Trinity College

The Emerging Christian Church: Church History to 451

Course Code: 
Last Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2021
Next Offered: 
Winter/Spring 2024

Any community or institution finds much of its self-definition in the story of its foundation. The Christian Church is no exception. The earliest period of the Church's history has remained a focus of fascination, and the ideas, political structures, and cultural alignments forged in this period continue to exert powerful influence on Christian minds and communities to the present day, certainly including the Orthodox Church.

In the first four and a half centuries of its existence, Christianity would grow from a small sect of messianic Jews into the official state religion of the most powerful empire in the world. In the First Century, the Church centered itself around Jewish communities in modern-day Israel, as well as other key cities in the Roman Empire with significant Jewish populations. To the Roman eye, the earliest Christians appeared as an unimportant mystery cult or sect of the Jewish faith. Yet the early Christians, under the leadership of those who had known Jesus, spread their beliefs with remarkable speed and zeal.

Through the Second and Third Centuries, Christianity continued to grow across the Roman Empire, attracting more and more non-Jewish converts along with the ire of the traditional religious elite. Often persecuted, the Christian Church also drew much from Roman culture and left its influence on every stratum of society. Internally, however, Christianity was already rapidly fragmenting into several groups owing to the death of the apostles and the new questions raised thereby. Some of these groups were more episcopally-minded and rationalistic, and from these roots have grown the Christian churches of our own day, including the Orthodox Church. Other groups, however were devoted to charismatic forms of authority and a highly apocalyptic theology. The encounter of these various viewpoints proved fractious and fruitful at once.

The Fourth Century is one of the most dynamic and exciting periods in the history of the Church, marked by the rise of Emperor Constantine who first legalized Christianity across Rome, and his successors who would (under Theodosius) eventually make Christianity the official state religion. Now holding the reigns of religious power in the Empire, the Church of this period was nonetheless more fragmented than ever, and theological disputes such as the Arian Controversy quickly spilled over into political battles that would shake the Empire itself. In response to this problem, the Church under the direction of Emperor Constantine crafted a new strategy designed to establish and enforce doctrinal unity: the Church Council. In places like Nicaea, Constantinople and Ephesus, the Church would meet across the 4th and into the 5th Century in hopes of establishing authoritative doctrinal formulations and creeds that would be enforceable by Imperial law. While never fully successful in its objective of generating complete Christian unity, the conciliar model would become normative among Christians for centuries to come.

Partially in response to the problem of Christianity's new-found power and fragmentation, many devout Christians began to withdraw from society into the desert, eventually founding the first monastic communities and giving birth to a new and radical way of being Christian. Meanwhile, groups outside the Empire forged their own Christian identities, and charismatic and gnostic communities continued to thrive across the Mediterranean.

From this red-hot crucible of persecution and power, intrigue and doctrine, councils and monasteries, bishops and emperors, came forth the foundation of the Christian Church as we know it today. Join us as we examine some of the most important eye-witness accounts and early documents, along with the best in modern scholarship, in order to tell the story of Christianity's intriguing infancy and tumultuous early adolescence, and ask what the early Church means to Christians today.