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Although it is to some degree artificial and inaccurate to break down the history of the Christian church into distinct periods or ages, it is, nevertheless, a helpful tool for envisioning the development of church life over the past two millennia. Most church historians recognize three general periods:


I.              Patristic Christianity - a.d. 95 to a.d. 590


(So called because of the dominant influence on both life and thought of the Church Fathers)


II.            Medieval Christianity - a.d. 590 to a.d. 1517


(This period was first called the Middle Ages by Christopher Keller [1634-80])


III.          Modern Christianity - 1517 to the present


(The great turning point in church history was the Protestant Reformation, "inaugurated" by Martin Luther on Oct. 31, 1517)


It is helpful to further subdivide each of these general periods into more descriptive phases:


I.              Patristic Christianity - a.d. 95 to a.d. 590


a.              The Age of Apologetics - this period dates from a.d. 95, generally regarded as the year when the final book of the NT canon (Revelation) was written, to a.d. 325 and the Council of Nicea. Some prefer a.d. 312, the year Constantine was "converted" to Christianity. The Edict of Milan in 313 effectively ended the persecution of the church as a minority movement and granted it full legal status, to be tolerated equally with all other religions. During this period the struggling church defended itself against the threats of paganism, both politically and theologically.


b.             The Age of Polemics - from a.d. 325 to the rise of Gregory (the last of the Church Fathers and the first of the real Popes) in a.d. 590. Following the "conversion" of Constantine, the church "moved swiftly from the seclusion of the catacombs to the prestige of palaces" (Shelley). With the power of the state at its behest, the church began to exert its moral influence on society as a whole. With prestige and political influence, however, there also came internal corruption. Monasticism emerged in protest of this secularization of the faith. In 392, the emperor Theodosius I established Christianity as the only legal religion of the Roman Empire. It was also during this period that the major doctrinal controversies raged and were resolved at state-sanctioned theological councils.


II.            Medieval Christianity - a.d. 590 to 1517


a.              The Age of Papal Hierarchy - from Gregory the Great (590) to the schism between East and West (1054) or to Gregory VII (1073). The principal characteristic of this age, often referred to (perhaps without justification) as the Dark Ages, was the establishment and solidification of the power of the Roman Catholic papal hierarchy.


b.             The Age of Scholasticism or Systematization - from 1054/1073 to the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in 1517. During this period Christian doctrine is thoroughly systematized through the philosophy and theology of the churchmen such as Anselm (1033-1109), Peter Abelard (d. 1142), Hugh of St. Victor, Peter Lombard, Albert the Great, Duns Scotus, reaching its zenith in the monumental work of St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-74), whose theology (called Thomism) was declared eternally valid for Catholicism in 1879.


[It was also during this period that the church in the East broke from Rome (1054).]


III.          Modern Christianity - 1517 to the present


a.              The Age of Protestant Reform and Polemical Confessionalism - from Martin Luther's posting of the 95 theses (1517) to the Peace of Westphalia (1648-50). This period witnessed the triumph of the Protestant Reformation in Europe (with the emergence of four major traditions in early Protestantism: Lutheran, Reformed, Anabaptist, and Anglican), as well as the reaction of Rome in the Catholic Counter-Reformation and the influence of the Jesuits. The 17th century was characterized by the development of scholastic and creedal orthodoxy. Reactionary and revivalistic movements emerged in the latter stages of this period, partially in opposition to the apparent stagnation which had settled in amidst much of Protestantism.


b.             The Age of Rationalism and Revival - from 1650 to the French Revolution (1789). Also known as the Age of Reason, respect for science replaced belief in the supernatural, as the church came under the powerful influence of the Enlightenment (in which reason was prized above revelation). The great revival movements in England (the Wesleys) and America (Edwards and Whitefield) were the church's best defense against the inroads of humanism.


c.              The Age of Progress - from 1789 to World War I (1914). The early years of this period were characterized by political upheaval (the American [1776] and French [1789] Revolutions) and social transformation (the Industrial Revolution). The emergence of German higher criticism and the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species set in motion a philosophy that threatened to undermine the foundations of orthodoxy. It is during the latter stages of this period that we see the emergence of what is known as modern theological liberalism.


d.             The Age of Ideologies - from 1914 (World War I) to the present day. During this period a plethora of new gods arose to compete for the allegiance of the secular mind. Communism, Nazism, Facism, theological liberalism (which was challenged by the reaction of Barthian neo-orthodoxy), socialism, ecumenism, individualism, humanism are among the many competing ideologies. The church responded to this so-called modernism with its own ism, Fundamentalism, and eventually the more intellectually sophisticated and culturally engaged Evangelicalism. Other developments of note were Denominationalism and the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement.