Church History for Orthodox Christians

Church History for Orthodox Christians

by Fr. Hieromonk Aidan (Keller)


Part 1

1. Founding of the Church. |
2. Characteristics of Jesus' Church. |
3. Writing the Bible. | 4. Continuity. | 5. Both Jew and Gentile. | 6. Resolution of Disputes. | 7. Formation of Christian worship. | 8. What holds the Church together? | 9. The Age of Martyrs. | 10. Counterfeit Christianity.

Part 2

1. The First Council — Nicaea (325 A.D.). | 2. The Constantinian era. | 3. Monasticism. | 4. "New Rome”; The Second Council (381 A.D.). | 5. Standardizations of the Liturgy. | 6. "Orthodoxy.” | 7. Four Fathers. | 8. The Third Council — 431 A.D. | 9. The Fourth Council — 451 A.D. | 10. Rome falls. | 11. A godsend. | 12. The Fifth Council — 553 A.D. | 13. The five Patriarchates.

Part 3

1. The rise of the Papacy. | 2. A Snake in the garden of the Church. | 3. The Sixth Ecumenical Council (680 A.D.). | 4. The “Quinisext” Council — 692 A.D. | 5. Missions.

Part 4

1. Icon-Smashers. | 2. The Seventh Ecumenical Council — 787 A.D. | 3. The icon-smashers return. | 4. East and West drift apart. | 5. Power plays. | 6. Church unity is interrupted. | 7. Crossed Creeds. | 8. Worship. | 9. Liturgical diversity — pros and cons.

Part 5

1. Christianity's greatest tragedy. | 2. Prelude to the schism. | 3. Filioque prevails over Rome. | 4. The Great Schism — 1054 A.D. | 5. Schism or family quarrel? | 6. The Crusades — 1096 to 1290 A.D. | 7. The sack of Constantinople — 1204 A.D. | 8. Two Churches.

Part 6

1. The High Middle Ages. | 2. Western developments. | 3. Western Church reorganized. | 4. Century Thirteenth. | 5. False Council of Lyons — 1274 A.D. | 6. Century Fourteenth. | 7. Western councils of Constance & Basel. | 8. Yet another false union. | 9. "Union” (1439) & the fall of Constantinople (1453).

Part 7

1. Papal supremacy. | 2. Corruption in the West ... | 3. ... And in the East. | 4. Moscow — the “Third Rome.” | 5. Western volcano erupts. | 6. Protestant movements. | 7. Counterrevolution — the Council of Trent.

Part 8

1. A Renaissance man of God. | 2. The Faith — a masterpiece. | 3. Orthodoxy at the Renaissance. | 4. Transformation of the Western World. | 5. Jesuits and Uniates. | 6. Council of Bethlehem (A.D. 1672).

Part 9

1. The Holy Mountain. | 2. Schism in Russia. | 3. Protestant Patriarch?! | 4. Jansenism. | 5. Church of Utrecht. | 6. Synodic Russia.

Part 10

1. Grass-roots Orthodox revival. | 2. Evangelization. | 3. Muslim stranglehold is broken. | 4. Two new dogmas from Rome. | 5. Old Catholicism. | 6. Splitting hairs and splitting up. | 7. "Sacramental” churches proliferate.

Part 11

1. An ocean of blood. | 2. Orthodox Diaspora. | 3. Variety of “Jurisdictions” enters America. | 4. Mid-Twentieth Century. | 5. Rome turns away from its heritage. | 6. Difficulties of Western Orthodoxy. | 7. St. John of San Francisco (+1966). | 8. The Orthodox Church today.

1. Founding of the Church.

Some 2,000 years ago, the Lord Jesus Christ directly intervened in human history:

Although He is God (together with the Father and the Holy Spirit), He became a man — or, as we often put it, He became incarnate — enfleshed.

Mankind, at its very beginning in Adam and Eve, had fallen away from Divine life by embracing sin, and had fallen under the power of death.

But the Lord Jesus, by His incarnation, death upon the Cross, and subsequent resurrection from death on the 3rd day, destroyed the power death had over men.

By His teaching and His whole saving work, Christ reconciled to God a humanity that had grown distant from God and had become ensnared in sins.

He abolished the authority the Devil had acquired over men and He renewed and re-created both mankind and His whole universe.

Bridging the abyss separating man and God, by means of the union of man and God in His own Person, Christ our Saviour opened the way to eternal, joyful life after death for all who would accept it.

Not all the people of Judea, the Hebrews, God's chosen people (Deut 7:6; Is 44:1), were ready to hear this news, and so our Lord spoke to them mostly in parables and figures.

For the complete revelation of His teachings, He chose out 12 simple men whom He taught more perfectly. These twelve are called His Apostles .

As part of His salvation of the human race, Christ established a Church. (Mt 16:18; Mt 18:17).

He appointed the Apostles to govern it, and He imbued them with priestly power (Mt 16:19; Jn 20:21), breathing on them and saying, “Receive ye the Holy Spirit. Whose sins you shall forgive, they shall be forgiven them ” (Jn 20:21-23).

He commissioned them in particular to preach the Gospel (good news) of His saving death and resurrection, saying, “Go and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit ” (Mt 28:19).

Christian tradition is unanimous that during the 40 days after rising from death, until the time that He ascended into heaven,

the Lord Jesus instructed the Twelve in establishing His Church upon earth, a Church which He promised would never be overcome by the powers of darkness (Dan 2:44; Mt 16:18).

The Lord promised that the Holy Spirit would be with and guide the Church, preserving it from untruth.

2. Characteristics of Jesus' Church.

It is important to understand that the Church was and is both earthly and heavenly .

Existing on earth, it was and is affected by human weaknesses:

For example, although the Head of the Church is Christ, unworthy men are at times chosen to positions of leadership within it.

As a heavenly assembly, however, it is grounded upon the guarantee of the Lord Himself that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it ” (Mt 16:18);

that is, that the Grace and salvation God willed to impart to His people through it can never be invalidated by unworthy individuals.

The Church which the Lord Jesus founded had specific characteristics, which are as applicable today as when the Apostles walked the earth.

It was... ONE

Although composed of local congregations, it was a united body , visibly sharing the same Faith and Grace.

It was not a set of different denominations having a common claim to follow or be founded by Jesus, united only in some invisible way by that claim.

Christ's “high priestly ” prayer which He prayed the night before His death on the Cross (Jn 17:11, 21-23) was that His Church would be one, even as He and the Father are one.

The seamless garment of Christ, to which an unusual amount of attention is paid in St. John's Gospel (Jn 19:23-24), represents the unity of Christ's Church.

It was ... HOLY.

The Church is holy because its Head, the Lord Jesus Christ, is holy (Eph 1:22-23; Eph 2:19-22).

It numbered individuals who were sinners among its members, but it was the means chosen by God to give these sinners forgiveness (Mt 16:19), Grace , and sanctity .

Its teachings were the very path to holiness , and still are:

Holy ” means, originally, “set apart ,” and the Church was holy because it went not the way of the world, but along the paths willed by Jesus Christ our Lord.

It was ... CATHOLIC.

Catholic comes from two Greek words, kata holos , meaning “according to the whole .”

The Church was given to the whole of mankind ; it was for all tribes, tongues, and peoples, and not only for the Hebrew people.

It embraced all the teachings the Apostles shared with the peoples of the world. Nothing the Lord wished us to know has been lost, because the Church has preserved it all from century to century.

It was ... APOSTOLIC.

For it was established by the Twelve and remained faithful to their teachings, and not only the part of their teachings recorded in the Scriptures, but all of them.

The Church was also apostolic in its form of government; it has always been governed by successors of the Apostles:

These successors are called Bishops and are visibly united in a single body made of local Churches which share the same Faith and participate in Communion with each other.


After about three years, the members of the Church became known as “Christians ,” a nickname first given to them at Antioch (Acts 11:26).

This name has always been accepted by the faithful, for it is indeed Jesus Christ Whom we preach and worship, and it is He Who is our Way and Life.

It is He Who founded our Church and promised to be in her midst, among His people, “even to the consummation of the world ” (Mt 28:20).

3. Writing the Bible

The Twelve Apostles , who were hand-picked by Christ, walked next to Him, heard the most profound of His teachings, and left everything to follow Him, the Lord expressly designated as the first leaders of His Church .

It was on their personal testimony of His Resurrection from the dead that the Church was established and flourished during what is called its Apostolic Age.

At this time, God permitted numberless and spectacular miracles to blaze forth everywhere the Apostles preached (see the Book of Acts and contemporary historians), to confirm that it was His Truth they were teaching.

At this time also, the Apostles and disciples were writing memoirs of their vivid experience of Christ, as well as important letters to each other and to the faithful.

3-4 centuries later, Church councils would gather the inspired writings together, sort them out, and call them the New Testament .

During the Apostles' lifetimes, however, their personal witness and authority were much more decisive and immediate for the faithful than their writings.

We must always keep in mind that the Church existed before the Bible :

Therefore, any church that claims to be based on the Bible is not the Church of Jesus Christ; only a church that claims to have produced the Bible can even be close to the Original Church.

4. Continuity.

Inevitably, the Apostles had to die.

But the Lord did not mean for the Church to die with them; to perpetuate the Church, the Apostles ordained successors called Bishops (Philipp 1:1) for local congregations.

To these men they imparted the apostolic Grace they had received from Christ Himself, a process which has been called “apostolic succession ” and which is discussed prominently in the New Testament (in Titus and 1 & 2 Timothy).

Deacons , too, were ordained by the Apostles:

Their order was established because after rapid growth it became impossible for the Apostles to tend to the Christians both materially and spiritually (Act 6:1-6).

The duties of the Deacons were to distribute charities and maintain order,

allowing the Apostles to concentrate exclusively on teaching, exhorting, and celebrating the awesome Mysteries of Christ (e.g., the mystery of the “breaking of bread ,” which we know today as the Eucharist , Liturgy , or Mass , and the mystery of Holy Baptism ).

Not long after the order of Deacons sprang up, the order of Presbyters or Priests was created (Acts 14:22; some translations have “elders ” since “Priest ” means “elder .”)

The Priests were given nearly all the graces which marked the Bishops' office:

They celebrated Baptism, the Eucharist, the anointing of the sick, etc., relieving the heavy burden of the Bishops, but the Priests did not have the ability to consecrate other Priests or Bishops.

The primitive threefold hierarchy of Bishops , Priests , and Deacons remains the distinctive mark of all historic Christian churches.

There were also lesser ministries
such as those of the Readers , Sub-deacons , Acolytes , and Deaconesses .

5. Both Jew and Gentile.

In the Apostolic Age , the Church had to make one painful transition:

It had begun, of course, in Palestine among the Hebrew people, for God had chosen this people to be a light to the world, to be the first to receive the Messiah and to tell the world about Him and eternal life in Him.

However, many of the chosen nation of Israel did not choose to follow Christ, and so the torch of faithfulness to Christ largely passed to the Gentile peoples, to former pagans, as the Prophet Isaiah had foretold some 700 years earlier (Is 2:2; 60:3, 5).

The question immediately arose whether Gentile Christians had first to be circumcised and observe the law of Moses — whether, in essence, they had to become Jews first in order to become Christians.

The Apostles were not found in full agreement:

The Apostle Paul was very insistent that it was not necessary, and a Council was convened at Jerusalem attended by all the Twelve .

St. James , leader of the church at Jerusalem, presided.

By the light of the Holy Spirit, the Apostles ruled that new Christians did not need to be circumcised or observe all of the law of Moses.

After this dilemma was resolved, the Church continued spreading and flourishing among the Gentile peoples.

Jerusalem itself was utterly destroyed in 70 A.D . by Roman troops, and soon the major Christian centres were Antioch , Rome , and Alexandria .

6. Resolution of Disputes.

When the Apostles met in a council which superseded their individual views, they established a principle that would guide the Church for centuries to come.

No one Apostle was infallible, nor were any of the Bishops they ordained as successors.

However, meeting in council under the guidance of the Holy Spirit , the Bishops of the entire Church have, on seven occasions, proclaimed dogmas and issued canons (regulations) which bear the stamp of the Holy Spirit and are of greater authority than the word of any one Bishop.

The Jew/Gentile controversy was but the first of many divisive disputes, usually sparked by some untrue teaching, which at times have threatened the unity which is one of the four marks of the Church.

Thanks to the Holy Councils, which spoke with the authority of the Spirit for all the Church, such disputes have never succeeded in tearing Church unity asunder.

7. Formation of Christian worship.

The Primitive Church underwent a profound development in its worship during the first 100 years. Originally, the Mystical Supper, the breaking of bread, had been celebrated in the evening directly after a community meal.

In these early years, all of the instructive and inspirational material which now surrounds the central act of Holy Communion in the Liturgy took place separately from the Eucharist in the synagogue.

Over time, however, those Jews who did not accept Christ as the Messiah developed increasingly hard-line attitudes towards the Christ-following Jews and eventually refused to allow them to worship in the synagogue.

This dramatic change of circumstances resulted in the basic structure the Divine Liturgy has today:

penitential prayers, praises of God, scripture readings, and a sermon (liturgical features lifted straight out of the synagogue) are now followed by the breaking of bread and Communion in the Body and Blood of Christ.

When the Eucharist ceased being an evening affair, Christians started fasting before attending it.

8. What holds the Church together?

The centre of Orthodoxy is the very worship of God —
the Eucharist , and the celebration of the Divine Office .

Because this is so, any substantial history of the Church must include liturgical development, but we should avoid the trap of taking a casual, factual approach like so many scholars do.

The history of our Liturgy is not just an arbitrary succession of additions and changes, but the unfolding work of the Holy Spirit ,

guiding the Holy Church century by century in a holy and right worship of God. We worship not as we think best but as God has willed to be worshipped.

9. The Age of Martyrs.

The period just after the passing of the Twelve Apostles is often called the Age of Martyrs .

As the news of the Faith spread like wildfire, Satan's immediate reaction was to inspire a bloody and total annihilation of Christianity.

It is amazing how in spite of all obstacles the Christians persisted in meeting together on the Lord's Day . Often they would meet in a different house each week, since discovery meant certain death.

Many Christians, since they refused to deny Christ and worship the pagan gods, even by some small word or sign, were killed summarily or by terrible tortures.

But the Lord used their joyous deaths and their divinely-courageous sufferings, together with other stupendous miracles, to turn the hearts of many people to Himself.

Far from destroying the Church, persecution only refined and strengthened it:

Survivors wrote the Martyrs' names in calendars so as to keep a yearly memorial of their victories, forming the basis for our modern Church calendar with its Holy Days.

10. Counterfeit Christianity.

The Church's trial by fire was spiritual as well as external. Heresies sprang up like weeds, and no uniform consensus of faith could be trotted out against them.

The word heresy comes from Greek hairoumai , to choose . Heretics were those who chose their own beliefs instead of accepting the Church's Faith as it stood.

The Gnostics tried to blend Christianity with a secret wisdom ideal, thinking that salvation came through arcane knowledge, not through the Grace of Christ.

Judaizers did not accept the Apostles' decision that Christians do not observe the Mosaic Law, and sowed distrust and discord wherever pastors were too soft to stop them.

The followers of Marcion believed that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the Father of Jesus Christ.

The Manicheans believed physical matter was evil and only pure spirit was good.

The Montanists rejected the Church's hierarchy to emphasize spectacular spiritual phenomena and preached a new age of the Holy Spirit .

The Sabellians held that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were just three “masks ” God wore at different times when He did different things; they denied the reality of the Holy Trinity.

Very few heresies since that time have been original;
most have been mere rehashes of these timeworn follies.

In the midst of the confusion and bitterness stirred up by heretical movements, the Church of Christ was like a ship tossed on the sea; yet Christ was its Pilot, and the challenges of persecution and heresy were both overcome.

The persecutions ended when the Emperor Constantine , a great friend of Christianity, overcame his pagan enemies, took control of the Roman Empire , and made Christianity legal (in A.D. 312 ; not till 392 did it become the state religion).