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We use the phrase "The Early Church" all the time around here, which leads me to ask... What exactly is "the early Church"?

The New testament Church is easy to define – the fellowship of believers that existed during New testament times. But I've never come across a definitive date range for the "Early Church" or even a specific event or marker.

For comparison, the "Middle Ages" sounds like it might be a relative term, but the term "Middle Ages" refers to a specific time period – the 5th to the 15th century A.D.

Does "The Early Church" refer to a specific, commonly accepted time period in the history of the Church, or do we just use it to refer to "Sometime early A.D." with the definition of "early" being up to open interpretation?

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Early church is not a technical term, so it can be used fairly loosely, but generally follows the history and writings of church leaders which are divided by time period into the Ante-Nicene era (prior to the council of Nicaea in 325AD) and the Nicene/Post-Nicene era, up to the scholasticism of the Middle Ages.

There is no period of the church which is devoid of meaningful history, but the early church is often cited as a form of implicit evidence to the earliest interpretations of various traditions, especially when the scriptures do not go into detail about how various doctrines and traditions were practiced. Yet Protestant bodies generally seek to denounce traditions, even early ones, when they are perceived to violate the teachings of scripture.

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The "early church" is indeed an imprecise term, but academically a loose consensus exists. A survey of books and college courses indicates that the end point of the "early church" is most often identified during the fifth or sixth centuries. Here's a breakdown:

  • End of 5th century. Some authors expliticly or implictly include the entire fifth century. John D. Hannah, in the Kregel Pictorial Guide to Church History, specifies the year 500 as the end point of the period. Implicitly, the subtitle of Everet Ferguson's Baptism in the Early Church refers to "the first five centuries," while D. Jeffrey Bingham, Pocket History of the Church, does the same.
  • During the 5th century. Some authors are less specific, but end their treatments during the 5th century. Stuart George Hall ends in the mid-5th century with the Council of Chalcedon in Doctrine and Practice in the Early Church, as does London Theological Seminary's church history course. Adolf von Harnack, Bible Reading in the Early Church, finishes with Theodoret (d. ~460). Some find Augustine (d. 430) to be the last figure worthy of treatment, such as John Frame, A History of Western Philosophy and Theology, and Anthony Meredith, Christian Philosophy in the Early Church.

  • 6th century. Some prefer a 6th-century end point; Monwenna Ludlow, in The Early Church, enters this period, and the chapters of Gregg R. Allison's Historical Theology split on the year 600.

  • Others. Of course, some apply the term "early church" more loosely for practical purposes. Some authors, not finding relevant material to discuss beyond the 4th century, end their treatments there, such as Ronald A. N. Kydd in Charismatic Gifts in the Early Church. Others extend the period much later: the University of Notre Dame's "Early Church Christology" course covers material to the 8th century, while World Christian Trends divides Church history into two millennia and assigns the first the label "early."

Summary

Though the term "early church" is often used imprecisely – such as when practical concerns dictate dividing all of church history into two eras – a survey of academic uses of the phrase indicates that it is widely understood to refer to the period preceding the Medieval era. Thus, among more careful authors, "early church" most commonly refers to a period ending during the fifth or sixth centuries.

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