papacy itself. The greatest of the reforming popes was Gregory VII. His zealous successors carried the papal office to the zenith of earthly power. No longer the cement of the Roman empire, the church of the twelfth century was itself a kind of empire, a spiritual and earthly kingdom stretching from Ireland to Palestine, from earth to heaven. The crusades and scholastic philosophy were witnesses to this papal sovereignty. Power, however, corrupts. The church gained the world but lost its soul. That, at any rate, is what a steady stream of reformers preached: Waldensees, Franciscans, Albigensees. Amid the strife for earthly power and the evidences of barren religion in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, many Christians turned to the Bible for fresh vision and renewal.

The Age of the Reformation (1517–1648)

Reform came with a fury. Martin Luther sounded the trumpet, but hosts of others rallied to the cause. The period we call the Reformation marks the mobilization of Protestantism: Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican, and Anabaptist. By the midsixteenth century the Reformation had shattered the traditional unity of western Europe and had bequeathed to modern times religious pluralism. The Church of Rome resisted this attack upon tradition. She mustered new troops, especially the Society of Jesus. She sent out fresh waves of missionaries to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. She waged war in France, the Netherlands, and Germany. But in the end, Christendom slipped into yesteryear. In its place arose the denominational concept of the church, which allowed modern nations to treat the churches as voluntary societies separated from the state.

The Age of Reason and Revival (1648–1789)

Novel schools of thought filled the seventeenth century. None was more powerful than Reason itself. It asked, “Who needs God? Man can make it on his own.” Christians screamed their objections, but the idea spread until secularism filled the public life of western societies. God remained, but only as a matter of personal choice. Christians could no longer appeal to the arm of power to suppress such heresies. So, many of them turned instead to the way of the apostles-prayer and preaching. The result was a series of evangelical revivals: chiefly Pietism, Methodism, and the Great Awakening. By preaching and personal conversions, evangelicals tried to restore God to public life.

The Age of Progress (1789–1914)

The Age of Progress saw Christians of all sorts wage a valiant struggle against the advance of secularism. Out of the evangelical awakenings came new efforts to carry the gospel of Christ to distant lands, and to begin a host of social service ministries in industrialized Europe and North America. From the ramparts of Rome, a defensive papacy fired a barrage of missiles aimed at the modern enemies of the Catholic faith. In spite of Christians’ best efforts, however, Christianity was slowly driven from public life in the Western World. Believers were left with the problem we recognize in our own time: How can Christians exert moral influence in pluralistic and totalitarian societies where Christian assumptions about reality no longer prevail?

The Age of Ideologies (1914–1990)

The depth of the problem was apparent in the Age of Ideologies, when new gods arose to claim the loyalties of secular people. Nazism exalted the state; Communism worshiped the party; and American Democracy revered the individual’s rights. Supposed enlightened, modern nations waged two global wars in an attempt to establish the supremacy of these new deities. When no single ideology prevailed, a cold war of coexistence settled upon the once Christian nations. Through these troubled times the denominations struggled over orthodox and liberal theologies, sought fresh ways to recover a lost unity, and reflected a new hunger for apostolic experiences.

After World War II, vigorous new Christian leadership emerged in the Third World, offering fresh hope for a new day for the old faith. Had missionaries from the neo-pagan nations of Europe and North America succeeded in giving Christianity a stake in the future by carrying the gospel to Africa and Latin America? Only time will tell.

But Christians can hope because faith always reaches beyond earthly circumstances. Its confidence is in a person. And no other person in recorded history has influenced more people in as many conditions over so long a time as Jesus Christ. The shades and tones of his image seem to shift with the needs of people: the Jewish Messiah of the believing remnant, the Wisdom of the Greek apologist, the Cosmic King of the imperial church, the Heavenly Logos of the orthodox councils, the World Ruler of the papal courts, the monastic Model of apostolic poverty, the personal Savior of evangelical revivalists.

Truly, he is a man for all time. In a day when many regard him as irrelevant, a relic of a quickly discarded past, church history provides a quiet testimony that Jesus Christ will not disappear from the scene. His title may change, but his truth endures for all generations. CH

Dr. Bruce L. Shelley is professor of church history at Denver Seminary and a member of the advisory board of Christian History.

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