Church history

Church history, or the history of the Christian Faith, began about 30 A.D. in Palestine with a small number of Jews and Jewish Proselytes, about 120 according to Acts 1:15, following the resurrection of Jesus Christ. By the third century A.D., Christianity had grown to become the dominant religion of the northern Mediterranean world. It also gained important extensions to the east and south of the Mediterranean.

An overview of church history in chronological sections is given below, beneath the multimedia section.


Apostolic Age (30–100 AD)

The apostolic period extends from the Day of Pentecost to the death of the Apostle John, and covers about seventy years, from A.D. 30 to about 100. The field of action is Palestine, and gradually extends over Syria, Asia Minor, Greece, and Italy. The most prominent centres are Jerusalem, Antioch, and Rome, which represent respectively the mother churches of Jewish, Gentile, and United Catholic Christianity. Next to them are Ephesus and Corinth. Ephesus acquired a special importance by the residence and labors of John, which made themselves felt during the second century through Polycarp and Irenaeus. Samaria, Damascus, Joppa, Caesarea, Tyre, Cyprus, the provinces of Asia Minor, Troas, Philippi, Thessalonica, Beraea, Athens, Crete, Patmos, Malta, Puteoli, come also into view as points where the Christian faith was planted. Through the eunuch converted by Philip, it reached Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians. As early as A.D. 58 Paul could say: "From Jerusalem and round about even unto Illyricum, I have fully preached the gospel of Christ." He afterwards carried it to Rome, where it had already been known before, and possibly as far as Spain, the western boundary of the empire.

_See main page: Early church_

Twelve apostles

Earliest martyrs

From the Apostles to the Council of Nicaea (100–325)

"The second period, from the death of the apostle John to the end of the persecutions, or to the accession of Constantine, the first Christian emperor, is the classic age of the ecclesia pressa, of heathen persecution, and of Christian martyrdom and heroism, of cheerful sacrifice of possessions and life itself for the inheritance of heaven. It furnishes a continuous commentary on the Saviour's words: "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword…"

The church of this period appears poor in earthly possessions and honors, but rich in heavenly grace, in world-conquering faith, love, and hope; unpopular, even outlawed, hated, and persecuted, yet far more vigorous and expansive than the philosophies of Greece or the empire of Rome; composed chiefly of persons of the lower social ranks, yet attracting the noblest and deepest minds of the age, and bearing, in her bosom the hope of the world; "as unknown, yet well-known, as dying, and behold it lives;" conquering by apparent defeat, and growing on the blood of her martyrs; great in deeds, greater in sufferings, greatest in death for the honor of Christ and the benefit of generations to come.

The Apostolic Fathers

_See main pages: Apostolic Fathers and Early church fathers_

The Apologists

In the second century conventionally educated converts began to produce two kinds of writings that help us understand the developing shapes of Christianity — works aimed at a broad audience of educated non-Christians and works aimed at those who considered themselves inside the Church. The writing for non-Christians is usually called apologetic in the same sense that the speech given by Socrates in his defense before the Athenian assembly is called his Apology — the word in Greek meant "speech for the defense" rather than the modern more limited denotation of "statement expressing regret". The Apologists, as these authors are sometimes known, made a presentation for the educated classes of the beliefs of Christians, often coupled with an attack on the beliefs and practices of the pagans. Other writings had the purpose of instructing and admonishing fellow Christians.

Other Ante-Nicene writers

From the Council of Nicaea to the Fall of the Roman Empire (325–590)

Momentous changes occurred both in the church and in the political structure of the West during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. The Western Roman Empire disappeared under the repeated assaults of the German barbarian tribes on its northern frontier. Christianity, a persecuted minority faith at Constantine's conversion in AD 312, had become the religion of the Empire by the end of the century. The bishop of Rome, whose leadership in the church had been largely a primacy of honour, now claimed supreme and universal authority in Christian lands, and began to make good this claim in the West, at least over the church. By the time of Pope Gregory I (590–604) the collapse of the Western Empire left the Roman bishop the real ruler of much of central Italy.

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The Medieval Church and Scholasticism (590–1517)

The Middle Age may be divided into three periods:

  • The missionary period from Gregory I. to Hildebrand or Gregory VII., a.d. 590–1073. The conversion of the northern barbarians. The dawn of a new civilization. The origin and progress of Islam. The separation of the West from the East. Some subdivide this period by Charlemagne (800), the founder of the German-Roman Empire.
  • The palmy period of the papal theocracy from Gregory VII. to Boniface VIII., a.d. 1073–1294. The height of the papacy, monasticism and scholasticism. The Crusades. The conflict between the Pope and the Emperor. If we go back to the rise of Hildebrand, this period begins in 1049.
  • The decline of medieval Catholicism and preparation for modern Christianity, from Boniface VIII. to the Reformation, a.d. 1294–1517. The papal exile and schism; the reformatory councils; the decay of scholasticism; the growth of mysticism; the revival of letters, and the art of printing; the discovery of America; forerunners of Protestantism; the dawn of the Reformation.

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The Reformation (1517–1648)

The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.

_See main page: Protestant Reformation_

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The Enlightenment Church (1648–1789)

The Enlightenment, also known as the Age of Reason, was a time when man began to use his reason to discover the world, casting off the superstition and fear of the medieval world. The effort to discover the natural laws which governed the universe led to scientific, political and social advances. Enlightenment thinkers examined the rational basis of all beliefs and in the process rejected the authority of church and state. Immanuel Kant expressed the motto of the Enlightenment well.

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The Modern Church (1798–1970)

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Revivals and Awakenings

The Post-modern Church (1970 – present)

Movements and Issues


  • Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. 8 volumes, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985.

Further reading

General surveys

  • Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language. 3rd edition. Thomas Nelson, 2008.
  • James E. Bradley and Richard Muller, Church History: An Introduction to Research, Reference Works, and Methods. Eerdmans, 1995.
  • Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church. 8 volumes, Hendrickson Publishers, 1985.
  • D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church. InterVarsity Press, 2002.
  • John D. Hannah, Charts of Ancient and Medieval Church History. Zondervan; Bk&CD-Rom edition, 2001.
  • Tony Lane, A Concise History of Christian Thought. Baker Academic, 2006.
  • Donald McKim, Theological Turning Points. WJK, 1988.
  • Mark Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity. 3rd edition. Baker Academic, 2012.

Early church

  • Christopher A. Hall, Learning Theology with the Church Fathers. InterVarsity Press, 2002.
  • __. Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers. InterVarsity Press, 1998.
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 1: From the Beginnings to the Council of Chalcedon. 2nd edition; Abingdon, 1987.
  • David W. Bercot, ed., A Dictionary of Early Christian Beliefs. Hendrickson Publishers, 1998.
  • J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines. Prince Press, 1958. (new edition, 2003)
  • John Anthony McGuckin, The Westminster Handbook to Patristic Theology. Westminster John Knox, 2004.
  • G. R. Evans, The First Christian Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Church. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.


  • James R. Ginther, The Westminster Handbook to Medieval Theology. WJK, 2009.
  • Giulio d'Onofrio, History of Theology, volume 2, The Middle Ages. Liturgical Press, 2008.
  • Beryl Smalley, The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. 2nd edition, 1964. repr University of Notre Dame Press, 1989.
  • G. R. Evans, The Medieval Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Medieval Period. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 2: From Augustine to the Eve of the Reformation. 2nd edition; Abingdon, 1987.
  • David N. Bell, Many Mansions: An Introduction to the Development & Diversity of Medieval Theology. Cistercian, 1996.
  • George McCracken, ed. Early Medieval Theology. WJK, 2006.

Reformation and post-Reformation

  • R. Ward Holder, The Westminster Handbook to Theologies of the Reformation. WJK, 2010.
  • David M. Whitford, ed. T&T Clark Companion to Reformation Theology. T&T Clark, 2012.
  • Richard Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, 4 volumes; 2nd edition. Baker Academic, 2003.
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 3: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century. 2nd edition; Abingdon, 1987.
  • Carter Lindberg, ed., The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period. Wiley-Blackwell, 2001.
  • Carter Lindberg, ed., The Pietist Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  • David Bagchi and David C. Steinmetz, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology. Cambridge, 2004.
  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History. Penguin Books, 2005.


  • Kelley Kapic and Bruce McCormack, eds. Mapping Modern Theology: A Thematic and Historical Introduction. Baker Academic, 2012.
  • Gareth Jones, ed. The Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology. Wiley-Blackwell, 2004.
  • David Ford, ed. Modern Theologians: An Introduction to Christian Theology since 1918. 3rd edition. Wiley-Blackwell, 2005.
  • James C. Livingston, et al. Modern Christian Thought. 2 vols. Fortress, 2006.
  • Justo L. Gonzalez, A History of Christian Thought: Volume 3: From the Protestant Reformation to the Twentieth Century. 2nd edition; Abingdon, 1987.
  • Alister McGrath, ed. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Modern Christian Thought. Blackwell, 1995.

See also