What were the most significant events in the history of the
by Kendra Hotz
events of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ are the most
important in the history of Christianity. They set the founding
narrative through which the rest of history is interpreted by Christians.
Beyond these events, however, we can identify several crucial moments
that have shaped the Christian faith.
among these is the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the
year 70, following a Jewish rebellion against the Roman Empire.
That event marked the beginning of the period of persecution and
the end of the period in which Christianity was considered a sect
within Judaism. The martyrs who died for their faith in the face
of persecution were raised up as heroes, and the lapsi
who recanted their faith in the face of persecution, and who subsequently
sought forgiveness and readmission to the church, forced the church
to think carefully about the nature of forgiveness and about who
may receive and administer the sacraments.
separation from Judaism, along with the emergence of competing groups
claiming the name “Christian” for themselves, prompted
the church to identify which of the writings in circulation among
the Christian churches were authentic scripture and to form the
New Testament to be read as scripture together with the Hebrew Bible.
This process of identifying which writings are scripture is known
as “canon formation,” and it took several centuries.
Not until the year 367 do we find a public
list of documents that are considered part of the New Testament
that matches precisely what is in use today.
crucial event in shaping the Christian religion is the conversion
of the emperor Constantine and the theological and doctrinal developments
that followed in its wake, especially the formulation of the Nicene
Creed in 325. That creed set boundaries on what Christians may and
may not believe, and was crucial for ensuring some measure of unity
amid the diversity of Christian belief. The Nicene Creed made it
a point of orthodoxy that Jesus Christ is both fully human (a point
contested by a group called the Gnostics, and later by a theologian
named Apollinaris) and fully divine (a point contested by a theologian
council also established a precedent for calling ecumenical councils
(meetings of the worldwide church) to decide matters of orthodoxy,
matters that go to the heart of what it means to be Christian. The
alignment of the church with the power of the Roman Empire opened
an important opportunity for the faith to spread and flourish, but
it also opened the church to the danger that it may simply come
to endorse the prevailing culture. And, indeed, we see this mixed
heritage in the history of Christianity: at times, Christians have
used their positions of power to advocate for justice, but at other
times they have simply substituted the values of the powerful for
the values of the gospel.
schism between the eastern and western churches constitutes a third
important event in the history of Christianity, though it really
is a series of events. The schism can be traced throughout the history
of the church, beginning with the collapse of the western half of
the Roman Empire in the fifth century, continuing through a number
of disagreements about the jurisdiction and authority of the pope,
and culminating in 1204 when western Christians participating in
the fourth crusade sacked the holiest church in the East, the Hagia
Sophia. The schism has meant that the church has been unable to
call an ecumenical council since the 8th century. With the founding
of the World Council of Churches in 1948, we find Christians once
again seeking ways to restore full communion among all Christians
while also honoring the deep diversity that has always marked the
fourth important event, the Protestant Reformation, brought sweeping
theological and liturgical changes in European Christianity. Reformers
translated the Bible into vernacular languages, emphasized the centrality
of preaching in worship, permitted clergy to marry, encouraged individual
Christians to read and interpret the Bible, and questioned the authority
of tradition. The Reformation also had important political consequences.
After the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West, Europe entered
a period when the church had represented the only centralized source
of authority. To be Roman Catholic and to be European, a subject
of the Holy Roman Empire, were virtually synonymous. We sometimes
refer to this fusion of religion and culture during the medieval
period as Christendom.
the emergence of Protestantism, we find a fracturing of Christendom
that coincided with the emergence of independent European nations
in place of the vision of a unified Holy Roman Empire in the West.
In addition, because Protestantism challenged the hierarchy between
priests and people, it opened the door to democratic movements that
challenged the hierarchy between Kings and subjects.
Second Vatican Council (1962-65) represents a fifth important event
in the history of Christianity. At this council, the Roman Catholic
church entered a new period of what was called “openness,”
in which it acknowledged the faithfulness of Protestants as “separated
brethren,” granted permission for worship services to be conducted
in local languages rather than the traditional Latin, committed
itself to increased lay involvement in worship leadership, affirmed
the presence of truth in non-Christian religions, and condemned
©2006 Kendra Hotz
G. Hotz serves as Adjunct Professor of Theology at Memphis
Theological Seminary. She formerly taught at Calvin College. Hotz
is an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and coauthor
(with Matthew T. Mathews) of Shaping
the Christian Life: Worship and the Religious Affections
(2006) and coauthor of Transforming
Care: A Christian Vision of Nursing Practice (2005).
from What Do Our Neighbors Believe?: Questions and Answers on
Judaism, Christianity and Islam by Howard Greenstein, Kendra
Hotz, and John Kaltner are used by permission from Westminster John
Knox Press, Louisville, Kentucky. The book will be available for
purchase in December 2006.