Ecclesiastical history is the scientific investigation and the methodical description of the temporal development of the Church considered as an institution founded by Jesus Christ and guided by the Holy Ghost for the salvation of mankind.
In a general way the subject matter of history is everything that suffers change owing to its existence in time and space ; more particularly, however, it is the genetical or natural development of facts, events, situations, that history contemplates. The principal subject of history is man, since the external changes in his life affect closely his intellectual interests. Objectively speaking, history is the genetical development of the human mind and of human life itself in its various aspects, as it comes before us in series of facts, whether these pertain to individuals, or to the whole human race, or to any of its various groups. Viewed subjectively, history is the apperception and description of this development, and, in the scientific sense, the comprehension of the same set forth in a methodical and systematic manner.
The history of mankind may have as many divisions as human life has aspects or sides. Its noblest form is the history of religion, as it developed in the past among the different groups of the human race. Reason shows that there can be only one true religion, based on the true knowledge and the proper worship of the one God. Thanks to the light of revelation we know that this one true religion is the Christian religion, and, since there are different forms of the Christian religion , that the true religion is in particular the one known as Catholic, concrete and visible in the Catholic Church. The history of Christianity, therefore, or more properly the history of the Catholic Church, is the most important and edifying part of the history of religion. Furthermore, the history of religion is necessarily a history of religious associations, since the specifically human, that is, moral -- and therefore religious -- life, is necessarily social in character. Every religion, therefore, aims naturally at some form of social organization, Christianity all the more so, since it is the highest and most perfect religion. There are three stages in the formation of religious associations:
The annals of Christianity in its widest sense are occasionally dated from the creation of man, seeing that a Divine revelation was made to him from the beginning. However, since Christ is the founder of the perfect religion which derives from Him its name, and which He established as a free and independent association and a sublime common possession of the whole human race, the history of Christianity maybe more naturally taken to begin with the earthly life of the Son of God. The historian, however, must deal with the ages preceding this momentous period, in so far as they prepared mankind for the coming of Christ, and are a necessary elucidation of those factors which influenced the historical development of Christianity. (See LAW, NATURAL, MORAL, DIVINE; GOD.)
The external historical form of Christianity, viewed as the religious association of all the faithful who believe in Christ, is the Church. As the institution which the Son of God founded for the realization on earth of the Kingdom of God and for the sanctification of man, the Church has a double element, the Divine and the human. The Divine element comprises all the truths of Faith which her Founder entrusted to her -- His legislation and the fundamental principles of her organization as an institute destined for the guidance of the faithful, the practice of Divine worship, and the guardianship of all the means by which man receives and sustains his supernatural life (see SACRAMENTS; GRACE). The human element in the Church appears in the manner in which the Divine element manifests itself with the co-operation of the human free will and under the influence of earthly factors. The Divine element is unchangeable, and, strictly speaking, does not fall within the scope of history; the human element on the other hand is subject to change and development, and it is owing to it that the Church has a history. Change appears first of all by reason of the extension of the Church throughout the world since its foundation. During this expansion various influences revealed themselves, partly from within the Church, partly from without, in consequence of which the expansion of Christianity was either hindered or advanced. The inner life of the Christian religion is influenced by various factors: moral earnestness, for example, and a serious realization of the aims of the Church on the part of Christians promote the attainment of her interests; on the other hand, when a worldly spirit and a low standard of morality infect many of her members, the Church's action is gravely impeded. Consequently although the teaching of the Church is in itself, as to its material content, unchangeable considered as supernatural revelation, there is still room for a formal development of our scientific apprehension and explanation of it by means of our natural faculties. The development of the ecclesiastical hierarchy and constitution, of the worship of the Church, of the legislation and discipline which regulate the relations between the members of the Church and maintain order, offers not a few changes which are a proper subject for historical investigation.
We are now in a position to grasp the scope of ecclesiastical history. It consists in the scientific investigation and methodical treatment of the life of the Church in all its manifestations from the beginning of its existence to our own day among the various divisions of mankind hitherto reached by Christianity. While the Church remains essentially the same despite the changes which she undergoes in time, these changes help to exhibit more fully her internal and external life. As to the latter, ecclesiastical history makes known in detail the local and temporal expansion or restriction of the Church in the various countries, and indicates the factors influencing the same (History of Missions, in the widest sense), also the attitude which individual states or political bodies and other religious associations assume towards her (History of Ecclesiastical Polity, of Heresies and their Refutation, and of the Relations of the Church with Non-Catholic Religious Associations). If we turn to the internal life of the Church, ecclesiastical history treats of the development of ecclesiastical teaching, based on the original supernatural deposit of faith (History of Dogma, of Ecclesiastical Theology, and Ecclesiastical Sciences in general), of the development of ecclesiastical worship in its various forms (History of Liturgy ), of the utilization of the arts in the service of the Church, especially in connexion with worship (History of Ecclesiastical Art ), of the forms of ecclesiastical government and the exercise of ecclesiastical functions (History of the Hierarchy, of the Constitution and Law of the Church ), of the different ways of cultivating the perfect religious life (History of Religious Orders), of the manifestations of religious life and sentiment among the people, and of the disciplinary rules whereby Christian morality is cultivated and preserved and the faithful are sanctified (History of Discipline, Religious Life, Christian Civilization.)
The ecclesiastical historian must apply the principles and general rules of the historical method exactly and in their entirety, and must accept at their proper value all facts which have been proved to be certain. The cornerstone of all historical science is the careful establishment of facts. The ecclesiastical historian will accomplish this by a full knowledge and critical treatment of the sources. An objective, reasonable, and unbiased interpretation of the sources, based on the laws of criticism, is the first principle of the true method of ecclesiastical history. Systematic instruction in this field is obtained through the historical sciences usually known as auxiliary or introductory, i.e. palæography, diplomatics, and criticism.
Secondly, in discussing the facts, ecclesiastical history must ascertain and explain the relation of cause and effect in the events. it is not sufficient merely to establish a certain series of events in their objective appearance; the historian is also bound to lay bare their causes and effects. Nor does it suffice to consider only those factors which lie on the surface and are suggested by the events themselves, as it were: the internal, deeper, and real causes must be brought to light. As in the physical world there is no effect without an adequate cause, so too in the spiritual and moral world every phenomenon has its particular cause, and is in turn the cause of other phenomena. In the ethical and religious world the facts are the concrete realization or outcome of definite spiritual ideas and forces, not only in the life of the individual, but also in that of groups and associations. Individuals and groups without exception are members of the one human race created for a sublime destiny beyond this mortal life. Thus, the action of the individual exercises its influence on the development of the whole human race, and this is true in a special manner of the religious life. Ecclesiastical history must therefore give us an insight into this moral and religious life, and lay clearly before us the development of the ideas active therein, as they appear both in the individual and in the groups of the human race. Moreover, to discover fully the really decisive causes of a given event, the historian must take into account all the forces that concur in producing it. This is particularly true of the free will of man, a consideration of great importance in forming a judgment about ethical phenomena. It follows that the influence of given individuals on the development of the whole body must be properly appreciated. Moreover, the ideas once current in religious, social, and political spheres, and which often survive in the masses of the people, must be justly appreciated, for they help, though as a rule imperceptibly, to determine the voluntary acts of individuals, and thereby to prepare the way for the work of especially prominent persons, and thus make possible the influence of individuals upon the whole race. Scientific church history must therefore take into consideration both the individual and the general factors in its investigation of the genetic connexion of the outward phenomena, at the same time never losing sight of the freedom of man's will. The ecclesiastical historian, moreover, can by no means exclude the possibility of supernatural factors. That God cannot intervene in the course of nature, and that miracles are therefore impossible is an assumption which has not been and cannot be proved, and which makes a correct appreciation of facts in their objective reality impossible. Herein appears the difference between the standpoint of the believing Christian historian, who bears in mind not only the existence of God but also the relations of creatures to Him, and that of the rationalistic and infidel historian, who rejects even the possibility of Divine intervention in the course of natural law.
The same difference of principle appears in the teleological appreciation of the several phenomena and their causal connexion. The believing ecclesiastical historian is not satisfied with establishing the facts and ascertaining the internal relation of cause and effect; he also estimates the value and importance of the events in their relation to the object of the Church, whose sole Christ-given aim is to realize the Divine economy of salvation for the individual as well as for the whole race and its particular groups. This ideal, however, was not pursued with equal intensity at all times. External causes often exercised great influence. In his judgment on such events, the Christian historian keeps in view the fact that the founder of the Church is the Son of God, and that the Church was instituted by Him in order to communicate to the whole human race , with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, its salvation through Christ. It is from this standpoint that the Christian historian estimates all particular events in their relation to the end or purpose of the Church. The unbelieving historian on the other hand recognizing only natural forces both at the origin and throughout the development of Christianity, and rejecting the possibility of any supernatural intervention is incapable of appreciating the work of the Church in as far as it is the agent of Divine design.
The foregoing considerations enable us also to understand in what sense ecclesiastical history should be pragmatical. The ecclesiastical historian applies first that philosophical pragmatism which traces the genesis of events from a natural standpoint and in the light of the philosophy of history, and tries to discover the ideas which underlie or are embodied in them. But to this must be added theological pragmatism, which takes its stand on supernatural revealed truth, and strives to recognize the agency of God and His providence, and thus to trace (as far as it is possible for the created mind ) the eternal purpose of God as it manifests itself in time. The Catholic historian insists on the supernatural character of the Church, its doctrines, institutions, and standards of life, in so far as they rest on Divine revelation, and acknowledge the continual guidance of the Church by the Holy Ghost. All this is for him objective reality, certain truth, and the only foundation for the true, scientific pragmatism of ecclesiastical history. This view does not hinder or weaken, but rather guides and confirms the natural historical understanding of events, as well as their true critical investigation and treatment. It also includes full recognition and use of the scientific historical method. As a matter of fact, the history of the Church exhibits most clearly a special guidance and providence of God.
A final characteristic, which ecclesiastical history has in common with every other species of history, is impartiality. This consists in freedom from every unfounded and personal prejudice against persons or facts, in an honest willingness to acknowledge the truth as conscientious investigation has revealed it, and to describe the facts or events as they were in reality; in the words of Cicero, to assert no falsehood and to hide no truth (ne quid falsi dicere audeat, ne quid veri dicere non audeat, "De Oratore", II, ix, 15). It by no means consists in setting aside those supernatural truths we have come to know, or in stripping off all religious convictions. To demand from the ecclesiastical historian an absence of all antecedent views ( Voraussetzungslosigkeit ) is not only entirely unreasonable, but an offence against historical objectivity. It could be maintained only on the hypothesis " ignoramus et ignorabimus ", that is that the end of scientific investigation is not the discovery of truth, but merely the seeking after truth without ever finding it. Such a hypothesis, however, it is quite impossible to defend, for the assertion of sceptics and rationalists that supernatural truth, or even plain objective truth of any kind, is beyond our reach, is itself an antecedent hypothesis upon which the unbelieving historian bases his investigations. It is therefore only a simulated impartiality, which the rationalistic historian displays when he prescinds entirely from religion and the supernatural character of the Church.
The rich and abundant material for scientific investigation that the long life of the Church offers us, has been variously treated by historians. We must first mention the great exhaustive works of a universal nature, in which the entire temporal development of the Church is taken into account (Universal Ecclesiastical History); alongside of these works we find numerous researches on individuals and particular institutions of the Church (Special Ecclesiastical History). These particular expositions treat either of the internal or external life of the Church, as has been explained at length above, and thus lead to a distinction between internal and external history. There are, however, many works which must consider both phases of religious life : to this class belong not only works on church history in general, but also many whose scope is confined to definite spheres (e.g. Histories of the Popes ). Special ecclesiastical history falls naturally into three main classes. First we meet with accounts of the lives and activity of individuals (Biographies), who were during their lifetime of special importance for the life of the Church. Moreover special ecclesiastical history treats of particular parts and divisions of the Church in such a manner that either the whole history of a given part is discussed or only selected features of the same. Thus we have historical descriptions of single countries or parts of them, e.g. dioceses, parishes, monasteries, churches. To it also belongs the history of missions, a subject of far-reaching importance. Finally, after a selection of special subjects from the entire mass of material (especially of the internal history of the Church), these are separately investigated and treated. Thus we have the history of the popes, of cardinals, of councils, collections of the lives and legends of the saints, the history of orders and congregations; also of patrology, dogma, liturgy, worship, the law, constitution, and social institutions of the Church.
The office of universal ecclesiastical history is, as its name implies, to exhibit a well-balanced description of all phases of ecclesiastical life. The investigation and treatment of the various phenomena in the life of the Church furnish the material of which universal church history is built. It must first treat of the one true Church which from the time of the Apostles, by its uninterrupted existence and its unique attributes, has proved itself that Christian association which is alone in full possession of revealed truth : the Catholic Church. It must, moreover, deal with those other religious associations which claim to be the Church of Christ, but in reality originated through separation from the true Church. The Catholic historian does not admit that the various forms of the Christian religion may be taken, roughly speaking, as a connected whole, nor does he consider them one and all as so many imperfect attempts to adapt the teachings and institutions of Christ to the changing needs of the times, nor as progressive steps towards a future higher unity wherein alone we must seek the perfect ideal of Christianity. There is but one Divine revelation given us by Christ, but one ecclesiastical tradition based on it; hence one only Church can be the true one, i.e. the Church in which the aforesaid revelation is found in its entirety, and whose institutions have developed on the basis of this revelation and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. To assume equality among the various forms of the Christian religion would be equivalent to a denial of the Divine origin and supernatural character of the Church.
While, however, the Catholic Church is the central subject of universal ecclesiastical history, all other forms of the Christian religion must also be considered by it, for they originated by secession from the true Church, and their founders, in so far as each form can be traced back to a founder, were externally members of the Church. Some of these separated bodies still retain among their institutions certain ecclesiastical forms which were in common use at the time of their separation from the Church, wherefore a knowledge of such institutions is of no little use to students of ecclesiastical conditions previous to the separation. This is true in a special manner of the Oriental Christian communities, their liturgy and discipline. Moreover, such schismatic bodies became, as a rule, the bitterest enemies of the Church ; they harassed and persecuted its faithful adherents and endeavoured in every way to induce them also to secede. New doctrinal discussions arose as a result of these secessions, ending usually in fuller and more exact statements of Christian teaching, and new methods had to be adopted to nullify the attacks made by apostates on the Catholic Faith. In this way non-Catholic communities have often indirectly influenced the development of the interior life of the Church and the growth of new institutions.
The vast material which, from these points of view, a universal history of the Church must treat, calls of course for methodical arrangement. Ecclesiastical history has generally been divided into three chief periods, each of which is subdivided into shorter epochs characterized by changes of a less universal nature.First Period:
The foundation of the Church and the development of fixed standards of ecclesiastical life within the limits of Græco-Roman civilization. -- In this period the geographical extent of the Church is practically confined to the Mediterranean lands of the Roman empire. Only in a few places, especially in the Orient, did she overstep its boundaries. The uniform and universal Græco-Roman civilization there prevailing was a propitious soil for the growth of the new ecclesiastical life, which displays three main phases.
Heresies regarding the person of the Incarnate Son of God bring to the front important dogmatical questions. The first great councils belong to this epoch, as well as the rich ecclesiastico-theological literature of Christian antiquity. Meanwhile the ecclesiastical hierarchy and administration are developed more fully, the primacy of Rome standing out conspicuously as in the preceding epoch. Monasticism introduces a new and important factor into the life of the Church. The fine arts place themselves at the service of the Church. In the eastern half of the empire, later known as the Byzantine empire, this development went on quite undisturbed; in the West the barbarian invasion changed radically the political conditions, and imposed on the Church the urgent and important task of converting and educating new Western nations, a task which she executed with great success. This brought a new element into the life of the Church, so important that it marks the beginning of a new period.Second Period:
The Church as mistress and guide of the new Romanic, German, and Slavic states of Europe, the secession of Oriental Christendom from ecclesiastical unity and the final overthrow of the Byzantine empire. -- In this period occurred events which for a considerable time greatly affected ecclesiastical life. Three main epochs suggest themselves.
The collapse of religious unity among the two western nations, and the reformation from within of the ecclesiastical life, accomplished during the conflict against the latest of the great heresies. -- Immense geographical expansion of the Church owing to the zealous activity of her missionaries through whom South America, part of North America and numerous adherents in Asia and Africa, were gained for the Catholic Faith. In this period, also, which reaches to our own time, we rightly discern several shorter epochs during which ecclesiastical life is characterized by peculiar and distinctive traits and phenomena.
The great turning-points in the historical development of the Church do not appear suddenly or without due cause. As a rule divers important events occurring within the shorter epochs bring about eventually a change of universal import for the life of the Church, and compel us to recognize the arrival of a new period. Naturally, between these prominent turning-points there are shorter or longer intervals of transition, so that the exact limits of the chief periods are variously set down by different ecclesiastical historians, according to the importance which they severally attach to one or the other of the aforesaid momentous events or situations. The division between the first and second periods has its justification in the fact that, owing to the downfall of the Western Roman Empire and to the relations between the Church and the new Western nations, essentially new forms of life were called into being, while in the East Byzantine culture had become firmly established. The turning-point between the old and the new state of things did not, however, immediately follow the conversion of the Teutonic tribes; a considerable time elapsed before Western life was moving easily in all its new forms. Some (Neander, Jacobi, Baur, etc.) consider the pontificate of Gregory the Great in 590, or (Moeller, Müller), more generally, the end of the sixth and the middle of the seventh century as the close of the first period; others ( Döllinger, Kurtz) take the Sixth General Council in 680, or ( Alzog, Hergenröther, von Funk, Knöpfler) the Trullan synod of 692, or the end of the seventh century; others again close the first period with St. Boniface (Ritter, Niedner), or with the Iconoclasts (Gieseler, Möhler ), or with Charlemagne ( Hefele, Hase, Weingarten ). For the West Kraus regards the beginning of the seventh century as the close of the first period; for the East, the end of the same century. Speaking generally, however, it seems more reasonable to accept the end of the seventh century as the close of the first period. Similarly, along the line of division between the second and the third periods are crowded events of great importance to ecclesiastical life: the Renaissance with its influence upon all intellectual life, the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks, the discovery of America and the new problems which the Church had to solve in consequence, the appearance of Luther and the heresy of Protestantism, the Council of Trent with its decisive influence on the evolution of the interior life of the Church. Protestant historians regard the appearance of Luther as the beginning of the third period. A few Catholic authors (e.g. Kraus ) close the second period with the middle of the fifteenth century; it is to be noted, however, that the new historical factors in the life of the Church which condition the third period become prominent only after the Council of Trent, itself an important result of Protestantism. It seems, therefore, advisable to regard the beginning of the sixteenth century as the commencement of the third period.
Nor do authors perfectly agree on the turning-points which are to be inserted within the chief periods. It is true that the conversion of Constantine the Great affected the life of the Church so profoundly that the reign of this first Christian emperor is generally accepted as marking a sub-division in the first period. In the second period, especially prominent personalities usually mark the limits of the several sub-divisions, e.g. Charlemagne, Gregory VII, Boniface VIII, though this leads to the undervaluation of other important factors e.g. the Greek Schism, the Crusades. Recent writers, therefore, assume other boundary lines which emphasize the forces active in the life of the Church rather than prominent personalities. In subdividing the third period the same difficulty presents itself. Many historians consider the French Revolution at the end of the eighteenth century as an event of sufficient importance to demand a new epoch; others, more reasonably perhaps see a distinct epochal line in the Treaty of Westphalia (1648), with which the formation of great Protestant territories came to an end. From the above considerations we deduce the following chronological arrangement of general ecclesiastical history:First Period:
Origin and Development of the Church in the ancient Græco-Roman world (from the birth of Christ to the close of the seventh century).
The Church as the guide of the Western nations (from the close of the seventh century to the beginning of the sixteenth).
The Catholic Encyclopedia is the most comprehensive resource on Catholic teaching, history, and information ever gathered in all of human history. This easy-to-search online version was originally printed between 1907 and 1912 in fifteen hard copy volumes.
Designed to present its readers with the full body of Catholic teaching, the Encyclopedia contains not only precise statements of what the Church has defined, but also an impartial record of different views of acknowledged authority on all disputed questions, national, political or factional. In the determination of the truth the most recent and acknowledged scientific methods are employed, and the results of the latest research in theology, philosophy, history, apologetics, archaeology, and other sciences are given careful consideration.
No one who is interested in human history, past and present, can ignore the Catholic Church, either as an institution which has been the central figure in the civilized world for nearly two thousand years, decisively affecting its destinies, religious, literary, scientific, social and political, or as an existing power whose influence and activity extend to every part of the globe. In the past century the Church has grown both extensively and intensively among English-speaking peoples. Their living interests demand that they should have the means of informing themselves about this vast institution, which, whether they are Catholics or not, affects their fortunes and their destiny.
Copyright © Catholic Encyclopedia. Robert Appleton Company New York, NY. Volume 1: 1907; Volume 2: 1907; Volume 3: 1908; Volume 4: 1908; Volume 5: 1909; Volume 6: 1909; Volume 7: 1910; Volume 8: 1910; Volume 9: 1910; Volume 10: 1911; Volume 11: - 1911; Volume 12: - 1911; Volume 13: - 1912; Volume 14: 1912; Volume 15: 1912
Catholic Online Catholic Encyclopedia Digital version Compiled and Copyright © Catholic Online