Summary of The Story of Christianity by David Bentley Hart

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  • Post last modified:February 2, 2024
The story of Christianity by David Bentley Hart book cover

Takeaway: 4 min

Summary: 54 min

Book reading time: 6h43

Score: 10/10

Book published in: 2015

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  • After Jesus died, the Apostles went into the world to preach what he had taught them.
  • Peter and Paul went to Rome where pagans quickly converted as they admired the virtuous behavior of Christians. The Roman Empire became Christian in 323.
  • The preaching was put into writing and the assembly of these texts became the Bible. It was translated into many languages for whom an alphabet was often then created (Eg: Armenia).
  • The first philosopher to practice an allegorical exegesis of the Bible was Origen of Alexandria (185—254). Many others came after him (Augustine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, Jerome) and their work was never surpassed since then.
  • The Roman Empire fell in 476. The texts from Antiquity were preserved, copied, and translated by a series of monastic orders. Europe was no longer politically united, but culturally united.
  • The Council of Chalcedon (471) divided the Eastern (Coptic, Syrian, etc) churches from Rome and Constantinople due to the assumed nature of Jesus (two natures VS two natures united into one).
  • The most peaceful European area was Gaul from which a united Catholic kingdom emerged around 500 under the leadership of Clovis.
  • The beginning of the Middle Ages in Europe was a succession of battles and struggles as barbaric tribes sought to rebuild some sort of political structure.
  • The rise of Islam was the first threat to the Christian monopoly. The Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphates took enormous territories extremely fast and went up to Poitiers in Europe where they were stopped by Charles Martel in 732.
  • Around that time, the Byzantine Emperor forbade images (The Iconoclast Controversy) which was condemned during a council in 787. Icones were reestablished for good in 843.
  • Russia became Orthodox Christian after Vladimir the Great sought a new faith to replace paganism at the end of the 10th century.
  • The beginning of the new millennium was a golden age in Western Europe as Christian scientists researched and developed new scientific methods.
  • The Great Schism between Rome and Constantinople happened in 1054 after Rome’s ambassador Humbert excommunicated Cerularius for refusing to yield to the authority of the Pope.
  • The Crusades developed in the 11th century to maintain “The Peace of God” which was an enforced way of maintaining peace in Europe. The First Crusade freed Jerusalem after Christian pilgrims had been attacked by Seljuq Turks. The Crusaders established kingdoms after the feudalism model. The last Crusade ended in 1272. They were mostly pointless.
  • Constantinople peaked in the 12th century and declined due to Muslim pressures, Eastern barbarians, and Western Christian armies. The Crusaders sacked the city in 1261 due to not being paid by the Emperor they helped put in power. It never recovered.
  • The 13th Century saw the creation of the Franciscans (by St Francis of Assisi) and the Dominicans (by St Dominic, c.1170- 1221) whose theological and philosophical reflection influenced the main currents of later Catholic theology.
  • It was also the period of the Black Death which killed one-third of Europeans.
  • A failure from Constantinople to get Western support against the numerous invaders (Arabs, Mongols, Turks, Bulgars) led to the downfall of the city in 1453. The Roman Empire was no longer.
  • The move of intellectuals from Constantinople back to the West spurred the Renaissance. It had started in the 12th century in Italy but been delayed by the Black Death.
  • After Spain was freed from Muslim rule, Ferdinand and Isabella established the Inquisition (1478–1834) to force everyone to convert to Catholicism.
  • From the 11th to the 15th century, the Church became richer and more powerful – and attracted people that wanted riches and power. Calls for reform began in England in the 15th century which led to the Protestant reform in 1517, popular in Germany in Scandinavia where, unlike France and Spain, the state did not control the Church.
  • The Pope’s refusal to annul Henry VIII’s wedding in 1534 led to a schism. After his death, the subsequent rulers aligned the English Catholic Church with Protestantism.
  • The Church reformed during the Council of Trent in 1545 where it punished abuses, forbade indulgences, and regularized liturgy.
  • The discovery of America led the Jesuits to evangelize the New World. Despite mainstream thinking, the populations voluntarily adopted Christianism and the foreign priests were often the only ones to defend them against the colonizers.
  • The development of science led many scientists to abandon Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries.
  • Darwin’s book On the Origins of Species dealt an important blow to Christianity as it exposed the cold mechanisms of evolution. Had the world really been created by a loving Christian God?
  • The decay of Christian beliefs led to materialist schools of thoughts like modern psychology, eugenics, and communism. These sought to create a utopia built with morals based on rationality, which led to hundreds of millions of deaths in the 20th century.
  • John XXIII initiated the reforms of Vatican II in 1962 to adapt the Church to the modern world.
  • Paul VI met the patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I in 1964 and together, reversed the excommunication of 1054 – without reestablishing communion.
  • While Christianity is the biggest religion in nominal terms, only a tiny fraction of Christians go to church.
  • But the 19th-century predictions of Christianism’s disappearance were far from true.

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What The Story of Christianity Talks About

The Story of Christianity is a book written by David Bentley Hart. The book narrates 2000 years of Christianity and briefly explores all of its development up to the 21st century. It begins with a brief history of Judaism and subsequently explains the spread of Christianity from Jerusalem to the entire world.

It’s the best book to have a broad vision of the entire history of Christianity, including the Apostles’ work, the spread of the faith in the Roman Empire, its survival in the Byzantine Empire, the heretics, the Crusades, the Middle Ages, the Schisms, the councils, the Protestant Reforms, and much, much more.


Get the book here.

Summary of The Story of Christianity Written by David Bentley Hart


The story of Christianity is not merely the story of a religion indigenous to Western civilization; in a very real sense, it is the story of that civilization itself.

The Abiding Glory: the People of Israel

The Hebrew Bible was written by different people at different periods, but it tells one story: the Glory of God on Earth.

This Glory is the overwhelming presence of God. God created all people but as a result of sin, He decided to forge a special bond with the Jews only.

The Jews fought among themselves and fought with God. God punished them then forgave them.

By the time Jesus was born, the Jews were already there for 2000 years.

The first patriarch was Abraham, whom God asked to leave his native city of Ur (modern Irak) to go to an unknown land where his descendants would become a great nation.

God and Abraham signed this deal in the flesh through circumcision.

Abraham had children who had children. The Jews eventually went to Egypt where Joseph, Isaac’s son, had acquired great power under Pharaoh’s authority.

They became slaves when Joseph died until the 13th or 14th century BC when Moses led them out of Egypt. God revealed his real name (YHWH) to Moses and gave him the 10 Commandments.

After Moses’ death, the Jews remained a loose group of 12 tribes until the rise of the first king Saul in 1007 BC, then David in 965 BC, then Solomon in 928 BC, who built the Great Temple.

Solomon had many foreign wives and tolerated foreign cults as a result. The kingdom split into two: Israel, in the north, and Judah, in the south.

Israel fell to the Assyrians in 722 BC and disappeared. Judah survived, giving the word Judaism.

The kingdom of Judah was overrun by the Babylonians in 587- 586 BC and the Jews were scattered as captives.

Babylon fell to Persia and the Persian king Cyrus let the Jews go back to Jerusalem and built back the temple, which they finished in 516-515 BC.

In 332 BC, Alexander the Great conquered Persia, and Jewish culture assimilated into Hellenistic culture.

In 168 BC, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (Syrian) vowed to destroy Judaism. He destroyed the temple and persecuted the Jews.

The Jews revolted and eventually gained the independence of Judea, until the Roman conquest in 63 BC.

The Death of the Messiah

Jesus was announced in the ancient Scriptures as the ultimate communication from God to humans.

We know little about his childhood.

The enemies of Christ didn’t doubt he could perform miracles, but they questioned under which authority he did.

Yet the most surprising thing for people at the time wasn’t Jesus’ miracles (many prophets performed them), but his interpretation of the law. When he healed a man during Sabbath, he said that Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.

His saving of the adultery woman also broke the law as he challenged the ethics of stoning.

Jesus never said he was the Messiah, but when others did, he did not contradict them. The Jews never accepted him because they were waiting for a warrior that would free Israel, not a philosopher.

Yet when he appeared as capable of freeing Israel, the peace established between the High Jewish Priests and the Romans was threatened. The Jews did not want a war with the Romans – and Jesus predicted he’d die soon.

Nobody knows why Judas betrayed Jesus, but Jesus knew what would happen to him.

He had predicted to his disciples that they would abandon him, which they did.

When Peter realized that, he wept (important, as weeping would normally not be a recorded detail in the Bible -> sign that people began to be more sensitive to such things.)

Jesus was brought for trial.

The Roman governor Pontius Pilate didn’t want to kill him as he didn’t think he was dangerous.

He offered to free him because it was Passover, but the crowd (under the injunction of the Jewish priests) asked for the release of a criminal named Barrabas instead.

And so Jesus was crucified.

At the time, nothing gave away the idea that his teachings would survive.

The disciples were in hiding, and the movement had been stopped.

Three days after the crucifixion, the women went to visit Jesus’ tomb, which was empty. They were told (accounts differ) that Jesus had been risen from the dead and lived.

They went to tell the disciples and a few days later, they announced the same thing to the entire world.

The price Christ paid with his life was akin to a price paid to free slaves – in this case, humanity had been freed from death.

Christ had triumphed.

The Church of the Apostles

After his resurrection, Jesus told the disciples they would receive the Holy Spirit that would reveal the truth to them, and that he would send them to the world the same way God had sent him, giving them his power to forgive sins.

They received the gift to speak languages at the Pentecost and went out to preach.

That day, 3000 Jews converted to Christianism.

The Christian Church was only in Jerusalem at the beginning, and it was exclusively Jewish. Peter opened the faith to non-Jews when a Roman centurion called Cornelius invited him to speak to him.

One of the most active preachers was Saul (who changed his name to Paul later on), a Jew who vowed to destroy Christianity but who, after an encounter with Jesus (after he died), became an ardent member.

He went to meet Peter in Jerusalem and was given the title of Apostle. His mission was to preach to the “uncircumcised” which pleased Paul as he considered Christianism a universal religion that could replace Judaism altogether.

This changed everything.

Had Christianism remained a sect within Judaism, it would have likely disappeared.

Peter and Paul died in Rome, reportedly during Nero’s purge in the 60s.

Paul had been sent there to be trialed, but no one knows why Peter was there.

The Growth of the Early Church

In its earliest days, Christianity disseminated its message principally through the synagogues.

Since Christians didn’t yet have any churches, they met at home where they reenacted the last supper and shared a meal.

The faith expanded.

When the first generation of Christians died, they relied on the priests, which had been established during the Apostles, to maintain the link with Jerusalem.

The priest was responsible for baptism, the Eucharist, helping the poor, and the management of the community wherever a church was founded.

In the second century, Bishop Ignatius of Antioch decided that priests and bishops were the only authority of the church as various schisms had already started.

Around the late 2nd century, the church of Rome saw itself as the center of Christianity.

In the middle of the third century, Bishop Stephen of Rome claimed that the authority Christ had granted Peter was the spiritual patrimony of the bishops of Rome.

Besides the Church, the scriptures were the only source of authority.

At first, the Christian Bible was the translated Hebrew Bible. Other later translations contained added books, but no one’s sure when they were added.

The four Gospels and some of Paul’s letters were already important texts by the end of the first century.

The need to assert which documents were real and which were not was motivated by several false teachings.

In the beginning, Christians were the object of wild fantasies in Rome because they had to meet in secret.

But as they grew, the pagans could see that they were kind, faithful, courageous, generous, and virtuous even in difficult times.

Their virtue compelled many pagans to convert.

The Age of the Martyrs

The earliest Christian martyrs, such as Stephen and the Apostle James, died at the hands of their fellow Jews, who condemned them as corrupters of the faith of Abraham.

Since the Empire tolerated the Jews and since it was difficult to differentiate the Jews from the Christians, early Christians benefitted from their protection.

But as they evolved into a separate group, the pagans learned of Christianity which they deemed invalid.

The first persecution began in 64 under Nero after a fire had destroyed a part of the city. He blamed the Christians and many were put to death.

The anger toward them grew and soon, being Christian was enough to be a crime – but only in theory.

Roman politicians were hardly bothered by Christians, so they told them not to admit they were Christians to avoid them death penalty.

While some emperors tried to suppress Christianity (Maximinus Thrax in 235, Decius in 250, Valerian in 257), Trajan ordered not to seek them out.

Many Christian’s faith strengthened as a result of their persecution, and the Church was left stronger than it was in its beginnings.

The willingness of Christians to die for Christ won them a reputation not only for stubbornness, but also for their courage and purity of spirit.

The Gnostics

The Gnostics were the multiple sects that claimed to have superior knowledge and systems of salvation.

Most of the time, Gnosticism drew from Christian, Jewish, Greek, Syrian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian, and Persian sources, sometimes all at once.

Alexandria in the Early Christian Centuries

Alexandria was founded by the Greek Alexander the Great, and his dynasty (the Ptolemies) ruled until Cleopatra lost to Caesar.

It was the most dangerous city in the Antique world, but also the most interesting one from an intellectual perspective. Christians, Jews, and Pagans shared the city and often fought one another.

The philosopher Pantaenus created the first Christian institution of higher learning which was directed by Origen later on.

Origen was the first to practice the allegorical exegesis that would allow ancient and Medieval Christians to read the Old Testament as Christian scripture.

He was one of the most important Christian theologians but was never made a Saint because some of his ideas were declared heretical.

Alexandria hosted the great library which, despite the rumors, was never burnt by Christians in 391 (it had long been gone since then) but was burned during Julius Caesar’s assault on the city.

Constantine the Great and the Birth of Christendom

The last Christian persecution in the empire happened in 303 when Diocletian required that all Christians make sacrifices to the old gods after he failed to obtain an oracle.

This ‘Great Persecution’ was truly a time of terror. Believers were imprisoned, tortured and killed; martyrs’ tombs were desecrated, churches destroyed and Christian texts burned.

Diocletian’s successor in 305, Galerius, continued the massacre for six more years until he got sick, which he interpreted as a sign of God.

He was succeeded by Constantine who had converted to Christianity before a decisive battle for the title of emperor against his brother-in-law in 312 – battle which he won.

One year later, he promulgated the Edict of Milan which granted anyone to practice the faith of their choice.

In 324, he shifted the state properties away from paganism to the Church. In 325, he organized the first ecumenical council of the Church to resolve the issues of the different doctrines.

In 330, he moved the seat of the government to Byzantium, which became Constantinople, a city dedicated to Christ.

When Constantine died, his son Constantius II took power. Constantine’s nephew Julian secretly converted to paganism in 351 and the chance had it that Constantius II named him Caesar in 355.

He tried to remove him in 360 but failed, and Julian was named August by his troops. Constantius II died that same year and Julian took his place, spending the rest of his two years of reign trying to bring back paganism.

Cities of the Desert: the Rise of Monasticism

Retreats in the desert began in Egypt in the late third century to avoid persecution.

After the Edict of Milan was passed, Christians went into the desert not for safety, but to avoid indulgences and temptations.

By the fourth century, enthusiasm for a monastic life had become great enough that the desert had transformed into a city.

Through poverty, fasting, and prayer, the early monks sought to imitate John the Baptist.

The ascetics’ chief concerns were the purification of the heart and the perfection of charity in their wills.

One of the earliest and most famous desert monks was St Anthony of Egypt (251-356). He sold all of his possessions, gave the money to the poor, and moved to the desert in an old abandoned Roman fort.

In 305, he created a congregation with the people that had, unbeknownst to him, followed him.

St Pachomius (c.290-346) is another famous monk. He was the first one to organize a monastery within the same building and where the daily activity was organized according to fixed hours.

His rule set the pattern for the subsequent rules (St Benedict and St Basil).

Christianity in Armenia and India

Armenia became the first Christian country in 300.

Before that, Armenia had been conquered by everyone:

  • The Persians under Darius I (550-486 BC)
  • Alexander the Great
  • Seleucids
  • The Romans in 66 BC

According to tradition, Christianism in the country began as early as during the Apostles. Thaddeus came in 43 and Bartholomew joined him in 60. They both died in Armenia.

But the founder of Armenian Christianity was St Gregory the Illuminator (240-332).

Because some pockets of paganism survived, the country led a more robust campaign of Christianization in 365 and built hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the most fragile ones.

A priest created an alphabet for the Armenian language and they started translating Christian texts.

The Armenian Church broke up with Rome and Constantinople after the Council of Chalcedon in 451 which they rejected in 506.

Christianity also came to India through the descendants of East Syrian merchants who traveled along the trade routes that passed through the Red Sea and settled in Kerala.

They called themselves “Thomas Christians” because they believe the Apostle Thomas brought Christianity to India. This Church kept its links with the Syrian Church (which also broke up after Chalcedon).

They were well-received by Indians and granted a high place in the caste order. Their Christianism was eventually influenced by Hindu practices.

Ancient Splendour: Christianity in Ethiopia

In the early 4th Century, two Christian merchants embarked for India but never reached their destination.

Instead, they ended up in Ethiopia and were taken to Aksum where they were one was sold to the court as a cupbearer, and the other, as a tutor to the Crown Prince.

And that’s how Ethiopia became Christian.

One God in Three Persons: the Earliest Church Councils

As soon as the Church was granted legal rights, it suffered an enormous doctrinal crisis.

An Alexandrian priest named Arius (c.250-336) began to preach that Christ was uniquely man and did not have any divine nature.

Arius was expelled from Alexandria and spent the rest of his time defending his thesis.

Christians realized they had many disagreements in how they understood the Father, Christ, and the Holy Spirit, so Constantine organized the Council of 325.

Three hundred and eighteen (almost exclusively Eastern) bishops gathered at Nicaea, near Constantinople, with Arius in attendance.

Arius’ thesis was condemned and a first version of the Nicene Creed was published, adopted by everyone except 7 bishops.

Yet it didn’t stop there.

Other theologians proposed alternative solutions to the controversy.

The ‘Arian controversy’ did not reach its conclusion until Theodosius I (347:95), a Nicene Christian, had assumed power in the East, in 379.

The Age of the Fathers

The first few centuries of the Church’s history are usually referred to as the ‘patristic period’.

These were the theologians who first enunciated the principles of Christian biblical exegesis, first attempted to establish and refine a Christian dogmatic vocabulary, and first employed the methods and the riches of Greek philosophy to deepen and clarify the Church’s understanding of what had been revealed in Christ.

This was the golden age of Christian thought. The accomplishments of those times were never surpassed.

The first theologians of the patristic age are known as the ‘Apostolic Fathers’ because they were the earliest successors of the Apostles as leaders of the Church.

They were:

  • Clement
  • Ignatius of Antioch
  • Polycarp of Smyrna.
  • Quadratus
  • Aristides
  • Melito of Sardis
  • Justin Martyr
  • St Irenaeus of Lyons
  • Tertullian
  • Origen and Clement from Alexandria
  • Basil
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • St Augustine of Hippo (one of the best)
  • St Isidore of Seville
  • St John of Damascus

The Fall of Rome and the Rise of a New Western Christendom

Well before Constantine’s decision to relocate the imperial capital to Byzantium, the Western Roman empire had suffered a long and steady decline.

The East was better in all things than the West. The West’s agriculture and demographics were declining, leaving the empire ripe for anyone who’d take it.

This explains why Constantine moved Rome to Constantinople in the 4th century. Already at the time, he knew the empire was decaying.

Rome’s symbolism took a hit when it was occupied in 410 as it had not been occupied by a foreign power in 800 years.

Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustulus in 476, and the Western Empire ended.

Western Monasticism and the Preservation of Western Learning

According to myth propagated by the 18th-century historian Edward Gibbon, the decline of Rome and the advent of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were precipitated by the rise of Christianity. This is simply false.

The catholic monasteries were the only institutions that saved the few documents that were left from Roman antiquity.

In the sixth century, the Christian philosopher Boethius (c.475-524) undertook to shore up such fragments as he could against the darkness by producing translations of all of Plato and Aristotle.

He died at the hand of a barbaric king.

His task was taken then by Cassiodorus (490-c.585), one of the first-ever encyclopaedists.

He founded a monastery called the Vivarium, near modern Squillace where monks copied the manuscripts that had been gathered.

Other monasteries copied them, and they became the guardians of the work of Virgil, Ovid, Cicero, Pliny, Horace, Statius, Persius, Lucan, Suetonius, Seneca, Martial, Apuleius, Juvenal, Terence, etc.

These monasteries (that had begun in Egypt) were brought to the West by John Cassian (360-435), or John the Eremite.

After passing by Egypt, Bethlehem, and Constantinople, John went to Gaul and began by founding the monastery of St Victor in Marseilles.

But the true father of the Western monastic tradition was Benedict of Nursia (480 – 547). He founded dozens of monasteries and wrote his famous Rule. He also founded the monastery of Monte Cassino.


As the Western Roman Empire disintegrated, Christian Europe emerged. Barbaric tribes (often heretics) occupied once-Roman lands.

The unity of the continent was no longer political, but cultural (religious).

In the 4th and 5th centuries, the most civilized province was Gaul. Pagans and Christians lived in peace next to one another. But by the 5th Century, the only institution that had transcended time was monasteries, and paganism would soon be erased.

One of the most active founders of monasteries was St Martin of Tours.

The Barbarians came in the 5th Century, but the old aristocracy was not displaced and all of the administration remained in place.

Then Clovis unified the Franks and conquered the rest of the country. He married a catholic princess and became catholic at the same time.

The Formation of Orthodox Christology

The great dogmatic debate of the fourth century concerned, the divinity of Christ; the great dogmatic debate of the fifth century (and after) concerned his humanity.

The idea at the time was that Jesus was the Son of God, co-eternal and co-equal with the Father.

But how had he become a man?

  • Was He God who had assumed flesh?
  • Did he have a human will as well as a divine will?
  • Was he a product of both?
  • Or an alliance?

The Church taught that Christ had assumed human nature to redeem us of sin and death. Therefore, should Christ be found not to have assumed a part of human nature, that part would not be saved either.

Problems began when Nestorius was made bishop of Constantinople in 428. He denounced the Constantinopolitan practice of calling Mary “Mother of God”.

Nestorius believed that Jesus was the result of the association of the Logos with a human person.

His refusal to call Mary “Mother of God” meant for many Christians that he denied that God had become human.

A moral association between the Logos and a man would not be a real incarnation.

His opponent was Cyril of Alexandria who believed that God had become man and that Jesus was its incarnation.

Mary was hence the Mother of God because God was present in Christ.

The council of Ephesus in 431 expelled Nestorius and declared his theory a heresy.

But the Alexandrian understood the nature of Jesus in a different way too.

While Antioch considered that Jesus had dual nature (dyophysitism: human and divine) which neglected the unity of Christ’s person, Alexandria thought the opposite: Jesus incarnated a single nature (monophysitism).

To Antioch, this sounded like Jesus’ divine nature had displaced his human nature -> which would mean that God had not become man, but “stayed God”.

The issue was the word “nature” meant different things in different parts of the world: in Egypt, it meant “substance”, but it was much more abstract in the rest of the world.

So Cyril offered the following theory: Christ was one Person possessing two complete natures, which suited everyone…except for some people in Alexandria.

When Cyril died, the cause of the single nature was brought up again by Eutyches. He believed that there were two natures before the incarnation, and one after (Christ’s humanity was wholly assumed into his divinity), that is, that Christ’s divinity and humanity were united into one nature (miaphysite doctrine).

His thesis was condemned at a Synod in Constantinople in 448 and during the Council of Chalcedon (451).

Chalcedon divided the Church forever.

The Oriental Churches (Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Syrian Jacobite Church, the Nestorian communion, in East Syria and Persia, and the Armenian Church) broke with Constantinople and Rome.

The irony is that the division was more a matter of language than it was a matter of belief – no one denied the humanity of Christ. However, the division was also political (indigenous resentment of former Roman imperial power).

The Last Epoch of the United Christian Empire

By the beginning of the sixth century, the Roman West was no more. Of Latin imperial civilization there now remained only a few moribund institutions, a few noble houses, an indigenous peasantry and an occasionally beleaguered Church.

Yet the Christian world was briefly reunited by the Byzantine emperor Justinian I and his wife, Theodora.

The Byzantine Empire’s enemy was Persia’s Sassanid Empire, but what Justinian really wanted was the former Western Roman Empire.

The Italian Catholics were under Arian rule and the North Africans were persecuted by the Vandals.

Justinian got them both back by 535 and they installed an imperial prefect in Ravenna (Italy).

Then he reformed his empire. In 529, he created the Justinian codex, a Christianized version of Roman law.

  • It made freeing slaves easier.
  • It gave rights to women.
  • It made divorces (disastrous for women) harder.
  • It made laws protecting children.

And then he built the Hagia Sofia.

The ‘Church of the East’: the Nestorian Missions

In the early Middle Ages, the largest (or, to be more precise, most widespread) Christian communion in the world was the Syrian Nestorian Church, also called the East Syrian or Assyrian Church, or the ‘Church of the East’.

As they were driven out of West Syria, the Nestorians went to East Syria in the Persian Empire.

East Syrian Christianity was a scholarly and ascetical tradition from a very early period, and always distinct in sensibility from the more Hellenized intellectual culture of Antioch, farther to the west.

It became a theological world unto itself. In 553, the Second Council of Constantinople condemned the teachings of Theodore of Mopsuestia which were central to the East Syrian Church.

The Church spread to the Mesopotamian region, the Persian Empire, eastern Anatolia, Kurdistan, Turkestan, and well beyond too.

The Syrians were established along trade routes for the far east, and while Indian and Arabian merchants walked through Seleucia-Ctesiphon, so did the Syrian monks go to the far east to preach the Gospel.

By providing trained physicians and scholars and by building schools, libraries and hospitals, the East Syrian Church often proved itself an immense benefit to the areas where it settled.

In 638, Tang emperor Taizong enabled a Persian monk to preach and found a monastery in China. Over the next two centuries, churches and monasteries were established in at least ten provinces.

The Syrians went up to Sri Lanka, Java, Sumatra, Japan, Korea, Myanmar, Malaya, Vietnam, and Thailand.

A New Power in the World: the Rise of Islam

By the beginning of the 7th century, Christianity had expanded and suffered no rivalry. This changed with the rise of Islam.

Muhamad grew up in Mecca and experienced a vision of the angel Jibril which led him to become a prophet in 610.

The message was very simple: submit to God.

Islam was, above all, the strictest of monotheisms, reserving all devotion for God alone, hostile to any hint of polytheism or idolatry and censorious of the Christian doctrine of the Trinity.

By the time Muhammed died, all of the Arabian peninsula was converted to Islam.

Islam is not merely a spiritual philosophy or ethical teaching, but a political order as well. There is no division between religion and state in Islamic thought, and Muhammad was not only a prophet, but a ruler.

Therefore, it was necessary to find a political successor after his death.

The early years of the caliphate were a period of quick military expansion. The soldiers managed to exploit the weaknesses of the Persian and Byzantine empires and occupied immense territories of both.

Within ten years of the death of Muhammad, Arab forces had captured Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Armenia, Iraq, and Iran.

By 710, the caliphate comprised most of North Africa, stretching far to the west of Roman Tingis (Tangier), as well as all of Portugal and Spain (with the exception of the small kingdom of Asturias in northern Spain) and much of transalpine Gaul.

The Abbasid dynasty succeeded to Umayyad Caliphate and they conquered Mediterranean islands.

The Christian world had been reduced to a fraction of what it was once, confronted by a power greater than itself.


As the Abbasid dynasty ruled over the caliphate, a new great Christian empire was forming in Europe: the Carolingian Empire, named like this due to its first king, Charles Martel, and best king, Charlemagne.

Charles Martel was Charlemagne’s grandfather. He had united the Franks, fought the barbaric tribes, and defeated the Arabs in Poitiers in 732, ending Muslim expansion in Europe.

His son, Pepin, had ended the Merovingian dynasty and consolidated power. Pepin’s son was Charlemagne.

When the Lombard court in Italy attempted to force Pope Adrian I (d.795) to anoint Carloman’s sons as kings, Charlemagne simply entered Italy and in 774 made himself king of the Lombards as well.

Then he led violent campaigns against the Saxons, pacified them, and Christianized them.

His territory got so big that he decided to call himself emperor despite that this title could normally only be given to the chief of the Byzantine Empire.

On the 25th of December 800, Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire of Western Europe.

Charlemagne’s empire didn’t last, as his sons divided the territory along the lines of the former provinces.

The atmosphere between the eastern and western churches degraded as well.

The Face of God: The Iconoclast Controversy

Anyone who enters an Eastern Orthodox church today will be shocked at the number of icons inside, as well as the place of the Christ Pantokrator.

Sacred iconography is so established and vital a part of Orthodox tradition that it is difficult to imagine Eastern Christian worship without it.

By the 700s, the popularity of images has skyrocketed in the East for purely aesthetic and cultural reasons. They became problematic with the accession to the throne of Emperor Leo III (not to be mistaken with the Pope of the same name).

In 726, Leo III issued a public pronouncement against them. In 730, he forbade them.

No one knows why he was an iconoclast, but we know their arguments:

  • The veneration of sacred images was contrary to the second commandment and to the practices and teachings of the ancient Church.
  • The adoration of material objects was a corruption of Christian piety.
  • The attempt to represent the living God by unworthy means was blasphemous.
  • Images could not properly represent Christ since they could not depict his ineffable, invisible, and infinite divinity.

The defender of the iconodules was John of Damascus. He argued that:

  • Images were part of the early Christian tradition.
  • Served as means of teaching.
  • Matter becomes worthy of veneration when it is transformed into a vehicle of enlightenment.
  • The prohibition of representation in the Old Testament was due to the fact that God had not yet revealed Himself; but now that He had, the images could be made.

The conflict ended when Irene, wife of Leo IV, took the throne. She convened a council in 787 which confirmed the use of images. Irene was canonized after her death.

Then several emperors came and each reestablished or not iconoclast laws until Theodora reestablished the icons for good in 843.

Franks and Byzantines: The Widening Gulf

The ninth century was in many ways propitious for both Western and Eastern Christendom.

But it also became clearer that Rome and Constantinople no longer got along well enough to remain united.

In matters of faith and practice, East and West had always been strikingly distinct from one another. In matters of theology, they had been drifting apart for centuries. And, in matters of culture, they were now strangers one to the other.

Latin CatholicGreek Orthodox
Celibate priesthoodMarried priesthood
Unleavened bread for the EucharistLeavened bread for the Eucharist
The notion of original sin as inherited guiltNo such thing
The idea of predestinationNo such thing

Yet the main point of dispute between the East and the West is the Filioque Controversy.

The Latin term filioque means simply ‘and from the Son’; it was a phrase added to the Latin form of the Nicene Creed over a period of centuries, though no equivalent phrase had been introduced into the Greek text.

The Council of Nicea had said that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, and the Westerners had added “and the son”.

The ‘filioque’ clause was added to the Creed originally in Spain in 447, at the Synod of Toledo. Its purpose was to affirm the full divinity of the Son against the Arianism of the Western barbarians who believed that Jesus had only one human nature, most particularly the Visigoths.

This Creed was adopted by the Franks and Charlemagne, but the Pope resisted this change until the year 1014.

Yet this problem was part of a bigger problem of interference within Rome and Constantinople, where each was nominating and deposing bishops that the other liked or not.

In the midst, issues that had always been there but never been raised up to then arose.

Disputes between the Constantinopolitan and Roman sees were matters not merely of ecclesiastical concern, but of imperial policy as well.

The iconoclasm problem had had an important impact in the West where Pope Gregory III had called it a heresy. When Rome was left unprotected after the Lombards sacked Ravenna, the Pope didn’t ask Constantinople for help – he asked Pepin, grandfather of Charlemagne.

The Conversion of the Slavs

Besides iconoclasm, there were also questions about the ownership of authority over Calabrian Italy and the Balkans.

The ninth-century Christian missions to the Slavic world by the brothers St Cyril (c.827-69) and St Methodius (c.825-84) from Thessalonica were highly successful.

Cyril spoke Greek, Arabic, and Hebrew. When they went to the Balkans, the language had no alphabet, so they made one (first the Glagolitic alphabet, then the Cyrillic alphabet, which, while named after him, may not have been invented by him) in order to translate the Christian texts in the local language.

But the German bishops got jealous, so the two brothers went to Rome and convinced the Pope of the merits of their mission. Cyril died so Methodius went back alone to the Balkans alone with authorization from the Pope.

But the bishops were still unsatisfied. They arrested Methodius and beat him – and he was saved again by the Pope.

Russia became Christian at the end of the 10th century under Prince Vladimir the Great(c.956-1015), monarch of Kyiv and Novgorod. He married a Byzantine princess and built many churches and monasteries (and burnt the pagan idols).

The Great Schism

For centuries the Eastern and Western Churches had been drifting ever farther apart, and behaving not simply as two rites within a single communion, but as rivals to each other – even though formally they still belonged to one Church.

The official date of the division of the Catholic Church into the Eastern and Roman Catholic Church is 1054.

Despite the cultural and theological differences, the Churches really did split for political reasons.

From 1050 onward, the Western Church had great Popes like Leo IX, who purged the Church from clerical abuse.

The Byzantine Emperor of the time was Constantine IX Monomachus. Constantine had spent his money on buildings and on a university, so he couldn’t pay his army as the Turks and others were invading his territory.

The Norman came to the south of Italy and Leo sought the help of the king of the Holy Roman Empire of the time, Henry III – who refused to help him.

After being kidnapped for 9 months, he wrote to Constantine asking for a military alliance, which Constantine wanted as well. But he had been stopped by the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius.

Despite that Rome claimed universal authority over the Church, Cerularius wanted to maintain autonomy over his see.

When Constantine appeared to be open to an alliance with Rome, Cerularius attacked the Vatican.

Rome’s ambassador Humbert answered in the same tone and highlighted the submission of Constantinople to Rome. He was far from diplomatic.

Leo died shortly after, and Humbert had been granted all power necessary to resolve the matter. Furious that Constantinople did not want to yield, he entered the Hagia Sophia on Friday, 16th of July 1054, and placed the bull excommunicating Cerularius on the altar.

Cerularius did the same.

Communion between Eastern and Western Christians continued in some places, ceased in others, and gradually faded as the schism of 1054 became fixed in popular memory as some kind of defining event.

The Byzantine tradition allied with Constantinople and the rest joined Rome.

The subsequent reforms of the Church in a “monarchical papacy” fashion could not have happened had the schism not happened.

The Early Crusades

The idea of a ‘holy war’ is alien to Christian theological tradition. It is self-evidently incompatible with the recorded teachings of Christ, and would have been abhorrent to the mind of the ancient Church.

The idea that a Holy War was a sacred cause entered Christian thought at the end of the 11th century as a result of an effort of the Church to promote peace.

From the late tenth to the mid-11th century, Church synods in France had instituted the convention called the ‘Peace of God’.

They excommunicated people that led private wars and attacks on women, clergy, merchants, etc. Then they establish the Truce of God, which prohibited arms conflicts 75% of the year.

The Council of Clermont in 1095 both reaffirmed the Truce of God and called for the First Crusade (which was paradoxical).

The Crusade was a response to the attacks of the Seljuq Turks on Christian pilgrims and sought to help the Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus to push them back.

The people that the Crusade attracted were armed gangs of thieves and mercenaries, which was surprising.

The properly organized Crusaders were French noblemen who left in 1096, assembled in 1097 in Constantinople, and freed Nicea that same year with 20 000 to 30 000 foot soldiers.

By the time they arrive in Jerusalem in 1099, the Seljuq had already been driven out by the Egyptian Fatimids.

Thereafter, a crusader protectorate was established in Jerusalem, which by late 1100 had evolved (or degenerated) into the Kingdom of Jerusalem under Baldwin I (c.1058- 1118).

Other of these states were founded and that’s how Europeans exported feudalism to the East.

Nor did the Crusaders hesitate to seize Byzantine territories, such as the port of Latakia, or to anger the Eastern Church by establishing Latin rather than Greek patriarchs in Antioch and Jerusalem.

The Crusades were largely pointless. They most often serve to give people a purpose in life more than anything else, as the population in Western Europe had drastically increased.

They also did create some stability between the West and the East.

The Second Crusade was inaugurated in 1145 by Pope Eugenius III (d.1153) and was preached by, among others, St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) in France and Germany.

The Germans and the French left Europe in 1147. The Germans got their army almost annihilated but were helped by the French.

They then tried to take Damascus with 50 000 but completely failed.

The crusader principalities of the 12th century did not expand beyond the territories captured in the days of the first Western campaigns (…) The Western Christian rulers of the second generation often learned to speak Arabic, married native women and adopted many regional customs.

Two military monastic orders were also established:

  1. The Knights Templar, formed in 1128 to provide protection for Christian pilgrims.
  2. The Hospitallers, formed in the 11th century to build and maintain hospitals.

The Westerners were destroyed by Saladin, the Kurdish sultan who recaptured almost all of the kingdom of Jerusalem in 1187.

The fall of Jerusalem prompted Pope Gregory VIII (d.1187) to call for the Third Crusade which was led by the British king Richard III. He signed a peace treaty with Saladin in 1192.

Byzantine Zenith and Nadir

For more than a thousand years after the time of Constantine the Great, the city of Constantinople was one of the great wonders of the world; certainly no city of the West could match it for sheer grandeur.

In fact, the Western cities looked dull next to it.

The Byzantine world experienced a cultural renewal in the 11th and 12th centuries and peaked. The decline started due to the Muslim pressures, the Eastern barbarians, and even the Western Christian armies.

The ‘Byzantine Renaissance’ was marked in part by a spiritual awakening – specifically, a renewal of the theology and practice of contemplative prayer.

It was initiated by St Symeon, a monk, poet, and mystic whose writings profoundly shaped the Orthodox thoughts in later years.

He entered the monastery at 27 where he wrote and attracted many other monks. His greatest work is the Hymns of Divine Love.

The great rebirth of Byzantine learning encouraged by Emperor Constantine IX Monomachus (980-1055) had no greater champion than Michael Psellus (1017 – after 1078).

Psellus’ knowledge of Platonism introduced Christian Platonism which became the dominant intellectual tradition of Byzantine civilization and inspired the Western Renaissance.

During the Crusades, the presence of many Latin Christians in the East was viewed negatively by the Byzantines.

The uneasy alliance between them was often punctuated by episodes of violent conflict.

In 1182, when Andronicus I Comnenus (c.1118-85) seized the Byzantine throne by force, a sizeable number of the native citizens of Constantinople celebrated by massacring the Western (mostly Italian) Christian men living in the city and selling their families to Muslim slave-traders.

The hatred culminated in the Fourth Crusade that began in 1198. This one never even reached Jerusalem.

The Crusaders stopped in Constantinople and agreed to aid Alexius IV (d.1204) in capturing the imperial throne in exchange for a large fee, additional troops for an invasion of Egypt, and the submission of the Orthodox Church to the pope.

They did so in 1203 and succeeded. One year later, Alexius IV was deposed by Alexius V. Since they had not been paid, the Crusaders sacked Constantinople that same year, murdering unarmed civilians, raping women, despoiling the churches, and desecrating their altars.

They occupied the city until 1261.

Constantinople would never recover.

The Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages

Between 467 and 800, no one could claim the title of Roman Emperor in the West; there was only one Emperor, and he was in Constantinople.

But from 800 to 1806, the imperial dignity of Christian Rome was claimed by the Holy Roman Empire (which was never Roman, not always an empire, and only rarely holy).

The term Holy Roman Empire was coined in the 13th century but the empire itself started with Charlemagne in 800.

When he crowned Charlemagne, the Pope transferred his loyalty from Constantinople to the Franks and recognized the Empire as the truly sacred polity of the West.

The Pope did this because he needed military protection. It also inaugurated a new mythological order that would shape Western Europe for centuries to come.

But then, it also created tensions between the Papacy and the (Holy Roman) Empire. In the past, the emperor got his authority from God Himself.

Now that he had been crowned by the Pope, it looked like the emperor got it from the Church.

The Empire and the Church weakened over the next decades.

In 962, Otto I was crowned Emperor by the Pope. His kingdom was merely Germany and the north of Italy.

The last great Emperor from the Dynasty of the Hohenstaufen was Frederik II. He defended his kingdom and conquered Jerusalem, but fought several times with the different Popes he encountered.

He died in 1250 and when the imperial tradition began to re-emerge in 1273, it was under the Habsburg.

The High Middle Ages

During the first 1000 years of Christianity, the Eastern Empire enjoyed every advantage over the Western one.

It changed in the second millennium, especially during the high middle ages (1050 – 1350).

It was a period of extraordinary cultural creativity, demographic and economic expansion, and urban growth.

That time was the age of the cathedrals.

The crusades had brought back lots of medical knowledge from the Byzantines and Syria, and the Church began to build thousands of hospitals in Europe.

Finally, there was a renewal of scholarships.

The bishop of Lincoln Robert Grosseteste was the first to invent a scientific method while St Albert the Great (c.1200-80) was the father of biological field research.

He also insisted that empirical experience was the only sure source of true scientific knowledge.

Throughout the 13th and 14th centuries, Christian scholars developed mathematical models to understand the laws of physics.

None of this could have happened without the Christian universities. The first one was the University of Constantinople (849), while in the West, the first university was in Bologna.

Reason and Superstition: Medieval Contradictions

Western Medieval civilization reached its zenith in the 13th and early 14th centuries.

While the educated class used reason to do daily life, the lower classes saw the reemergence of prohibited practices like torture or pagan beliefs related to magic. But the real role of the Church at the time was a far cry from what it said of it today.

First, the infamous “witch hunt” period did not happen in the Middle Ages, but in modern times (1500 and later).

Second, the secular justice courts were sentencing much more often than the Christian courts.

For most of the early and Medieval history of Christianity, the Church had ignored or dealt extremely leniently with ‘magic’ practices.

Christians ignored them more often than not, but the seculars did not. In fact, Pope Gregory VII (c.1022-85) formally forbade the Danish courts to execute accused witches.

That time was also the end of the Crusades.

  • The Fifth Crusade (1218-21) aimed at invading Egypt to free Jerusalem did not work.
  • The Sixth Crusade (1227-9) helped Frederik II gain the title of King of Jerusalem but the city fell to the Turks in 1244.
  • The Seventh Crusade (1248-50) was a French expedition into Egypt that ended with the kidnapping of the king.
  • The Eighth Crusade (1270) was another French attempt to save the Christians of the East from the Mameluke sultan of Egypt Baybars. The King and his son died of disease.
  • The Ninth Crusade (1271-1272) was the last one.

By the end of the 13th century, the Crusader States had fallen too.

The 13th Century also saw the creation of the Franciscans (by St Francis of Assisi) and the Dominicans (by St Dominic, c.1170- 1221) whose theological and philosophical reflection influenced the main currents of later Catholic theology.

It was the time of St Thomas Aquinas, whose most famous work Summa Theologica intended to be the basis of theology for new students.

In the 14th and 15th centuries, the witch rumors came back and the church encouraged investigations into “satanic cults”, as well as the burning of so-called witches.

However, not all Christians were convinced. The Church quickly dismissed any reality regarding witchcraft and they forbade witchcraft trials.

The High Middle Ages led to the Black Death.

In 1347 a disease that had been ravaging Asia entered Sicily. (…) By the end of 1348 it had encircled the western Mediterranean, spreading to North Africa, Spain, Portugal and Italy, and had also reached France and England.

The disease killed millions of people, poor, rich, lay, and noble.

The Jews were accused of poisoning the wells so the Vatican had to issue a decree highlighting their innocence to protect them.

1/3rd of the population of Western Europe died.

The Oriental Churches in the Later Middle Ages

After the Council of Chalcedon, the churches of the East had broken up with Rome.

But some (Eg: Maronites from Lebanon) appreciated the Crusades to the extent that they renounced their heresy and reestablished union with the Vatican.

In the 13th century, the Catholics pressured the Armenians to adopt the Chalcedonian formula.

As a result, there was a schism in the Armenian church between the new Catholics and the traditionalists.

Ultimately, the Armenians remained independent.

The Crusades were a calamity for the Egyptian Christians, under Arab rule at the time. The Arabs did not differentiate between Catholics and Copts and the Catholics did not allow the Copts to enter Jerusalem.

They weren’t treated well by Saladin either.

In Ethiopia, Christians were completely isolated from the rest after the 7th century.

During much of the 14th century, Ethiopia was a considerable military power, engaged in an incessant struggle to prevent Islamic conquest thereby protecting the Copts in Egypt.

They also threatened the Mameluks who occupied Egypt several times with diverting the Nile if they did not leave the Copts alone.

But those who suffered the most during that period were the East Syrians under Saladin, then under Ghengis Khan in Central Asia. The later rulers were more indulgent.

In 1369, the Ming Dynasty came to power in China and instituted a systematic extermination of foreign religions, which quickly extinguished the Syrian Church in the Middle Kingdom.

Byzantine Twilight

After the sack of Constantinople in 1204, the ancient Roman empire of the East was fragmented into autonomous principalities, some governed by French or Italian occupiers, others by the local Greek nobility.

In 1208, Theodore I Lascaris (c. 1174-1221) established an imperial seat in Nicaea which soon became a prosperous and militarily empire.

1261, that empire reconquered Constantinople and the city’s last dynasty – the Palaeologoi – was founded with Michael VIII.

To restore the empire, the new emperor had to drive the Latins out of certain parts of Greece while reconquering other parts.

He also needed to strengthen Constantinople. To do so, he needed money and the only way to get money was to trade, in this case, with Genoa.

But a French King in Italy also wanted Constantinople. To prevent this from happening, Michael asked the Pope for protection in exchange for a reunion of the Orthodox Church with Rome later on.

But the Constantipolian didn’t accept reuniting with Rome, so the French King invaded.

Luckily, he failed, but the Western defenses had weakened the Eastern ones, where the Turks were luring.

Despite his good work, Michael was hated by his people at the time of his death.

During the 14th century, the emperors had to constantly quell rebellions and attacks from everywhere, all of the time, when the Black Death wasn’t decimating the population.

Despite the military and economic decadence, a high culture flourished as devotion to Hellenism increased.

The Last Caesar

The location of Constantinople made its survival impossible as it was located next to too many enemies (Arabs, Slavs, Turks, Bulgars, Mongols).

It was also engaged with the immense power of Islam from the 7th century onward.

Finally, the Ottomans were too strong to ever be defeated.

The Byzantine Emperor Manuel II had made peace with the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet I after helping them out in battle. When Mehmet I died, his successor didn’t keep the peace and took Thessalonica.

Manuel’s son John VIII spent his reign seeking military support from the West who did not budge unless Constantinople submitted to the Vatican.

In 1439, at the Council of Florence, John agreed to a union with the Pope.

But the people never followed.

In 1444, the King of Poland drove the Turks out of the Balkans and helped Constantinople not let them through. But they failed, betrayed by the King of Serbia.

John was succeeded by his brother, Constantine XI, who also desperately sought for Western military support but never got any.

By 1449, Mehmet II began to assemble his forces for one, great assault on Constantinople. Before invading, he sign decrees with other European forces to make sure that they would not engage in the battle with the Byzantines.

Despite that, a few Christian princes joined, but the battle was helpless.

On the 28th of May 1453, the Emperor gave a speech, knowing that the city would fall the next day.

Orthodox and Catholics alike assembled in the Hagia Sophia and prayed with the relics.

The Emperor died in battle the next day.

Renaissance Christian Thought

As the East was dying in the 15th century, the West experienced a renaissance partly due to the fact that texts and scholars were moving from East to West during the last decade of the Byzantine Empire.

For whatever reason, a new passion for the lost wisdom of antiquity began in Italy and spread to the rest of the continent.

The Renaissance in Italy actually began in the 12th century and could have spread sooner had it not been for the Black Death.

That period was marked by both a need to go back to the roots while also a need to innovate, which Dante’s work Divine Comedy is a result of.

Without question, the Renaissance in Italy was nurtured by an infusion of Byzantine learning in the last days of the Eastern empire.

Spain and its Inquisition

From 700 to 1490, Spain was neither a unified country nor wholly governed by Christian monarchs.

When the last Muslim kingdom of Granada fell in 1492, the Catholic nation of Spain was born, under King Ferdinand II (1452-1516) and Queen Isabella I (1451-1504). They transformed Spain into one of the most powerful nations on earth.

Spain had been a highly diverse country, and Ferdinand’s willingness to transform it into a unified nation led him to establish the Inquisition.

He issued the Alhambra Decree in March 1492 requiring all Jews and Muslims to accept baptism, or leave, which ultimately harmed Spain more than it helped it.

Most of our impressions of the Spanish Inquisition are exaggerations, and can be traced back to a number of anti-Spanish legends of the 16th and 17th centuries.

The Inquisition was mostly weak and harmless throughout its history, but it did cause some negative deeds like torture and murder.

The Inquisition though was not under the authority of the Vatican but under the Crown of Spain. Ferdinand had threatened the Pope with withdrawing the troops that protected the Vatican from the Turks, and the Pope had had not choice but to give him his blessing.

After it became too violent, Pope Sixtus condemned the Inquisition. Ferdinand did not recognize the bull.

Not all Catholics were in favor of the Inquisition. One of its biggest critics was St Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), founder of the Jesuits in 1534, an organization aimed at spreading the Christian faith in the world.

The Jesuits received papal approval of their rule in 1540, and Ignatius spent most of the last 15 years of his life in Rome.

The Reformation Begins

The power and wealth of the Church grew from the 11th century. It acquired land and supported princes and kings in their kingdoms. The Vatican also had an army.

As a result, the 15th and 16th-century Church attracted people more motivated by power than by spiritual motives.

By the late 15th century, many wanted a reform.

The first of these calls came from England, where John Wycliffe argued that the Church should surrender its riches, serve rather than profit from the poor, and acknowledge scripture as its sole source of doctrinal authority.

Wycliffe took aim at the granting of indulgences, certificates of remission of the temporal punishment due to sin which were given to those who paid the church.

The Czech theologian Jan Hus was sentenced to death in 1412 for similar ideas.

100 years later, the circumstances were better for a possible reform.

  • More people were richer and smarter
  • The idea of states and absolute power were taking place in Europe
  • The idea of allegiance to the Vatican was no longer fashionable

The French crown force the Vatican in 1438 and 1516 to grant the king authority over religious appointments. The same thing happened in Portugal and Spain. But in Germany and England, the Chuch did not let itself beat that easily.

This is where ideas for reform were the most popular.

The one man who can be called the father of the Protestant Reformation – at least, in its German variant – is the monk, priest and theologian Martin Luther

Luther went to teach in 1508 where he met scholars opposed to the metaphysics of Medieval scholasticism. Then he visited Rome and was disappointed to witness the lack of spiritual faith in the Holy See.

He read St Paul and began to think that it is not by doing something that God will forgive, but by having faith -> humans aren’t saved by being good, but by God’s forgiveness.

But St Augustine already thought about it, so it did not lead to a break up with the Church.

What bothered Luther most was the indulgences.

He wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, a series of academic propositions for debate that suggested, rather cautiously, that such indulgences reflected a defective theology of grace.

The debate he had started could not be stopped because the printing press had made the spread of ideas swift and easy.

The Growth of the Reformation

The Protestant Reformation was an immense – but not a unified – religious, social and political movement. The spectrum of Protestant theology admitted of countless variants and intensities, from the most moderate and cautious to the most extreme and reckless.

Luther and Calvin rejected certain practices and doctrines of the Catholics but embraced most of them still (dual nature of Christ, Trinity, baptism, etc).

Both were profoundly Augustinian.

With time, Luther refined his thoughts and built a complete and cogent doctrine that found success in Germany and Scandinavia.

  • The priesthood of all believers
  • The complete dependency of the soul on God’s grace
  • The freedom of the Christian
  • Salvation by faith and not by works
  • The uselessness of:
    • Fast and penance
    • Sacrifice of the mass (the Eucharist is not a sacrifice)
    • The clerical celibacy
  • Consubstantiation

The purpose of the reform was a stricter adherence to the scriptures and a renewal of piety and moral purpose among the faithful.

The Anabaptists and the Catholic Reformation

While Luther and Calvin were the most famous reformers, there were a bunch of churches to their political left and right who also did their own reform.

These were the Anabaptists. They believed that baptism could only be undertaken by adults.

They also viewed any type of social engagement as incompatible with Christianity, so they remained secluded from society.

The Catholic Church undertook reforms in the 16th and 17th centuries. Usually depicted as “counter-reform”, that is, a response to Luther, the call for reform within the Church preceded Luther, and the birth of Protestantism had not changed them.

The reform was mainly driven by the nun and monk orders and began when Pope Paul III (1468-1549) convoked the Council of Trent in 1545, which continued under a number of Popes until 1563.


  • Instituted a regularization of the Western liturgy
  • Dealt with clerical abuses
  • Forbade the sale of indulgences
  • Prescribed the proper pastoral duties of bishops and priests
  • Established definitively the canon of the Bible
  • Dictated the sort of education to be provided for priests.

It also confirmed the doctrines criticized by Luther and condemned him.

Schism and War: Early Modern Europe

The Reformation was motivated by both theological and political causes. In England, the Reformation was the result of a schism in the Roman Church.

Europe’s early modern period was an age of extraordinary violence, during which the modern sovereign nation state was forged in the crucibles of war, civil strife and not a few massacres.

The new religious movements would eventually be structured within those struggles.

The Anglican Church, for example, was made in 1534 when the Pope refused to annul Henry VIII’s marriage with Catherine of Aragon as she was the aunt of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V.

So he declared himself head of the Catholic Church in England…but didn’t reform or give any new type of theology. Only after his death did Cranmer, the archbishop of Canterbury, begin to align the Anglican Church with the Protestants.

He was burnt at the stake by the Catholic queen Mary I (1516-58) for that.

The subsequent queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) confirmed Anglicanism as a Protestant Church.

The idea that “religion wars” were based on theological differences is false.

These wars were, in fact, the birth-pangs of the modern European nation-state, and were fought for political power and national sovereignty.

Colonies and Missions

Between the beginning of Islam and colonization, Christianism was mainly a European religion.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, however, Christianity became a truly global faith, spreading to the South, West, and East due to the missionaries. And the most active ones were the Jesuits.

The first nation to have land overseas was Spain, followed by England, Portugal, and France.

The primary purpose of these nations was to gain land, not to spread Christianity, but missionaries always followed.

Often these missionaries were the only allies of the native people that the colonizers sought to enslave.

Among the first missions of the Jesuits were Ethiopia (where everyone was already Christian) and India.

The Jesuit mission in Japan began in 1549 with the Portuguese. In 1614 the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu (1543-1616), inaugurated the total ban on Catholicism that remained in place until 1873.

The Church and the Scientists

The mainstream narrative usually holds that the Church of the Middle Ages was “anti-science” and interrupted the Greek tradition of scientific research and achievement.

It’s false.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, Christian scientists educated in Christian universities and following a Christian tradition of scientific and mathematical speculation overturned a pagan cosmology and physics unchallenged since the days of Aristotle.

Greek science had never been much interested in concrete experiment, and as a whole had declined towards encyclopaedism and commentary before the Christian age.

Copernicus (1473-1543) was the first Christian theorist to come up with the idea of a heliocentric cosmos (the earth revolving around the sun).

Galileo was later challenged by the Church for the same theory despite being supported by several Jesuit astronomers. His strongest support was Cardinal Maffeo Barberini who became Pope Urban VIII and asked Galileo to recant.

Indeed, Galileo did not want to negotiate. In fact, he asked for unconditional acceptance of his theory. When he failed to present proof, the Church forbade him to teach heliocentrism. Yet Urban still encouraged him to write a book about his theory and to highlight that it was yet to be proven.

Galileo did exactly that, putting these words into the mouth of a clownish character called Simplicio which angered Urban and led to the trial.

Deism, Enlightenment, and Revolution

Europe became post-Christian in the 17th and 18th centuries as the Church lost power as an institution and more people rejected Christianity.

Some of them embraced Deism, an attempt at a “rational” religion common to all nations sounding like this: belief in a supreme being who created the cosmos, who is a moral being, who is worthy of our reverence, who requires moral goodness of us all and who assigns rewards and punishments to human souls.

By 1750, Deism was popular among the educated classes of England, Germany, France, and North America. It faded when Hume challenged the existence of God and Darwin came up with the evolutionary theory in the 1800s.

Many philosophers at the time had come to see religion as a ridiculous belief system built for the Church’s own power.

Diderot, for example, once declared that “Never shall man be free until the last king has been strangled with the entrails of the last priest.”

The problem was that many revolutions took him literally.

The Reign of Terror that succeeded the 1789 French Revolution killed thousands of priests, monks, and nuns without ever questioning the ethics of such barbary.

A pattern had been established that other ‘utopian’ revolutionary movements of later years would repeat, on an ever greater scale.

Eastern Orthodoxy in the Early Modern Period

After the Turks took Constantinople, the only Orthodox countries remaining were the Slavics and the Balkan North. Russia quickly became the most powerful among them.

In many significant respects, Moscow became the chief city in the Eastern Christian world, and the Russian empire became the successor of the Byzantine – so much so, indeed, that it came to refer to itself as the ‘Third Rome’.

Until 1448, the head of the Russian Church was nominated by Constantinople until the Russian church became independent.

One of the most important events in the early modern history of the Eastern Orthodox Church was the publication in 1782 of a book called the Philokalia, which means “The love of beauty“.

It was a comprehensive and easy-to-read anthology of Eastern Christian mystical texts, from the fourth to the 14th centuries. It contributed to a renewal of the Orthodox Church as it was a reminder of its powerful expression.

The 18th Century was also a time when Russians sent missions to Siberia and Alaska.

The 19th Century: A Time of Radical Doubt

By the end of the 19th century, the decline of Christianity in Western Europe that began in the early modern period seemed irreversible, and had come moreover to be regarded by many as representing the natural course of history, for all of humanity.

Atheism became respectable. For some, it was good news; for others, it was only logical.

The causes for this cultural movement are hard to pinpoint with certainty: some were material, social, and intellectual.

As more people were literate, they decided on other narratives to believe in. Scientific discoveries were also difficult to comprehend within the traditional Christian depiction of the world.

While many people stopped practicing and believing, they realized that the hope and meaning Christianity gave people had also disappeared, leading them to question what type of morals would appear in a society without religious beliefs.

The publication of On the Origin of Species hurt religious beliefs a lot. While many Christians found it offensive because it contradicted the Genesis, many (who still read religion allegorically) did not.

What was hard to accept was the process of mechanical selection behind the theory of evolution; that is, a world that emphasized utility and used death and selection of some for the strength of others.

Could such a world have been made by a Christian God?

The 19th century gave birth to all of the post-Christian “materialist” schools of thoughts that make up our society today. The most popular one is the modern psychology and social theory among which Freud was the most important figure.

Freud believed that science and religion were a zero-sum game and that the progress of the former would decrease the latter.

Another important materialist school of thought was eugenics. If natural selection helped a species thrive and improve, then humans should prevent certain individuals with weaker traits from reproducing to make the species stronger over time.

Such policy was adopted by many Protestant countries as well as the USA, Canada, and Australia.

It was not unusual to read an idealistic socialist like H. G. Wells (1866-1946) calmly predicting a day when entire races would have to be exterminated for the good of the species.

The most anti-Christian philosopher of the 19th century was Nietzsche.

He believed that the triumph of Christianity had been a catastrophe for the Western world as it had given too much power to the weak to the detriment of the strong.

He also believed that a moral distinction between good and evil was a perversion of human values, and spoke of himself as the antichrist.

Yet he recognized that religion gave higher aspirations and that society could collapse without these. Rather than looking up to God, Nietzsche hoped that humanity would look up to “the Superman”, that is, a better version of mankind. “God was dead” because it had been replaced by Man.

The 19th Century: A Time of Fervent Faith

While atheism gained ground, a new devotion to Christianity also developed.

A new kind of piety grew within Protestantism in the 19th century: evangelicalism.

Its emphasis was upon the personal experience of conversion, repentance, redemption by God’s grace and sanctification.

The earliest form of evangelicalism was Methodism which developed in England in the 18th century.

At the same time, the Protestants began a work of evangelization.

In Europe, the century was marked by a shift in the papacy. The Papal States lost independence and Rome became the capital of a unified Italy.

Pope Pius IX (1792-1878) had no choice but to convoke the First Vatican Council (1869) which he intended as a project of dogmatic clarification and institutional reorganization.

They published two doctrinal documents before its suspension due to the occupation of Rome by Piedmontese forces:

  1. The Church’s magisterium makes all final determinations of the validity of theological and exegetical statements.
  2. The pope, as Peter’s successor, is the inheritor of a unique authority over the entire Church and his authority in matters of doctrine is absolute and literally infallible.

For the Orthodox, the most significant development occurred in Russia where the Slavophilists sought the unification of all Slavic cultures and the recovery of the old Orthodox tradition.

The 20th Century in America

In the 20th century, more than 1/3rd of the world was Christian. But the diversity of Christianism practiced did not mean that these Christians were one big community.

The heterogeneity of Christianity was particularly visible in America:

  • Fundamentalism: appeared in the 1950s, this faith is a dogmatic lecture of Christianism established as a reaction to the more liberal interpretation of the Bible that some Protestants were advocating for.
  • Pentecostalism: appeared in the 1900s, it’s an enthusiastic spirituality that involves belief in a second baptism “by the Holy Spirit” which gives powers similar to the ones the Apostles received.

The Most Violent Century in History

The philosophers of the Enlightenment thought that a world freed of religion would enable anyone to live in a peaceful and “rational” society.

And yet, by the end of the 20th century, wars had been waged on a scale never before imagined, and a number of Utopian, strictly secularist ideologies – each in its own way the inheritor both of the Enlightenment project to remake society on a more rational model and of the late 19th-century project to ‘correct’ human nature through the mechanisms of a provident state – had together managed to kill perhaps 150 million persons.

The Spanish Inquisition had killed maybe 30 000 people at most over three centuries.

The Communist Russians and Chinese killed as many of their own people in three days.

By century’s end, all certainties had been shattered: the power of ‘organized religion’ in the West had been largely subdued, but organized irreligion had proved a far more despotic, capricious and murderous historical force.

The 20th to the 21st Century: The Rise of a New Christendom

Christianity started in the East, but the rise of Islam and other forces resulted in that it was only in Europe that a Christian civilization took form.

Yet in the 21st century, Christianity is a truly global religion.

While most Europeans remain nominally Christians, those who attend Church are a tiny fraction of them and Church attendance declined steeply since the second half of the 20th century.

There was a renewal for the unity of all Christian faiths that culminated in the creation of the World Council of Churches (WCC).

In 1964, Paul VI met the patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I and together reversed the excommunication of 1054 – without reestablishing communion.

The Council of Vatican II in 1962, convoked by John XXIII, was the single most important event in modern Catholic history.

On one hand, there was a return to Medieval theology while on the other, there was a radical institutional revision of the liturgy (no longer celebrated in Latin), of church administration (authority of local bishops), of Catholic exegetical methods (affirming modern biblical scholarship) and of Rome’s relations with other Christians and even with other faiths.

The Orthodox Church had its own reforms created by a series of Russian theologians.

The predictions of the demise of Christianity made in the 19th century were not correct.

In both absolute and relative numbers, the world’s community of Christians is far larger than it has ever been; and its rate of expansion is as nothing it has ever known in the past. It may very well be the case that now, after 2000 years, the story of Christianity is still only beginning.

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