The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VII

[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.]

The Donatist Controversy, born out of the Diocletian persecution (305 A.D.) raged on from 311 to around 361 A.D., a period marked with ebbs and flows of violence from both sides and forced submission of the Donatists to the newly minted church-state.  By 361, the catholics considered the debate beneath them, resulting in largely a peaceful coexistence.  For thirty-plus years, this controversy laid relatively dormant.

In 393, interest in the Donatists was renewed by one of the most prominent and significant theologians in history, Augustine.  From here until 411, Augustine stirred back up opposition to the Donatists and sought, first their reconciliation but later their coercion to the catholic church.  It is properly at the feet of Augustine where one may find the early formulation of Roman Catholic ecclesiology as well as what would become Protestantism.  It’s with him that our discussion of the universal church theory in the early centuries reaches its apex.

Regarding Augustine’s position on ecclesiology, Louis Berkhof states he “was not altogether consistent in his conception of the Church.”   This inconsistency reverberates to this day and is partly the motivation behind this entire series of posts on the historical development of the universal church theory. This  confusion of Augustine’s is fleshed out more clearly in the following summary from Berkhof

“On the one hand he shows himself to be the predestinarian, who conceives of the Church as the company of the elect, the communio sanctorum, who have the Spirit of God and are therefore characterized by true love.  The important thing is to be a living member of the Church so conceived, and not to belong to it in a merely external sense.  But on the other hand he is the Church-man, who adheres to the Cypranic idea of the Church at least in its general aspects.  The true Church is the catholic Church, in which the apostolic authority is continued by episcopal succession.  It is the depository of divine grace, which it distributes through the sacraments.  For the present this Church is a mixed body, in which good and evil members have a place.  In his debate with the Donatists he admitted, however, that the two were not in the Church in the same sense.  He also prepared the way for the Roman Catholic identification of the Church and the Kingdom of God.”

With Augustine, we find two competing positions on the nature of the church.  First, the church is the communion of the saints, comprised of the elect, those who have been regenerated by the Spirit, and those of internal membership, not external.  To which the dissenting groups that we have discussed in previous posts might give a hearty ‘amen!’

On other hand, as Berkhof notes, Augustine is a product of Cyprianic thought and remains consistent with the view espoused of the day where church refers to a catholic, external, institution which is led and ruled by the episcopate.  It is not merely comprised of the elect, nor is it merely a communion of the saints, but is a mixed body, good and evil, wheat and tares, sheep and goats.  Is it any wonder then that both Protestants and Roman Catholics stake a claim to him?  Augustine is often claimed by the former for his soteriology, but by the latter for his ecclesiology.

From 393-405 A.D., Augustine waged a war of preaching and propaganda against the Donatists.  In the former, he labored for reform amongst the loose and lax catholics that had come to mar the purity of the church.  In the latter, he sought those bishops who had been removed for disciplinary reasons.  Logically, appealing to the marginalized and outcast is generally the path for garnering public support.  But make no mistake, Augustine preached, verbally and in written form, with conviction.

In 405, Augustine’s war against the Donatists took the form of ‘governmental suppression’.  It was in this year that the Edict of Unity was passed which labeled the Donatists as heretics, a label that would last in perpituity as well as making them subject to heresy laws, which resulted in essentially their disbanding.  Again, the work of Christian sacralism.  This period is also marked by Augustine’s well known theory of coercion, “compel them to come in” taken from Luke 14:23, “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”  In a letter to Vicentious he writes

I have therefore yielded to the evidence afforded by these instances which my colleagues have laid before me. For originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we should have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point.

The Donatist Controversy came to an end in 411, nearly 100 years after it began.  The catholic Emperor called for a comparison of the two sides, a collatio, over which a catholic, Marcellinus, presided.  Not surprisingly, the catholic side prevailed.  In 412, taxes and heavy fines were levied against all those who failed to join the catholic church, again the power and leverage of Christian sacralism at work.

With Augustine, his own confusion and lack of clarity with regard to the church is clearly one that has been perpetuated throughout history.  Remember that our 17th Century Westminster Confession definition of the universal church was both visible and invisible, extending to the elect of all ages.  This dichotomy is rooted in Augustine’s ecclesiology, though he had yet to fully make the distinction between visible and invisible.  In fact, Augustine’s assertion of the church as the elect or communio sanctorum would largely fade away for nearly a thousand years.

In the Patristic Period, the universal church exclusively referred to a visible, external, and headed by the bishop, church.  I’ve found no evidence among the historians to conclude otherwise.  It excommunicated those who disagreed and marginalized those who dissented.  Once it married the state, it then coerced with physical force, tariffs, and later physical death.

As noted, until Augustine, the doctrine of the universal church had been largely focused on an external, visible entity with the bishop at its head.  As such, they were able to concentrate on unity, as a catholic church, against “heresies”.  Augustine, perhaps recognizing the inconsistency with this position, also recognizes that the “church” is comprised of the elect.  His difficulty comes when making a defense against the Donatists where he puts forth the teaching of the church as a mixed community.

This mixed community, for Augustine, finds its source in Matthew 13 with the parable of the weeds.

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Our Lord provides the interpretation for this parable

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Excerpts from Augustine’s interpretation are as follows:

You will easily understand, beloved brethren, the hidden meaning of this Gospel, when you remember what we said about some other words of Holy Scripture comparing the just and the wicked in the Church of God to the wheat and the cockle. By this figure we are taught that the threshing-floor is not to be left before the time of the harvest, that the cockle may not be taken away without being separated from the wheat; for the floor would be deprived of its due, and the wheat thus taken off could not be preserved in the barn.

and

But they [Donatists] will, perhaps, say, in order to excuse their errors and justify their conduct, that the Sacred Books were once handed over to the pagans by some Christians afraid of torments and tortures. But since these Christians being unknown, cannot be discovered, now this one and then another is accused of that crime. Yet, whatever may be the truth about these Christians, I ask whether their infidelity has destroyed the Faith which comes from God? Is it not the same Faith that God once promised Abraham, saying that all nations should be blessed in his seed? And what are we taught by this Faith? To let both, that is, the good seed and the cockle, the just and the wicked, grow up in the field of the Church, namely, the world, until the time of the harvest, the end of the world.

and again from Chapter 9 in the City of God

But while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming.  For, leaving out of account that kingdom concerning which He shall say in the end, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you,” the Church could not now be called His kingdom or the kingdom of heaven unless His saints were even now reigning with Him, though in another and far different way; for to His saints He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  Certainly it is in this present time that the scribe well instructed in the kingdom of God, and of whom we have already spoken, brings forth from his treasure things new and old.  And from the Church those reapers shall gather out the tares which He suffered to grow with the wheat till the harvest, as He explains in the words “The harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.  As therefore the tares are gathered together and burned with fire, so shall it be in the end of the world.  The Son of man shall send His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all offenses.”  Can He mean out of that kingdom in which are no offenses?  Then it must be out of His present kingdom, the Church, that they are gathered.

…Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven.

It is plain from the sermon above, that Augustine conflated the church with the world, thereby concluding that the church = the field in the parable from Matthew 13.  From his words in the City of God, this reveals a deeper hermeneutical error in which he equated the kingdom with the church.  This interpretation remained largely intact throughout the medieval period, lending itself to the development of the Roman Catholic Church, until the Reformation of the 16th Century and later where it clearly influenced the Westminster Confession articles on the nature of the church.

The Patristic doctrine of the universal church was clearly in reference to an external, visible, and institutional church, which later joined hands with the state.  This nature of the church reached its apex in the teaching of Augustine, who did not oppose the historical teaching, i.e. from Cyprian, but instead upheld it finding exegetical proofs in Matthew 13, et.al.  This interpretation allowed him to understand and explain why the universal church was so morally bankrupt and equipped him to defend against the arguments of the Donatists.

Unfortunately, his interpretation of the field as the church, rather than the world, undercuts this entire notion of a universal church as it had come to be expressed by the apostolic fathers, from approximately 100-451 A.D.

3 Tests for Genuine Christianity

 

In 2011 I had the great joy and pleasure of preaching through the book of 1 John.  It was a series birthed out of the necessity to ensure that those who heard had 1. definitely been exposed to the gospel and 2. Had known without question what genuine Christianity was to look like.

In this epistle, the Apostle of love, writing under the divine inspiration of the Holy Spirit, provides for us three tests for genuine Christianity which of course should be applied first personally (2 Corinthians 13:5) and then to professing believers (Matthew 7:20).  These three tests, by way of gleaning through and interpreting the epistle, may be summarized as follows:

  1. Knowledge of God
  2. Growth in Holiness
  3. Love for Believers

First, knowledge of God.  This knowledge of God is more than just accumulating facts about who God is, or what He has done.  Instead, this knowing is more intimate, it is far more relational.  In fact, in 1 John it is called fellowship, If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” 1 John 1:6-7  This mention of fellowship, namely the “with him” is further defined in verse three as “fellowship with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ.”  

Concerning this fellowship, Martyn Lloyd- Jones says, “Here we are given, without any hesitation, a description, the summum bonum [highest good], of the Christian life; here, indeed, is the whole object, the ultimate, the goal of all Christian experience and all Christian endeavour.  This, beyond any question, is the central message of the Christian gospel and of the Christian faith.” As the Apostle instructs us, walking in darkness is incompatible with having fellowship with God.”

Which brings us to the second test, growth in holiness.  An extended quote from chapter 3 is necessary to establish the significance of this in the apostle’s message

Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness. You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin. No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother.

Clearly, a practice of sinning is incompatible with practice of righteous, or growth in holiness.

Finally, love for believers.

Whoever says he is in the light and hates his brother is still in darkness. 10 Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. 11 But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes. 1 John 2:9-11

A genuine Christian profession, by necessity, manifests love for the brethren.  It is not optional.  Commenting on this test and its relationship with fellowship with God, Lloyd-Jones writes, “To fail to love the brethren will interrupt our fellowship with the Father and therefore rob us of many of the blessings of the Christian life.” 

This trinity of genuineness, in the form of these three tests, cannot be broken.  If one has perceived knowledge of God, but lacks any noticeable evidence of growth in holiness, then their profession is simply disingenuous.  How many scholars have waxed eloquently on philosophical musings of the attributes of God, yet their words have lacked any notion of charity or love.  How many preachers of doctrine of God have garnered a spot in the public eye only to fall hard and fast from scandalous sins.

Similarly, if one would appear outwardly to be holy, perhaps by living a moral life, but internally lacking any knowledge of God through His Son Jesus Christ, then again, the result is a disingenuous profession of faith.  It is by grace we are saved through faith in Christ, thus drawing us to an intimate knowledge of the Father through the Son.  Works have their place after salvation, but despite the efforts of men simply cannot contribute towards a coming to faith.  We throw around the label of a “good man” far too liberally, yet why do we call anyone good?  No one is good but God. (Mark 10:18)

Finally, love for believers is sometimes the most misconstrued quality because it seems most naturally connected to the condition of the heart, i.e. good heart, and this may sometimes prove to be true.  Downstream of genuine knowledge of God and growth in holiness is a necessity to show love for the brethren.  It is an indispensable consequence.  However, charities, hospitals, and mercy organizations by the legion have been started by men and women who could care less about who Christ is, yet alone the demand of holiness placed on their lives.  Additionally, there have been those whose great goal in life was the establishment of social justice, yet lack genuine knowledge of God and any semblance of holiness.  Would anyone dare doubt the love for humanity that someone who rings the bell for social justice, be it race, class, economic or otherwise? (unless of course there were ulterior motives, but that could never happen…right?)

The motivation for this post has primarily been driven by recent conferences in which men have ascribed genuine Christianity and then celebrated a man who has certainly rung the bell for social justice louder than any other in the United States, yet without question there is documented evidence of failing the first two of these tests.  Is he then among the faithful?  No.  Should he then be celebrated and held up as a Christian model for showing love to the brothers? No.

Brothers and Sisters I implore you, do not let personal agendas or feelings, even if they are for friends or family members who you genuinely desire to see saved, compromise the written and holy word of almighty God.  As we know, our hearts are deceitful above all things and desperately wicked, yet God’s Word is true and provides a plumb-line, a compass for navigating this life through the revelation of Himself.

If you are struggling to know whether you are genuinely saved, look to the epistle of 1 John and humbly ask the Lord to apply these tests to your heart.  For those who do not struggle with assurance, these tests are a good reminder and litmus test for where you are currently in the process of sanctification.  Are you growing in the knowledge of God, a desire for holiness, and expressing love for the brothers?   Finally, if there are those within your circle, even those whom you admire from a distance, apply these tests to their lives and take the results into consideration before ascribing to them the label of a genuine believer in Christ.

The Favor of God in the Life of Joseph

 

If one were to summarize the life of Joseph it might well be this: Joseph experienced the favor of God, in good times and in bad, through the providential working of God, for his good and the magnification of the glory of God.

While Joseph is certainly the central human figure in Genesis 38-41, most definitely the passage is centered upon the actions and character of God, often moving through and in front of Joseph.

About 8 years ago, we touched on the providence of God in the life of Joseph and that is probably the most recognizable theme within the story of Joseph. However, there is an equally compelling work of God in the Joseph’s life.  It is primarily displayed as God’s favor towards Joseph, which again brings us to a worthy meditation.

In Genesis 39 we find Joseph, whom his brothers have sold into slavery, ascending to the highest position in the house of Potipher, an Egyptian officer of Pharaoh.  Verse 2 of this chapter sets the tone for our discussion here and serves as a reminder that despite the circumstances, which of course were filled with adversity, God never left Joseph’s side, “The Lord was with Joseph….”  This concept is repeated a couple of verses later, but the effects are expanded, “From the time that he made him overseer in his house and over all that he had, the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.” Gen. 39:5  This formula is used again and serves to frame this pericope in Genesis 39:23.

The principal question for us is, what does it mean that the Lord was with Joseph?  Summarily, we may call this the favor of God or the beneficence of God, to use the term from the Reformation Study Bible.

It would be enough for us if we observed this favor of God towards Joseph during times of prosperity.  For instance, if we read, “and the Lord was with Joseph” and found it occurring during a time of prosperity or blessing, it would likely be more palatable for us.  The difficulty, and what makes this even more worthy of our marvel, is that these statements are made after Joseph has been sold into slavery and again after he has been falsely accused and imprisoned.

The point is this:  often during our darkest or perhaps loneliest or perhaps our most adverse times, we get the impression not only that God is not for us, but that He is not even with us.  Yet the opposite is true and precisely what we see in the Joseph narrative.

Let’s pause to ponder this briefly.  Joseph, an Israelite by birth, is a slave in Northern Africa, Egypt to be precise, sold by his brothers no less.  Who did he have with him during this seemingly dry, deserted time in his life?  Noone…but God.

God’s favor towards Joseph was so abundant that it spilled over into the life and house of a pagan, Egyptian ruler, as seen in the verse above,  “the Lord blessed the Egyptian’s house for Joseph’s sake; the blessing of the Lord was on all that he had, in house and field.”  Genesis 39:5  Have you ever considered that in your life, including your affliction, the favor that God may show you is so abundant that it positively impacts those around you?

Sometimes our inability to see God’s presence in our lives, particularly during difficulty, is because we are looking through the lens of circumstance, rather than through the lens of providence.  The former is blinding, the later is illuminating.  The former is crippling, the later is comforting.

God has promised to never leave us or forsake us and it is a promise that we should set our hope in.  A promise rooted and grounded in the love of the Father to send His only begotten Son to die, in the love of the Son who gave up His life willingly, and the love of the Spirit, who daily comforts us and brings to mind the aforementioned promises of God.