Many historians of Christian thought, for the sake of convenience, break the first two thousand years of Christianity into five major epochs.
1. The apostolic period
- The first hundred years of Christianity is referred to as the apostolic period. This is the period of the Twelve Apostles, dating from the Crucifixion of Jesus (c. 30-33) until the death of John the Apostle (c. 115). This is the period in which the works now included in the New Testament were written. Christianity was spreading through the Mediterranean region and beyond at this time, under the instruction of the Great Commission which was to spread the teachings of Christ to all the nations of the world. The missionary journeys of St. Paul are an excellent example of this activity.
2. The patristic period
- The patristic period is usually held to being about the year 100 A.D. There is no solid agreement about when this period closed. Some scholars suggest it ends in the fifth century while others extend it by at least two centuries. The word “patristic” derives from the Greek word pater (“father”), and designates a group of writers who are collectively known as the “fathers of the church.” Major writers from this period included Irenaeus of Lyons, Athanasius of Alexandria, and Augustine of Hippo.
- The patristic period witnessed important theological explorations. Christianity in this period expanded into both the Greek speaking world of the Mediterranean and the Latin-speaking Roman Empire, including North Africa, blending its developing theology with that of classical Greek philosophy as well as defending itself against it.
- The patristic period established which books dating from the apostolic period were to be regarded as “canonical.” Creeds began to emerge as communally accepted and authorized summaries of the Christian faith.
- This period saw a growing acceptance of mainstream Christology (field of study concerned with the nature of Christ), with the First Council of Ephesus recognizing the doctrine of hypostatic union and affirming its importance, stating that Christ’s humanity and divinity exists in one hypostasis (substance). The doctrine of God and the Trinity-the distinctively Christian idea of one God in three persons-was of significant discussion and exploration.
3. The Middle Ages
- The medieval period extends from the end of the patristic era to about the year 1500 A.D. This period was culturally productive.
- Universities emerged in western Europe leading to historical scholasticism and an unparalleled exploration of faith and reason, theology and philosophy. Many monasteries were built during this period and the monastic life contributed to this period’s rich intellectual and artistic output.
- Due to the constant use of the Bible in corporate worship and private devotion a major theological focus of this time period was Biblical interpretation.
- In the Latin west, the rise of the papacy raised increasingly important questions regarding the church and its sacramental system as well as the relation of church and state. Major writers of this period: Peter Lombard and Thomas Aquinas.
4. The Reformation and Post-Reformation period
- The sixteenth century marked a period of radical change in the western church. This period witnessed the birth of Protestantism, under the writings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, which denied the universal authority of the Pope and affirmed the Reformation principles of justification by faith alone, the priesthood of all believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the only source of revealed truth.
- The doctrine of Justification (the process of becoming righteous) by faith alone became important around this time, rapidly becoming an important characteristic of the Protestant Reformation. This doctrine known as Sola Fide, states that God’s pardon for guilty sinners is granted to and received only through faith, conceived as excluding all works alone. Yet, it had been settled since the apostolic era that salvation was granted by the mercy of God to righteous men and women. We are to strive to grow in our union with God by glorifying Him. We are to produce good fruit for the Kingdom.
- The Catholic church went through a period of reformation at this time as well to combat the treat of rapid protestantism.
- It was during the sixteenth century in which Christians emigrated to North America.
- Two new styles of theological texts made their appearance at this time associated with Lutheranism and Calvinism-Melanchthon’s Loci Communes “Commonplaces” and Calvin’s Institutes. the “Catechism,” with its distinctive “question and answer” format encouraged popular theological education.
- A major debate between Protestants and Catholics concerned whether the Bible had an authority independent of the church and whether the Bible could be interpreted without the guidance of the church. Many wrestled with how to define and identity the true church.
- Alongside of these institutional struggles there was disagreements to how many sacraments there are and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. The Catholic church maintained its commitment to the specific doctrine of transubstantiation (the doctrine that, in the Eucharist, the substance of bread and wine changes into the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ) while Protestantism developed various viewpoints. The Orthodox church maintained that the Eucharist was a “Divine Mystery,”- Christ is present in the Eucharist but how He is present is entirely mystical. If the word transubstantiation is used by an Orthodox theologian it is employed to signify the change that occurs through the Holy Spirit not as a means to rationally define how the change in the elements occurs.
5. The modern era
- The modern era, although shaped by increased anxieties such as Marxism, was a period of remarkable theological activity. The period since about 1800 (or after the French Revolution of 1789) has been defined as the “modern era.”
- The mission of St. Herman alongside seven other missionaries who came with him from Valaam and Konevits Monasteries in the north of Russia brought Eastern Orthodoxy to Alaska in 1794. Orthodoxy spreads in America in the following two centuries through immigration and different missions. There are currently, it is safe to say, 2 and 3 million Orthodox Christians in North America.
- Christian presence in Africa and Asia during the twentieth century led to an increasing interest in developing “local theologies,” where belief structures were and still are grounded in Christian tradition but sensitive to local situations.
- Theology of this time period was shaped by the concerns of the Enlightenment, which stressed the importance of reason and was generally suspicious of theological arguments involving an appeal to church tradition or divine revelation. The rise of rationalism led to a critique of a number of aspects of traditional Christian theology. Yet, as it lost its influence in the early twentieth century, Christian theology turned to the idea of revelation ( guided by the writings of Karl Barth) and to regain confidence in the doctrine of the Trinity.
- As the feminist movement developed in the late 60s and 70s, many feminist writers questioned the traditional use of male-centric language of God.
- In the 21st century issues of faith and reason, Biblical interpretation, faith and popular culture, and the institution of the church continue to define emerging theology.