History of Christianity
The history of Christianity concerns the Christian religion, Christendom, and the Church with its various denominations, from the 1st century to the present.
Christianity originated with the ministry of Jesus in the 1st century Roman province of Judea. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jewish teacher and healer who proclaimed the imminent Kingdom of God, and was crucified at c.30–33 AD. His followers believed that he was then raised from the dead and exalted by God, and would return soon at the inception of God’s Kingdom.
The earliest followers of Jesus were apocalyptic Jewish Christians. Due to the inclusion of gentiles, the developing early Christian Church gradually grew apart from Judaism and Jewish Christianity during the first two centuries of the Christian Era.
In 313, Emperor Constantine I issued the Edict of Milan, officially legalizing Christian worship. In 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica put forth under Theodosius I, the Roman Empire officially adopted Trinitarian Christianity as its state religion, and Christianity established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the state church of the Roman Empire.
Christological debates about the human and divine nature of Jesus consumed the Christian Church for a couple of centuries, and seven eucumenical councils took place to resolve these debates. Arianism was condemned at the Council of Nicea (325), which supported the Trinitarian doctrine as expounded in the Nicene Creed.
In the early Middle Ages, missionary activities spread Christianity towards the west among German peoples. During the High Middle Ages, eastern and western Christianity grew apart, leading to the East–West Schism of 1054. Growing criticism of the Roman Catholic ecclesiological structure and its behaviour, led to the Protestant movement of the 16th century and the split of western Christianity.
Since the Renaissance era, with western colonialism, Christianity has expanded throughout the world. Today there are more than two billion Christians worldwide, and Christianity has become the world’s largest religion. Within the last century, as the influence of Christianity has waned in the West, it has also rapidly grown in the East and the Global South, notably in China, South Korea and much of sub-Saharan Africa. There has been notable recent growth of Christianity in Iran.
The religious climate of 1st century Judea was quite diverse, with numerous variations of Judaic doctrine. The ancient historian Josephus noted four prominent groups in the Judaism of the time: Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and Zealots. This led to further unrest, and the 1st century BC and 1st century AD saw a number of charismatic religious leaders, contributing to what would become the Mishnah of rabbinic Judaism, including Yohanan ben Zakkai and Hanina ben Dosa.
Jewish messianism, and the Jewish messiah concept, has its roots in the apocalyptic literature of the 2nd century BC to 1st century BC, promising a future “anointed” leader or messiah or king from the Davidic line to resurrect the Israelite “Kingdom of God”, in place of the foreign rulers of the time.
Ministry of Jesus
The main sources of information regarding Jesus’ life and teachings are the four canonical gospels, and to a lesser extent the Acts of the Apostles and the Pauline epistles. According to the Gospels, Jesus was a Jewish teacher and healer who was crucified at c.30–33 AD. His followers believed that He was raised from death and exaltated by God due to his faithfulness.
Early Christianity (c. 31/33–324)
The Apostolic Age is named after the Apostles and their missionary activities. It holds special significance in Christian tradition as the age of the direct apostles of Jesus. A primary source for the Apostolic Age is the Acts of the Apostles, but its historical accuracy is questionable and its coverage is partial, focusing especially from Acts 15:36 onwards on the ministry of Paul, and ending around 62 AD with Paul preaching in Rome under house arrest.
The earliest followers of Jesus were apocalyptic Jewish Christians. The Early Christian groups were strictly Jewish, such as the Ebionites and the early Christian community in Jerusalem, led by James, the brother of Jesus. According to Acts 9:1–2, they described themselves as ‘disciples of the Lord’ and [followers] ‘of the Way’, and according to Acts 11:26 a settled community of disciples at Antioch were the first to be called ‘Christians’.
Some of the early Christian communities also attracted gentile God-fearers, who already visited Jewish synagogues. The inclusion of gentiles posed a problem, as they could not fully observe the Halakha. Saul of Tarsus, commonly known as Paul the Apostle, persecuted the early Jewish Christians, then converted and started his mission among the gentiles. The main concern of Paul’s letters is the inclusion of gentiles into God’s New Covenant, deeming faith in Christ sufficient for righteousness. Due to this inclusion of gentiles, early Christianity changed of character, and gradually grew apart from Judaism and Jewish Christianity during the first two centuries of the Christian Era; eventually Christianity established itself as a predominantly gentile religion in the Roman Empire.
The Gospels and New Testament epistles contain early creeds and hymns, as well as accounts of the Passion, the empty tomb, and Resurrection appearances. Early Christianity slowly spread to pockets of believers among Aramaic-speaking peoples along the Mediterranean coast and also to the inland parts of the Roman Empire and beyond that into the Parthian Empire and the later Sasanian Empire, including Mesopotamia, which was dominated at different times and to varying extents by these empires.
The Ante-Nicene period (literally meaning “before Nicaea”) of the history of early Christianity was the period following the Apostolic Age down to the First Council of Nicaea in 325. By the beginning of the Nicene period, the Christian faith had spread throughout Western Europe and the Mediterranean Basin, and to North Africa and the East. A more formal Church-structure grew out of the early communities, and a number of variant Christianities developed. Christianity grew apart from Judaism, creating its own identity by an increasingly harsh rejection of Judaism, of Jewish practices, and an acceptance of what some scholars have called religious anti-semitism, however, many modern day Christian theologians reject this accusation.
The number of Christians grew by approximately 40% a decade during the first and second centuries. In the post-Apostolic church, bishops emerged as overseers of urban Christian populations, and a hierarchy of clergy gradually took on the form of episkopos (overseers, inspectors; and the origin of the term bishop) and presbyters (elders; and the origin of the term priest), and then deacons (servants). But this emerged slowly and at different times in different locations. Clement, a 1st-century bishop of Rome, refers to the leaders of the Corinthian church in his epistle to Corinthians as bishops and presbyters interchangeably. The New Testament writers also use the terms overseer and elders interchangeably and as synonyms.
The Ante-Nicene period saw the rise of a great number of Christian sects, cults and movements with strong unifying characteristics lacking in the apostolic period. They had different interpretations of Scripture, particularly the divinity of Jesus and the nature of the Trinity. Many variations in this time defy neat categorizations, as various forms of Christianity interacted in a complex fashion to form the dynamic character of Christianity in this era. The Post-Apostolic period was extremely diverse both in terms of beliefs and practices. In addition to the broad spectrum of general branches of Christianity, there was constant change and diversity that variably resulted in both internecine conflicts and syncretic adoption.
Development of the Biblical canon
Main articles: Development of the Christian biblical canon and Development of the New Testament canon
The Pauline epistles were circulating in collected form by the end of the 1st century AD. By the early 3rd century, there existed a set of Christian writings similar to the current New Testament, though there were still disputes over the canonicity of Hebrews, James, II Peter, II and III John, and Revelation. By the 4th century, there existed unanimity in the West concerning the New Testament canon, and by the 5th century the East, with a few exceptions, had come to accept the Book of Revelation and thus had come into harmony on the matter of the canon.
Early orthodox writings – Ante-Nicene Fathers
As Christianity spread, it acquired certain members from well-educated circles of the Hellenistic world; they sometimes became bishops, but not always. They produced two sorts of works: theological and “apologetic”, the latter being works aimed at defending the faith by using reason to refute arguments against the veracity of Christianity. These authors are known as the Church Fathers, and study of them is called patristics. Notable early Fathers include Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus of Lyons, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, and Origen of Alexandria.
Christian art only emerged relatively late, and the first known Christian images emerge from about 200 AD, though there is some literary evidence that small domestic images were used earlier. The oldest known Christian paintings are from the Roman Catacombs, dated to about AD 200, and the oldest Christian sculptures are from sarcophagi, dating to the beginning of the 3rd century.
Although many Hellenised Jews seem, as at the Dura-Europos synagogue, to have had images of religious figures, the traditional Mosaic prohibition of “graven images” no doubt retained some effect, although never proclaimed by theologians. This early rejection of images, and the necessity to hide Christian practise from persecution, leaves us with few archaeological records regarding early Christianity and its evolution.
Persecutions and legalisation
Main articles: Jesus And The Early Christians Persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire
There was no empire-wide persecution of Christians until the reign of Decius in the third century. The last and most severe persecution organised by the imperial authorities was the Diocletianic Persecution, 303–311. The Edict of Serdica was issued in 311 by the Roman emperor Galerius, officially ending the Diocletianic persecution of Christianity in the East. With the passage in 313 AD of the Edict of Milan, in which the Roman Emperors Constantine the Great and Licinius legalised the Christian religion, persecution of Christians by the Roman state ceased.
Christianity during late antiquity (313–476)
Influence of Constantine
How much Christianity Constantine adopted at this point is difficult to discern, but his accession of was a turning point for the Christian Church. Constantine supported the Church financially, built various basilicas, granted privileges (e.g., exemption from certain taxes) to clergy, promoted Christians to some high offices, and returned confiscated property.
Constantine also played an active role in the leadership of the Church. In 316, he acted as a judge in a North African dispute concerning the Donatist controversy. More significantly, in 325 he summoned the Council of Nicaea, the first ecumenical council. Constantine thus established a precedent for the emperor as responsible to God for the spiritual health of their subjects, and thus with a duty to maintain orthodoxy. The emperor was to enforce doctrine, root out heresy, and uphold ecclesiastical unity.
Constantine’s son’s successor, his nephew Julian, under the influence of his adviser Mardonius, renounced Christianity and embraced a Neo-platonic and mystical form of paganism shocking the Christian establishment. He began reopening pagan temples, modifying them to resemble Christian traditions such as the episcopal structure and public charity (previously unknown in Roman paganism). Julian’s short reign ended when he died while campaigning in the East.
Arianism and the first ecumenical councils
A popular doctrine of the 4th century was Arianism, the denial of the divinity of Christ, as propounded by Arius. Although this doctrine was condemned as heresy and eventually eliminated by the Roman Church it remained popular underground for some time. In the late 4th century Ulfilas, a Roman bishop and an Arian, was appointed as the first bishop to the Goths, the Germanic peoples in much of Europe at the borders of and within the Empire. Ulfilas spread Arian Christianity among the Goths firmly establishing the faith among many of the Germanic tribes, thus helping to keep them culturally distinct.
During this age, the first ecumenical councils were convened. They were mostly concerned with Christological disputes. The First Council of Nicaea (325) and the First Council of Constantinople (381) resulted in condemning Arian teachings as heresy and producing the Nicene Creed.
Christianity as Roman state religion (380)
On 27 February 380, with the Edict of Thessalonica put forth under Theodosius I, Gratian, and Valentinian II, the Roman Empire officially adopted Trinitarian Christianity as its state religion. Prior to this date, Constantius II (337–361) and Valens (364–378) had personally favoured Arian or Semi-Arian forms of Christianity, but Valens’ successor Theodosius I supported the Trinitarian doctrine as expounded in the Nicene Creed.
After its establishment, the Church adopted the same organisational boundaries as the Empire: geographical provinces, called dioceses, corresponding to imperial governmental territorial division. The bishops, who were located in major urban centres as per pre-legalisation tradition, thus oversaw each diocese. The bishop’s location was his “seat”, or “see”. Among the sees, five came to hold special eminence: Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. The prestige of most of these sees depended in part on their apostolic founders, from whom the bishops were therefore the spiritual successors. Though the bishop of Rome was still held to be the First among equals, Constantinople was second in precedence as the new capital of the empire.
Theodosius I decreed that others not believing in the preserved “faithful tradition”, such as the Trinity, were to be considered to be practitioners of illegal heresy, and in 385, this resulted in the first case of capital punishment of a heretic, namely Priscillian.
Nestorianism and the Sasanian Empire
During the early 5th century the School of Edessa had taught a Christological perspective stating that Christ’s divine and human nature were distinct persons. A particular consequence of this perspective was that Mary could not be properly called the mother of God, but could only be considered the mother of Christ. The most widely known proponent of this viewpoint was the Patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius. Since referring to Mary as the mother of God had become popular in many parts of the Church this became a divisive issue.
The Roman Emperor Theodosius II called for the Council of Ephesus (431), with the intention of settling the issue. The councils ultimately rejected Nestorius’ view. Many churches who followed the Nestorian viewpoint broke away from the Roman Church, causing a major schism. The Nestorian churches were persecuted and many followers fled to the Sasanian Empire where they were accepted.
The Sasanian (Persian) Empire had many Christian converts early in its history tied closely to the Syriac branch of Christianity. The Empire was officially Zoroastrian and maintained a strict adherence to this faith in part to distinguish itself from the religion of the Roman Empire (originally the pagan Roman religion and then Christianity). Christianity became tolerated in the Sasanian Empire and as the Roman Empire increasingly exiled heretics during the 4th and 6th centuries, the Sasanian Christian community grew rapidly. By the end of the 5th century the Persian Church was firmly established and had become independent of the Roman Church. This church evolved into what is today known as the Church of the East.
Further information: Oriental Orthodoxy
In 451 the Council of Chalcedon was held to further clarify the Christological issues surrounding Nestorianism. The council ultimately stated that Christ’s divine and human nature were separate but both part of a single entity, a viewpoint rejected by many churches who called themselves miaphysites. The resulting schism created a communion of churches, including the Armenian, Syrian, and Egyptian churches. Though efforts were made at reconciliation in the next few centuries the schism remained permanent resulting in what is today known as Oriental Orthodoxy.
Main article: Christian monasticism
Monasticism is a form of asceticism whereby one renounces worldly pursuits and goes off alone as a hermit or joins a tightly organized community. It began early in the Church as a family of similar traditions, modelled upon Scriptural examples and ideals, and with roots in certain strands of Judaism. John the Baptist is seen as an archetypical monk, and monasticism was also inspired by the organisation of the Apostolic community as recorded in Acts 2.
Eremetic monks, or hermits, live in solitude, whereas cenobitics live in communities, generally in a monastery, under a rule (or code of practice) and are governed by an abbot. Originally, all Christian monks were hermits, following the example of Anthony the Great. However, the need for some form of organised spiritual guidance lead Pachomius in 318 to organise his many followers in what was to become the first monastery. Soon, similar institutions were established throughout the Egyptian desert as well as the rest of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Women were especially attracted to the movement.
Central figures in the development of monasticism were Basil the Great in the East and, in the West, Benedict, who created the famous Rule of Saint Benedict, which would become the most common rule throughout the Middle Ages, and starting point for other monastic rules.
Early Middle Ages (476–799)
The transition into the Middle Ages was a gradual and localised process. Rural areas rose as power centres whilst urban areas declined. Although a greater number of Christians remained in the East (Greek areas), important developments were underway in the West (Latin areas) and each took on distinctive shapes.
The Bishops of Rome, the Popes, were forced to adapt to drastically changing circumstances. Maintaining only nominal allegiance to the Emperor, they were forced to negotiate balances with the “barbarian rulers” of the former Roman provinces. In the East the Church maintained its structure and character and evolved more slowly.
Western missionary expansion
The stepwise loss of Western Roman Empire dominance, replaced with foederati and Germanic kingdoms, coincided with early missionary efforts into areas not controlled by the collapsing empire. Already as early as in the 5th century, missionary activities from Roman Britain into the Celtic areas (current Scotland, Ireland and Wales) produced competing early traditions of Celtic Christianity, that was later reintegrated under the Church in Rome.
Prominent missionaries were Saints Patrick, Columba and Columbanus. The Anglo-Saxon tribes that invaded southern Britain some time after the Roman abandonment, were initially pagan, but converted to Christianity by Augustine of Canterbury on the mission of Pope Gregory the Great. Soon becoming a missionary centre, missionaries such as Wilfrid, Willibrord, Lullus and Boniface would begin converting their Saxon relatives in Germania.
The largely Christian Gallo-Roman inhabitants of Gaul (modern France) were overrun by the Franks in the early 5th century. The native inhabitants were persecuted until the Frankish king Clovis I converted from paganism to Roman Catholicism in 496. Clovis insisted that his fellow nobles follow suit, strengthening his newly established kingdom by uniting the faith of the rulers with that of the ruled.
After the rise of the Frankish Kingdom and the stabilizing political conditions, the Western part of the Church increased the missionary activities, supported by the Merovingian kingdom as a means to pacify troublesome neighbour peoples. After the foundation of a church in Utrecht by Willibrord, backlashes occurred when the pagan Frisian king Radbod destroyed many Christian centres between 716 and 719. In 717, the English missionary Boniface was sent to aid Willibrord, re-establishing churches in Frisia continuing missions in Germany.
Following a series of heavy military reverses against the Muslims, the Iconoclasm emerged in the early 8th century. In the 720s the Byzantine Emperor Leo III the Isaurian banned the pictorial representation of Christ, saints, and biblical scenes. In the West, Pope Gregory III held two synods at Rome and condemned Leo’s actions. The Byzantine Iconoclast Council, held at Hieria in 754, ruled that holy portraits were heretical.
The movement destroyed much of the Christian church’s early artistic history. The iconoclastic movement itself was later defined as heretical in 787 under the Second Council of Nicaea (the seventh ecumenical council), but enjoyed a brief resurgence between 815 and 842.
High Middle Ages (800–1299)
The Carolingian Renaissance was a period of intellectual and cultural revival of literature, arts, and scriptural studies during the late 8th and 9th centuries, mostly during the reigns of Charlemagne and Louis the Pious, Frankish rulers. To address the problems of illiteracy among clergy and court scribes, Charlemagne founded schools and attracted the most learned men from all of Europe to his court.
From the 6th century onward most of the monasteries in the West were of the Benedictine Order. Owing to the stricter adherence to a reformed Benedictine rule, the abbey of Cluny became the acknowledged leader of western monasticism from the later 10th century. Cluny created a large, federated order in which the administrators of subsidiary houses served as deputies of the abbot of Cluny and answered to him. The Cluniac spirit was a revitalising influence on the Norman church, at its height from the second half of the 10th centuries through the early 12th.
The next wave of monastic reform came with the Cistercian Movement. The first Cistercian abbey was founded in 1098, at Cîteaux Abbey. The keynote of Cistercian life was a return to a literal observance of the Benedictine rule, rejecting the developments of the Benedictines. The most striking feature in the reform was the return to manual labour, and especially to field-work.
Inspired by Bernard of Clairvaux, the primary builder of the Cistercians, they became the main force of technological diffusion in medieval Europe. By the end of the 12th century the Cistercian houses numbered 500, and at its height in the 15th century the order claimed to have close to 750 houses. Most of these were built in wilderness areas, and played a major part in bringing such isolated parts of Europe into economic cultivation
A third level of monastic reform was provided by the establishment of the Mendicant orders. Commonly known as friars, mendicants live under a monastic rule with traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but they emphasise preaching, missionary activity, and education, in a secluded monastery. Beginning in the 12th century, the Franciscan order was instituted by the followers of Francis of Assisi, and thereafter the Dominican order was begun by St. Dominic.
The Investiture Controversy, or Lay investiture controversy, was the most significant conflict between secular and religious powers in medieval Europe. It began as a dispute in the 11th century between the Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV, and Pope Gregory VII concerning who would appoint bishops (investiture). The end of lay investiture threatened to undercut the power of the Empire and the ambitions of noblemen.
Bishoprics being merely lifetime appointments, a king could better control their powers and revenues than those of hereditary noblemen. Even better, he could leave the post vacant and collect the revenues, theoretically in trust for the new bishop, or give a bishopric to pay a helpful noble. The Church wanted to end lay investiture to end this and other abuses, to reform the episcopate and provide better pastoral care.
Pope Gregory VII issued the Dictatus Papae, which declared that the pope alone could appoint bishops. Henry IV’s rejection of the decree led to his excommunication and a ducal revolt. Eventually Henry received absolution after dramatic public penance (see Road to Canossa), though the Great Saxon Revolt and conflict of investiture continued.
A similar controversy occurred in England between King Henry I and St. Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, over investiture and episcopal vacancy. The English dispute was resolved by the Concordat of London, 1107, where the king renounced his claim to invest bishops but continued to require an oath of fealty.
This was a partial model for the Concordat of Worms (Pactum Calixtinum), which resolved the Imperial investiture controversy with a compromise that allowed secular authorities some measure of control but granted the selection of bishops to their cathedral canons. As a symbol of the compromise, both ecclesiastical and lay authorities invested bishops with respectively, the staff and the ring.
The Medieval Inquisition is a series of Inquisitions (Roman Catholic Church bodies charged with suppressing heresy) from around 1184, including the Episcopal Inquisition (1184–1230s) and later the Papal Inquisition (1230s). It was in response to movements within Europe considered apostate or heretical to Western Catholicism, in particular the Cathars and the Waldensians in southern France and northern Italy. These were the first inquisition movements of many that would follow. The inquisitions in combination with the Albigensian Crusade were fairly successful in ending heresy. Historian Thomas F. Madden has written about popular myths regarding the Inquisition.
Early evangelisation in Scandinavia was begun by Ansgar, Archbishop of Bremen, “Apostle of the North”. Ansgar, a native of Amiens, was sent with a group of monks to Jutland Denmark in around 820 at the time of the pro-Christian Jutish king Harald Klak. The mission was only partially successful, and Ansgar returned two years later to Germany, after Harald had been driven out of his kingdom.
In 829 Ansgar went to Birka on Lake Mälaren, Sweden, with his aide friar Witmar, and a small congregation was formed in 831 which included the king’s own steward Hergeir. Conversion was slow, however, and most Scandinavian lands were only completely Christianised at the time of rulers such as Saint Canute IV of Denmark and Olaf I of Norway in the years following AD 1000.
Conversion of the Slavs
Although by 800 Western Europe was ruled entirely by Christian kings, East and Central Europe remained an area of missionary activity. For example, in the 9th century Cyril and Methodius had extensive missionary success in the region among the Slavic peoples, translating the Bible and liturgy into Slavonic. The Baptism of Kiev in 988 spread Christianity throughout Kievan Rus’, establishing Christianity among Ukraine, Belarus and Russia.
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Christianity made great inroads into Eastern Europe, including Bulgaria and Kievan Rus’. The evangelisation, or Christianisation, of the Slavs was initiated by one of Byzantium’s most learned churchmen—the Patriarch Photios I of Constantinople (Photius). The Byzantine emperor Michael III chose Cyril and Methodius in response to a request from Rastislav, the king of Moravia who wanted missionaries that could minister to the Moravians in their own language.
The two brothers spoke the local Slavonic vernacular and translated the Bible and many of the prayer books. As the translations prepared by them were copied by speakers of other dialects, the hybrid literary language Old Church Slavonic was created. Methodius later went on to convert the Serbs.
Bulgaria was officially recognised as a patriarchate by Constantinople in 927, Serbia in 1346, and Russia in 1589. All these nations, however, had been converted long before these dates.
Mission to Great Moravia
Byzantine emperor Michael III chose two brothers, Cyril and Methodius to create the Glagolitic alphabet. They then translated the Scripture and the liturgy into Slavonic.
This Slavic dialect became the basis of Old Church Slavonic which later evolved into Church Slavonic which is the common liturgical language still used by the Russian Orthodox Church and other Slavic Orthodox Christians.
Conversion of Bulgaria
Bulgaria was a pagan country since its establishment in 681 until 864 when Boris I (852–889) converted to Christianity. The reasons for that decision were complex; the most important factors were that Bulgaria was situated between two powerful Christian empires, Byzantium and East Francia; Christian doctrine particularly favoured the position of the monarch as God’s representative on Earth, while Boris also saw it as a way to overcome the differences between Bulgars and Slavs.
Controversy and Crusades dividing East and West
Growing tensions between East and West
Tensions in Christian unity which led to the East–West Schism started to become evident in the 4th century.
Two basic problems were involved: the nature of the primacy of the bishop of Rome and the theological implications of adding a clause to the Nicene Creed, known as the Filioque clause. These doctrinal issues were first openly discussed in Photius’s patriarchate.
The Eastern churches viewed Rome’s understanding of the nature of episcopal power as being in direct opposition to the Church’s essentially conciliar structure and thus saw the two ecclesiologies as mutually antithetical.
The other major irritant to Eastern Christendom was the Western use of the Filioque clause—meaning “and the Son”—in the Nicene Creed . This too developed gradually and entered the Creed over time. The issue was the addition by the West of the Latin clause Filioque to the Creed, as in “the Holy Spirit… who proceeds from the Father and the Son“, where the original Creed, sanctioned by the councils and still used today by the Eastern Orthodox simply states “the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, who proceeds from the Father.” The Eastern Church argued that the phrase had been added unilaterally, and therefore illegitimately, since the East had never been consulted. In addition to this ecclesiological issue, the Eastern Church also considered the Filioque clause unacceptable on dogmatic grounds.
In the 9th century AD, a controversy arose between Eastern (Byzantine, Greek Orthodox) and Western (Latin, Roman Catholic) Christianity that was precipitated by the opposition of the Roman Pope John VII to the appointment by the Byzantine emperor Michael III of Photios I to the position of patriarch of Constantinople. Photios was refused an apology by the pope for previous points of dispute between the East and West. Photios refused to accept the supremacy of the pope in Eastern matters or accept the Filioque clause. The Latin delegation at the council of his consecration pressed him to accept the clause in order to secure their support.
The controversy also involved Eastern and Western ecclesiastical jurisdictional rights in the Bulgarian church, as well as a doctrinal dispute over the Filioque (“and from the Son”) clause. That had been added to the Nicene Creed by the Latin church, which was later the theological breaking point in the ultimate Great East-West Schism in the 11th century.
Photios did provide concession on the issue of jurisdictional rights concerning Bulgaria and the papal legates made do with his return of Bulgaria to Rome. This concession, however, was purely nominal, as Bulgaria’s return to the Byzantine rite in 870 had already secured for it an autocephalous church. Without the consent of Boris I of Bulgaria, the papacy was unable to enforce any of its claims.
East-West Schism (1054)
Main article: East–West Schism
Main article: Crusades
Generally, the Crusades refer to the campaigns in the Holy Land against Muslim forces sponsored by the Papacy. There were other crusades against Islamic forces in southern Spain, southern Italy, and Sicily, as well as the campaigns of Teutonic Knights against pagan strongholds in North-eastern Europe (see Northern Crusades). A few crusades were waged within Christendom against groups that were considered heretical and schismatic (also see the Battle of the Ice and the Albigensian Crusade).
The Holy Land had been part of the Roman Empire, and thus Byzantine Empire, until the Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries. Thereafter, Christians had generally been permitted to visit the sacred places in the Holy Land until 1071, when the Seljuk Turks closed Christian pilgrimages and assailed the Byzantines, defeating them at the Battle of Manzikert.
Emperor Alexius I asked for aid from Pope Urban II (1088–1099) for help against Islamic aggression. He probably expected money from the pope for the hiring of mercenaries. Instead, Urban II called upon the knights of Christendom in a speech made at the Council of Clermont on 27 November 1095, combining the idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land with that of waging a holy war against infidels.
The First Crusade captured Antioch in 1099 and then Jerusalem. The Second Crusade occurred in 1145 when Edessa was retaken by Islamic forces. Jerusalem would be held until 1187 and the Third Crusade, famous for the battles between Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.
The Fourth Crusade, begun by Innocent III in 1202, intended to retake the Holy Land but was soon subverted by Venetians who used the forces to sack the Christian city of Zara. When the crusaders arrived in Constantinople, they sacked the city and other parts of Asia Minor and established the Latin Empire of Constantinople in Greece and Asia Minor. This was effectively the last crusade sponsored by the papacy, with later crusades being sponsored by individuals.
Jerusalem was held by the crusaders for nearly a century, and other strongholds in the Near East would remain in Christian possession much longer. The crusades in the Holy Land ultimately failed to establish permanent Christian kingdoms. Islamic expansion into Europe would renew and remain a threat for centuries culminating in the campaigns of Suleiman the Magnificent in the 16th century.
Crusades in southern Spain, southern Italy, and Sicily eventually lead to the demise of Islamic power in Europe. Teutonic Knights expanded Christian domains in Eastern Europe, and the much less frequent crusades within Christendom, such as the Albigensian Crusade, achieved their goal of maintaining doctrinal unity.
In 1337 Hesychasm—a mystical teaching at Mount Athos came under attack from Barlaam of Calabria, an abbot in Constantinople.
Gregory Palamas, afterwards Archbishop of Thessalonica, defended Hesychasm.
Eastern Orthodox captivity (1453–1850)
Fall of Constantinople
In 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Empire.
Eastern Christians fleeing Constantinople, and the Greek manuscripts they carried with them, is one of the factors that prompted the literary renaissance in the West at about this time.
Religious rights under the Ottoman Empire
However, these rights and privileges, including freedom of worship and religious organisation, were often established in principle but seldom corresponded to reality. Christians were viewed as second-class citizens, and the legal protections they depended upon were subject to the whims of the Sultan and the Sublime Porte.
Under Ottoman occupation the Church could no longer bear witness to Christ. Christian missionary work among Muslims was illegal and dangerous, whereas conversion to Islam was entirely legal and permissible. The Hagia Sophia and the Parthenon, which had been Christian churches for nearly a millennium, were converted into mosques. Violent persecutions of Christians were common, and reached their climax in the Armenian, Assyrian, and Greek genocides.
Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance (1300–1520)
Avignon Papacy (1309–1378)
The Avignon Papacy, sometimes referred to as the Babylonian Captivity, was a period from 1309 to 1378 during which seven Popes resided in Avignon, in modern-day France. The period was one of conflict and controversy during which French Kings held considerable sway over the Papacy and rulers across Europe felt sidelined by the new French-centric papacy.
Troubles reached their peak in 1378 when, Gregory XI died while visiting Rome. A papal conclave met in Rome and elected Urban VI, an Italian. Urban soon alienated the French cardinals, and they held a second conclave electing Robert of Geneva to succeed Gregory XI, beginning the Western Schism.
Western Schism (1378–1416)
In 1309, Pope Clement V moved to Avignon in southern France. Confusion and of political animosity waxed, as the prestige and influence of Rome waned without a resident pontiff.
In 1378 the conclave elected an Italian from Naples, Pope Urban VI. He soon alienated the French cardinals, who asserted that the previous election was invalid, and elected one of their own, Robert of Geneva.
John Wycliff and Jan Hus
Jan Hus (or Huss) (1369?–1415) a Czech theologian in Prague, was influenced by Wycliffe and spoke out against the corruptions he saw in the Church; his continued defiance led to his excommunication and condemnation by the Council of Constance, which also condemned John Wycliff. Hus was executed in 1415, but his followers organized a peasants’ war, 1419–1436, that was put down by the Empire with great brutality. Hus was a forerunner of the Protestant Reformation and his memory has become a powerful symbol of Czech culture in Bohemia.
Italian Renaissance (c. 1375 – 1520)
The Renaissance was a period of great cultural change and achievement, marked in Italy by a classical orientation and an increase of wealth through mercantile trade. The City of Rome, the Papacy, and the Papal States were all affected by the Renaissance. On the one hand, it was a time of great artistic patronage and architectural magnificence, where the Church patroned such artists as Michelangelo, Brunelleschi, Bramante, Raphael, Fra Angelico, Donatello, and da Vinci. On the other hand, wealthy Italian families often secured episcopal offices, including the papacy, for their own members, some of whom were known for immorality, such as Alexander VI and Sixtus IV.
In addition to being the head of the Church, the Pope became one of Italy’s most important secular rulers, and pontiffs such as Julius II often waged campaigns to protect and expand their temporal domains. Furthermore, the popes, in a spirit of refined competition with other Italian lords, spent lavishly both on private luxuries but also on public works, repairing or building churches, bridges, and a magnificent system of aqueducts in Rome that still function today.
From 1505 to 1626, St. Peter’s Basilica, perhaps the most recognised Christian church, was built on the site of the old Constantinian basilica. It was also a time of increased contact with Greek culture, opening up new avenues of learning, especially in the fields of philosophy, poetry, classics, rhetoric, and political science, fostering a spirit of humanism–all of which would influence the Church.
Reformation and Counter-Reformation
Protestant Reformation (1521–1610)
the Reformation is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, there was no schism until the 1521 Edict of Worms. The edicts of the Diet condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas.
In the early 16th century, attempts were made by the theologians Martin Luther and Huldrych Zwingli, along with many others, to reform the Church. They considered the root of corruptions to be doctrinal, rather than simply a matter of moral weakness or lack of ecclesiastical discipline, and thus advocated for God’s autonomy in redemption, and against voluntaristic notions that salvation could be earned by people.
The word Protestant is derived from the Latin protestatio, meaning declaration, which refers to the letter of protestation by Lutheran princes against the decision of the Diet of Speyer in 1529, which reaffirmed the edict of the Diet of Worms ordering the seizure of all property owned by persons guilty of advocating Lutheranism. The term “Protestant” was not originally used by Reformation era leaders; instead, they called themselves “evangelical”, emphasising the “return to the true gospel (Greek: euangelion).”
Early protest was against corruptions such as simony, the holding of multiple church offices by one person at the same time, episcopal vacancies, and the sale of indulgences. The Protestant position also included sola scriptura, sola fide, the priesthood of all believers, Law and Gospel, and the two kingdoms doctrine. The three most important traditions to emerge directly from the Protestant Reformation were the Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist, Presbyterian, etc.), and Anglican traditions, though the latter group identifies as both “Reformed” and “Catholic”, and some subgroups reject the classification as “Protestant.”
Churches with Reformation confessions of faith spread almost entirely within the confines of Northern Europe, but this was checked by the Catholic response to the Reformation. This is known as the Counter-Reformation. Although Protestants were excommunicated in an attempt to reduce their influence within the Catholic Church, at the same time they were also persecuted during the Counter-Reformation, prompting some to live as crypto-Protestants (also termed Nicodemites, against the urging of John Calvin who urged them to live their faith openly. Crypto-Protestants were documented as late as the 19th century in Latin America.
Unlike other reform movements, the English Reformation began by royal influence. Henry VIII considered himself a thoroughly Catholic King, and in 1521 he defended the papacy against Luther in a book he commissioned entitled, The Defence of the Seven Sacraments, for which Pope Leo X awarded him the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith). However, the king came into conflict with the papacy when he wished to annul his marriage with Catherine of Aragon, for which he needed papal sanction. Catherine, among many other noble relations, was the aunt of Emperor Charles V, the papacy’s most significant secular supporter. The ensuing dispute eventually lead to a break from Rome and the declaration of the King of England as head of the English Church. England would later experience periods of reform and also Counter-Reformation. Monarchs such as Edward VI, Lady Jane Grey, Mary I, Elizabeth I, and Archbishops of Canterbury such as Thomas Cranmer and William Laud pushed the Church of England in different directions over the course of only a few generations. What emerged was the Elizabethan Religious Settlement and a state church that considered itself both “Reformed” and “Catholic” but not “Roman” (and hesitated from the title “Protestant”), and other “unofficial” more radical movements such as the Puritans. In terms of politics, the English Reformation included heresy trials, the exiling of Catholic populations to Spain and other Catholic lands, censorship and prohibition of books, etc.
The Counter-Reformation was the response of the Catholic Church to the Protestant Reformation. In terms of meetings and documents, it consisted of the Confutatio Augustana, the Council of Trent, the Roman Catechism, and the Defensio Tridentinæ fidei. In terms of politics, the Counter-Reformation included heresy trials, the exiling of Protestant populations from Catholic lands, the seizure of children from their Protestant parents for institutionalized Catholic upbringing, a series of wars, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (the list of prohibited books), and the Spanish Inquisition.
The Counter-Reformation also included the Catholic Reformation, which aimed at improving the Church from within.
The Council of Trent
The Council of Trent (1545–1563), initiated by Pope Paul III (1534–1549) addressed issues of certain ecclesiastical corruptions such as simony, absenteeism, nepotism, the holding of multiple church offices by one person, and other abuses, as well as the reassertion of traditional practices and the dogmatic articulation of the traditional doctrines of the Church, such as the episcopal structure, clerical celibacy, the seven Sacraments, transubstantiation (the belief that during mass the consecrated bread and wine truly become the body and blood of Christ), the veneration of relics, icons, and saints (especially the Blessed Virgin Mary), the necessity of both faith and good works for salvation, the existence of purgatory and the issuance (but not the sale) of indulgences, etc. In other words, all Protestant doctrinal objections and changes were uncompromisingly rejected. The Council also fostered an interest in education for parish priests to increase pastoral care. Milan’s Archbishop Saint Charles Borromeo (1538–1584) set an example by visiting the remotest parishes and instilling high standards.
Also part of this general effort, the simultaneous Catholic Reformation consisted of improvements in art and culture, anti-corruption measures, the founding of the Jesuits, the establishment of seminaries, a reassertion of traditional doctrines and the emergence of new religious orders aimed at both moral reform and new missionary activity. Also part of this was the development of new yet orthodox forms of spirituality, such as that of the Spanish mystics and the French school of spirituality.
The Papacy of St. Pius V (1566–1572) was known not only for its focus on halting heresy and worldly abuses within the Church, but also for its focus on improving popular piety in a determined effort to stem the appeal of Protestantism. Pius began his pontificate by giving large alms to the poor, charity, and hospitals, and the pontiff was known for consoling the poor and sick, and supporting missionaries. The activities of these pontiffs coincided with a rediscovery of the ancient Christian catacombs in Rome. As Diarmaid MacCulloch stated, “Just as these ancient martyrs were revealed once more, Catholics were beginning to be martyred afresh, both in mission fields overseas and in the struggle to win back Protestant northern Europe: the catacombs proved to be an inspiration for many to action and to heroism.”
Catholic missions were carried to new places beginning with the new Age of Discovery, and the Roman Catholic Church established a number of Missions in the Americas.
Church and the Enlightenment (1610–1800)
Trial of Galileo
In 1610, Galileo published his Sidereus Nuncius (Starry Messenger), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. These and other discoveries exposed major difficulties with the understanding of the Heavens that had been held since antiquity, and raised new interest in radical teachings such as the heliocentric theory of Copernicus.
In reaction, many scholars maintained that the motion of the Earth and immobility of the Sun were heretical, as they contradicted some accounts given in the Bible as understood at that time. Galileo’s part in the controversies over theology, astronomy and philosophy culminated in his trial and sentencing in 1633, on a grave suspicion of heresy.
Puritans in North America
Main article: Puritans, Puritan migration to New England (1620–40), History of the Puritans
The most famous colonisation by Protestants in the New World was that of English Puritans in North America. Unlike the Spanish or French, the English colonists made surprisingly little effort to evangelise the native peoples. The Puritans, or Pilgrims, left England so that they could live in an area with Puritanism established as the exclusive civic religion. Though they had left England because of the suppression of their religious practice, most Puritans had thereafter originally settled in the Low Countries but found the licentiousness there, where the state hesitated from enforcing religious practice, as unacceptable, and thus they set out for the New World and the hopes of a Puritan utopia.
Early Modern era
This is the period from the Industrial revolution and the French Revolution until the mid 19th century. See the French Republican Calendar and anti-clerical measures. See also the Holy League, the Battle of Vienna, Cardinal Richelieu, and Louis XIV of France.
Main articles: Revivalism, Christianity in the 18th century and Christianity in the 19th century
Revivalism refers to the Calvinist and Wesleyan revival, called the Great Awakening, in North America which saw the development of evangelical Congregationalist, Presbyterian, Baptist, and new Methodist churches.
The First Great Awakening was a wave of religious enthusiasm among Protestants in the American colonies c. 1730–1740, emphasising the traditional Reformed virtues of Godly preaching, rudimentary liturgy, and a deep sense of personal guilt and redemption by Christ Jesus. Historian Sydney E. Ahlstrom saw it as part of a “great international Protestant upheaval” that also created Pietism in Germany, the Evangelical Revival, and Methodism in England. It centred on reviving the spirituality of established congregations, and mostly affected Congregational, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, German Reformed, Baptist, and Methodist churches, while also spreading within the slave population. The Second Great Awakening (1800–1830s), unlike the first, focused on the unchurched and sought to instil in them a deep sense of personal salvation as experienced in revival meetings. It also sparked the beginnings of groups such as the Mormons, the Restoration Movement and the Holiness movement. The Third Great Awakening began from 1857 and was most notable for taking the movement throughout the world, especially in English speaking countries. The final group to emerge from the “great awakenings” in North America was Pentecostalism, which had its roots in the Methodist, Wesleyan, and Holiness movements, and began in 1906 on Azusa Street, in Los Angeles. Pentecostalism would later lead to the Charismatic movement.
Restorationism refers to the belief that a purer form of Christianity should be restored using the early church as a model. In many cases, restorationist groups believed that contemporary Christianity, in all its forms, had deviated from the true, original Christianity, which they then attempted to “Reconstruct”, often using the Book of Acts as a “guidebook” of sorts. Restorationists do not usually describe themselves as “reforming” a Christian church continuously existing from the time of Jesus, but as restoring the Church that they believe was lost at some point. “Restorationism” is often used to describe the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement.
The term “Restorationist” is also used to describe the Jehovah’s Witness Movement, founded in the late 1870s by Charles Taze Russell
Latter Day Saint movement
Main article: Jehovah’s Witnesses
The term “Restorationist” is also used to describe the Latter Day Saint movement, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church), the Community of Christ and numerous other Latter Day Saints sects. Latter Day Saints, also known as Mormons, believe that Joseph Smith was chosen to restore the original organization established by Jesus, now “in its fullness”, rather than to reform the church.
Late Modern era
The history of the Church from the mid 19th century around period of the revolutions of 1848 to today.
Modern Eastern Orthodoxy
Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire
The Church became involved in the various campaigns of russification, and was accused of involvement in Russian anti-semitism despite the lack of an official position on Judaism as such.
The Bolsheviks and other Russian revolutionaries saw the Church, like the Tsarist state, as an enemy of the people.
Russian Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union
Further information: Religion in the Soviet Union, State Atheism,
Criticism of atheism was strictly forbidden and sometimes lead to imprisonment.
Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture being sent to prison camps, labour camps or mental hospitals. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed. This included people like the Grand Duchess Elizabeth Fyodorovna who was at this point a monastic. Along with her murder was Grand Duke Sergei Mikhailovich Romanov; the Princes Ioann Konstantinovich, Konstantin Konstantinovich, Igor Konstantinovich and Vladimir Pavlovich Paley; Grand Duke Sergei’s secretary, Fyodor Remez; and Varvara Yakovleva, a sister from the Grand Duchess Elizabeth’s convent.
Modern trends in Christian theology
Modernism and liberal Christianity
Main article: Liberal Christianity
Liberal Christianity, sometimes called liberal theology, is an umbrella term covering diverse, philosophically informed religious movements and moods within late 18th, 19th and 20th-century Christianity. The word “liberal” in liberal Christianity does not refer to a leftist political agenda or set of beliefs, but rather to the freedom of dialectic process associated with continental philosophy and other philosophical and religious paradigms developed during the Age of Enlightenment.
Main article: Christian fundamentalism
Fundamentalist Christianity, is a movement that arose mainly within British and American Protestantism in the late 19th century and early 20th century in reaction to modernism and certain liberal Protestant groups that denied doctrines considered fundamental to Christianity yet still called themselves “Christian.” Thus, fundamentalism sought to re-establish tenets that could not be denied without relinquishing a Christian identity, the “fundamentals”: inerrancy of the Bible, Sola Scriptura, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the doctrine of substitutionary atonement, the bodily Resurrection of Jesus, and the imminent return of Jesus Christ.
Catholic priests were executed in concentration camps alongside Jews; for example, 2,600 Catholic Priests were imprisoned in Dachau, and 2,000 of them were executed. A further 2,700 Polish priests were executed (a quarter of all Polish priests), and 5,350 Polish nuns were either displaced, imprisoned, or executed. Many Catholic laymen and clergy played notable roles in sheltering Jews during the Holocaust, including Pope Pius XII (1876–1958). The head rabbi of Rome became a Catholic in 1945 and, in honour of the actions the Pope undertook to save Jewish lives, he took the name Eugenio (the pope’s first name). A former Israeli consul in Italy claimed: “The Catholic Church saved more Jewish lives during the war than all the other churches, religious institutions, and rescue organisations put together.”
The relationship between Nazism and Protestantism, especially the German Lutheran Church, was complex. Though many Protestant church leaders in Germany supported the Nazis’ growing anti-Jewish activities, some, such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a Lutheran pastor) were strongly opposed to the Nazis. Bonhoeffer was later found guilty in the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler and executed.
Second Vatican Council
On 11 October 1962, Pope John XXIII opened the Second Vatican Council, the 21st ecumenical council of the Catholic Church. The council was “pastoral” in nature, emphasising and clarifying already defined dogma, revising liturgical practices, and providing guidance for articulating traditional Church teachings in contemporary times. The council is perhaps best known for its instructions that the Mass may be celebrated in the vernacular as well as in Latin.
Main article: Ecumenism
Ecumenism broadly refers to movements between Christian groups to establish a degree of unity through dialogue. “Ecumenism” is derived from Greek οἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which means “the inhabited world”, but more figuratively something like “universal oneness.” The movement can be distinguished into Catholic and Protestant movements, with the latter characterised by a redefined ecclesiology of “denominationalism” (which the Catholic Church, among others, rejects).
Over the last century, a number of moves have been made to reconcile the schism between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox churches. Although progress has been made, concerns over papal primacy and the independence of the smaller Orthodox churches has blocked a final resolution of the schism.
On 30 November 1894, Pope Leo XIII published Orientalium Dignitas. On 7 December 1965, a Joint Catholic-Orthodox Declaration of Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I was issued lifting the mutual excommunications of 1054.
Some of the most difficult questions in relations with the ancient Eastern Churches concern some doctrine (i.e. Filioque, Scholasticism, functional purposes of asceticism, the essence of God, Hesychasm, Fourth Crusade, establishment of the Latin Empire, Uniatism to note but a few) as well as practical matters such as the concrete exercise of the claim to papal primacy and how to ensure that ecclesiastical union would not mean mere absorption of the smaller Churches by the Latin component of the much larger Catholic Church (the most numerous single religious denomination in the world), and the stifling or abandonment of their own rich theological, liturgical and cultural heritage.
With respect to Catholic relations with Protestant communities, certain commissions were established to foster dialogue and documents have been produced aimed at identifying points of doctrinal unity, such as the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification produced with the Lutheran World Federation in 1999.
Main article: Pentecostalism
In reaction to these developments, Christian fundamentalism was a movement to reject the radical influences of philosophical humanism, as this was affecting the Christian religion. Especially targeting critical approaches to the interpretation of the Bible, and trying to blockade the inroads made into their churches by atheistic scientific assumptions, the fundamentalists began to appear in various denominations as numerous independent movements of resistance to the drift away from historic Christianity. Over time, the Fundamentalist Evangelical movement has divided into two main wings, with the label Fundamentalist following one branch, while Evangelical has become the preferred banner of the more moderate movement. Although both movements primarily originated in the English-speaking world, the majority of Evangelicals now live elsewhere in the world.
Ecumenism within Protestantism
Ecumenical movements within Protestantism have focused on determining a list of doctrines and practices essential to being Christian and thus extending to all groups which fulfil these basic criteria a (more or less) co-equal status, with perhaps one’s own group still retaining a “first among equal” standing. This process involved a redefinition of the idea of “the Church” from traditional theology. This ecclesiology, known as denominationalism, contends that each group (which fulfils the essential criteria of “being Christian”) is a sub-group of a greater “Christian Church”, itself a purely abstract concept with no direct representation, i.e., no group, or “denomination”, claims to be “the Church.” This ecclesiology is at variance with other groups that indeed consider themselves to be “the Church.” The “essential criteria” generally consist of belief in the Trinity, belief that Jesus Christ is the only way to have forgiveness and eternal life, and that He died and rose again bodily.