Sep 26, 2022

Church History

3 Min Read


Church History is the study of God’s providential care of His people and how the Word of God has formed God’s people over time. While the Reformed position on the relationship of Israel to the church is that Israel is the Old Testament church and the church is the New Testament Israel, in most circles, church history deals with the history of God’s people beginning in the New Testament with the person and work of Jesus Christ. From those small beginnings, God blessed His people in such a way that the church has expanded to encompass people from every country in the world.


The first question to ask regarding church history is the question of its value. Why study it? Given the definition above, involving God’s providence, an answer is available: knowing God’s providence as it has worked out over time helps us understand God Himself better. It also helps the church avoid the mistakes of the past, while teaching the church positive things from the past, especially as we learn from the pastors and teachers who have helped to formulate biblical doctrine. Church history also helps the modern church to be truly and biblically ecumenical. We are not the first Christians. Observing the centuries of the church militant, we can identify with the story of the church universal. It helps us become discerning regarding the teaching we encounter. If the teaching we encounter is a repeated older heresy, then we not only discard it, but also warn others against it.

There are two main subjects to study under the larger category of church history: (1) the events of church history, as the church spread to every nation on earth; and (2) the teachings of the church, particularly in the way that heresy prompted the teachers of the church to the study of the Scriptures in order to get at the truth (often called historical theology). These are not completely separable categories, as events and doctrines are intertwined. However, it is helpful to learn church history with this distinction in mind.

Most church historians agree in dividing the periods of church history into four eras. The early church begins with Christ’s person and work (4 BC–AD 29), and generally ends with Gregory the Great and the rise of Islam (AD 590–610). The medieval church period begins with Gregory the Great and ends in 1517, the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. Reformation church history starts in 1517. Historians vary, however, as to the ending of the Reformation church period. Some put it at the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Others put it at the time of the French Revolution (1790). In terms of historical theology, it makes sense to end the Reformation era with the period of late orthodoxy (1725–90). The modern church period would then cover 1790 to the present. These four periods exist for pedagogical purposes, so the student of church history should not think that there is no overlap among the periods or that people involved in the change of eras knew that such a large change was happening.


4 BC–AD 590: Early church history

590–1517: Medieval church history

1517–1790: Reformation church history

1790–present: Modern church history


“The church has had its ups and downs through the centuries; it’s had times of great strength and great weakness, of great faithfulness and great frustration and wandering from the truth; but Christ has always fulfilled His promise that He would build His church, that He would preserve His church, and that the church would never fail.”

W. Robert Godfrey

A Survey of Church History, lecture 1

“The whole history of the church has shaped who we are as Christians today and has shaped the churches to which we belong today.”

W. Robert Godfrey

A Survey of Church History, lecture 1

“History has two sides, a divine and a human. On the part of God, it is his revelation in the order of time (as the creation is his revelation in the order of space), and the successive unfolding of a plan of infinite wisdom, justice, and mercy, looking to his glory and the eternal happiness of mankind. On the part of man, history is the biography of the human race, and the gradual development, both normal and abnormal, of all its physical intellectual, and moral forces to the final consummation at the general judgment, with its eternal rewards and punishments.”

Phillip Schaff

History of the Christian Church, 1:2