The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part IV

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

 

Without question, the third and fourth centuries are among the most important time periods in church history.  Arguably, this period is even more pivotal than the 16th and 17th centuries.  The reason for this is that these early centuries mark a major transition from the New Testament, apostolic ‘church’ to the more institutional, state-sponsored church.  In our first three posts in this series, we have traced these early developments, but we arrive now at a pivotal juncture.  

Before moving on to an overview of our third and final dissenting group, the Donatists, their Controversy, and its significance, we must introduce an important concept that had rumblings in the second century but reached maturation in the fourth century at the height of the Donatist movement. This concept is known as sacralism and its influence on the universal church spread rapidly and is still being felt today, 1600 years later.

Briefly, sacralism refers to a blending of society and religion.  Generally, it links religion with geography and ethnicity.  So, those who are born in a specific location, amongst a specific people, by default assume their religion.  Leonard Verduin, in his extremely helpful, but ostracized work The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, fleshes out this idea of sacralism. He writes

“For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean a society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed.”

Verduin then gives the example of Old Testament Babylon. In this example, we may recall that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Hebrew names Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria) were required to worship Babylonian idols or face the consequences of the sword, which for Daniel was the lion’s den and for the three was the fiery furnace. Those handing down the consequences we might today call the state or government, but since there was an intertwining with religion, indistinguishably so, Babylon is better termed, sacral. Additionally, in a similar way, Old Testament Israel was likewise sacral. The distinction between our examples of Babylon and Israel is that while the former was pagan, the latter was a Theocracy. All those living under its banner were expected to worship the One, True, and Living God, otherwise they would face excommunication and sometimes death. The king, as it was idyllic under David, essentially functioned as mediator between God and the people, though certainly this duty in worship was assigned formally to the Levitical priesthood.  That OT Israel was sacralist, does not make it bad or wrong, since it was God ordained for a specific people, in a specific place, at a specific time.  Additionally, remember as you read through 1 and 2 Kings that as the king went, so went the people. He was often to blame for leading the people into idolatry.

In the New Testament, with the arrival of Christ and the establishment of Christianity, this idea of sacralism was imploded from within. Christianity was not meant to create a monolithic society (at least not in this age), as with the examples of Babylon and Old Testament Israel, rather it creates a composite society, meaning that believers in Ephesus or Corinth could remain believers there and not be assimilated into the society of believers say in Rome or Colossae. In fact, it is Christianity’s diversity, while simultaneously maintaining its unity through a relationship to Christ, that makes it unique (see Rev. 5).

Again turning to Verduin

“It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one.”

Let that sink in for a minute, as it has ramifications into the 21st century, not merely the 4th. He goes on,

Wherever the Gospel is preached human society becomes composite; hence, since culture is the name given to the total spiritual heritage of an entire people, there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent. The New Testament vision does not pit a ‘Christian culture’ against a non-Christian culture rather does it introduce a leaven into any existing culture into which it insinuates itself, a leaven whereby that already existing culture is then affected.”

(Consider this when you hear that Christianity is losing the culture war)

The Roman Empire was entirely sacralist, sanctioning paganism as the official state religion.  As seen in the New Testament, first century Judaism did not mix with this sacralism, but stood apostate from it. As long as they lived peacefully under the emperor, they were free to continue their own worship (Acts 19), which should bring to mind the Jewish War of 66-70 AD, in which the Temple was destroyed. 

As it pertains to Christianity, remember that Christ was perceived to be the King that would overthrow the Roman government and lead a revolution, thus His followers were likewise viewed as revolutionaries who might refuse to submit to the Emperor. They were in fact those who “turned the whole world upside down” Acts 17:6, but not through political means. They understood our Lord’s statement, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36 Despite this, Christians were still seen as a threat and received the blame for everything that went wrong in Rome resulting in an unrelenting and brutal assault on them from Emperor’s Nero to Diocletian.

As with the earlier Babylonian sacralism, so too with the Roman Empire as again we see the darkside of sacralism, i.e. the ability and willingness to punish those individuals or groups who diverge from the government sanctioned and administered religion. Rome’s persecution of Christians was clearly a byproduct of sacralism.

However, it has oft been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed bed of the church. The martyrdom of Christians did not serve to suppress its growth. Just the opposite. It grew substantially faster than did the empire which had tried to kill it off.  The explosion of Christianity was seen in contrast to the decline of the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately, in the second century, whispers to assimilate Christianity into the sacral society of Rome were already beginning. Verduin points out that Meliton, bishop of Sardis in 175 A.D., declared in the ear of the emperor that he needed a quid pro quo relationship with the Christian God, “Only when Christianity is protected…does the Empire continue to preserve its size and splendor.” Verduin also cites a similar sentiment in Origen, 250 A.D., “If now the entire Roman empire should unite in the adoration of the true God, then the Lord would fight for her, she being still [the reference is to Exodus 14:14]; then she would slay more enemies than Moses did in his day.” (Verduin, pg. 30) Basically, this was the prosperity gospel on a massive, political scale.

Though persecution still continued, the general tenor against Christianity began slowly to shift towards using it for political gain. In other words, if you want a successful, lasting, empire simply claim allegiance to God, even if it is an external, superficial adherence. This at least provides some context to our statement earlier often attributed to Tertullian, “What hath the emperor to do with the church?”  He would have much more to say, particularly on the incipient notion of sacralism, “Nothing could be more alien to us than the state.  We Christians know of only one state, of which we are called citizens: the universe.”

In the next post, we’ll examine the emperor who arguably had more involvement with the church than any emperor before or after, Constantine.  It would be, either from him or his influence, that ‘Christian sacralism’ would take shape and further impact the development of the universal church.

What’s in a Name

 

Perhaps this is an over-generalization, but it seems rather apparent that the world has always endorsed the idea of individuals making a name for themselves.  While this sentiment has historically come under many different guises from being famous to self-branding, the concept has remained the same.  In order to be successful, popular, wealthy, etc., you need to get your name out there, or so we’re told.  This is especially true with having an online presence.  Just Google the phrase “self-branding” and you’ll find more than 13 million results, mostly lists of how-to.

Modern efforts to make a name for oneself are not all that different from those efforts in Genesis 11 where members of society tried to make a name for themselves by building a tower to heaven.  Verse 4 summarizes well

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth.”

The people of Babel were united with a common language and a common motivation to make a lasting impact on  history by drawing attention to their technological advancements.  That they attempted to build a tower to heaven, highlights their common blind spot as a failure to rightly recognize God, most notably that no amount of human effort will be enough to earn your way to God.  Though the technology and methods have changed, the human heart has not.

The little phrase, “let us make a name for ourselves” becomes all the more remarkable when we encounter Abraham for the first time.  In the very next episode, after Babel, we read in chapter 12 of Genesis God’s call of Abraham and the introductory covenantal formula that will be repeated throughout Abraham’s life

Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

Amidst the covenantal promises outlined above is the phrase just highlighted from the Babel events only this time, it is God who is speaking, “I will bless you and make your name great”.  The contrast between these two statements, specifically Who it is that is making the statement, should be striking.  In the first case, it is the people of Babel who are attempting to make a name for themselves.  In second case it is God who declares that He will make a name for Abraham.

Only One can accomplish what they set out to do.  Only one can guarantee lasting value.

Through desire, invention, and efforts, humans are constantly trying to make a name for themselves, a lasting legacy as it is sometimes called.  Ultimately these desires are rooted in a recognition of human frailty and the brevity of life on the timescale of humanity.  It’s a desire to live a life of purpose and meaning that finds value in being remembered.  However, as Christians know all too well, this world is not our home.  Our longing is for a city who’s builder and maker is the Lord.  Therefore our lasting value, our worth, is found in Christ and it is our union with Him that is His great accomplishment in making our name great…child of God.

I’ve often been tempted, and have sometimes fallen into the trap, of wanting to make a name for my self or to somehow make efforts for self-promotion or branding.  But then I am reminded that first it is God who will make a name for Himself.  Then it is God who chooses who, when, and how to make a name for those as He sees fit.  Ultimately there is a reminder found in the words of John the Baptist, “He must increase.  I must decrease.”

Soli Deo Gloria.

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part III

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

 

In our first post in this series on the universal church we introduced its basic concept and early developments stemming from persecution and a desire for visible unity against the rising tide of heresy, beginning in the Ante-Nicene period (AD 100-325).

In the next post, we saw the significance of the formation of the episcopacy, or bishop-rule, as foundational for development of the universal church.  Essentially this equated the bishop with the universal church, and obedience to the bishop with salvation.  It is not difficult then to understand the context for Cyprian’s well-known Latin statement, extra ecclesiam nullus salus, or “outside the church, there is no salvation.”  In other words, if you are not with the universal church in her beliefs and practice, then you are a heretic.  However, in reality, what happens when said “church” begins to err and deviate from the New Testament?  She’s a ship that’s not easily turned.  Remember we already saw how the establishment of an episcopate was a departure from Scripture.  Once your foot steps onto the path of error, it could be miles (or centuries) before you realize how far from truth you’ve traveled.

In this post, we’ll see how and why opposition against the universal church and her bishops began to spring up.

Before we look at three dissenting groups from three subsequent centuries, mention must be given to the common presence of heresies from Christianity’s inception, particularly Gnosticism.  Adherents to this departure from scripture believed in a duality between spirit and flesh, which ultimately leads to a denial of Christ’s deity.  (Key scriptural references may be found 1 John, Col. 2, and probably Acts 8 – Simon)  This early movement, along with a later development known as Marcionism, paved the way for the early desire to unify the church against heresy.  Subsequently, all other departures from the universal church, or her bishops, whether correct or not, were viewed in the harshest of light.

Berkhof places his finger on the pulse of these emerging dissenters

“The increasing worldliness and corruption of the Church gradually led to reaction and gave rise to the tendency of various sects, such as Montanism in the middle of the second, Novatianism in the middle of the third, and Donatism at the beginning of the fourth century, to make the holiness of its members the mark of the true Church.”

So here is the scene: The church, using that word as a visible, external institution, was rapidly increasing but at the same time was undisciplined, becoming increasingly worldly and corrupt.  Again, we see the difficulty with using the language of “church”, as it must refer to an external, professing people.  Was there an overall corruption of genuine believers who were being sanctified by the Holy Spirit? Unlikely.  Rather, it’s more likely church here is referring to those who externally associated with Christianity, a.k.a. Christendom.

As a result of this downgrade in morality (and doctrine), sects concerned with holiness as the true mark of membership began to rise up and dissent against the universal church and her bishops.  The external institution, establishment of the bishop, and focus on catholicity (unity and universality) led to the reactions of these uprisings.

Turning our focus to these dissenting groups, the first under our consideration, Montanism, sprang up in the second century.  According to historian Philip Schaff, Montanism

“was not, originally, a departure from the faith, but a morbid overstraining of the practical morality and discipline of the early church.  It was excessive supernaturalism and puritanism against Gnostic rationalism and catholic laxity.  It is the first example of an earnest and well-meaning, but gloomy and fanatical hyper-Christianity, which, like all hyper-spiritualism, is apt to end in the flesh.”

Montanism, while diverse, is summarized by Schaff through four key features: 1. Continuance of miraculous gifts 2. The universal priesthood of believers 3. (Visionary) Millennarianism 4. Asceticism and Church Discipline

The most prominent focus by their opponents seems to have been on feature #1, specifically the continuation of prophetic gifts.  Despite history’s ascription of heresy to Montanism, it is often overlooked that Tertullian, a theological genius whose writings dominate the second and third centuries, was himself a Montanist and a thoroughly orthodox Christian at that.  Among his many apologetic writings were his defenses against the aforementioned Gnosticism and Marcionism.  Remember in our last post, we saw that Tertullian raised opposition against the concept of the bishop, or episcopacy.  His own brand of Montanism confirms the broad diversity that evolved within the cause, becoming in reality a multiplicity of sects, rather than a single monolithic movement.  Summarizing the view of Tertullian over and against the infant “catholic church”, E.H. Broadbent writes,

“…the eminent writer Tertullian, attaching himself to the Montanists, separated from the Catholic body. He wrote: ‘where but three are, and they of the laity also, yet there is a church.'”

Tertullian’s statement, establishing the minimum gathering of God’s people, which we’ve already examined, and the priesthood of believers, which we will examine, seems to be a reaction against the assertion that where the bishops are, there is the church, a sentiment made popular by Ignatius.  Think about this, here we have Tertullian, a faithful Christian whose writings have withstood the test of time, separating himself from what was known as the catholic/universal church due to a lack of holiness within it.  If this universal concept were a valid theory, it would have been impossible for Tertullian to leave and still remain faithful to Christ (according to their own definition), which is why to this day many Roman Catholics consider him an apostate and heretic.  With this first test case, cracks in the foundation of applying this doctrine consistently begin to appear.

Novatianism, the second of these reforming sects identified by Berkhof, is properly classified more as a schism than a heresy.  Generally, its development is traced to the third century.  Novatianism “advocated the strict discipline against the lenient practice of the dominant church.  The Novatianists considered themselves the only pure communion, and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders.” (Schaff, pg. 196).  Once again, we find a group willing to dissent and separate themselves from this early catholic/universal church on the basis of holiness.  And, yet again, we find that their movement was ostracized and condemned by the institutional church.  Again, we have practical evidence against a single, monolithic, “universal church” as it was defined in the Patristic Period.

After only a century or two, the New Testament church founded by Christ on the Apostles and Prophets had begun mutating into the institutional church and had experienced a major doctrinal decline, and unfortunately a major moral decline.  Commonly this downgrade is referred to as the “cliff phenomenon” and it is usually applied to the doctrine of Christ, but most ignore how it affected the doctrine of the church.  As with the Montanists, so too with Novatianists, both of whom were willing to separate from the institutional church because of laxity in its Christian profession.

The Novatian schism was met with strong opposition, particularly that of Cyprian (a student of Tertullian’s no less), “from his zeal for ecclesiastical unity and his aversion to Novatus” (the unofficial leader of the movement). (Schaff, p. 197)  Schaff notes that, “in spite of this strong opposition the Novatian sect, by virtue of its moral earnestness, propagated itself in various provinces of the West and the East down to the sixth century.  In Phrygia it combined with the remnants of the Montanists.  The council of Nicaea recognized its ordination, and endeavored, without success, to reconcile it with the Catholic church.  Constantine, at first dealt mildly with the Novatians, but afterwards prohibited them to worship in public and ordered their books to be burnt.”

So much for an accurate history of the Novatians.

On this last point, historian E.H. Broadbent rightly describes the oft-quoted proverb that history is written by the victors

“The fact that the Catholic Church system later became the dominant one puts us in possession of a great body of its literature, while the literature of those who differed from it has been suppressed, and they are chiefly known to us by what may be gleaned from the writings directed against them. It is thus easy to gain the erroneous impression that in the first three centuries there was one united Catholic Church and a variety of comparatively unimportant heretical bodies. On the contrary, however, there were then, as now, a number of divergent lines of testimony each marked by some special characteristic, and different groups of mutually-excluding churches.”

Because of this, historically the dissenting groups have received an unfair treatment.  Those who have attempted to accurately portray them have been castigated with the pejorative label, revisionist. One of the central problems in finding accurate histories on these groups, and others, is that historical theologians want to make these sects and dissenters monolithic, just as they view the catholic church.  If they find one person that has an errant view, far too often they attempt to ascribe it to the entire group or movement.  But that’s simply wrong.  A prime example of this is found among the Montanists, who had some members that denied the Trinity (Sabellianism).  In turn, opponents have often labelled the entire Montanist movement as anti-Trinitarian.  Historically this is proven to be a falsehood because, Tertullian, who we may recall from above was a Montanist, formulated the conception of the Trinity (from the Scriptures) which is still subscribed to today.  There is simply no evidence that he denied Christ or the Trinity later in life when he joined the Montanist dissenters.

The lack of charity through which historians have primarily viewed these dissenting groups is puzzling, particularly when we fast forward 1000+ years to the Reformation.  Reformers like Luther are venerated, while these early ‘reformers’ are vilified.  Perhaps a consistent view of history would clarify and unclutter much of the tradition and error which has crept in.

Summarily, in this period, there was a blending of the conception of God’s people as an organic spiritual entity with the visible manifestation of that entity, essentially conflating the two under the umbrella of the universal church.  While it was marked with the rise of sects, schisms, and legitimate heresies**, by far the most formidable opposition to the catholicity or universality of the church was the 4th Century Donatist schism.  Before we look at this critical development, we will take a tangential look at the rise of sacralism, or the unholy relationship of the church with the state, in our next post from this series.

 

 

**( I, in no way, want to validate those persons or groups that deny the nature of Christ or infallibility of the Scriptures.  I do, however, want to highlight those that are orthodox on primary doctrines, right in their motivation for holiness, but have been marginalized because of their dissent and branded heretical)