Category Archives: Theology

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VIII

In a recent series, we walked through the origin and history of what we’ve termed the Universal Church theory.  We began by noting how the term used today, informed largely by the Westminster Confession, is not how it was used when it was developed during the Patristic Period (the first 400 years or so since the birth of Christ).  The chief differences being the Patristic emphasis on the visibility and organization of the catholic or universal church and its dependence on the episcopate.  From there, we walked methodically through these developments, noting the significance of this episcopate, as well as persecutions, schisms, so-called heresies as well as genuine departures from orthodoxy, the development of Christian sacralism, and culminating with the Augustinian view of the universal church, which was anything other than consistent.

With this review in mind, there are a few loose ends that need to be tied up before moving on to next historical period, and then eventually reaching some contemporary conclusions, not the least of which will be considering the concept of the ‘eschatological church.’  Our study of these developments would be incomplete without at least a brief mention of the councils and creeds that littered the landscape during and at the conclusion of our period under discussion.  It’s towards their impact on the development of the universal church theory that we now turn our attention.

Historian Philip Schaff comments on the importance of these councils

“Above the patriarchs, even above the patriarch of Rome, stood the ecumenical or general councils, the highest representatives, of the unity and authority of the Old Catholic church.  They referred originally to the Roman empire, but afterward included the adjacent barbarian countries, so far as those countries were represented in them by bishops.  They rise up like lofty peaks or majestic pyramids from the plan of ancient church history, and mark the ultimate authoritative settlement of the general questions of doctrine and discipline which agitated Christendom in the Graeco-Roman empire.” (Schaff vol. 3 pg. 330-331)

With this background into the councils and synods, we need to observe first it’s superiority, representing the highest order of unity and authority in the universal (catholic) church.  Second, we need to note that these councils were originally confined to the Roman Empire, only later extended to “barbarian countries,” but only in so much as they were represented by bishops.  Third, they were generally convened to settle matters or disputes concerning doctrinal issues.  In the face of the many heresies and schisms, these councils would sometimes allow both positions to be represented and heard and then collectively decide what was orthodoxy and what was not.

Within this system of synods, there was an order of “hierarchical gradation” broken down from smallest to largest as follows:

  • Diocesan or district councils
  • Provincial councils
  • Patriarchal councils
  • National councils
  • Ecumenical councils (superior and most important)

While there were some councils and synods convened in the third century, the real emphasis, for our purposes, is on the ecumenical councils beginning in the fourth century, of which there are two of interest, beginning in 325 with the Council of Nicaea and then 381 with the Council of Constantinople.  Throughout a period of 462 years a total of Seven Ecumenical councils were convened.  These were referred to as ecumenical for two primary reasons.  First, because they were supposedly representative of Christendom, which in itself is troubling, because it doesn’t necessarily mean genuine Christianity, only that outwardly or in name only.  Furthermore, as we’ve already hinted at, these councils were typically restricted to the Roman Empire and largely aristocratic or based on class.  Schaff notes, “strictly speaking, none of these councils properly represented the entire Christian world.” (Vol. 3, pg. 333)  Yet, as we’ll see they functioned as though they did.  Though the bishops in attendance were mostly elected representatives, nevertheless, given the geographic, class, and laity restrictions, it’s easier to see the infancy of Presbyterianism rather than Congregationalism, even if on a larger scale.  Second, they were ecumenical because of the “result, the importance and correctness of the decisions, and above all, the consent of the orthodox Christian world.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg 334)

Typically, these ecumenical councils were dominated by the presence of eastern (Greek/Oriental) bishops and were generally presided over by the emperor, further blurring any remaining distinction between church and state from the 4th Century on.  Turning to Schaff again, he notes, “The ecumenical councils have not only an ecclesiastical significance, but bear also a political or state-church character.” pg. 334  This isn’t a point to gloss over, the reigning emperor called, presided over, sometimes  influenced, and ratified the decisions, of which the doctrinal were called dogmas and the disciplinary were called canons.  These decisions were authoritative, being enforced by the state, and likewise considered to be “invested with infallibility” (Schaff, Vol. 3 pg. 340).  In fact, many, from Constantine, to Athanasius, Pope Leo and Pope Gregory, to Justinian and others considered the decisions of these councils (at least the first four) to be the words of God or on par with Scripture itself.  Clearly then the stage was set that any disagreement against the councils dogmas were spiritual rebellion against God Himself and political rebellion against the empire.  All of this is well and good, if the decision turns out to be Scriptural, but again, what right has the empire to uphold Scripture.  And what happens when the State shifts her position, as she is want to do?  Stated as a summary of the Dontatist Controversy, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”  It should be noted on this point that Augustine bears a sense of sanity by rightly subordinating the councils to Scriptures themselves, at least in so far as his own catholicity would allow, “I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me.” (Schaff, Vol. pg. 344)

As Schaff and others have noted, the synodical system had its origin in the apostolic council at Jerusalem.  In a future post (Lord willing), we’ll look at this event from Acts 15 to see if it was indeed a valid reference and basis for synods and councils, or even later, Presbyterianism.  Though Acts 15 may be an improper scriptural basis, the motivation for these councils seems proper, at least at the surface level, namely to unify truth and eradicate error.  Despite this, the convention of these councils reveal troubling and fundamental flaws with this early assumption of universality or catholicity, and while initially the results were favorable, the precedent for a mixed body of politics and religion acting as representatives for the majority would be disastrous.  Furthermore, the presence of a presiding emperor over matters of faith is a dangerous precedence.  Not only were the emperors pagan, but they wielded the sword.  Think about this for just a moment, would a true follower of Christ submit themselves to the authority of a president or king that dictated what they should believe or how they should worship?

Of these seven ecumenical councils, the first four of which are held in high regard among evangelical orthodoxy (Schaff), by far the most important was the aforementioned Council of Nicaea convened by none other than Emperor Constantine, who at the time of convention had not yet been baptized, a remarkable point considering the period in which these events took place.  This council, “settled the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and condemned the Arian heresy.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg. 334) [We should note that this heresy is still alive and well today, most popularly promulgated by  the Jehovah’s Witnesses.]

Briefly, the Arian Controversy was so named for its chief proponent, Arius, who was a presbyter (elder) in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Arius believed that “the Father alone was God.  The Logos, or Son…was a created being – formed out of nothing by the Father before the universe was made.  There was once a time when the Son had not existed.”  Needham remarks that this controversy, which Arius helped to spread, was the “greatest theological controversy in the history of Christianity.” (Needham, pg 201)  Arius was chiefly opposed by Alexander, his bishop, who in 320 assembled a council of Egyptian bishops and declared Arius a heretic.  Arius, who was politically connected via the school of Lucian of Antioch, rallied former students to his cause and soon the controversy extended to leaders throughout the east.  It was in the throes of this controversy that Constantine entered, feeling “it was his duty as a Christian emperor to restore unity to his Empire’s divided Church.” (Needham, pg 203).  To resolve the controversy, Constantine convened the first ecumenical Council which met in 325 AD at Nicaea.

To this council, Emperor Constantine invited 1800 bishops to Nicaea, 1000 of which were from the East and 800 from the West, though the actual number of attendees was likely between 250 and 318.  Driven by his desire for unity, upon the heels of his victory and ascension to absolute power in 323 AD, Constantine met in 325 with the bishops, Eusebius and Athanasius (archdeacon) among them, in a little commercial town called Nicaea to settle the Arian controversy.  The decisions, dogma and canon, of this council is recorded for us in the Nicene Creed.

In the next post, we’ll look at the results of the Council of Nicaea, specifically the Nicene Creed, the impacts it had on the notion of a universal church, and then conclude with a brief look at the Council of Constantinople 381.

In this Series:

Needham, Nick.  Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Part 1. London: Grace Publication Trust, 2011.

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600. Available online here:


Sabbath Rest – Part 4

In this our fourth and final post in the series on Sabbath Rest, which is part of a larger look at the Theology of Rest in Scripture, we will round out our discussion with an overview of three additional supporting passages for the development of the Sabbath Command along with what we’ve been referring to as the Sabbath Principle, all under the Old Covenant.  Briefly, the Sabbath Command is that which was codified in the 10 Commandments with the instruction to work six days, but rest on the seventh.  We’ve seen how this command was rooted and grounded in the creation sabbath from Genesis 2 and also in the Israelite redemption from Egypt.  Along side this, perhaps as an expansion, is the Sabbath Principle, which we’ve seen expands the concept of Sabbath rest from one day in seven to one year in seven, in order to allow the land to rest and provide food to both the poor and the beasts.  With that in mind, let’s turn now to our three passages, two from Leviticus and one from Numbers.

Leviticus 23

Our first support passage in this post for completing our understanding and introduction to the institution of the Sabbath command comes in Leviticus 23.  The Book of Leviticus is chronologically parallel to Exodus, meaning that it is an expanded commentary on the commandments handed down from God to Moses at Sinai.  At the conclusion of the book we read, “These are the commandments that the Lord commanded Moses for the people of Israel on Mount Sinai.”  Here in chapter 23 it is a new section where Israel is receiving instructions on their appointed feasts.

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the people of Israel and say to them, These are the appointed feasts of the Lord that you shall proclaim as holy convocations; they are my appointed feasts.” Lev. 23:1-2

After this introduction, the chapter opens with a brief mention of the Sabbath

“Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation. You shall do no work. It is a Sabbath to the Lord in all your dwelling places.

Here, we have essentially a restatement of the Fourth Commandment, with an additional note that the Sabbath was to be a solemn rest, a holy convocation.  This is our first, and only mention, so far, of a particular gathering requirement on the Sabbath.  We should note that this falls under the umbrella for holy convocations, which opened the chapter and has in mind the appointed feasts, which are also called to be holy convocations.  Furthermore, it was to be a Sabbath in all of their dwelling places, which we’ve already seen.   Here, however we need to ask what is meant by holy convocation and what is meant by dwelling places.

The Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, defines this holy convocation as a designation for weekly Sabbaths and the new moons, though its usually, “reserved for the seven special convocation sabbaths” which were arranged around five feasts two of which spanned from a Sabbath to a Sabbath (Passover and the Feast of Booths).  The TWOT goes on to say that these convocations included, “a formal summoning of people to worship by the blast of trumpets…physical presence was mandatory, however, only for the three festal pilgrimage feasts and only for males.”  These were the three feasts which we looked at last time in Exodus and which are also described in this chapter of Leviticus.

The dwellings mentioned in our passage the TWOT defines as, “the dwelling place of a city, tribe, or people” as well as, “even houses could be called dwellings.”  Basically what we have with this added note on the Sabbath is that it should be a gathering of some kind in the place where they dwelled, be it a house, city, tribe, or people.  It was not a mandatory pilgrimage for males, contrary to the three primary feasts.

The remainder of the chapter is devoted to descriptions of the various feasts, which we also discussed in the previous post, which are also called holy convocations.  Included in these descriptions of the feasts are instructions that no work should be performed, essentially extending the principle of the Sabbath from a weekly observance, to multiple times a year at the celebration of the God-ordained feasts.  This is likely where the plural reference to “sabbaths” finds its basis, in all of the God-ordained periods of rest which He sometimes refers to collectively.

(We should note also the addition of the Day of Atonement as a Sabbath; see also Leviticus 16).

Leviticus 24:8-9

Our next passage, again from Leviticus, takes a bit of a turn from the previous passages on the Sabbath and provides some instructions for what the priest, namely Aaron, is supposed to do.  After describing how the bread for the tabernacle is supposed to be made (24:5-7), we read that, Every Sabbath day Aaron shall arrange it before the Lord regularly; it is from the people of Israel as a covenant forever. And it shall be for Aaron and his sons, and they shall eat it in a holy place, since it is for him a most holy portion out of the Lord‘s food offerings, a perpetual due.”  This arrangement of the bread in the tabernacle by the High priest was part of the covenant, as was the Sabbath.  Furthermore, we see that Aaron and his sons (High Priests), were to eat the bread in the holy place as his holy portion.

Numbers 28:9

Our final support passage for the Sabbath is from the Book of Numbers, though remember our previous mention of Numbers 15 and the case study for violating the Sabbath.  In this passage, we read of additional instructions for the priests on the Sabbath, On the Sabbath day, two male lambs a year old without blemish, and two tenths of an ephah of fine flour for a grain offering, mixed with oil, and its drink offering:10 this is the burnt offering of every Sabbath, besides the regular burnt offering and its drink offering.”

On the Sabbath Day, according to the regulations that we’ve seen for 6 days of work and 1 day of rest, we’ve seen instructions for ‘priestly work’ in these last two passages, including making bread and offering sacrifices, a burnt offering, grain offering, and drink offering.  We also have found some additional information about convocations in dwellings, but have little prescription beyond that.

In our survey of rest thus far, we have now seen that the commandment of a Sabbath Rest, as well as the further development of the Sabbath Principle, are significant contributions to the overall theology of rest.  While the Sabbath is certainly mentioned throughout the Old Testament in other important passages such as Nehemiah 13, Isaiah 1:13ff; Isaiah 56:1-8; Isaiah 58:13-14; Ezekiel 20,, the passages we’ve looked at in this series without question form the backbone and foundation for understanding how God had commanded the Sabbath to be observed as well as providing a Sabbath principle that extended above and beyond a 1 day in 7 observation.  Additionally, we have seen that this Sabbath principle effects not only the rest and refreshment of  the men, women, and children of Israel, but also the sojourner among them, as well as animals and the land.  In this sense, the concept of Sabbath is far reaching, we might even say universal as it relates to the community of Israel, touching every aspect of creation.  Similarly, we again find the Sabbath rooted in the creation Sabbath, as well as consequences prescribed for those who violate the Sabbath.

In our overall theme of rest, it would appear as though the Sabbath Command and Sabbath Principle reflect, at least in part, the rest established by God for Adam in the Garden.  Furthermore, we see the anticipation of rest for Israel in the Promised Land as both the Sabbath Command and Sabbath Principle are tied to entrance and establishment in Canaan.  Finally, these weekly, annual, and regular periods of rest would seem to anticipate a more permanent rest to come, a point which we will have to flesh out another time.

This overview of the Sabbath rest brings up some additional points worth considering, including the concept of Jubilee and another point of Broken Rest, but those topics for another day.


In this series:

Sabbath Rest – Part 3

Having looked at the institution of the Sabbath Command, in both it’s first and second iterations of law from Mt. Sinai (Exodus 20) and then on the plains of Moab by way of Moses’ review (Deuteronomy 5), we turn now to several supporting passages.  These passages provide additional revelation on the details of the Sabbath, both how it should be observed and the consequences for its violation.  Additionally, we will see a renewed emphasis on what might best be called the Sabbath principle, i.e. that which concerns itself with a sabbath rest, but not necessarily one day in seven, or the Seventh Day.  Below, we will look at three supporting passages from Exodus 23, 31, and 34/35, and then in the next post, we’ll look at supporting passages from Leviticus 23, 24, and Numbers 28.

Exodus 23:10-19

In this passage, we find ourselves still at Sinai with Moses’ reception of the law and covenant from God.  The mention of the Sabbath comes not by means of observing the seventh day, as we might expect, but by means of sowing the land for six years and then giving it a Sabbath year in order to allow it to rest and lie fallow.  Practically, particularly in an agrarian society, this is wise and prudent counsel as it allows the land to recuperate.  However,  we now see a larger Sabbath principle of rest than simply 1 day in 7. Additionally, we find much more involved than individual rest, rather now it’s the land that is commanded to rest (though the obligation is on man to obey).  Further, this resting of the land allows the poor and then the beasts to eat of the land.  This passage is followed up by a restatement of the Sabbath Commandment, showing a clear relationship between both Sabbath concepts, or what I’m distinguishing as a Sabbath Principle and a Sabbath Command.  With this restatement, we have an added benefit of refreshment for ox, donkey, son of your female servant, and aliens.

Towards the end of this passage we see the introduction of the Three Feasts which God had commanded Israel to observe: Unleavened Bread, Feast of Harvest (Feast of Weeks), and Feast of Ingathering (Feast of Tabernacles or Booths).  According to this rule, all of the men of Israel were to come before the Lord these 3 times a year.  This becomes an important point when noting those times and feasts when God had actually commanded worship on  a particular day/days.

See also: Leviticus 25; 26

Exodus 31:12-18

This next passage summarizes the occasion at Sinai as the Lord finishes up His covenant instructions to Moses. Here we see three key reasons for observing or keeping the Sabbath followed by a restriction and subsequent punishment.  First, it is a sign between God and Israel throughout their generations.  Second, it’s purpose is to recognize that it is the Lord Who sanctifies them.  Finally, they were to keep the Sabbath because it was holy to them.

Additionally, in this passage we have the first mention of consequences for failing to observe the Sabbath, Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people.15 Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. “  Ex. 31:14-15

In these verses, consequences for violating the Sabbath are mentioned three times, put to death, cut off from among his people, put to death.   These punishments are buttressed with the assertion that the Sabbath is a perpetual covenant followed by a reiteration of the Sabbath as a sign…forever.  In other words, the punishment of death is given to Sabbath breakers because it is a violation of the covenant.  Just as the rainbow in the cloud was a sign of the Noahic Covenant and just as circumcision was a sign of the Abrahamic Covenant, so too in this instance is the Sabbath a sign of the Mosaic Covenant.  This important passage is further summarized by again stating the foundation for the Sabbath, “It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed” Ex. 31:17 Finally, verse 18 of this passage concluded God’s revelation and giving of commandments at Sinai…for now.

See also: Ezekiel 20

Ex. 34:18-28

Our third passage from the book of Exodus comes after the idolatrous golden calf incident, which was followed by Moses’ rage against the people and his breaking of the 2 tablets at the foot of Sinai.  In Exodus 34, we have God’s renewal of the covenant.  After an exhortation and warning against idolatry in the land, the next point of renewal is the feasts and the Sabbath.  Verse 18 outlines again the Feast of Unleavened Bread, tied to the Exodus from Egypt, while verses 19-20 describes the Feast of Weeks or first fruits.  In the midst of the discussion of feasts, we have the following verse, Six days you shall work, but on the seventh day you shall rest. In plowing time and in harvest you shall rest.”  Plowing and harvest would have been the two most important seasons for Israel as they were directly related to their supply of food.  Resting at all during this time would run the risk of ruining a perfectly good day of making progress on either planting or harvesting food.  As such, it would recall the days prior to Sinai, Exodus 16, when they had previously been taught to rely on God’s provision for their food on the Sabbath. 

Just downstream of this passage is our final mention of the Sabbath in the book of Exodus.  Found in Exodus 35:2-3, the last statement on the Sabbath is perhaps the briefest, Moses assembled all the congregation of the people of Israel and said to them, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do. Six days work shall be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on it shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places on the Sabbath day.”  While we have another consequence for violating the Sabbath, the only piece of new information that we have is an itemized restriction for the Sabbath, namely, “you shall kindle no fire in all your dwelling places.”  This, in combination with our mentions of punishment above, is significant when we consider Numbers 15:32-36, where we have the case study of the man who went out and gathered sticks on the Sabbath.  It is not so much the gathering of sticks which costs him his life at the hands of the stones thrown at him.  Rather it is that he intentionally violates the Sabbath by planning to build a fire.  This is a measure of direct rebellion against what God had instructed Moses to deliver to the people in the Exodus 35 passage above.

With our brief overview of these three supporting passages on the Sabbath from the book of Exodus, let’s summarize what we’ve seen so far.  First, the expansion of the Sabbath principle to include allowing the land to rest 1 year in 7.  This expands the concept of the Sabbath in which the people relied on the providence and sustenance of God for 1 day, now to include one whole year.  Additionally, this rest allowed for the land was an opportunity afforded for the poor and the beasts to eat of the land as well as providing refreshment for beasts, servants, and aliens.  Next, we saw three key purposes for observing the Sabbath including it as a sign between God and Israel, recognition of God as Sanctifier, and a covenant.  Finally, we saw the consequences, punishment by death, attached to the violation of the commandment, which was upheld in the case study from Numbers 15:32-36.  In our next post, we’ll examine three additional support passages for the Sabbath.

In this series: