History of the Christian Church

Course apologia, description, theological perspective, prerequisites, texts and registration, great quotes

      Remember the days of old, consider the years of many generations: ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thy elders, and they will tell thee... Deuteronomy 32:7

      The works of the Lord are great, sought out of all them that have pleasure therein. His work is honorable and glorious; and his righteousness endureth forever. He hath made his wonderful works to be remembered... Psalm 111:2-4

      Now all these things happened unto them for examples; and they are written for our admonition...  I Corinthians 10:11

    Why study Church History?

    We all recognize the value of studying history: it keeps us from repeating the mistakes of the past (Santayana), it provides us with examples to imitate and to avoid (Livy), it helps us to understand our own times and to make informed decisions about the future (Thucydides), it teaches us perspective and humility by revealing our relation to the grand flow of human cultures and by emphasizing the fact that we are only one among countless eras (Lewis). We gain courage to do what is right when we see that others have done right in the most adverse circumstances (Foxe), and when we realize that what we see happening around us is not unique (all of the above). And it's glorious and fascinating and a grand hoot (Callihan).

    But church history is the most important kind of history and yet far too few Christians give themselves to it. The Bible tells us that man is God's creation in His image for His glory and that all the history of all mankind is the history of God's working out His plan to redeem the world through His Son (Romans 8:19-23, Ephesians 1:9-10, 19-23). It tells us that He is sovereign over men and nations (Psalm 2, Daniel 4, Acts 4:27-28, Romans 13:1); and therefore whatever happens is a revelation of His will and purposes. Most importantly, the Bible tells us that the means God uses to redeem creation is His body, the church (Ephesians 3:9-11), through the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells all who are His. Given all these things, we cannot hope to understand history if we ignore the history of His church. Many events, men, and eras that non-Christians tell us are important are not, and many that they ignore or slight are of critical importance; many of the perspectives we have about history we have learned from unbelievers who do not share our most fundamental assumptions about what is good, bad, right, or wrong. Studying the history of the Christian church is an  important corrective. And of course, to any Christian who enjoys history, church history is delightful and wonderfully illuminating: it is the study of our family history, or brothers and sisters in the faith, and it helps us to see where we have come from and why our faith takes the form that it does now.

    Description of the course

    Schola's History of the Christian Church course will survey Christian history from the pre-Christian Jewish and Greco-Roman background through the early Roman, medieval, and Reformation eras. It will cover the development of all three branches of Christendom--Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant. We will do this by reading Philip  Schaff's magisterial 8-volume History of the Christian Church. The study will include the history of missions, development of doctrine and church government, persecution, worship, and the effect of Christianity on society in art, morality, slavery, status of women and children, government, and literature.

    The reading will average 200 pages per week or 30-40 pgs. per day, so an hour and a half of reading per day should be expected. It is not light reading; these works are serious works, but the writing is excellent and the content fascinating and any Christian's understanding of the faith will be increased immeasurably by the thoughtful reading of these books and by (so the tutor hopes) the discussions in class. There will be a special forum for the class on which students will post written responses to the reading, to assigned questions, and to the discussion.

    Theological perspective of the author and the teacher

    It is of course impossible to be unbiased, nor is it desirable. Philip Schaff was a German Reformed historian writing and teaching in Pennsylvania in the late nineteenth century and both his denominational circumstances and his time and place in history affect his perspective. Nevertheless, or perhaps even because of, these circumstances, his primary love and concern is for the whole of Christ's church--his peaceable, moderate, and fair spirit shine in everything he says and although he does draw firm conclusions, it is only after taking great care to show the strength and weaknesses of all sides whenever there is disagreement. His three great qualifications for writing church history are his irenic spirit and love of unity; his belief in the reality and glory of the objective, visible church on earth; and his immense and powerful scholarliness.  He continues to have the reputation of the greatest modern historian of the Christian church.

    My own (the tutor's) perspective in history is that of Schaff, and in theology is that of the Westminster Confession of Faith and what is commonly called Reformed theology. But this perspective is not what I take as of first importance and therefore is certainly not required of the student. Of first importance is the gospel as expressed in John 3:16, Romans 10:9-13, and especially I Corinthians 15:1-4. Next in importance is Christian unity and love in the bond of peace as expressed in Galations 5:22-23and throughout I John. Thirdly, I believe the Nicene Creed to be a biblically sound summary of essential Christian doctrine. Finer theological distinctions are very important, but they are for clarity, not boundaries of fellowship and love.

    Course prerequisites

    The course is best suited to students who have taken at least Schola Great Books 1 and 2 or have equivalent background in Greek and Roman thought, and who are sixteen years old and up, due to the reading load and to the themes discussed.

    Required texts and registration: 

More great quotes from great church historians


    "If history records good things of good men, the thoughtful hearer is encouraged to imitate what is good: or if it records evil of wicked men, the devout, religious listener or reader is encouraged to avoid all that is sinful and perverse and to follow what he knows to be good and pleasing to God." --Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People

    "In the annals of all people, which indeed display the providence of God, clemency, munificence, honesty, circumspection, and the like, with their opposites, not only provoke believers to what is good, and deter them from evil, but even attract worldly men to goodness, and arm them against wickedness." --Henry of Huntingdon, History of England

    "I have addressed this present history, to the end, first, that the wonderful works of God in His Church might appear to His glory; also that, the continuance and proceedings of the Church, from time to time, being set forth, more knowledge and experience may redound thereby, to the profit of the reader and edification of Christian faith." --John Foxe, Acts and Monuments  (aka Book of Martyrs)

    "The idea of universal history presupposes the Christian idea of the unity of God, and the unity and common destiny of men... A view of history which overlooks or undervalues the divine factor starts from deism and consistently runs into atheism... The central current and ultimate aim of universal history is the KINGDOM OF GOD established by JESUS CHRIST. ... Secular history, far from controlling sacred history, is controlled by it, must directly or indirectly subserve its ends, and can only be fully understood in the central light of Christian truth and the plan of salvation. ... The history of the church is the rise and progress of the kingdom of heaven upon earth, for the glory of God and the salvation of the world. ... The history of the church has practical value for every Christian, as a storehouse of warning and encouragement, of consolation and counsel. ... Next to the holy scriptures, which are themselves a history and depository of divine revelation, there is no stronger proof of the continual presence of Christ with his people, no more thorough vindication of Christianity, no richer source of spiritual wisdom and experience, no deeper incentive to virtue and piety, than the history of Christ’s kingdom. Every age has a message from God to man, which it is of the greatest importance for man to understand."  --Philip Schaff, History of the Christian Church

    "If the Christian faith is true, it should be either central or at least  be consciously kept as the setting and the point of reference for all the work of the historian. It had its inception in events and in a life which are part of the historical record. ... The clue to the perplexing and paradoxical human drama is to be found in Christ, that the whole of the created universe groans in travail waiting for the revealing of the sons of God, the sons of whom Christ is the first-born, and that it is the purpose of God to sum up all things in Christ, both in the heavens and upon the earth, and to put 'all things in subjection under his feet.' ... To be seen in its proper perspective the entire course of mankind on the planet must be surveyed with reference to Christ, from the incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth, through his teaching, deeds, life, and resurrection, and it is no accident but of the very stuff of history that chronology is measured as B.C.--before Christ--and A.D., Anno Domini, the year of the Lord of men of history."  --Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity

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