What happened after Jesus commanded the Apostles “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you”(Mt. 28: 19-20)? How did the Church survive the periodic persecution of the Romans for 300 years as a mostly underground, house church, yet emerging as the Church of the Roman Empire under Constantine? How did she overcome the heresies which threatened to hopelessly divide her? How did she begin to convert the barbarian tribes that overran the Roman Empire and build Christendom anew? How did Christendom emerge into a powerful rivalry between church and state? Is the story of the Church’s development of doctrine, its struggle to develop as an institution, its Saints, a story worth exploring today?
The Christian faith is rooted in history. Central to our faith is the fact that Jesus Christ became man and lived and taught and left us a rich legacy, which his apostles and disciples have since spread to every continent. The Christian announcement of Jesus Christ as Savior and Son of God is the product of faith, but is, nonetheless, based upon history and revelation. How the Church produced the Bible is itself a fascinating story of history, of which many Christians are ignorant. They are unaware that the New Testament canon was not finalized until the end of the fourth century by Church councils. This fact alone has great significance for those trying to understand the Church’s development. Church history also makes clear that the Bible is salvation history, not a mere collection of stories.
The Catholic Church is the oldest institution in the Western world. It has made its mark on history, yet many Christians today see no reason to study it. Myths about the Church abound. Historical study of the Church was and is an important part of how the Church understands herself. Certainly, historical factors played a role in the great debate of the second and third centuries in defining Christ in the face of challenges by the heretical Arians and others who denied his divinity. The great churchmen and councils that decided these issues, beginning with the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., which gave us the Nicene Creed, are the very fabric of Church history. The terms “Trinity” and “apostolic succession,” neither of which are found in Scripture, require the study of history for a full understanding. It is only through the study of history that we learn their Christian perspective and meaning.
To study Church history is to see the work of God amidst the strife and turmoil of man’s story. What did Christ mean when he said “the gates of hell” would not prevail against the Church? What significance did the keys he gave to St. Peter have for the Church or the power of binding and loosing? Were the bishops created by St. Paul, like Timothy and Titus, successors of the apostles (see epistles to Timothy and Titus)? How about Mathias (see Acts 1)? Is this apostolic succhession? History puts these questions into perspective and helps us to understand our faith better as we see the Church marching through the ages.
Her development from a seedling into a great institution is not without blood and tears, but Christians need not change the subject when the Crusades or the Inquisition become the topic of discussion. We don’t defend the extremes of either, but rather note that they were a reflection of their time and culture and there were some meritorious reasons for doing these things. The way that the Holy Spirit reveals truth is gradually over the course of centuries. The Church is growing into the fullness of Christ, and even today we fall short
It has been said that the Church is “the greatest humanizing agent the world has ever seen” and this is demonstrated in history. It was the Church which created the monasteries, which kept alive culture during the so-called “Dark Ages.” Even some secular histories now acknowledge as much. Still the prevalent view is that the rise of science, reason and a more humane approach to human affairs arose in the Enlightenment period of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. But according to historian, Thomas Woods in his work, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization, this occurred much earlier in the Middle Ages and it was the Church and its institutions, especially monasteries, hospitals, cathedral schools, universities, etc. that laid the foundation for the development of the scientific revolution, of modern international law and human rights, and of modern economic theory. This is not mere triumphalism or misplaced devotion since to give credit where credit is due is only just. Nor is this an attempt to ignore the corruption or abuses that infected the Church and made possible the Protestant Reformation and led to Council of Trent and beginning of a Catholic revival. On the contrary, these too are a part of the fabric of our Church history. Let’s explore them together!