A number of significant eras and movements have occurred in the history of the Christian church. While the list of such periods could go on almost indefinitely, for the purpose of study we can discern four primary eras that have shaped the visible church after the ministry of Jesus and the Apostles: the early church, the medieval church, the Reformation, and the modern church. Each of these eras is made up of defining movements that developed in response to societal dynamics, doctrinal controversies, and ecclesiastical concerns. In the early church, bishops assembled councils to define and defend doctrinal matters related to Trinitarianism, Christology, and anthropology. Furthermore, in response to the cultural embrace of Christianity, the monastic movement began in the early church. Movements related to monasticism, scholasticism, sacramentalism, and clerical reform characterized the medieval era. The Reformation was both the beginning of an era and a movement. The Protestant Reformation, the post-Reformation scholastic movement, the Puritan movement, Scottish Presbyterianism, and the Dutch Second Reformation all belong to the era of Reformation church history. During the modern church era, we have seen both the Puritan movement’s calling the church back to more scriptural church government, worship, and theology and also the effects of the Enlightenment’s exaltation of autonomous human reason on the church. Additionally, the modern church has been marked by movements related to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, missions, eschatology, gender, and sexual ethics.
After the first-century era of the Apostles, doctrinal formulations became the principal feature in the church in the East and the West. The early church saw the convening of several major ecumenical councils, with four standing out in particular. In response to the spread of Arianism, bishops at the First Council of Nicaea (AD 325) confessed the biblical teaching about the deity of Christ. At the First Council of Constantinople (AD 381), bishops affirmed the deity and personhood of the Holy Spirit and rejected the erroneous teaching of Apollinaris, bishop of Laodicea, who believed that Jesus had a human body but not a rational soul. Bishops at the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) addressed the defective teaching of Nestorius regarding the unity of the personhood of Christ. At the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451), bishops rejected the teaching of Eutyches that the divine nature of Jesus swallows up His human nature, leaving Christ with one nature that is neither truly human nor truly divine. The early church is also remembered for Augustine’s stand against the rise of Pelagianism.
Late antiquity was greatly influenced by the conversion of Constantine to Christianity and the resultant cultural tolerance of the church. This in turn set the monastic movement in motion. Anthony of Egypt set out to live a life of separation and asceticism. He emphasized the need for a spiritual Christianity that distinguished itself from the nominalism resulting from state-sponsored Christianity. Athanasius of Alexandria published a biography of Anthony’s life that contributed to the rising popularity of monasticism. The widespread influence of monasticism by the early decades of the sixth century is evident from the establishment of Benedictine monasticism.
The medieval era brought with it the rise of the papacy, the sacramental priesthood, philosophical scholasticism, clerical reform, the further institutionalization of monasticism, and controversies regarding the relationship between church and state. As the church expanded, the Great Schism between the Eastern and Western branches of the church occurred in 1054. The Western church also saw schism and division in the later centuries of the medieval era. For instance, the Avignon Papacy fueled a papal schism in the Western church between 1309 and 1376. The restoration of the papacy to Rome after this schism solidified the centralization of power in the office of the bishop of Rome—the pope—in the Western church.
In 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Luther’s call for reform within the Western church—particularly with regard to the taxing practices of the penitential system—set the Reformation in motion. God raised up many magisterial Reformers to carry biblical reform throughout Europe. Together with Luther, magisterial Reformers such as John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and Martin Bucer advanced the Reformation by their expositional preaching and prolific theological writing. However, there were strong reactions to the Reformation. The papacy responded with the Counter-Reformation movement, leading to the Council of Trent, which codified the theology of the modern Roman Catholic Church. On the other side, John Knox—who had spent time with Calvin in Geneva—carried the Reformation to Scotland. This, in turn, led to the development of Scottish Presbyterianism. When many Scots-Irish immigrated to the New World in the late seventeenth century, they brought Presbyterianism with them. Presbyterianism, in turn, had a massive impact on the establishment of the American system of government.
In England, the ascension of Elizabeth I to power—together with the establishment of the Church of England—raised new concerns among Reformed ministers in England. In his book The English Puritans, John Brown explained that Puritanism as a movement was born out of a desire to contend for the “constitutional rights and liberties of the people as against the encroachments of the Crown.” Additionally, the Puritans called for liturgical reform in the church. Brown suggested that English Puritanism “was a period of a hundred years, from the accession of Queen Elizabeth in 1558 to the death of Oliver Cromwell in 1658.” The confessional documents produced by the Westminster Assembly (1643–48) represent Puritanism’s greatest impact on the Christian church. The Puritan movement paved the way for the post-Reformation scholastic movement. Reformed and Puritan theologians were committed to applying scholastic categories to the articulation and defense of Reformed theology. In the Netherlands, the Dutch Second Reformation began during the seventeenth century because of the work of the Synod of Dort and the subsequent writings of the English Puritans.
The Enlightenment began in France in the seventeenth century and went on to have a profound effect on Western culture. It developed out of the philosophical teaching of René Descartes and was carried on by the contributions of intellectuals such as John Locke, Isaac Newton, Immanuel Kant, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Adam Smith. Positively, the Enlightenment strongly emphasized the academic study of literature. Negatively, it advanced an antisupernaturalism that resulted in Deism, atheism, and secularism. The church in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries contended earnestly for the truth of God’s Word and the supernatural nature of Christianity against the influence of the Enlightenment throughout Europe.
In the shadow of the Enlightenment, two significant periods of spiritual awakening occurred. The First Great Awakening (1734–40) was the result of the preaching of George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards. The Second Great Awakening (1795–1835) was rather less orthodox in both the faith and practice that it encouraged. The modern missionary movement also appeared in the eighteenth century under the vision and labors of William Carey.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, German higher criticism—a negative result of the Enlightenment on theological institutions—infiltrated academic institutions throughout Europe and the United States. Attempts to deconstruct biblical inerrancy and coherence gave rise to the theological liberalism of mainline denominations. Two Protestant responses followed. The first was the rise of dispensationalism—which emphasized the inerrancy and inspiration of Scripture while positing a deficient theological system. Dispensationalism’s preoccupation with eschatology resulted in a century of eschatological refinement. The second response to the theological liberalism of higher criticism was the defense of theological orthodoxy by theologians at Princeton Theological Seminary. When theological liberalism finally won out at Princeton Seminary, J. Gresham Machen founded a new theological institution that would be committed to the defense and propagation of theological orthodoxy and Reformed doctrine and practice. Westminster Theological Seminary opened in 1937. The original faculty at WTS carried on the tradition of Old Princeton, laboring to defend the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture against the continued influence of higher criticism and Neoorthodoxy.
The end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century has been fraught with theological controversies. The inerrancy of Scripture continues to be a pressing theological matter. The rise of the New Perspective(s) on Paul has given way to rekindled debates over the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Debate over gender roles and sexual ethics have been at the forefront of the church’s debates in the second decade of the twenty-first century.
Irish philosopher Edmund Burke wisely remarked that ‘those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.’ Indeed, without a basic knowledge of church history, individual Christians and churches are prone to repeat the same doctrinal errors and foolish mistakes of former days. Familiarity with the history and theology of the early ecumenical councils of Nicaea (325) and Chalcedon (451), for example, helps to protect individuals and churches from unwittingly believing ancient Trinitarian and Christological heresies. . . . The study of church history, therefore, preserves both orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right practice).
Frequently the Reformation is described as a movement that revolved around two pivotal issues. The so called ‘material’ cause was the debate over sola fide (“justification by faith alone”). The ‘formal’ cause was the issue of sola Scriptura, that the Bible and the Bible alone has the authority to bind the conscience of the believer. Church tradition was regarded with respect by the Reformers but not as a normative source of revelation. The ‘protest’ of Protestantism went far beyond the issue of justification by faith alone, challenging many dogmas that emerged in Rome, especially during the Middle Ages. In a short time, the Reformation swept through Germany but did not stop there. Aided by the translation of the Bible in other nations, the reform spread to the Huguenots in France, to Scotland, England, Switzerland, Hungary, and Holland. Ulrich Zwingli led the Reformation movement in Switzerland, John Knox in Scotland, and John Calvin among the French Protestants.
Whitefield was right: the Puritans, though long dead, still speak through their writings. Their books still praise them in the gates. Reading the Puritans will place you and keep you on the right path theologically, experientially, and practically. As Packer writes, ‘The Puritans were strongest just where Protestants today are weakest, and their writings can give us more real help than those of any other body of Christian teachers, past or present, since the days of the apostles.’ . . . I wholeheartedly agree.