A Summary of the History of the Church
from Jesus Christ to the present day
Culminating in Vatican II
By Bill Huebsch
4 BCE The birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.
27 CE The baptism of Jesus.
30 The trial, crucifixion, death, and resurrection of Jesus.
45 St. Paul set out on his missionary travels. We take much of what we know about this missionary work from the letters of Paul and other missionaries, from the Acts of the Apostles, and from limited extra-biblical texts.
67 St. Peter was executed, ending the reign of the “first pope.” St. Linus was chosen as his immediate successor. The success of this missionary work is legendary and due to (1) the presence of the young Christian movement geographically in the Roman Empire provided roads, communications, and relative safety for travelers; (2) the Empire provided for a somewhat common culture throughout the Mediterranean world, derived from Hellenism; (3) this common culture likewise provided a common language: Greek, the language in which the Christian scriptures were written; (4) the world was largely at peace until about 200, a period known as the Pax Romana; (5) there was a growing spiritual hunger in the people of the world in light of the rather dark nature of the rulers: Tiberius d.37, Caligula d. 41, Claudius d.54, and Nero d.68.
70 The Gospel of Mark was written about this time* and the Church was gradually beginning to take a more public shape. The first converts to Christianity were mainly urban professionals and their servants. St. Paul was dead before this first gospel account was published, and without printing presses distribution of these early writings was limited.
80 The gospels of Matthew and Luke were written.*
88 Pope Clement I is elected.
90 The gospel of John was written. The gospels, letters, and other “books” of the Christian scriptures were generally recognized by the end of the 2nd century but not actually collated into their final canon until about 380-390 in the West and later in the East. The writers of these gospels did not set out to write a book of the bible, but simply to provide an account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and continuing presence in the community. The gospels differ among themselves somewhat in the details of their story of Jesus, but the faith of the community which the gospel writer sought to portray is consistent.
185 The first example of a creed appears in the writings of Irenaeus. The emergence of three elements - (1) a recognized canon of sacred writings, (2) a creed, and (3) the monarchical episcopacy with claims of succession from the apostles - provided the early church a durable structure of authority and a framework within which it would be able to negotiate many upcoming crises.
200 Rome begins to emerge as the leading diocese in the Church. The roles of bishop, priest, and deacon were fairly well established by this time, but less distinction was made between clergy and laity than would evolve later. Later in 325 the 4th canon of the Council of Nicaea officially sanctioned the primacy of Rome, along with Alexandria and Antioch.
236 The order of the Mass is established in Church Order by Hippolytus. It seems to provide the basis for all other Eucharistic prayers and closely resembles the rites of the Mass as restored by the Second Vatican Council in 1964.
250 The persecution of Christians by the temporal rulers began to increase. The martyrs were revered by their fellows as saints. The persecutions lasted until about 311.
303 The final and worst persecution of Christians gets underway.
313 Edict of Milan. Constantine established toleration of Christianity with this act, although he himself was not baptized until very late in his life. Constantine also ordered other social matters favorable to Christians, such as the regular observance of Sunday as the first day of the week and the “Lord’s Day” and privileges for the clergy. It was during this time that the Church was set on a path of union with the state in its structure, its geographic organization into provinces, dioceses, and parishes (reflecting the Roman empire), freedom to order mass conversions (reducing the place of baptism and elevating the place of ordination).
325 The first Ecumenical Council was held at Nicaea. By this time, theological debates were well underway in the Church. These debates attempted to define the divinity, especially the relationship among the Father, Son, and Spirit in the Trinity. Schools of thought emerged with various leaders articulating ways of thinking about this.
One such leader was Arius, an Egyptian priest who taught that the Son of God was a "created being" and that there was a time when he did not exist. According to Arius, only the Father was unbegotten. Hence, the Son was created by the Father, just as humans were. To many other theologians of the time, this seemed to effectively deny the divinity of Jesus Christ. Arius did, however, insist that the Son possessed a dignity which is superior in every way to that which humans possess. He taught his beliefs vigorously.
Followers of Arius created sharp camps and divisions in the Church of the 4th century. On his own authority, the Roman emperor, Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to contain Arian thinking and to reunite the Church. Church unity was politically desirable for him.
The council was attended mainly by Greek bishops who could not find a way to effectively argue against Arius until they landed on the Greek term homoousios, which means that the Father and the Son are "of one substance."
Many of the statements of faith contained in today's Nicene Creed were formulated or ratified at this council: “We believe in one God the Father . . . maker of all things visible and invisible . . . and in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten out of the Father, the only begotten . . . generated from the Father, that is, from the being of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God. . . “
The claim in these statements is that Christ comes from the Father's very substance, not by creative actions on the part of the Father. Christ lives within the divine order, "one in being" with the Father. Again, in the Greek tongue in which this council was conducted, the term for that is homoousios. At the council, Arius refused to accept this term and was, therefore, condemned.
But homoousios is not a term found in Scripture and using it in a formal definition of doctrine paved the way for formulating theological statements and doctrines with other nonscriptural terms.
330 The first church of St. Peter is built in Rome. (It was replaced in 1506 with the present one.)
380 (February 27) Emperor Theodosius of Thessalonica declared Christianity the sole religion and basis of the social order of the empire. During this time, more and more rural peasants were joining the Christian ranks and as they did so, a huge social system of hospitals, schools, inns, convents, and monasteries was being built in Europe.
381 The Council of Constantinople was held. Arianism did not go away, nor did the discomfort over the use of nonbiblical terms to describe God. Many bishops had serious reservations about what happened at Nicaea.
The great debate regarding the nature and place of the Son and the Holy Spirit in the divinity continued to rage throughout the 4th century. Another emperor, Theodosius who ruled the East along with Gratian who ruled the West, called the Council of Constantinople. It reaffirmed the Nicene teaching and added the important notion that the Holy Spirit was also equal to the Father and the Son, forming the Trinity. Constantinople also produced the Nicene Creed (so called because it was mainly formulated at Nicaea earlier in the same century).
Oddly, Pope Damasus I, the bishop of Rome, was neither informed that the council was taking place nor invited to attend it. A year later a nonecumenical Roman council accepted all the dogmatic pronouncements of Constantinople, while at the same time rejecting certain pronouncements on Church governance and order. This act deepened a political conflict between the East and the West, a division which continues into modern times.
411 St. Augustine writes The City of God
431 The Council of Ephesus was held. At the urging of Nestorius, the patriarch of Constantinople, Theodosius II, the Roman emperor, called the Council of Ephesus to vindicate Nestorius’ teachings. He taught that Mary was the mother of Christ (Christotokos), but not, thereby, the mother of God (Theotokos).
Nestorius had many enemies, and they saw a chance here to embarrass him. They called his position one that could eventually be used to divide the person of Christ into two parts, human and divine. One such enemy was Cyril—an unscrupulous but brilliant theologian who represented Pope Celestine I in the debates at this council. Cyril's position was accepted by the council as a statement of orthodox faith, namely that the Word truly became flesh through a real "hypostatic" union. In other words, the Word does not simple reside in a human but is actually human. The Word did indeed become flesh. Therefore, Mary can truly be called the Mother of God (Theotokos). Nestorius' views were condemned, and he was deposed as patriarch of Constantinople and exiled to Egypt.
The debates at this council were mainly motivated by political goals and were conducted with a minimum of decorum.
Thus, the council was a bit of a circus and a political disgrace in early Church history, but it did affirm that Mary was the mother of God (Theotokos) and led to an agreement two years later which declared that Christ was one person with two natures, one human and one divine. It also prepared the way for the next council, which occurred only 20 years later.
432 St. Patrick begins his missionary crusade to Ireland.
440 Pope Leo the Great is elected. (He died in 461.) He had a very strong influence on the Church because he established and standardized the rite of the Mass, order the use of the Nicene Creed at Mass, codified canon law, established a clerical caste in the Church and made celibacy the norm for clergy, supported monasticism, published a code of social and personal ethics, established the liturgical calendar of feasts, and asserted the primacy of the Roman papacy over the whole Church.
451 The Council of Chalcedon was held. Pulcheria and her solider husband, Marcian, who ruled the Empire following the death of her brother, Theodosius II, called the Council of Chalcedon. Pope Leo I insisted that the bishops follow his views on the nature of Christ, and they agreed that those views, published in his Tome, harmonized with the teachings of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Ephesus. Amid wrangling from many schools of thought, the council finally defined the Christian Faith by saying that Christians believe in Jesus who was completely divine and completely human, except for sin.
This council had more than 500 bishops in attendance, the largest gathering of bishops in the Church to that date. An emotional proceeding, the sessions lasted late into the night under candlelight with cheers, curses, and groans filling the hall during the testimony. Among the bishops, major wrangling occurred over the goings-on of what was called the "robber synod" (which had been held between the councils in Ephesus) where shenanigans succeeded in confusing everything even further. In the end, the papal legates, who presided, succeeded in bringing Pope Leo's Tome into full acceptance.
Leo thus won a dogmatic victory at Chalcedon but failed to secure absolute power for the papacy since Constantinople still claimed to share it. Constantinople's claim was expressed in its now famous Canon 28 which granted jurisdiction to itself in certain matters of Church governance and internal order. Following Rome's rejection of Canon 28, tensions between Rome (the West) and Constantinople (the East) remained strained and eventually ended in schism.
484 The first schism between East and West begins. It lasts until 519.
500 First use of incense in Christian ceremonies is recorded.
529 St. Benedict of Nursia established the first Benedictine Monastery.
553 The Second Council of Constantinople was held. In the Church of the sixth century, there were those bishops and pastors who followed the teachings of Chalcedon, believing and teaching that Christ as one person did indeed have two natures. But there were also many others who continued to believe that Christ had only one nature after his birth, even though he had had two before it. These latter were so successful in spreading their position that Emperor Justinian called the Second Council of Constantinople to reconcile the two positions. Pope Virgilius failed to support him, however, so he had the pope kidnapped and brutalized him into signing the council's decrees. In the end, Justinian's plan failed and the disagreement continued.
This was not a bright moment in Church history, however, and the doctrinal scope of this council remains unclear. Its main outcome seems to have been a continuation of the earlier condemnations of Nestorianism.
587 Foundation of the first Buddhist monastery in Japan.
590 Gregory the Great is elected pope, popularly acclaimed by the people of Rome. He established the pope as the ruler of central Italy. He strengthened papal primary over the West. He greatly expanded the work of converting and baptizing the barbarian masses in Europe and began the work of converting the Anglo-Saxons. And he provided the church with a huge body of theological and spiritual writings that would guide it into medieval times. In this he set the course on which the church would become the dominant social and political force in Europe as the empires collapsed.
595 First recorded use of numbers following the decimal system is recorded in India. This system would eventually become widespread in the world, replacing the more cumbersome systems of numbering and counting then in use.
610 First use of episcopal rings in the church is recorded.
625 Mohammed begins to dictate the Koran
628 Mohammed captures Mecca and begins worldwide campaign to explain the Moslem faith to the leaders of the world. By 633 the local churches in Jerusalem, Antioch (in modern Turkey) and Alexandria (in Egypt) were converting in large numbers of the Islam.
680 The Third Council of Constantinople was held. Emperor Constantine IV called the Third Council of Constantinople to patch up his relations with Rome and to strengthen his hand with the Moslems who were becoming a powerful threat. The council also condemned those who believed in yet another understanding of Christ: namely, that Christ had only one will because as the Son of God he could not have contradicted the divine will. This view had actually been unwittingly approved by Pope Honorius in the 630s.
Constantine's strategy was to consolidate his political position by ingratiating the Church at Rome to himself. This strategy seemed to work for him because this view of the nature of Christ's will was indeed condemned and Honorius was chastised posthumously for supporting it. Along with Honorius, the council condemned four Eastern bishops, straining East-West relations even further.
787 The Second Council of Nicaea was held. A major effort had been underway for 60 years to rid the churches of their icons and all other images because these were thought to lead people into idolatry. The movement, begun by Emperor Leo III, was greatly expanded under his son, Constantine V. They destroyed icons and other images and even tortured and killed those who used them.
The Second Council of Nicaea, called by Empress Irene, who ruled in place of a too- young successor, reversed the movement and legitimated the cult of icons which ended the persecution against those who used them. But the council also specified that adoration was due to God alone allowing that the use of images could be of assistance to the faithful. More than 300 bishops attended the council.
800 (Christmas Day) Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne as emperor of the new empire of the West, separating from the Byzantine empire of the East. Pope Leo also established himself as the supreme bishop of the West. By this time, it was difficult to distinguish the church from the state in Europe. This connection of the temporal and the sacred led eventually to abuses and the decline of the spiritual power of the church.
869 The Fourth Council of Constantinople was held. The Fourth Council of Constantinople was the last council to be held in the East and the last Church council for the next 250 years. It was called to condemn and depose Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople. He later returned to power, but the emperor deposed him again.
879 The pope and the patriarch of Constantinople excommunicate each other. Throughout this period, the city of Constantinople remains the commercial and cultural center of the world.
900 European nobility begin building castles and living in them.
England is the first to divide itself into counties (shires) to offer increased protection
and assurance of civil rights for its inhabitants.
The first of the famous Arabian tales is published, “A Thousand and One Nights.”
In North America, the Second Pueblo period is underway and houses are being built
entirely above ground in the southwest.
Vikings begin building sea worthy ships and discover Greenland.
The making of paper is begun in Cairo.
904 Era of papal pornocracy begins with Pope Sergius III. This is the darkest period in the history of the Church. Sergius’ mistress became the mother of Pope John XI, the aunt of John XIII, and grandmother of Pope Benedict VI. Other abuses were also widespread among the clergy.
913 Pope Lando comes to power (for one year). After this pope, every future pope would assume a name used by his predecessor, such as John XXIII, Benedict XV and so forth until Pope John Paul I in 1970’s.
942 Woolens and linens are manufactured in Flanders for the first time.
963 The first historical note records a bridge in London over the Thames, the famous “London Bridge.”
964 Monasticism was revived in England following a period of warfare. There is a strong desire on people’s parts for holiness.
978 The Chinese begin work on a one thousand volume encyclopedia. Work on this massive project is completed in 984.
983 Venice and Genoa develop a flourishing trade relationship between Western Europe and Asia. On-going trade relationships are now being developed, for example, between Egypt and Italy.
993 The first saints are canonized.
1000 Widespread fears regarding the end of the world and the Last Judgment seize many
nations and people.
The first potatoes and corn are planted in Peru.
The Indian mathematician Sridhara realizes for the first time the importance of the
zero in the numeric system. The first authenticated use of decimal counting had
emerged in India in 595. By 760 decimal counting was in use in Baghdad. In 814
such counting was adopted in Arabia, including the first use of the zero.
“Beowulf” is written in Old English, the first such heroic poem known.
Throughout these years, wars of many kinds and between nearly all civilized peoples
have been raging in Europe.
1044 Papacy sold by deposed Benedict IX to Gregory VI.
1046 Both Benedict and Gregory are dethroned. Pope Clement II comes to power, a Saxon.
1050 Monasteries continue showing their influence in culture and music. English monks begin doing embroidery. Polyphonic singing begins to replace Gregorian Chant. Astronomy advances with the arrival of new instruments from the East. Time values are assigned to musical notes for the first time.
1054 The Eastern Schism. Although not the first separation of the churches of Rome and Constantinople, this date marks the beginning of a period that did not end until Vatican II in the 20th Century. Varied approaches to Church law, poor communications among the two leaders, and numerous, complex international political considerations all led to a permanent cleavage between the two.
1073 Pope Gregory VII (Hildebrand of Soana) attempted numerous reforms of the Church. He was opposed at every turn, even by the secular rulers of the day who stood to benefit from the Church’s business interests, and died in exile in 1085. He was later canonized. The decline of the clergy and abuse of power continued, along with the Church’s powerful and troublesome connection to secular government.
1074 Married priests are excommunicated as celibacy becomes more widespread in the Western Church.
1078 Construction on the Tower of London is begun.
1100 The French language is firmly established. It had been the dialect of Ile-de-France. Middle English overtakes Old English on England.
1123 The First Lateran Council was held. The papacy had fallen into serious decline in the 10th and 11th centuries, having become the plaything of powerful Italian or German families. In the eleventh century, a group of reform-minded popes led a struggle to rid the papacy of vice and corruption. In 1122, Pope Callistus II secured an agreement with the German emperor ending his right to appoint bishops. The pope wanted an ecumenical council to ratify this agreement. Hence, he called a council at the Lateran palace in Rome, which had been given to the papacy by Constantine in the 4th century. No notes or minutes of this council have survived, but historians know of it from post conciliar documents of various kinds. In attendance were 300 bishops. The First Lateran Council concluded its work in only 23 days. It’s main outcome seems to have been the suppression of married priests and simony, the selling of church offices for money.
1139 The Second Lateran Council was held. This three-week council met during the month of April and was attended by some 500 bishops. Pope Innocent II called it to rid himself of an antipope, whose followers were in schism. Innocent enjoyed the support of all major European rulers and, as well, the most powerful Church leader of the day—Bernard of Clairvaux, a Cistercian monk. The council fathers voted to force those in schism to abandon their position. Anacletus II, the antipope in question, was a distinguished scholar and diplomat and canonically more acceptable than Innocent. He failed to get secular backing because he was the son a rich, converted Jew and from the Pierleani family, opposed by many secular rulers.
The Second Lateran Council also enforced clerical celibacy for those in orders, beginning with the subdiaconate. (The practice had fallen into decay.) In addition, the council excommunicated a group of heretics.
1150 The University of Paris is founded. Universities have been rising all across Europe over the last two hundred years.
1163 The Cathedral of Notre Dame is built in Paris, taking its place among great Cathedrals now appearing across Europe.
1167 Oxford University is founded in England.
1170 Thomas Becket is murdered by four Norman knights in Canterbury Cathedral, London, England. He and Henry II had been quarreling about the authority of the Church and that of the State in England. After a period of exile in France, Henry and Becket reconciled but on his return to England, he was murdered.*
1179 The Third Lateran Council was held. This two-week council was called to show support for Pope Alexander III in his fight for power against German antipopes appointed by Frederick Barbarossa, the German emperor. The strategy worked.
The Third Lateran Council also set the rules for electing a pope by calling for a two-thirds vote of the cardinals and set requirements for the ordination of bishops. (They must be 30 years old and born in wedlock.) Finally, the council condemned some heretics in France.