Church history

The record or narrative of the origin and internal and external development of the religious, society founded by Jesus Christ. It forms the most valuable part of history, since it deals with the vicissitudes of the Church of Christ, the greatest institution ever established to lead men to salvation. As universal history deals with the history of man, so church history concerns itself with that of the Christian. In its treatment it must fulfill the conditions required of all history writing. It must therefore be: impartial, i.e., state the facts without bias and in their proper perspective, as found in the sources; based on original sources, i.e., derived from the most authentic and reliable documents furnishing first-hand information concerning the facts to be narrated; critical, sifting, weighing, and estimating at its true value the existing evidence and distinguishing carefully between possibility, probability, or certainty of an event; philosophical, i.e., stating not merely the facts, but investigating their causes and following up their results. Besides fulfilling these conditions, the ecclesiastical historian must ever be mindful of the fact that the Church of Christ is a Divine institution with supernatural means, leading to a supernatural end and with the promises of infallibility and indefectibility, received from its founder. A special Providence watches over this simultaneously Divine and human institution and an exclusive study of human causes and effects will fail to furnish a satisfactory and exhaustive account of ecclesiastical events.

From a topical viewpoint, church history is divided into internal and external. The internal history of the Church treats of such subjects as her membership, nature, constitution, doctrine, worship, and discipline; the external history considers the Church's relations with persons and institutions which, while not belonging to her, have nevertheless some connection with her, as schismatics, heretics, and infidels, whom she seeks to convert, and secular powers with whom she comes into contact. From the chronological standpoint the division into three great periods is pretty generally accepted, although there is considerable divergence in determining the years in which these periods open or close. The following divisions and subdivisions with respective dates are suitable: By sources of history are meant accounts, reports, narratives, inscriptions, and relics of all kinds left us by the past generations. In church history Divine and human sources must be distinguished. The former are found in the written word of God, the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testament; the latter have man as their origin and authority. For the proper use and evaluation of historical sources the so-called auxiliary sciences are of great assistance. Among them are philology, epigraphy, palaeography, numismatics, diplomatics, but particularly geography and chronology. A knowledge of general history, of the history of philosophy, literature, and religion will also greatly help to an understanding of the history of the Church.

The first important author of a history of the Church was Eusebius (died 340), Bishop of Caesarea in Palestine, who has rightly been styled the "Father of Church History." His narrative comes down to the year 324; it was later continued by Sozomen to the year 423, by Theodoret, Bishop of Cyrrhus in Syria, to 428, and by Socrates to 439. In the Latin Church, Rufinus of Aquileia and Saint Jerome published translations and wrote continuations of the works of Eusebius. Saint Augustine in his "City of God" gave to the world the first great philosophy of history. The historians of the Middle Ages paid little heed to general church history. As their interests were local, they have left mostly histories of dioceses or tribes, annals of a limited period, or chronicles of a reign. With them church history served the purpose of edification rather than of truth, and it was only with the appearance of humanism in the later Middle Ages that historical criticism came into honor. With the beginning of modern times the writing of church history assumed a polemic tone in the Protestant "Centuries of Magdeburg" and in the Catholic "Annals of Baronius." Both collections however brought home to the educated world the need and'importance of a study of the sources. Monumental editions of texts of the Fathers of the Church were soon prepared by the Maurists; and the "Lives of the Saints" were critically examined and published by the Bollandists. More recently numerous text-books have been prepared for teachers and students.

John G. Shea was the earliest author of an important "History of the Catholic Church in the United States" (1886-1892). A new history of the American Church in the form of biographies of its most illustrious churchmen is now being written by Rev. Dr. P. Guilday. The lives of Archbishop Carroll and Bishop England have so far appeared. The important "Dictionary of American Biography" in course of publication under non-sectarian auspices will also contain many articles concerning American Catholic celebrities. An invaluable contribution to general church history in America was the publication of the Catholic Encyclopedia (16 volumes, New York, 1907-1914).

New Catholic Dictionary

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