2,000 Years of Church History (In Less Than An Hour)

2 Year Anniversary copy

Two Year Anniversary
A Brief Church History
May 23rd, 2023


On August 24th of 2012, Joe Stout contacted Dave Hatcher (pastor of Trinity Church in Kirkland) about starting a church in Lewis County. It would not be until May 23rd, of 2021 (9 years later), that the church would be formally constituted. Two years later, and God has given us a place to worship, a Christian school, a congregation of about 120, with 91 official members (46 adults, and 49 children).

Right now in America, the majority of churches are composed of 75 people or less (that’s the median congregation size), and so for God to give us the growth we have had in just two years is really a great blessing. And we thank God for that.

Now you all know the 5th commandment. The 5th commandment is “Honour thy father and thy mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee.” And this commandment applies not only to individuals but also to groups of individuals, to institutions, to tribes, to nations, and especially to churches. God commands His people to remember and even memorialize certain great acts in history.

And so just as it was important for the Hebrews to tell their children the story of the Exodus and the 10 plagues, and God’s miraculous deliverance every year at Passover, so also it is important for us to remember the many saints who have gone before us, without which, we would not be here, without which, none of us would be Christians.

It is the grace of God that we heard the gospel and there are innumerable people who we have never met that made that hearing of the Word possible. The very fact that we all have the Bible on our smartphones, and access to Scripture and books and solid doctrine at our fingertips, is almost impossible to explain to a Christian living in the 1st century. What’s a phone? What’s the internet? What is electricity? What’s a podcast? What is YouTube?

It says in Jude 1:3, “Beloved…it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.” That “contending for the faith once delivered” is a task that the Holy Spirit has empowered the church to do for 2,000 years. And every single one of us will one day be able to trace in unbroken succession, how that faith was handed down to us across the centuries. One day, in the New Heavens and New Earth, we will get to meet and shake hands with and hug those people who God used as his instruments to bring about our eternal salvation. As my old pastor is fond of saying, “God loves to use crooked sticks to draw straight lines,” and that really is the story of church history. It is messy, it is complicated, and often both sides in a dispute are wrong. But nevertheless, the church of Christ continues to prevail.

So with that, let us trace our family lineage from the year 33 AD to present day 2023 AD. We’ll start at the beginning. And because we are covering so much ground in so little time, I am going to divide that 2,000 years of history into 4 basic sections to help us keep track of where we are in the timeline. This is of course an oversimplification, but I think it’s a helpful way of dividing time:

Four Eras of Church History

  1. The Early Church (first 500 years of church history, from the apostles in 33 AD thru the Fall of the Roman empire in 476 AD)
  2. The Middle Ages (1,000 years of Christendom in various forms, roughly 500-1500 AD)
  3. The Reformation/Early Modern Era (1500-1750, from Luther to the birth of the USA)
  4. Late Modernity to Contemporary Era (1750-2023, from birth of USA to now)

#1 – The Early Church

In Acts 1:8, Jesus says to His disciples, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

  • On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit was poured out, and thus began the age of the apostolic church.
  • The book of Acts is our earliest narrative of church history, and in it we see the spread of the gospel from Jerusalem and Judea, then into Samaria (because of persecution), and then to uttermost parts of the earth. Acts begins in Jerusalem and ends in Rome.
  • In less than 40 years, the gospel would reach the ends of the earth, such that the Apostle Paul could say in Colossians 1:23 (60 AD), that the gospel was preached “to every creature under heaven.” And in Romans 1:8 (57 AD), that the faith of the Romans was spoken of “throughout the whole world.”
  • This of course is what Jesus prophesied in the Olivet discourse of Matthew 24 and Mark 13, that “this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in all the world (οικουμενη) as a witness to all the nations (πασιν τοις εθνεσιν), and then the end will come.” The end referred to here was the destruction of Jerusalem and the Old World in 70 AD.
  • So within one generation of Christ’s death and resurrection, the gospel went everywhere. However, because of persecution and various wars, there are very few written records from the years immediately following the apostles.
  • It is not until Eusebius (260-339 AD) and the rise of Constantine that we have the first written history of the church. Eusebius is considered the father of church history, and already he is writing some 200 years after the death of the apostles.

Key Events – What happened in those first 500 years?  A lot!

  • Most importantly, the doctrine of the Trinity and Incarnation were hammered out.
    • We have from this era the Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed (381), The definition of Chalcedon (451), and the Athanasian Creed (6th century), all of which deal with these doctrines.
    • The first 500 years of the church were spent defending and defining that Jesus is indeed God and then coming to grips with what that means about who God is as both One and Three. One divine essence in three subsistent relations, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
    • So much of what we take for granted as Christians was hard fought over, and many saints died to defend these truths.
  • The most notable theologians of this era, what we call the church fathers are as follows:
    • West
      • Ambrose of Milan (340-397)
      • Jerome (347-420)
      • Augustine of Hippo (354-430)
      • Gregory the Great (540-604)
    • East
      • Origen of Alexandria (185-254)
      • Athanasius of Alexandria (298-373)
      • Gregory of Nazianzus (329-390)
      • Basil of Caesarea (330-379)
      • John Chrysostom (347-407)
  • In terms of political significance, it was Constantine’s edict of toleration in 313 that made Christianity a publicly lawful religion in the empire. Constantine himself would later be baptized and converted to the true religion.
  • So our church holds to the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed, and Definition of Chalcedon, and therefore we consider all of the church fathers I mentioned earlier as our spiritual ancestors. That doesn’t mean we agree with every single thing they said, but it does mean you owe them honor as building upon the foundation of the Apostles, and defending the most important doctrines of our religion in the face of great opposition and adversity. It is these saints, theologians, and pastors that contended for the faith, so that it could be handed down to the next generation.
  • So of the three major divisions in the church today: Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Eastern Orthodox, something we share in common is that we are all Trinitarian Nicene Chalcedonian Christians. We all hold in high regard these fathers in the faith, and trace our lineage back to them. This is an era before any of those later divisions took place.
  • This leads us to the Middle Ages where you have both the rise of Christendom and the first major split within the Nicene church.

#2 – The Middle Ages

The Middle Ages could be further subdivided into Early, High, and Late.

  • Early Middle Ages (476-800, the fall of the Roman empire to the beginning of the “Holy Roman Empire” under Charlemagne, who was crowned by Pope Leo III)
    • During this time, you have the rise of Islam and the Arab Empire.
  • High Middle Ages (800-1300)
    • During this time you have the great East-West Schism of 1054, and this is where the Latin West and the Greek churches in the East (Byzantine Empire) divide over issues of church government, papal authority, and the filioque clause of the Nicene Creed. This was a division that had been growing for many years, but finally came to a head in 1054, and this is a division that remains today between what we now call Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox.
    • It is here that Protestants can look back and see points of agreement and disagreement with both sides in this debate. So to give you a sense of some of the differences between East and West at this time:
      • The West did not allow priests to marry, whereas in the East almost all priests were married men. Here Protestants would side with the East.
      • The West used unleavened bread in communion, the East use leavened bread. Here Protestants can go either way since we think both are legitimate.
      • In baptism, the West had a diversity of legitimate modes of baptism (immersion, affusion, pouring, etc. and usually only once), whereas the East immerses people (even babies) three times in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here Protestants are divided, many Baptists require immersion, whereas the reformed (our church) believes all modes are legitimate.
      • The West taught the doctrine of purgatory and indulgences, whereas the East denied the existence of purgatory or some kind of “treasure of merits” that can be dispensed to saints. Protestants of course side with the East here.
      • The West added the filioque clause (“and from the Son”) to the Nicene Creed. This has implications for the doctrine of the Trinity and how you understand the procession of the Holy Spirit. The East rejected this addition on various grounds, some procedural (since it was not original) and some theological (denying the double procession of the Spirit). Here the Protestants are on the side of the West, as we retain it in our Creed.
      • And lastly, and most importantly, the West at this time made very exalted claims about the Pope of Rome and his primacy over the other bishops, claiming he had absolute authority over the entire church, the East of course rejected this and held that the five ancient patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria together offered leadership to Christians. Here, the Protestants are on the side of the East.
    • You also have during this time on both sides, an increase in the usage of icons or images of Christ. And there were various iconoclastic controversies. This issue of images of Christ is going to come up again at the Protestant Reformation with the Reformers largely rejecting images as idolatrous.
    • Some of the other noteworthy events of this time were the Crusades, and also the invention of the university. Universities started as cathedral schools for training clergy, and so in 1096 you have the founding of the University of Oxford, which is the oldest English-speaking university in the world.
    • From these universities sprang some of the greatest theologians who ever lived, and the seeds were planted in them for what would become the reformation a few hundred years later.
    • The most important and influential theologians of the Middle Ages were:
      • John of Damascus (675-749)
      • Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)
      • Peter Lombard (1095-1160)
      • Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274)
  • Late Middle Ages (1300-1520)
    • In the late Middle Ages, you have the beginning of the Renaissance (1350-1650) and Humanism, which revived the study of ancient texts, especially in their original languages (Greek, Hebrew, Latin, etc.).
    • The most important humanist for launching the Protestant reformation was a man named Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536), and he was responsible for compiling, editing, and publishing the New Testament in the original Greek, and all this at the same time that Johannes Gutenberg’s (1400-1468) printing press was revolutionizing the way information was printed and disseminated.
    • Historians are fond of saying that “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched.”
      • And so in the years leading up the Reformation, you had for the very first time in human history, the ability to mass produce identical texts, so that everyone could read the same thing at very little cost.
      • Prior to this point, books were very expensive to copy, and produce, because you needed a scribe to handwrite them. Now there is the arrival of a more standardized and stable text that more people could access.
    • This revolution in access to the Scriptures and their translation into other languages by Wyclif, Tyndale, Erasmus, and others, began to rock the boat of Western power structures, especially the Roman Catholic Church.
      • For example, in 1440 Lorenzo Valla showed that the Latin used in The Donation of Constantine was not that of the 4th century. This forged document had been used by the Roman Catholic church to claim supremacy and the power to appoint secular rulers in the West.
      • This debunking of a such a key authority helped to undermine trust in the papacy.
    • And this brings us to the next big split in the history of the church, and that is the various reformations of the 16th century.

#3 – Reformation & Early Modern Era

  • The reformation itself went through various phases. The first phase runs from 1517 to 1564, so from Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses to the death of John Calvin.
    • 1st Generation Reformers were people like Martin Luther (German), Ulrich Zwingli (Swiss), Martin Bucer (German), and Philip Melanchthon (German).
    • 2nd Generation Reformers were people like John Calvin (French), Peter Marty Vermigli (Italian), and Heinrich Bullinger (Swiss).
  • After that first wave of reformers, the next phase was coping with the aftermath both politically and theologically of breaking with Rome, and this meant developing and defending Reformed Theology as the true and apostolic faith over against the errors and corruptions that had dominated the church for many years.
  • This theological development and articulation reaches a peak in 17th century as various confessions are drawn up, and this includes the original version of our church’s confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646).
  • Our church uses the American version of the WCF (1788 AD) which makes a few minor changes, but on the whole, we are the direct theological descendants of the Westminster Divines.
  • Now here we have to talk a little inside baseball because what we call Protestantism today is really composed of a bunch of different regional churches that broke with Rome. And so while we have agreement with other Protestants in not accepting papal authority (we have that in common with the Eastern Orthodox), there are a whole host of other issues that we disagree on amongst ourselves, and that continues down to the present day.
    • For example, although we credit Luther with kicking off the Protestant Reformation, we have far more in common with someone like Ulrich Zwingli (the Swiss Reformer) who argued vigorously against Luther over Christology and the Lord’s Supper. So there is still to this day a Lutheran church that is Protestant like we are, but as Reformed Westminster Presbyterians, we have some major disagreements with them.

#4 – Late Modernity to Contemporary Era

  • Perhaps the biggest difference between our church and the churches of the reformation era is that we live in America.
  • The United States was shaped by a diversity of Protestant denominations (Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, etc.), and therefore the way we think about religion and government and the church is radically different from ages past, and this is in large part due to the forces of secularism.
  • Americans take for granted that all religions should be tolerated and treated equally. But this is really a novel idea in the history of the world, and one that is not actually possible to accomplish. There is always some supreme principle by which you organize and rule society, and secularism is the current false god of America.
  • So to situate our church then within that broader picture of church history, I want to give you a prioritized order in which we should identify ourselves to others.
    • I should note here that this should not be taken in the sense of being schismatic like the Apostle Paul warns about, “I am of Peter, I am of Paul, I am of Christ, etc.” but rather a way of communicating honestly about what we believe to people who ask.
    • So who are we as a church?
    • 1. We are first and foremost Christians.
      • That is we believe in the same Apostles and Nicene Creed as present-day Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox do. We believe in the Lord Jesus and practice Trinitarian Baptism. And this would exclude heretical sects like Arians, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses who do not.
    • 2. Second, we are Protestants.
      • That is together with all protestants (and EO) we reject the supremacy of the pope and his authority over us. That’s the “Protestant” part.
    • 3. Third, we are Reformed Presbyterians.
      • The “Reformed” part refers to our doctrine as in line with the magisterial reformers (John Calvin, Westminster divines, etc.), and that is to distinguish us from the Lutherans, from the Anabaptists, the Methodists, and other “non-reformed” Protestants.
      • The “Presbyterian” part refers to our form of church government, which distinguishes us from those who believe in Episcopal church government (rule by bishops) as in Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism, and Eastern Orthodox on one side. And then Congregationalists and Baptists (rule by the congregation) on the other.
      • So as Reformed Presbyterians, we believe the church is rightly led and ruled by elders, not a pope nor by the congregation, and that is intended to provide both accountability amongst fellow church leaders (presbyters), and gives a court of appeal for the congregation in the case that one of the elders is out of line.
      • While church government is not something most American Christians think about, it’s actually one of the most important dividing lines between denominations and churches and how they are run.
  • So we are Christians, we are Protestants, and we are Reformed Presbyterians.
  • And the hope is that one day, these various labels will no longer be necessary because the church will have achieved far greater unity than we have now. We are praying and believing for the day when Jeremiah 31:34 comes to pass in full, which says, “And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: For they shall all know me, From the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the Lord: For I will forgive their iniquity, And I will remember their sin no more.”
  • May God hasten that day!