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Church History

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A Timeline of Church History

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Key Facts and Ideas  lb

The diagram shows how the timeline of the Orthodox Church and how it has continued from Pentecost to the present day. Notice that for the first 1000 years or so The Orthodox Church comprised the churches in the west as well as the east.

The first millennium was sometimes, inevitably perhaps, a time of great theological controversy yet it was also a time of massive expansion throughout and sometimes beyond the fluid boundaries of the great Roman Empire.  From very early on various heresies developed spread by impostors who invented their own brand of Christianity and tried to persuade everyone else that there's was "the real thing."  Perhaps the most dangerous and prevalent example was the Arian heresy which compromised the divinity of Christ yet equally, gnosticism, somewhat earlier, was just as dangerous by reason of its diversity and seductive esoteric nature.  (You can read about these and many more in the linked Wikipedia article provided in Resources). 

Certainly, this was no quiet period in the life of the Church but one of great opportunity, conflict and challenge.  When disagreements happened within the Church, Orthodoxy dealt with them by meeting in Council. There were seven in his period and to this day the Orthodox Church insists that these 7 Councils of the Undivided Church should continue to form the basis with Scripture for any desirable widening of Christian unity. The only major dissent from this ecumenical consensus concerned many of the churches in Alexandria who fell under the sway of a false belief or heresy called Monophysitism and who subsequently refused to accept the 4th Ecumenical Council. 

Within the conciliar process Rome had always sustained a position of respect and leadership in the Christian world but the Roman Church and the Pope in particular never acted over the heads or apart from his brothers in the east. Sadly his was all to change in the 11th century.  It was the tragedy of the Great Schism in 1054 AD and the 4th Crusade in 1202/04 AD that finally separated Rome from Orthodoxy. The first dispute was theological with a significant prehistory of drifting apart. The second incident concerned a human tragedy caused by rampaging western Crusaders trashing Constantinople and its churches. More significant perhaps was what happened in the west after 1054.

The "reforms" of Pope Gregory 7th (c. 1020/25) put the western part of the Church on a confrontational footing with the State by asserting Church and Papal supremacy.  Moreover, this Pope's teaching and policies also put Rome on a collision course with Orthodoxy which continued to adhere to the ancient principles of local episcopal authority, conciliarity and a married clergy; all of which Pope Gregory sought to undermine.  Within a generation Rome and Constantinople were out of Communion and the so called Great Schism has remained as it was to the present day. 

The western Church was subsequently to be the seat of the greatest convulsion the Christian world has ever seen, the 16th century Protestant Reformation and the greatest weakening of spirit any church has ever experienced, the Enlightenment.  By the second half of 20th century the European Catholic Church was in long term decline together with its long separated and continually fracturing progeny the Protestant denominational churches faring little better.  Only in the third and developing world, well away from the bitter memories of bloodshed and feuding in the late medieval European scene was there to be any significant growth.

Meanwhile throughout the second Millennium after the 4th Crusade but gathering pace with the expansion of the Ottoman Islamic Empire, the continuing Orthodox Church in the East entered a long period of isolated silent suffering and patient witness to Christ in conditions of social disadvantage and occasional vicious persecution.  Beyond the struggle for independence and the liberation of Greece in the 1820's the people of Russia descended into their own hell of State persecution and bloody Stalinist tyranny throughout 70 years of Soviet Communism only to emerge strong, growing and invigourated in the 1990's. 

This period has also seen the mass immigration of white Russians, Greek Cypriots and Palestinian Christians out of affliction in their homelands to new futures in the west.  With their seeding of Orthodoxy on old western soil that had last known it nearly a millennium before, more and more western Christians and others have rediscovered the ancient faith which is their own patrimony and inheritance ... including this author and his congregation!  At the same time the Orthodox Church became active in the World Ecumenical movement but sadly this involvement has hit the rocks in recent years with trends in Ecumenism to which the Orthodox cannot assent often compromising her involvement.  Clearly the Orthodox world has changed beyond recognition in the 20th century and doubtless God has a few more surprises in store even yet!

Key Principle  cool

Christianity is mapped by God's actions in history.  The historical process is both marred by human sin and dignified by God's providence and saving care.


Key Question 
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What lessons from history do Christians particularly need to learn for today?


Resources 
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1 All Saints of Great Britain and Ireland - a History of Western Orthodoxy

2.  7 Ecumenical Councils (Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers)

3.  Heresy (OrthodoxWiki)

4.  A Pocket Church History for Orthodox Christians by Fr. Hieromonk Aidan Keller


Your Own Questions Answered Here 
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orthodox@clara.net

Q1: Why do you believe that the Orthodox church is the 'one true church' ?

ANSWER:  This commonly used phrase is misleading because it can be interpreted as overstating our position.  We certainly do believe that the Orthodox Church as it is found today stands in unbroken structured and faithful continuity with the New Testament Church.  It is in fact the same Church, not only by sharing the same faith and life but also by virtue of its structured organic apostolic continuity in and within the same body.  In this sense, therefore, the Orthodox Church is united, true and singular. 

Of course, the Roman Catholic Church makes exactly the same claim on the same grounds and the Protestant churches on similar grounds.  To a disinterested observer, therefore, it comes down to evidence.  What are the characteristic marks by which we might judge ANY church to be singular (one) and true? 

If we insist (as we do) on apostolic succession in structural and organic terms as well as in faith and life terms, then this cannot be shown in the Protestant traditions, which, to be fair do not consider this to be an essential mark of apostolic continuity anyway.  Why then do Orthodoxy and Catholicism consider structured succession to be essential?  Briefly, we explain this in terms of BOTH staying within the family (of the Church of course) AND observing the family's normative life ... according that is to the Scriptures and Tradition.  We believe that this was Christ's intention from the start and empirically we submit that those who have not chosen to stay in structural and organic unity with us have found it much more difficult to maintain the family's normative life.

The final resolution according to the criterion of apostolic succession must, therefore, concern the identical but competing claims of Catholicism and Orthodoxy in respect of fidelity to that.  We maintain, for all our great sharing in the essentials (and that would go for Protestantism as well but in a different context) that Rome has introduced novelties of doctrine and practice which were never originally part of the family's life and even if they should be, were never submitted to the bar of ecumenical consensus, (filioque clause, certain Marian teachings, papal infallibility).  In reacting against SOME of these, Protestantism has, in our view, denied other aspects of Christian faith and life that always were part of Apostolic Tradition.

In the Orthodox view, therefore, Rome simply has to deal with the novelties having retained everything else in tact.  Protestantism has to recover what she has excluded and embrace once more structural continuity.  That might seem a very stringent and unacceptable basis on which to pursue ecumenical dialogue but for the Orthodox, unity can never be pursued at the expense of truth and truth can never be pursued at the expense of unity.  We maintain that in the non-Orthodox west since the Schism trade-offs between truth and unity in and between both Protestantism and Catholicism have continued to weaken the western Christian tradition and in evidence of that we submit the thousands of fracturing and multiplying denominations that continue to plague the search for both truth and unity in the west.

What is certainly true is that our Lord grieves at the disunity of his People and urges us by his grace to do everything to re-establish that unity; but this has to be done in the proper manner or else the great ecumenical project will continue to be harmed by false unions and dreams of false unions.