church history 100 events

How Gnosticism Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

Introduction

One of the earliest wayward teachings within Christian circles is the heresy now known as Gnosticism. From gnosis, which means “knowledge,” this term refers to a broad collection of teachings that lasted until the 4th century CE.

Gnosticism held to a dualistic view of the cosmos, with a negative—even evil—view of the physical and a positive view of the spiritual. God is impersonal and unknowable. The physical world was not made by God, but rather by a demiurge1 as part of the Fall. Mankind is viewed as a spiritual being—a divine spark—trapped in a physical body. Salvation from the physical world is attainable through secret knowledge (gnosis).

Importance

The Christian form of Gnosticism likely developed in the early 2nd century CE.2 Early Gnostic teachers include Basilides, Marcion, and Valentinus.3

To combat these false teachings, the early Church Fathers wrote extensively on the subject. Justin Martyr wrote a treatise—now lost to history—on early heretics, in which he condemns early Gnostic teachings. The historian Eusebius wrote about Gnosticism in Ecclesiastical History. Irenaeus, Tertullian, and Origen all wrote against Gnosticism.

False teachings like Gnosticism helped the Church Fathers think through what Christ & Scripture taught; these challenges helped the church determine what they believe and why they believe it.

Impact

While the Gnostic movement died out in the 4th century, the influence of Gnosticism can be felt in some strains of Christianity even today. The concepts of dualism, inner spark, and secret knowledge are found in popular self-help spirituality. Even the Matrix trilogy relied on Gnostic teachings.

More importantly, the writings of the Church Fathers to combat Gnosticism and other heresies helped strengthen the orthodox views on the nature of the Trinity, man, and salvation. By facing these false teachings, the Church reaffirmed what they believed and why they believe it.

For Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]


  1. A lesser spiritual being. 

  2. There is no direct New Testament teaching against Gnosticism, though some think certain NT passages contain anti-Gnostic teachings. They include Paul’s command to Timothy to “Avoid the irreverent babble and contradictions of what is falsely called ‘knowledge,’ for by professing it some have swerved from the faith.” (1 Timothy 6:20–21). 

  3. The early Church Fathers viewed Simon Magus—mentioned in Acts 8—as a Gnostic, but that is not supported in the New Testament. 

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Two Brief Summaries of 2,000 Years of Church History

Church history is important. Not only is it our family story, but today’s Christians continue a story that can be traced all the way back to the original disciples of Christ.

One obstacle in learning church history is the wealth of information. There is simply too much stuff going on in 2,000 years of history—including important events, people, and doctrinal disputes. Recently, two top church historians sought to provide a comprehensive yet brief summary of church history.

In 5 Minutes

First is Stephen Nichols, who is President of  Reformation Bible College. His podcast, Five Minutes in Church History, is a remarkable resource for anyone interested in the Christian story; he is always able to make the events and people in church history come alive.

In the 100th episode of his podcast, Nichols summarizes 2,000 years of church history in 5 minutes. You can take a listen to the episode or read a transcription.

In 1000 Words

Over on the Crossway blog, Gerald Bray attempts a similar feat as Nichols. Bray, who serves as research professor at Beeson Divinity School, is focused on the development of theology throughout church history. He notes how the church first focused on Christ, then on the relationship between the parts of the Trinity. Be sure to read this concise yet thorough post.

Conclusion

Although both summaries are brief and leave out names, dates, and places, both capture the essence of the Christian story as found in church history. Understanding the journey of the followers of Christ in the past helps us navigate our journey as Christ’s followers in the present. This is why I am grateful for men like Nichols and Bray, who provide helpful summaries of church history in accessible, yet rich, formats.

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100 Events that Shape the Christian Story

How George Whitefield’s Preaching Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

Introduction

George Whitefield is considered by many to be one of the greatest evangelists in the church’s story. During his ministry, which spanned four decades and two continents, Whitefield spoke to hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people. Benjamin Franklin once calculated the size of a crowd listening to Whitefield in Philadelphia to be 30,000 people!

But it was one key day in 1739 that would forever change Whitefield’s ministry—as well as the role of evangelism in the Christian story.

By this time, Whitefield was already an acclaimed preacher in England. He also served as a missionary to Georgia, at that time a newly formed colony in the Americas. He returned to England in 1739 to finish his ordination in the Church of England and to raise money for an orphanage he started in Georgia.

While seeking more opportunities to preach in England, Whitefield heard of the ministry of Howell Harris. Harris, an unordained Welshman, spoke to large working-class crowds at fairs. Whitefield saw this as a model for reaching more people with the Gospel—people who might never hear the Gospel otherwise.

On February 21, Whitefield preached to a crowd of 2000 in a field at Kingswood, Bristol. He returned the next Sunday—after already preaching 3 times that day in Bristol—to preach to a crowd of 10,000 at Kingswood. Whitefield describes the day in beautiful terms:

The trees and hedges were full. All was hush when I began; the sun shone bright, and God enabled me to preach for an hour with great power, and so loudly that all, I was told, could hear. (Quoted in Dallimore, George Whitefield, Kindle loc. 638)

george whitefield preaching

Importance

What started at Kingswood in 1739 would come to define Whitefield’s method of operating the rest of his life. Whether in England or America, Whitefield would preach to the common man where they were: in the fields or streets. The benefits were great: he could reach more people, especially those who would never enter a church.

This method of preaching inspired thousands to give their life to Christ. Everywhere he went, Whitefield fanned the flames of revival. This revival, found in both England and America, is now referred to as the First Great Awakening.

Impact

Whitefield grasped the importance of open-air evangelism in reaching people who were not inside the church. Billy Sunday and Billy Graham are the most notable heirs to the role of Whitefield in the last 100 years.

More importantly, Whitefield focused his ministry on the common man. Working around the schedules of the coal miners at Kingswood, Whitefield accommodated to their schedule. And in his travels in America, Whitefield preached in large cities and small villages alike. This burden for the common man is shared today by ministries focused on rural America, cultural missionaries focused on small minority groups, and workplace chaplains ministering to factory workers.

Conclusion

George Whitefield’s first sermon to the workers in Kingswood changed the direction and method of his ministry forever. The impact can hardly be exaggerated, as Whitefield’s ministry impacted large numbers on an international level. Moreover, Whitefield’s preaching helped fan the flames of the First Great Revival, an important movement of God in his story in America.

Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.[/alert-note]

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Church History as our Family Heritage

Church History story of our family heritageMy maternal grandfather was really into genealogy, tracing our family’s lineage back hundreds of years. Sometimes this led to surprising—and embarrassing—results; for example, I am related to Civil War General George B. McClelland, who led the Union army at Antietam1. When I mentioned this to our tour guide at Antietam battlefield, he responded with “Oh that wimp!”2

A few years back my family was cleaning out my grandfather’s house, as he was moving into an assisted living facility. We found his files on genealogy and family records, and we combed through them to see what to keep. In this file, we discovered a telegram my grandfather had received from his older brother during World War II. At the time my grandfather was in high school, but was contemplating dropping out to join the Army; his brother, meanwhile, was in Europe battling Hitler’s forces. In this telegraph, my great-uncle was giving my grandfather advice—stay in school, finish, and help support the family.

If this telegraph appeared in any documentary or book on World War II, I would have been impressed by this glimpse of humanity and brotherly love. But as I held the telegraph in my hand, and imagining my grandfather receiving this as a high school student, it made the moment so much more powerful. I was holding a piece of history, but more importantly a piece of my family’s history.

When we talk about church history, we are talking about our family history. Sure, we might not be related to Augustine or Luther or Spurgeon, but they are our spiritual ancestors. While centuries and languages might separate us, they are still brothers and sisters with whom we share the bond of Christ. The story of the church—established by the apostles, defended by the church fathers, revitalized by the Reformers, and spread by the missionaries—is the story we continue today.


  1. He is also known for serving as governor of New Jersey and running against Abraham Lincoln for the presidency in 1864. 

  2. That’s because he was overtly cautious in the field and didn’t pursue the Confederate army after his victory. Lincoln had him promptly removed. 

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church history 100 events

How Marcion Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

In church history, the storyline moves on by people, places, and events. Sometimes those stories are good, like the development of the King James Bible. Other times, however, the storyline progresses at the hand of conflict, trials, and debates. The battle surrounding Marcion, his beliefs about God, and the debate surrounding his beliefs is a key moment in the christian story.

About Marcion

Marcion was born around 85 AD, the son of a bishop in Sinope (modern day Turkey). He made a fortune as a ship owner, and later settled in Rome around 140 AD. While in Rome he connected with the local church, to which he donated a sizable sum. But a few years later, Marcion was excommunicated from the Roman church for views deemed heretical1.

The beliefs that got Marcion kicked out of the church had to do with the Old and New Testaments, and the apparent discontinuity between the deities found in each. To Marcion, the god of the Old Testament (Yahweh) and the god of the New Testament (Jesus Christ) were two separate entities. Yahweh was judgmental, vengeful, and vindictive, while Jesus Christ was loving, compassionate, and forgiving. Yahweh was the god of Judaism, while Jesus was the god of Christianity. In Marcion’s view, these two gods were incompatible for a Christian to follow, as were the testaments testifying to each. Marcion even rejected some of the writings that we now consider part of the New Testament, including Matthew, Mark, Hebrews, and the Pastorals; he kept Paul’s writings and the Gospel of Luke.

Church leaders had issues with Marcion’s rejection of many influential Christian writings, as well as his wholesale rejection of the Old Testament. More importantly, they had grave concerns with Marcion’s division of God into Yahweh and Jesus Christ, as well as his dualistic teaching that Jesus was not human but only spirit.

Importance

After Marcion’s excommunication from the church in Rome, he continued spreading his teachings throughout the Roman Empire until his death in 160 AD. In the years following, local churches began forming around Marcion’s core teachings. Eventually this following grew to such an extent that church leaders needed to respond.

Tertullian, a church leader in North Africa, wrote a five-volume book against Marcion’s teachings, appropriately titled Against Marcion. In this work, Tertullian explained all of Marcion’s views, then using Scripture, logic, and history, he refuted each and every claim.

The beliefs of Marcion, along with later followers, were debated at the great early church councils. The councils of Nicea discussed the nature of Jesus and the Trinity. The council of Chalcedon debated how Jesus was both human and divine. And at the council of Laodicea, the church recognized that both the Old Testament and the New Testament are to be used by Christian churches.

Impact

The impact of Marcion’s beliefs is still felt today, especially in the arguments from New Atheists. Richard Dawkins is especially Marcion-esque in his challenges of Christianity, painting the God of the Old Testament as a vengeful, vindictive deity.

Within evangelical Christianity, there is a strong movement towards embracing the Old Testament for a variety of reasons. First, because it was the only Bible Jesus and the apostles knew, and they quote from and allude to the Old Testament constantly. Second, the story of Jesus is only understandable in the greater context of the Old Testament, as it attests to God’s great redemptive plan for history. Third, by engaging the difficult passages of the Old Testament—like commands for conquest, genocide, and harsh legal punishments—we get a fuller picture of the nature of sin, mankind, and the grace and mercy God provides.

Conclusion

Marcion’s rejection of core tenants of the Christian faith, along with the rejection of the Old Testament and the god of the Jews, caused division in the early church. These views, together with other heresies of the early centuries, spurred a flurry of writings and debates. The resulting councils of church leaders—and the creeds that followed—helped solidify and strengthen the beliefs of the universal church. As evangelical Christians, we are grateful for the church fathers that defended the faith so many years ago, thus preserving the church and her beliefs for us today.

Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]


  1. We would define heresy as any provocative view outside the boundaries of established beliefs. In later centuries we would use the term “outside orthodoxy.” 

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How the Conversion of Charles Spurgeon Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

 

Introduction

Charles Spurgeon is one of the most influential pastors in church history, as well as one of the most popular and prolific preachers of the 19th century. Ministering a century before megachurches became popular in America, Spurgeon would regularly preach to crowds upwards of 6,000 each Sunday. Yet all this would be impossible had it not been for Spurgeon’s conversion in 1850, at the age of 15.

On January 6, 1850, a snowstorm diverted Spurgeon’s intended journey, leading him instead to a small Methodist chapel. The snowstorm had also kept the regular preacher away, so a fill-in preached from Isaiah 45:22. After a brief explanation, the preacher then directly addressed the young Charles. As Spurgeon later recalls in his autobiography:

Just fixing his eyes on me, as if he knew all my heart, he said, “Young man, you look very miserable… Young man, look to Jesus Christ. Look! Look! Look! You have nothing to do byt look and live!” (quoted in Dallimore, Spurgeon, 19).

Importance

After his conversion, Spurgeon quickly developed his gift of preaching, performing itinerant preaching as a teen. Eventually Spurgeon began ministering at New Park Street Chapel in London. This church grew under Spurgeon’s dynamic preaching, eventually building a new structure and changing the name of the church to the Metropolitan Tabernacle. Overall, Spurgeon would spend 38 years as pastor of the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Impact

spurgeonCharles Spurgeon has been called the “Prince of Preachers,” because of his powerful words, his singular focus on Christ, and for his appeal across denominations. His large volume of sermons have stayed popular through the years, and he was held in high regard throughout London in his day.

His sermons were published each week in newspapers and bound copies, with Spurgeon himself editing the proofs. During the week he trained pastors at the college he started (The Pastors’ College). He also published writings other than his sermons. Two of his devotional works remain popular to this day: The Treasury of David (devotional commentary on the Psalms) and Morning and Evening.

At his funeral in 1892, the entire city of London shut down; 60,000 mourners visited the Metropolitan Tabernacle to see Spurgeon’s body. Whether they heard him preach, read his sermons, or was impacted by a pastor he trained, this massive crowd wished to pay their last respects to the Prince of Preachers.

Conclusion

Charles Spurgeon was one of the most gifted and popular preachers in London in his day. And his words continue to draw people to Christ even today. Spurgeon’s words are read daily by many Christians, and his sermons are quoted weekly by pastors who appreciate his way with words and his unwavering focus on Christ.

Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.[/alert-note]

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church history 100 events

How Luther’s 95 Theses Shape the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

 

Introduction

By all accounts, Martin Luther was an average man living an average life. Born in 1483, he was a monk who became a priest and theology professor at University of Wittenberg. But God would use him to seek reform in the Church, forever changing the Christian story.

Luther’s reforming story begins with Johann Tetzel’s journey through Germany selling indulgences. The sale of indulgences—a way of alleviating punishment in purgatory—grew in Germany at the beginning of the 16th century, primarily as a method of fundraising for the church. Luther disagreed with indulgences on principle, arguing that the Church should not charge for this gracious gift it could give followers for free.

luther 95 thesesOn October 31, 1517, Luther posted a list of his grievances on the church door. This list contained 95 theses (or statements) against the practice of indulgences, as well as other perceived issues in the Church at that time. Luther made additional copies and sent them to church leaders. Luther’s followers translated the work from Latin into German and mass-producing copies via the printing press.

Importance

Luther’s actions would have a ripple effect not only in his life, but in the church as a whole. He continued publishing works challenging flawed practices of the Church, in hopes of seeing reform and change within the Church. But leaders sought to silence his dissent.

Luther was summoned to the Diet of Worms in 1521, where he was given a chance to recant. At the end of his testimony, Luther showed he was standing his ground:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason—for I do not trust either in the pope or in councils alone, since it is well known that they have often erred and contradicted themselves—I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience. May God help me. Amen.

Impact

Luther’s words—both at the Diet of Worms and his translation of the Bible into the common tongue—had a rippling effect throughout Germany. Princes and people alike, no longer seeing Rome as having the final answer to matters of faith, felt empowered to become independent. Revolutions, reformations, and various religious groups sprung up throughout Germany and Europe. While each of these had their own leaders and motivations, many of these movements could trace back to Luther.

And Luther’s actions still shape the Christian story today. Many Protestant denominations, emphasizing justification by faith and priesthood of all believers, reflect Luther’s original challenges against the Church. In turn, the Catholic Church would undergo its own reformation, in part a response to the Reformation started by Luther.

Conclusion

When Martin Luther nailed his complaints to the church door in Wittenberg, he could have never known how his actions would affect the church’s story some 500 years later. But God used his actions to reform the church, and in turn shape the Christian story.

Further Information:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]

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How the Great Schism Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

As the Christian church grew in influence and stature around the Mediterranean, there developed a few distinct divisions within the church. Most notably is the division between the East and West in the Middle Ages, often referred to as the Great Schism or the East-West Schism. While this split—or schism—took place in 1054 AD, its roots can be traced back for hundreds of years.

After the capital of the Roman empire moved to Constantinople (now modern-day Istanbul, Turkey), the Christian church was split into two administrative jurisdictions. When the western part of the empire fell in the 5th century, the two branches of the Christian church began to follow divergent paths.

great schismThese two branches of the church developed differently due to culture (Greek vs. Roman), language (Greek vs. Latin), and even leadership structure. The East was under the authority of the emperor in Constantinople, with patriarchs serving as spiritual leaders; the West was led by the pope—who often served as both spiritual and physical rulers—in Rome. The role of priest evolved in separate paths: Eastern priests could marry and wear beards, while Western priests could do neither.

Differences in theology increased as the years went on. The two sides disagreed as to the type of bread used in Communion. They also differed on when to celebrate Easter. More serious were the discussions on purgatory (which the East rejected) and the relationship between Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

The tension between the two branches of Christianity grew until it came to a head in 1054. Seeking to put an end to these arguments, Pope Leo IX sent emissaries to the Eastern patriarch Michael Cerularius. When discussions broke down, the Western leaders excommunicated the Eastern leaders. In response, Michael Cerularius excommunicated the Western leaders. This ultimately broke whatever union remained between the two branches, causing them to effectively become two separate entities.

Importance

While there were plenty of smaller splinter groups from the Christian church throughout the years, the Great Schism remains the first major division of the church. Essentially the global church was split in half, never to be united again.

The animosity between the East and West increased, especially after the West invaded Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The excommunication between the two churches was finally removed in 1965 by the leaders of each church.

Impact

A form of the Eastern church served as the main flavor of Christianity in Eastern Europe for centuries. Several ethnic forms developed, including Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Churches. Theological differences continue between these Orthodox and the Catholic churches, as well as Orthodox and Protestant churches. However, in America there are now a growing number of evangelical churches that are Eastern Orthodox in their worship.

Conclusion

Much is made of the Protestant Reformation and how it changed the global church forever. But the Great Schism of 1054 arguably impacted history to a greater extent. This event not only shaped all forms of Christianity to come, but also history of Europe from the Middle Ages on.

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]

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church history 100 events

How the King James Bible Shapes the Christian Story

This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series.

Introduction

In 1603, England crowned James I as king. He inherited a nation filled with religious disunity, with Anglicans, Puritans, and Catholics all vying for more privilege and rights in England. This tension was real; plenty of blood had been shed in the previous 50 years as each group gained or lost support, depending on who was on the throne. Complicating things, there were several popular English translations—Bishops’ Bible, Matthew’s Bible, Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible—with each group having their own preferred translation.

In 1604, James convened the Hampton Court Conference, a gathering of bishops and church leaders for the purpose of reforming the church. In these negotiations, a minor suggestion—to establish one translation as the official English translation—was quickly embraced by James.

In this proposal, James saw an opportunity to bring some peace and unity to the religious community. He also saw a way to get rid of the Geneva Bible, which was embraced by the Puritans and was the most popular English translation at the time, even though it had decidedly anti-monarch wording.

At once a team was assembled and began working on this new translation. These translators relied on previous English translations, while also referring back to the Greek and Hebrew texts.

In 1611, this new Bible was published, quickly replacing the Geneva Bible in popularity. While receiving some significant updates throughout the years, the King James Bible served as the primary English translation for over 300 years, and still is immensely popular today.

KJV Front Matter
Front matter for the King James Bible

Importance

The importance of the King James Bible has been noted extensively in recent years. Leland Ryken, a literature scholar, has said that the Bible’s publishing is “the most important event in the history of English and American literature.” (source)

The King James Bible is the most ubiquitous English Bible out there. Not only is it the best-selling book ever—with over 5 billion copies sold—it is also the book most freely given away. For 300 years, it was the English Bible translation. Sure, there were other translations in English, but when someone referred to the Bible, they were talking about the KJV.

Impact

Even 400 years after it was first published, the King James Bible continues to impact the Christian story today. Here are two key ways the KJV shapes the Christian story in the 21st century.

Shaped English

The King James Bible, along with the works of Shakespeare, are seen as the most influential works to shape the English language. According to one study, there are 257 English idioms—like salt of the earth, labor of love, and drop in the bucket—that the King James Version added to our culture.

Still used today.

According to The Bible in American Life survey1, the King James Bible is the most popular English version in America today.2 Most of this reason is because the KJV is in public domain, so ministries like Gideons International can print and distribute copies at a greatly-reduced price. Another reason for the continued popularity of the KJV is due to its wide acceptance in certain circles (African-American and fundamentalist churches especially).

Conclusion

It is astonishing that the King James Bible has lasted—and shaped the Christian story—for 400 years. It is a tribute to the translators who created a beautiful English translation, and for the previous English translations upon which the KJV is based. Likewise, all current and future English translations owe a debt to the King James Bible.

Further Reading:

[alert-note]This post is part of the 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story series. [/alert-note]


  1. Done by the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture 

  2. 55% of readers responded that the KJV is the Bible they most often read. 

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church history 100 events

On Church History and the Christian Story

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left behind his group of followers with a mission: to spread the news of what they had seen. As word spread through Jerusalem, entire crowds became followers of Jesus. This growing group of followers became the Church—the entirety of Christ’s followers on earth.

The Gospel continued to spread throughout the world. Everywhere the Gospel spread, churches would spring up; they were local gatherings of believers and seekers. But the Church (big C) continued to grow, still signifying the sum total of Christ’s followers.

In the 2,000-year history of the Church, there have been some significant moments—moments that have shaped the Church’s story forever. Some have been positive, like ending persecution, while others have been a sore spot in church history, like the Crusades. But through all of it, the Church has remained a marker of God’s kingdom here on earth.

Today I am starting a new blog series called 100 Events that Shape the Christian Story. Over the next few months, I’d like to look at the key events that have shaped Church History. This will not be an exhaustive list, nor will it be in order of importance or dates. As I come from the Protestant tradition, I may not be as comprehensive in my coverage of events in Catholic or Orthodox circles, but they will be included.

These posts will cover some of the most important events to happen in church history—the good, the bad, and the ugly. In each post, we will look at the details of the event, as well as how the event shaped church history. We will even bring it to the present, seeing how each event shapes the Christian story today.

I hope you will join me each week on this adventure through church history. If you miss some, the full list will be available here: 100 Events that Shaped the Christian Story.

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