The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part IX

In our overview and historical review concerning the doctrinal development of the “universal church,” we’ve arrived at a defining moment in the history of Christendom where all of the concepts and early beliefs coalesce to form the first official statement of universality.  As we left off in the last post, the Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine, in 325 AD.  While the primary aim was to confront the spread of Arianism, a teaching that denied the deity of Christ, the production of the Nicene Creed would be a major step towards defining and defending the universal nature of the church.  Recall that latitude and grace must be given to those in the first few centuries after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension for their desire to uphold and maintain unity in the face of persecution and legitimate, widespread heresies.  However, as we’ll see and as history teaches, this would have disastrous consequences.

The Council of Nicaea, at its core, was convened by Constantine to champion unity in the face of ever-increasing division, particularly doctrinally, but we must not forget the moral divisions that had and were taking place as well, which were at the root of the Donatist Controversy.  Hoping to bring resolution to a far greater and more serious threat involving Arianism, which we defined last time, the the Council, and its subsequent results, are a bit of a mixed bag.  As Philip Schaff notes, “the council was divided in the beginning into three parties,” the orthodox party, those who held to the deity of Christ, the Arians, those who denied the deity of Christ, and the majority, who took a middle ground between the two but leaned more towards the orthodox.

As the Council concluded, essentially a series of debates and discussions, Needham writes that Hosius of Cordova, a western bishop and Constantine’s court adviser on church matters, “convinced Constantine that the bishops should accept a statement of faith which clearly taught that the Son was not a created being, but was eternal and divine.” (pg. 204)  The first to propose a creed were the Arians, which was rejected and ripped up causing 16 of the 18 signers to abandon the heresy of Arian.  Eusebius, the historian, proposed an existing creed, the Palestinian Confession, which had been approved by Constantine and agreed upon by the “Arian minority”, but their agreement caused suspicion among the orthodox party who wanted a creed that the Arians could not substantially agree to sign.  Finally, a confession was drafted to establish the deity of Christ which became known as the Nicene Creed.  It (in English) is below with the Anti-Arian statements highlighted in bold

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

Essentially, this creed stated that the Son was homoousios, or the same essence, as the Father.  In other words that they had the same nature and being.  Just as the Father was eternal and uncreated, so too was the Son.  Attached to this dogma was an anathema aimed towards the Arians, which declared them to be enemies of Christianity and that their books should be burned.  The anathema was as follows

“As for those who say, There was a time when He [the Logos] was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essense or thing; and, the Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter – the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.”

It’s Important to observe that for the first time in history a statement on the unity of the catholic or universal church had been written and agreed to by the representative bishops and the presiding Constantine, giving power and authority to the state to enforce and act against all those who dissented.**  All but two of Arius’ supporters (as alluded to earlier) signed the creed leaving Arius himself, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica sent into exile by the order of Constantine.  As Schaff significantly notes, “This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith.  Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty.  Now banishment and afterwards even death, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.” (pg. 630)

As an aside, it’s significant to point out that the original Nicene Creed, cited above, is not what is commonly rehearsed today.  Rather, the modern “Nicene Creed” is actually the Creed of Constantinople, which was a product of the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, 381.  The two are similar, yet perhaps a significant difference is the addition of the “one, holy, apostolic, catholic, church” added as an article of faith in the latter creed and not simply a statement of authority over anathema.

The Nicene Creed stands alongside the Apostle’s Creed in historical significance.  By summarizing the Council of Nicea in promoting the deity of Christ, while rejecting Arianiasm in the form of a creed, the early doctrine of the universal church now, rather than being implied, could instead be enforced.  Rather than being a general principle, it is now codified.  There is a new standard which must be agreed and adhered to, or one is found to be in opposition of the “universal church,” which by the way was presided over by the emperor.  Let’s pause to consider this for just a moment.  Is it right and just to summarize the doctrine of Christ’s deity and make it a/the standard of unity?  Perhaps, but remember we are at a period in history of moral declension, nominal Christianity, and the rise of Christendom.  Adhering to a confession says little about the condition of the heart.  It could simply mean that one adheres to the Creed to avoid being killed.  In a sense it is a man-made law enforcing the gospel.  Does it then follow that the universal church as it was being built upon the episcopate, having become largely nominal, and referring entirely to a visible institution, now convened under the direction and leadership of the Roman emperor, may deem itself to be the unified ‘holy, catholic, apostolic church’ capable of not simply excommunicating heretics and apostates, but wielding the sword exiling and executing all those in opposition?  Surely nothing could go wrong with that.

Philip Schaff summarizes the Council of Nicaea as follows

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. (pg. 631)

Upon conclusion of the Nicene Council, one would think that unity had been achieved and the doctrine of Arianism defeated once and for all.  However that was not the case.  After Nicaea, Arianism was condemned as a heresy, but soon after regained widespread acceptance throughout the empire through the efforts of Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused the historian Eusebius of Caesarea) under the support of Constantius in the East, one of Constantine’s sons among whom the empire was divided (Constans in the West).  In 328, just 3 years after the Council and Creed of Nicaea, Eusebius was able to get Constantine to recall Arius from exile, though his influence was now minimal and his life would soon end drastically (336 A.D.).  Nevertheless, Eusebius pressed Arianism forward and “started a campaign to have supporters of the Creed of Nicaea deposed and exiled.  He achieved his greatest success in 335, when he persuaded Constantine to banish Athanasius for political reasons.” (pg. 211)  As Needham notes, this is the first of 5 times that Athanasius, the great champion of the deity of Christ, would be exiled, spending 17 of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile.

Just 3 years after the decision at Nicaea, the “universal church” waffled and fell back into Arianism.  Then, just over 10 years later, Arianism was dominating and now had the sword in their hand.  This is the kind of inconsistency one could come to expect when

  1. The empire, or state, is involved in matters of faith and
  2. When monolithic unity is assumed or even falsely created and
  3. When representatives make decisions for the whole.

Simply put, the church, if we can even use that term at this point, is not to be unequally yoked, with the state or any other institution.  It is always an unholy alliance and always leads to disastrous consequences.  Finally, it should give us pause to reconsider what it means to be unified, along with what are visible alliances are based on, and the biblical basis for institutionalized Christianity.

That said, the Arian controversy would continue to deteriorate and divide an already fractured catholic church.  At the death of Constantine, in 337, the empire was divided between East and West with Constantius in the former and Constans in the latter.  The East was pro-Arian, but still had those who supported Nicaea, as well as those who supported Origen, who believed the Son was not created, but an inferior divine being.  This view was summarized as homoiousious, the slight change of one letter (i) and a big change in meaning.

In the midst of this, Julius I, who some historians consider to be the pope, reviewed the exile of Athanasius and the charges against him ruling that it was unjust.  As a result, a council was called at Antioch in 341 by Eastern bishops who rejected not only Julius’ ruling, but Rome’s right to rule in the matter, further adding fuel to a unhealed split that would be centuries in the making.  It was at this council that they formulated their aforementioned homoiousious doctrine.  All of this contributed to a full-scale schism between East and West.  Constantine’s two sons attempted to reconcile this brooding division by calling an ecumenical council at Sardica in 343.  Needham notes that the council was a complete disaster, “The Western bishops insisted that Athanasius and Marcellus [another Nicene bishop] must be allowed to take part.  The Eastern bishops refused.  And so the council broke up into two separate councils, Eastern and Western, which hurled curses at each other.  The East-West split had become total. ” (pg. 212) Though the situation would calm down some in 346 with the reinstatement of Athanasius, in 350, General Magnentius murdered Constans (West).  In 353 Constantius, the Arian sympethizer from the East, defeated Magnentius to unify the Empire and once again reignite the Arian controversy.

In the next post, we’ll wrap up councils and creeds by looking at the Council of Constantinople.  We’ll see how a reunification of the catholic or universal church paved the way out of the Patristic Period and into the Middle Ages.



**There is some debate about whether the Apostle’s Creed, which refers to the “holy catholic church” was written prior to the Nicene Creed.  While that is debatable, the history of the Nicaea seems more sure.

Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. Grace Publications: 2011

Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-500. Hendrickson: 2006

Considering the Love of God

In the first epistle of John, much like his gospel account of our Lord’s life and ministry, the apostle of love rightly earns this familiar title through his expositions on the love of God.  In many respects, several of these verses have become the most recognizable, most recited verses on the love of God in all of Scripture.  Surely a testimony to their simplicity, but moreso to the truths behind them.

One such passage is found in 1 John 4:10

“In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.”

In order for us to comprehend and feel the weight of a passage like this one, concerning the love of God for us in Christ, we need to first understand the love of God for His Son.  If we are to properly appreciate the love that God has for His adopted children, and similarly the love that Christ has for those for whom He died, and subsequently avoid a man-centered understanding of these truths, then we must begin with the love between the Father and the Son.

When we consider the love that the Father has for the Son, we have only limited, imperfect examples from which to draw upon.  For instance, the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds the love that a husband has for his bride.  A husband may care for his bride, love and cherish her, protect her, but this is an incomplete, finite love when compared to God the Father’s love for God the Son.  Additionally, the love that a parent has for a child, closer in relationship, but again inadequate.  God the Father’s love for His Son far exceeds both that of a husband for his bride and a parent for their child.  In fact, if you consider anything in this world that you love, so much that you would die for it, you have but a pale shadow in comparison to the love that the Father has for the Son.  It is an infinite, everlasting, and eternal love.  It knows neither beginning or end.  It cannot be exhausted nor measured.  Our language fails to properly describe it, though we may begin with the word, perfect.  The love of God, this intra-trinitarian love, infinitely exceeds any example of love that we could possibly imagine.

To draw our minds to even an initial comprehension of the love that the Father has for the Son, Puritan John Flavel offers the following

How this gift of Christ was the highest, and fullest manifestation of the love of God, that ever the world saw: and this will be evidenced by the following particulars:

(1.) If you consider how near and dear Jesus Christ was to the Father; he was his Son, “his only Son,” saith the text; the Son of his love, the darling of his Soul: His other Self, yea, one with himself; the express image of his person; the brightness of his Father’s Glory: In parting with him, he parted with his own heart, with his very bowels, as I may say. “Yet to us a Son is given,” Isa. ix. 6. and such a Son as he calls “his dear Son,” Col. i. 13. A late writer tells us, that he hath been informed, that in the famine in Germany, a poor family being ready to perish with famine, the husband made a motion to the wife, to sell one of the children for bread, to relieve themselves and the rest: The wife at last consents that it should be so; but then they began to think which of the four should be sold; and when the eldest was named, they both refused to part with that, being their first-born, and the beginning of their strength. Well, then they came to the second, but could not yield that he should be sold, being the very picture and lively image of his father. The third was named, but that also was a child that best resembled the mother. And when the youngest was thought on, that was the Benjamin, the child of their old age; and so were content rather to perish altogether in the famine, than to part with a child for relief And you know how tenderly Jacob took it, when his Joseph and Benjamin were rent from him. What is a child, but a piece of the parent wrapt up another skin? And yet our dearest children are but as strangers to us, in comparison of the unspeakable dearness that was betwixt the Father and Christ.——Now, that he should ever be content to part with a Son, and such an only One, is such a manifestation of love, as will be admired to all eternity.

Now, considering this love that the Father has for the Son, consider that He gave, out of love, His son to be the propitiation, literally the wrath-absorbing-atoning sacrifice, for us, disgusting and vile sinners.  Stained not only with the guilt of sin, but filled to the core with rebellion against this same God that loves His Son without measure.  Consider that this same God, loving His Son as He did, freely offered Him up for sinful man.  As we are told in the passage above, this free offering of His Son was because God loved us.  This is the manifestation of the love of God, in Christ, for sinners (1 John 4:9; Romans 5:8).  This is what it means that God so loved the world (John 3:16).  When the Apostle writes, God is love, this is the starting point towards untangling the complexity of this divine attribute (1 John 4:8).

In comparison with both the love of God for Christ and the love of God, in Christ, for us sinners, how weak and feeble are our own declarations of love for our Heavenly Father.  It is not that we loved God, but that He loved us (1 John 4:10).  Yet despite this, one of the very evidences of the love that God has for us in Christ, which we share in and experience upon being born again, is that we love one another, “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)  An evidence of the indwelling nature of God’s Spirit within us is love, for one another.  This outward, horizontal expression of love can only come from a heart that is oriented vertically with love from God and love for God.  As the Apostle exhorts,

19 We love because he first loved us. 20 If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. 21 And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother.”

Therefore, dear readers, come often to the fount of God’s love and consider, meditate, draw upon the love that God has for His own Son.  Allow this to frame your understanding of the love that God has for you, in giving His only Son to die in your place.  If after contemplating the magnificent reality of God’s love, your heart is not drawn to love Him more, hardly moved closer to Him by increased affections, then perhaps the love of God does not abide in you.  Perhaps you have not come to either  be born of God or know God.  In that case, repent of your sins, turn to Christ for forgiveness with a genuine desire to love God and be loved by Him.

Learning to Walk

Walking is a universally known concept.  It’s one of those basic fundamentals that transcends from countries, societies, ethnicities, and classes.  While it’s granted that not everyone has the ability to walk, and some others may have lost the ability to walk, generally speaking walking is a given.  It’s typically not a matter of if (again granting those situations mentioned earlier), but when.  This is why we make a big deal about a baby learning to walk and even brag when our children are “early walkers.”  Given this, we understand that we do not come out of the womb walking, it’s a process of developing coordination, muscle strength, balance, and just plain old want to (desire).  Once the clumsiness and tendency towards frequent falls have been overcome, walking seems intertwined with daily life.  Apart from physical limitations, we rarely give walking a second thought.  Once mastered, it becomes as routine as breathing and blinking.  As a behavior, walking gets us where we need to be, from point A to point B and it represents progress along that path.

For these basic, universally understood reasons, perhaps it’s an easy explanation for why the concept of walking is used so often in a metaphorical sense to refer to the Christian life.  Of particular interest is the letter to believers at Ephesus.  Surveying this letter, we find the commonly translated word for walk, peripateo, used no less than seven times throughout the book.  This word is a compound word from peri, a preposition meaning of, for, about, and pateo, meaning to tread.  It’s easy to see that to walk is a reasonable translation.  However, we’re talking not so much about literally one foot in front of another, but metaphorically.  Given what we know about walking and then applying it to the Christian life, we can come up with a working definition such as, “the consistent direction, pattern, and progress of the Christian life.”

In Ephesians, we have the following uses of walk:

  • Ephesians 2:2 – refers to our old pattern of walking as unbelievers
  • Ephesians 2:10 – refers to walking in the good works, which God prepared beforehand
  • Ephesians 4:1 – an exhortation to walk in a manner worthy of your calling
  • Ephesians 4:17 – an exhortation to no longer walk as the Gentiles (pagans), in the futility of their minds
  • Ephesians 5:2 – An exhortation to walk in love
  • Ephesians 5:8 – An exhortation to walk as children of the light
  • Ephesians 5:15 – An exhortation to monitor how we walk, not as unwise, but as wise.

Clearly, at least according to the divinely inspired apostle’s letter, the Christian walk matters.  In parallel with our physical walking which we discussed above, our new birth in Christ supplies us with the ability to walk in a manner consistent with our profession of faith in Him.  However, our spiritual muscles need to be strengthened, our theological coordination and moral balance need developed, and our hearts need to have the desire to progress and move.  These can only happen as the Holy Spirit works in our lives through the Word of God.  Furthermore, this walking happens more efficiently with someone holding our hand, encouraging us to take a step, one foot in front of the other, ready and willing to help us should we fall (Philippians 3:17).  In a sense, this is a picture of discipleship.  Once we learn to walk, there’s of course no guarantee we wont stumble (James 3:2), no promise that a limb will not be disjointed or become lame (Hebrews 12:13), nevertheless walking in a consistent, godly manner should become as secondary nature as breathing (Romans 6:4; 8:4; Galatians 5:16).  We should therefore encourage and exhort others in their walk, picking up those who stumble, and guiding those who have yet to learn to walk.

The Christian walk is how we know and are known.  It is the measure of our growth and progress in the Christian life.  It is not enough to make a profession of faith in Christ, we need also to have a walk that reflects the reality and truthfulness of that profession.

“So as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” Colossians 1:10