What if you had to pick ten singular events that are most definitive for Church/Christian history? And to keep it interesting, what if Event is taken in the most narrow sense to mean an exact moment (and not an epoch or period)? Ten such events are given here. If you can think of more (or if you think an event ought to trump one in this list), then leave a comment below!
Throughout the course of Christian history since AD 100, there have been singular moments where one event triggered a wave of others—points in time in which a lone spark created a firestorm of reaction. Ten such events played such a pivotal role in Christian history that they made an indelible and irreversible mark upon that history itself. Those events enacted change not only upon the generation that was at hand, but upon many generations to come. I will examine those ten events in detail, including the circumstances of the events, the contemporary and long-term effects of the events, and why those events were chosen as the most significant.
0. AD 70 and the Destruction of Jerusalem
I said events after AD 100. But AD 70 is of its own kind, and mounumental. I will not say much about it here, but only suggest that it holds its own special position for Christian history that cannot be underestimated or ignored.
1. The Conversion of Constantine
The Christian conversion of Constantine is one such event that brought about immediate effects for the contemporary generation of the Roman Empire and lasting effects upon Christianity. The conversion took place prior to the Edict of Milan (313) which effectively ended the horrid persecution that had been wrought against Christians in the Roman Empire under Diocletian. The Edict of Milan, though important of its own right, takes a second place to Constantine’s conversion, for out of the conversion came a multiplicity of events that could not have happened independent of the conversion.
The conversion itself came as Constantine was preparing to enter into battle for control of Rome. Constantine, whose mother was Christian, had a vision of a cross prior to the battle. Believing the vision to be a favorable sign from God, Constantine had the chi-rho image placed upon the shields of his soldiers. Constantine’s soldiers were victorious, and Constantine immediately began enacting changes upon the empire. The Edict of Milan was one of the first, followed by a series of other laws that were designed to benefit Christians. Examples include laws which allowed for worship on Sunday (though not specifically Christian worship), exempted churches from certain property taxes, and exempted Christian clergy from military service. Some of the laws certainly had benefit for both Christians and pagans, and pagan worship was not prohibited. Nevertheless, Constantine demonstrated a preference for Christianity and ended the harsh punishments upon Christians that had been accepted as standard practice prior to his conversion and his rule.
Long-term effects from Constantine’s conversion, resulting from laws and practices which emanated from that point in time, include such practices as the intermingling of church and state, the increasing pagan and secular influence upon the church, and a significant increase in the ritualism of worship.
2. The Council of Nicea (325)
Another such event that reverberated with both immediate and long-lasting effects was the Council of Nicea, an event that was orchestrated by Constantine. This Council, which convened in 325, met for the particular purpose of discussing Arianism, a heresy which espoused that Jesus is of different essence than God. At the Council, Arius presented his views, and Athanasius presented the opposing viewpoint, arguing that Jesus is of the same essence with God. The Arian position was deemed heretical by the Council, and Arius and his disciples were expelled.
Though Arianism was defeated at the Council, it became a topic still at later Councils. One highly significant long-term effect of this Council was the creation of the Nicene Creed, a creed which is used still by many Christian churches of various denominations. The Creed lays down the most basic doctrines of the Christian faith.
3. The Conversion of Augustine of Hippo (386)
A third notable event is the Christian conversion of Augustine in 386. There are so many noteworthy achievements in Christian history that can be credited to Augustine that it is imperative to return to the moment of his conversion, for it is from this point that all of the other accomplishments are derived. Augustine of Hippo was born in 354 in Thegaste, the son of a pagan father and a Christian mother. He was well-trained in classical philosophy and rhetoric and became a teacher. However, throughout his life, Augustine was plagued by his own immorality and sinfulness. He sought out various means by which to overcome his temptations for lust (he had an illegitimate son by the time he was 17). His path took him through Manichaeism, neoplatonism, and finally to Christianity.
It was through the teachings of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, that Augustine became acquainted with Christianity. Augustine had gone to Ambrose with the purpose of studying rhetoric, as Ambrose was known for such. Though Augustine had no intention of studying the substance of Ambrose’ message, and preferred instead to study only the style of delivery, Augustine was swayed by the words of Christ spoken to him by the bishop. It was in his conversion that Augustine finally found a way to understand his own sinfulness and the God who could forgive those sins.
Following his conversion, Augustine continued his pursuit of knowledge and wisdom, directed now toward Christ rather than toward secular philosophy. It was because of his conversion that Augustine was able to produce such works as The City of God, Confessions, and many other works, including refutations against Manichaens and Donatists. Some of his most substantial work came about in his writings against Pelagius and his followers.
Though Augustine’s writings and activities were considerable, none of these Christian works could have been written were it not for his conversion in 386. These writings expressed his personal experiences and struggles with sin, his amillenial eschatological views, his theology of the will of man, and his views on predestination. These views influenced theologians such as Thomas Aquinas, Luther, and Calvin, and they continue to influence theologians even today.
4. Jerome’s Completion of the Translation of the Scriptures into Latin (405)
A fourth event of major significance was Jerome’s completion of the Latin translation of the Scriptures. Jerome learned Hebrew, Latin and Greek, and he was commissioned by Damasus to translate the entire Bible into Latin, though Damasus did not live to see its completion. Jerome translated the Old Testament directly from the Hebrew, rather than utilizing previous translations, which were known for their inconsistencies. He translated the New Testament from Greek, and also translated the Apocryphal books.
This event was of great importance because this particular translation of the Scriptures became the standard for the Roman Catholic Church for many years. Additionally, the use of Latin Scriptures in the worship of the Roman Catholic Church drove an even deeper wedge between Rome and the Eastern Church (which utilized the Greek Septuagint).
Jerome’s finished product served as the singular translation of the Scriptures up until the days of the Reformation, when various reformers began translating the Scriptures into the common language of their parishioners. Perhaps the greatest value of this translation lies in the fact that it was translated from the earlier Hebrew manuscripts that were available when Jerome was alive. The church today no longer has those manuscripts, but what we have is the sum total of those manuscripts preserved through the work of Jerome.
5. The East/West Schism (1054)
The schism between the churches of the East and the West was political, geographical, and religious in nature, and the final act of separation between the two had been centuries in the making. Geographically and politically, Rome and Constantinople were divided due to the ongoing invasions of their enemies, particularly the Germanic invasions of the Western territories. In matters of religion, Rome and the papacy represented the center of power for the West. Constantinople, in the East, did not wish to submit to Rome in theological matters, and the Eastern Orthodox church had developed its own practices and liturgy. For example, Rome followed the baptismal practice of sprinkling, while the Eastern Orthodox church practiced triune immersion. Roman Catholic liturgy was spoken in Latin, while the Eastern church spoke their liturgy in Greek. Additional theological divisions occurred in relation to icon worship, the worship of Mary, art forms, and architecture.
On July 16, 1054, the tension between the East and West came to a head when excommunication orders against the Patriarch of Constantinople were placed on the altar of the Hagia Sophia during worship. Effectively, Pope Leo IX was cutting ties with the Eastern church, and four days later, the East responded in kind.
The immediate results were the severance of any relationship between Rome and Constantinople. This was significant of itself, but perhaps more significant was the fact that another Christian church was born that was now out of union with the Catholic church. At this point in history, to be outside of the Catholic church was to be outside of the will of God. Therefore, it was no small challenge on the part of Constantinople to defy the authority of Rome and the pope. While Rome viewed itself as the sole chief authority, Constantinople viewed the Pope as the first among equals (and clearly, this distinction was not acceptable to Rome).
The long-term effects of the Great Schism remain, as the Roman Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox church are still separate and independent of each other. The Eastern Orthodox church has remained influential in its area and is represented globally, as well. The Catholic church is also represented globally as well, being perhaps the largest denomination in the world.
6. Publication of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (1274)
Summa Theologica stands as an accomplishment of its own right as the first thorough systematic theology for Christian instruction. Thomas Aquinas wrote this work over a period of years from 1265-1274, at which point Aquinas died with the book not yet complete. Nevertheless, what he had written was released for the absolute benefit of the Christian community.
Summa Theologica covers a variety of theological topics, written, as would be expected, from the perspective of the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, this work was designated as the official doctrine of the Catholic Church by the Council of Trent. The volume was useful for instruction in its own time and still remains a valuable tool for theological and historical studies today.
7. The Invention of the Gutenberg Press (1440)
The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg was not specifically a Christian event. To the contrary, the press itself was and remains part of secular society. However, the impact of a movable-type press upon Christian history is unmistakable. The timing of the introduction of the printing press is equally remarkable.
Until the advent of the movable-type press, books were scarce and very expensive. The books that did exist were hand-written copies, primarily copied at the hands of monks, letter by letter, and word by word. Now, a press was available which could print many copies of a book in the time it would take a monk to make only a copy or two.
The immediate effect of the printing press was that books, including the Gutenberg Bible, became more widely available to the masses. Scriptures that could previously only be heard during mass could now be read by the literate commoner. Thoughts, ideas, and writings of all types could now be disseminated quickly and with relative ease (as compared to the pre-press era). The demand for education and literacy increased, and the demand and supply for reproductions of ancient works and translations of foreign works likewise increased.
Though ideas and writings of all sorts became more widely available, it was the ideas and writings of the Reformation era in particular that had such a profound effect on European society. Luther’s works came less than a century after the advent of the printing press. Had the press not been available, perhaps Luther would not have had the widespread audience, the support, and the influence that he affected upon the Roman Catholic Church.
The lasting impact of the printing press upon Christian history is likewise evident. Printing houses all over the world are dedicated to the publication of Bibles and other Christian literature used for the education and edification of the saints. Though the technology has changed dramatically, the principle of printing in mass has not. The church has benefited in a very significant way from this one single invention.
8. Erasmus’ Publication of the Greek New Testament (1516)
Erasmus’ publication of the Greek New Testament was of paramount importance to the universal church at the time of its publication and remains so today. The work that Erasmus published incorporated parallel versions of the Latin and Greek Scriptures of the New Testament, making the Bible available in both forms for the serious scholar of the day. The new found ability to print works such as this for a wider audience magnified its significance even more. Now, theologians and other students of the Bible could study the New Testament in the original language, simultaneously comparing it to the Latin that was used as the common language of the Roman Catholic Church.
Merely having the Scriptures in another language may seem trivial to some. The worth of such a work as this can only be seen by those who value getting to the heart of the Scriptures and getting as close to Christ and His Word as possible. The inspired words of Scripture were written in Hebrew and Greek. Therefore, gaining access to those original languages is of the utmost importance for those who desire to discern the meaning of God’s Word. This was true at the time of Erasmus’ publication of this work, and it remains true today. This particular work has lasting implications for all those who wish to study the Scriptures.
9. Martin Luther’s Posting of the 95 Theses (31 October 1517)
When Martin Luther posted the 95 Theses on the door of the church at Wittenberg, he made a bold move that few had attempted prior to this point. Others had challenged the Catholic Church at one level or another, but Luther proclaimed loudly and unmistakably on October 31, 1517, that the Catholic Church was guilty of grievous errors that needed to be corrected. Luther dared to question the authority of the church, going so far as to say the church was guilty of practices that stood in direct contradiction to the scriptures. The most heinous of practices was the selling of indulgences, which effectively communicated to the common man that all his sins would be absolved (and perhaps even the sins of his family) if he would merely buy a certificate of indulgence from the local priest. The church, in the selling of indulgences, was preying upon its unsuspecting and trusting congregants who were mostly illiterate and uneducated in the scriptures, aside from what they had been taught from the priests who were now taking advantage of them.
Though Luther merely intended to be a catalyst for reform in the Roman Catholic Church, he served as a catalyst for something far greater. As Luther demonstrated boldness in confronting errors, others stepped forward to do the same. Word of Luther’s actions spread rapidly, as did the theological contents of the theses and his other disputations. It was not long before people began worshipping according to Luther’s teachings rather than submitting to the teachings of the Catholic Church which were being exposed as fraudulent.
Many events in the Reformation era had lasting effects, but Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses is foremost because it resounded so readily with the people of his day and it had such profound effects both within and outside of the Catholic Church. People began to recognize that change was imminent. People began to see the corruption and chicanery that had been forced upon the commoners. The time had come for change, and Luther led the way with this singular event.
Lasting change erupted, as well. The Protestant Reformation continued forth from this point for many years and in many forms. Many denominations exist today which came about as a result of this one act, and the acts that followed suit. Specifically, the Lutheran denominations point back to this one event, but other protestant denominations can also attribute a portion of their history to this very point in time when Luther confronted the church with its errors.
10. The Discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (1947)
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, or at least the first of the scrolls, began in 1947 when a Bedouin threw a stone into a cave at Qumran. The stone hit a vessel, and the resounding “clink” alerted the boy to the fact that something unusual was in the cave. After years of discovery and more years of negotiation, the Dead Sea Scrolls are now available for students of archaeology and students of the Bible.
Various theories exist as to how the scrolls first came to be in the caves at Qumran. One theory states that the scrolls were placed in the caves to preserve them during the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem (indeed, the scrolls were fairly well preserved until they were removed from the dry desert environment where they had resided for hundreds of years). Regardless of how they came to be at Qumran, the importance of these scrolls cannot be denied.
First, the scrolls are the oldest set of Biblical manuscripts available (of their kind and quantity), predating earlier scrolls and parchments by centuries. This is significant because scholars now have much older manuscripts of the Scriptures than before, and the older writings can be compared to the later writings that were available previously. Second, and perhaps more significant, the scrolls provide a glimpse into Second Temple Judaism and the conditions and way of life that were common during Christ’s time on earth. The writings that were unearthed give the modern scholar the chance to peer into the culture and the way of life of the early church during the age of the apostles. Additionally, the manuscripts provide a wealth of information that is changing and will continue to change the way in which the Scriptures are read and interpreted. Any major find that affects the way the Scriptures are read and interpreted is of great and eternal value to the Christian community.
The events which hold the greatest import are those that advance the Kingdom of God and those that take the Christian closer to Christ and His Word. All of the events discussed fall into one of those two categories. Were any of these occasions to be removed from our Christian history books and from the memories of men, our world would be a different place, indeed.