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2000 years of "Christianity"
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Medieval Church A very brief history, putting the apostasy and restoration into historical context.

See also:

How the apostles were killed
Heresies
Gregory and 570
World history
A history of the Gentiles
What happened in Britain

All quotations and page numbers are from the much reprinted book "The Story of the Church" by Renwick and Harman (Leicester: Inter Varsity Press, second edition 1985). The IVP is the publishing arm of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. So you can be sure it does not intend a pro-Mormon bias!

Introduction

The first half of the first century is dealt with in the gospels and the book of the Acts of the Apostles in the New Testament. This page is more concerned with what happened after the apostles had died.

Peter and Paul were both killed around the year AD 65, under the persecutions of the Roman emperor Nero. The other apostles died as martyrs over the next decades.




AD 100 to 180

The loss of prophets and apostles:

When this century started there were living prophets and possibly one living apostle. When it ended there were neither. What happened? Few documents have survived to tell us. "The first seventy years of the second century constitute one of the obscurest periods in church history" (p.24, the opening lines of chapter 2). Concerning prophets, "they gradually disappeared from the scene and are not met with after the third quarter of the second century" (p.20).

The decline in spirituality

In comparison with the first century, it is notable that "spiritual life declined" (p.22). There was "a great change in the quality of those men who led the church in this century".

The leaders at the time

The earliest great leader after the apostles was Clement. He spent his time fighting against "certain unpleasant divisions" in the church. Barnabus and Hermas seemed to "lay aside the divine word" and "their imaginations ran riot. They both cherished strange and fanciful ideas". Ignatius was teaching that Jesus never had a physical body. And so it goes on. There were still many faithful saints, but they were on the defensive. Justin Martyr sets the scene for later generations by using philosophy and sophisticated rhetoric to defend the church, linking it with ancient Greek ideas, in contrast with the simple testimony borne by the apostles.

Various heresies

The second century saw various parts of the church interpreting the scriptures in different ways. The Nazarenes (originally just the nickname for the church as a whole), believed that Christians should also keep the law of Moses. The Ebionites were even more extreme, and rejected many of the books that later came to be included in the New Testament. The term "Gnosticism" covered a variety of groups who all claimed to have the authentic secret teachings of Jesus. There were various other groups. The group that won the battle naturally called itself "orthodox", and eventually produced the Catholic and Protestant churches that we know today.

The importance of Montanism

A sect that deserves special mention is the Montanists. They saw how dead the church had become, and tried to revive passion and the spirit. However, they obviously did not have the true spirit, and because of them, prophecy and passionate preaching got a bad reputation. This, according to the book (p.35-36) is why "Preaching virtually ceased for many centuries." This is why the formality of the priest and the mysterious mass became the center of the church, not the sermons or spiritual life that used to dominate.



AD 180 to 250 - "The Catholic Fathers"

In this period, "spiritually, the church had become weak" (p.37). New written creeds arose, which later cause great problems "as people got farther away from apostolic times and traditions became vague and unreliable" (p.38). There was greater and greater emphasis on the tradition, which later led to the scriptures being sometimes pushed aside (p.38-39). The bishops became more and more autocratic (p. 41). More and more the church relied on philosophy to prove its case (p.44-48).

N.B. The early catholic church made some mistakes. But that does not mean the modern Roman Catholic church is evil. Far from it! It is a church that deserves the greatest respect.



AD 250 to 325 - The Roman empire declines, and blames the Christians

 

finding a catacomb This period saw more and more pressures on Rome from the barbarian tribes. The Roman emperors often tried to get back to the strength of previous centuries, the good old days of Paganism and power. A side effect of this was the persecution of the Christians who were seen as weakening the empire. This was a period when many of the most faithful Christians became martyrs.

Left: finding Christian remains in a catacomb. The early Christians used to meet in the tunnels beneath the city, safe from persecution.

This is also the time when many Christians began to look to escape from the pressures of real life. St Anthony (born 257) began to popularize the idea of being a monk. From then on more and more Christians would live alone, wearing simple robes and starving themselves in an effort to become more pious.



AD 325 to 496 - Three men who changed the church

Constantine

Eventually, in 312, the highly successful General Constantine decided to become a Christian (it was normal for generals to attribute their success to some god or other). When he became emperor he first issued a decree of tolerance towards Christians, then (in 325) made Christianity the official religion of the empire. Constantine wasn't baptized until just before his death, and in many ways remained a sun worshipper, but some historians say he was still a sincere Christian.

Augustine

Augustine (354-430) did more than any other to decide the doctrine of the church (Nibley describes this as "the great transition" from prophets to philosophers - see his book "The World and the Prophets", available from FARMS.

Leo I

Pope Leo I (390-461) was second only to Gregory in creating what became the medieval church. Leo was "the first truly great churchman to appear in Rome since Apostolic times" (p.59). He tirelessly promoted the ideas that (a) the bishop of Rome was the successor of Peter, and (b) this "universal bishop" was head of the church. The council of Chalcedon (451) gave him and his successors the title "pope".


The new church decides what to believe

Constantine (and his successors) held various great councils, to try and decide what exactly the Christians should believe. Constantine would often intervene to tell the bishops what they should believe, and he also invented the idea of bishops wearing costly robes like the emperor (p.51).

What the councils were like

"It was a particularly turbulent age in the theological sphere. In the fifth century, in particular, it was not uncommon for opposing parties to seek victory by physical force, and shameful fights ensued." (p.53) Despite all the evidence, the modern churches, whose doctrines were decided at this time, insist that the Holy Spirit was guiding all this!

What the councils decided

The issues decided at these councils were not unimportant details, but the central doctrine - the nature of God. This was when the church decided who it worshipped! More important, their decisions are still followed by both Catholics and Protestants today.

In AD 324 came the first council of Nicea (on the nature of Christ). Then in 381 the council of Constantinople (on the nature of the Holy Spirit). Then in 431, the council of Ephesus (the nature of Christ again) which even the book admits was "glaringly unjust" (p.55). In 449 the council of Chalcedon had yet another go at deciding what the church believed about the nature of Christ, and so it went on. The church did not know what it believed.




AD 496 to 570: The church gets ready to take over from the empire

Clovis

King Clovis, first of the Merovingian dynasty and king of the Franks, became a Christian in 496. Whether this was because he sincerely believed in Roman Christianity or because it gave him greater power is not clear. But the ultimate result was to increase the influence of the church of Rome in western Europe.

The final decline of the empire

Continued barbarian invasions destroyed what was left of the power of the Roman empire in the west, and forced the church in the east to re-evaluate and look forward instead of backward. The power vacuum was filled by the church.



AD 570 - the end of "Late Antiquity" and beginning of "the Dark Ages"

This is discussed in detail elsewhere. Key events included the Lombard invasion (the last of the invading tribes), the rise of Gregory (the founder of the medieval church), the birth of Mohammed (prophet of Islam), the turning point in Byzantine history, and a cultural shift in numerous other ways. Rome was dead. The new superpower was Europe.



570-666: tidying up - destroying the remains of the old church

This period saw the end of the old churches that had survived at the fringes of the Roman world. It saw beginning of Islam, which took over in the middle east and North Africa. It also saw the end of the Celtic church which had survived for so long in the north. Vigorous to the end, Columba founded Iona in 563, and Aiden founded Lindisfarne in 635, but ultimately they had to bow to the inevitable. Gregory dispatched Augustine to Britain in 596, and the Celtic church finally submitted to the Roman church at the Synod of Whitby in 664.

Rome finally learned that she was triumphant, probably in the year 666.

 

Part 2 >>

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