Welcome. This slide presentation will introduce you to church history as taught at the McAfee School of Theology. In the next few minutes, I will present briefly: what church history is; the content of CHH Church History I, and just a word or two on why this class is important to ministerial students.
Introduction: Welcome to church history class at McAfee. Over the next two semesters, I will introduce you to church history, the story of the Christian church through the centuries. To begin, I want to say a word about what church history is. Church history is an academic discipline that attempts to document past events related to the Christian story, so we can know what really happened and it means. This definition highlights three things: First, church history is about past events we can’t get to directly, but events that we must have knowledge of if we are to live authentic Christian lives today. For example, communities gathered in response to the Jew Jesus of Nazareth lie at the very root of our Christian identity, but we cannot experience their teachings, their prayer life, and their public witness—in short, their faith—first-hand, though our faith is based upon theirs, if we are truly Christian. Second, church history must use evidence to recreate those events. We can only know those origins of the early Christians’ way through evidence that is about twenty centuries old, such as documents or archeological remains. This surviving evidence is fragmentary and the fragments are of mixed value. Church history’s goal is to validate the best evidence and put the pieces together to form as clear a picture as possible of the actual events. Third, the church historian must interpret the meaning of the picture of past events in a way that is consistent with the evidence. For example, was the early church a uniform and harmonious community of congregations that over time became contaminated with unorthodox views introduced by heretics; or was it from the start a collection of communities with varying opinions about Jesus that over time eventually reached some measure of consensus in their beliefs about their Jewish founder? This threefold definition—event, evidence, and interpretation—means the task of church history is never finished. The original events may not change, but as new evidence is found, new interpretations arise in light of the more complete picture of the events. For example, Gnostic Christians wrote the Gospel of Judas 1,700 years ago, but it was lost for most of those years until rediscovered in the 1970s and first published in 2006. Will this ancient document’s unorthodox view of Jesus and his church help answer the question I asked earlier about whether the church moved from oneness to diversity or rather from diversity to clearer consensus? Stay with me this semester and you’ll find out!
That is what church history is, but what content will does this class cover: what events will we examine? This class is about the history of the Christian church from right after the last NT book was written up to the present day. In two semesters, we will study the history of the church from about the time the last NT books were written up to the present day in four periods: the Early Church, the Medieval Church, the Reformation, and the Modern Church.
The first Early Church section is from the completion of the NT writings to the reign of Constantine (c. 100-300). During this era, Christianity emerged as a religion separate from Judaism, molded by martyrdom, and rapidly adapting to a Greco-Roman rather than a Hebrew culture. The church had to create new institutional forms, love God more than life itself, and share the gospel with people who didn’t know a messiah from a Caesar (both called “son of God”) or the God of the 10 Commandments from Bacchus the god of wine.
The second Early Church section, the Imperial church, runs from Constantine to the fall of the Roman Empire, c. 312 to about 500. These centuries were a kind of Golden Age for Christianity, a time when the church agreed on a 27 book New Testament canon, settled on its basic affirmation of faith in the Nicene Creed, and established a hierarchy of clergy as a bulwark against heresy. It is also the period during which Christianity became entwined with the state; divided across political lines with the establishment of separate traditions in Africa, Persia, and India as well as Rome, and embraced the rich and powerful status quo alongside the counter-cultural vision of the monastic mothers and fathers in the deserts of Egypt and Syria.
The Medieval section (c. 500 to 1500) will cover the development of the church after the fall of Rome as it split into Western and Eastern traditions.
The Western church, which is our seminary’s branch of the Christian family tree, built a European society based on the papacy, the Holy Roman Emperor, and monasticism linked to a Latin heritage.
The Eastern church, based in Constantinople, besieged for nearly a 1,000 years by the rise of Islam in the 600s before its church and state succumbed to the Mohammedans, successfully spread its Greek-based faith into Russia and other Eastern European countries. These two great streams of Christian tradition officially split in 1054 and have followed very different historical paths to this very day.
The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century came about as European Medieval Roman Catholic Christendom collapsed and splintered into five main Christian traditions: The Roman Catholic Church striving to regain its Medieval dominance, and The four original Protestant traditions: The Lutheran (Martin Luther) The Reformed (Zwingli and Calvin) The Anglican (King Henry VIII) The Radicals (Anabaptists mostly)
All held the Protestant trademarks of The Bible alone for authority, Grace alone as the source of salvation, Faith alone as the source of justification.
The Modern era (c. 1600-2009) covers a bewildering diversity of Christian traditions as the Reformation’s aftermath resulted in a seemingly unending explosion of Christian denominations and sects. Certain themes mark the church history of the modern era in the West: Diversity, as mentioned above. The rise of secular nation states with their military conflicts nakedly proclaiming motives of power and material acquisition. The dominance of reason and science rather than faith as standards for truth. The decline of the Christian church as a mediator of public values and policies. The tenacity of the Christian church in secular society, and The shift of the center of gravity of the Christian church from the northern to the southern hemisphere.