A short history of the Western Church — Part 1

Unfortunately, the Christian church in America is woefully ignorant of its history. This deficit in knowledge hurts Christian evangelism because we do not have any clear idea of what we are asking people to join, other than a faith-relationship to Jesus Christ. Jesus formed a community of faith (Matthew 16:18). English translations of the Bible use the word church to refer to that community, and the church has a history!

By church I mean the collection of all true believers in Jesus. The extent to which this group overlaps with the institutional Church (mark the capital letter C) has varied greatly. The Roman Catholic Church (abbreviated RCC) is the primary institutional Church for most of the history covered here. Also, this history focuses mainly on Europe, because that is the channel of our spiritual heritage in America.

Outline of church history

  1. The early church Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)
  2. The political church Constantine (306-337) to birth of Luther (b. 1483)
  3. The Reformation church Luther (1483) to World War I (1914-1918)
  4. The modern church World War I (1914-1918) to 1970

Synopsis of church history

The early church Day of Pentecost (33) to Council of Nicea (325)

Several factors characterized the early church: persecution (usually to death), rapid expansion, and the struggle with heresies and secular philosophy.

Even though Jesus had been executed by Roman capital punishment, the Christian movement was initially too insignificant to get attention in Rome. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost in the year 33 resulted in a tremendous influx of new believers (Acts 2:41). But violent opposition soon developed as well. Many believers died for their faith, but the church grew even faster during persecution.

The Apostle Paul, having been falsely accused by the Jews, appealed his case to Caesar (Acts 25:11), and that brought the message to the heart of the Roman empire (Acts 28:16, 31). The rapid expansion of the church and its failure to practice emperor worship brought it into early and frequent conflict with Roman authority. Persecution drove many Christians out of Jerusalem prior to its destruction by the Roman general Titus in the year 70.

Of greater danger to the faith than death were the inroads of Greek philosophy. In certain instances we are still struggling with accommodations made to shape the Christian faith into a philosophically-pleasing package during this early period. For example, the idea that God has no emotions entered Christian thought during this period.

The political church — Constantine (c. 274-337) to Luther (b. 1483)

The Roman emperor Constantine (c.274-337) brought an end to most persecution and favored Christianity above all religions. While this was a positive development, it also brought about many changes. Under imperial favor, church life became much more formal and church buildings more monumental. One may reasonably say that from this time until Luther challenged the established order in 1517, the church became entangled with political power. The true church was overshadowed by the institutional Church, which was often a major element of regional political power. This is still true today in some ways.

Of course, all great changes produce a reaction. The popularization of Christian faith (both professed faith and true faith) under Constantine caused some believers to retreat from the tumult. This led to a tremendous increase in monastic movements and their monasteries. They still exist.

Heresies, councils and Augustine

Many heresies plagued the church during this period, including Arianism and Pelagianism. In short, Arianism taught that God the Father was greater than Jesus or the Spirit, and Pelagianism taught that man could achieve salvation by worthy human works. The church rightly rejected these views during councils held in the fourth century. These councils also reached a final consensus concerning the exact books recognized by the church as inspired by God, now collected for us as the Bible.

Augustine (354-430) of Hippo, in North Africa, was the most influential theologian of this period. His views became the theological foundation of both the RCC and later the Protestant Reformation (see below).

Rome fell to the barbarians in 455, and one historian credits the barbarian invasions of Europe for bringing about the great upsurge in the authority of the Bishop of Rome, now known as the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church.[1] A second factor that led to this result was the fall of other Christian centers in Africa and the Middle East to the invading Moslems during the seventh and early eighth centuries. There is no doubt whatever that the RCC was the only dominant religious institution in Western Europe until the sixteenth century.

Eastern church and western church split apart

While most Christians in America fit into the stream of Western Christianity, it should be remembered that Eastern Orthodox Christianity, originally centered in Constantinople (on the European shore of the Bosporus in modern Turkey), developed in parallel with the RCC. A formal split occurred in 1054, after a long accumulation of theological and political differences, and the Eastern Orthodox Church is still powerful today in its historic regions.

Characteristics of medieval Christianity

The two focal points of medieval Christianity were monasticism and the papacy.[2] During much of this period the RCC popes were totally involved in matters of political and financial power, while many of the monks had withdrawn from such worldly matters to devote themselves to lives of contemplation and service. For example, Francis of Assisi (1182-1226) founded the Franciscan order under a rule that its members could own nothing. Other monastic orders took less stringent vows.

John Wycliffe (c.1329-1384) was a man ahead of his time. Almost 200 years before the Protestant Reformation roared onto the stage of history, the Oxford-educated Wycliffe advocated many of the same reforms in RCC theology and practices that would later be advanced by others. Wycliffe taught that the Bible was the only authoritative guide for Christian faith and practice. Perhaps the contribution for which he is best known is the idea that the Bible should belong to the people, not to the Church and its priests, and that the Bible should be in the language of the people, not Latin. Influenced by Wycliffe’s views, his followers completed a translation of the Bible into English by about 1392.

Part 2 will cover the period from the Protestant Reformation to World War I.

Copyright 2011 by Barry Applewhite, Plano, Texas. All rights reserved worldwide.


[1] Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, 2 vols. (San Francisco: Harper-Collins, 1984), 1:242.

[2] Gonzalez, 1:301.

 

4 thoughts on “A short history of the Western Church — Part 1”

  1. Thanks for the good post, Barry, I’ll be interested in the ongoing thread!

    Christians today are failing in many of the same ways as our predecessors, as we ‘fall forward’ rather than learning from history. We need to learn both from past failures of his people, and through seeing God’s instruction to his people as they’ve endeavored to follow him. Seems to me that today we have this idiotic thought that we’re more advanced than those who have lived before; therefore, what we’re experiencing is more ‘advanced.’ On one hand this thought is fallacious and on the other hand displays our arrogance. Those desiring to honor and follow Christ today can learn so much from those upon whose shoulders we stand.

    1. Great to hear from you, Dave!

      I certainly agree with everything you have said. I think a lot of Americans find it hard to understand how Isaac Newton could have discovered the law of gravity and invented calculus without even having a Facebook account. Yet he found the time to write a commentary on the biblical book of Revelation.

      It would seem that both arrogance and laziness are at work. Where are the young thinkers who want to understand how God works as well as to master a knowledge of history? Where are the people who understand the awakening of the Renaissance and want to discover the riches of many fields of knowledge, especially those that enhance our relationship to God and help us live for Christ? It is my opinion that many Christians are not trying to stand on anyone’s shoulders. And I don’t think Jesus is happy about it.

  2. I was reading about your topic, “A Short History of the Western Church Part 1” at one of the various web logs I retain in my website reader. You are basically in agreement with them. It isn’t really what I believed, but I’m figuring out now that I am almost certainly incorrect… intriguing..

    1. I hope you will continue with the remaining two parts of the history. All Christians ought to study history, but many fail to do so. You can find the other posts using the “Church History” category in the right sidebar.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!