Category Archives: Church History

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part V

 

[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.]

Last time, we took a brief detour to introduce an influential concept known as sacralism.  Summarily, it is the mixture of religion and state, and began to infect Christianity in the 3rd and 4th centuries.  In this post, we move from sacralism in theory and observation, primarily amongst pre-Christian societies and the Roman Empire, towards its infiltration into Christianity, owed largely to the ascension of Emperor Constantine.

Briefly, the political and religious climate, in the first few centuries after Christ’s death, lent itself to the persecution of Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire, an outworking of their own sacralism.

Verduin comments

“The Roman State had its  officially designated Object of worship, and to it every Roman was expected to give homage.  It is significant that the early Christians did not launch a crusade to have this Object ousted and a new and better Object, the God of Scriptures, put in its place.  The primitive Church did not propose to remove the Object that had hitherto stood in the square and put its own Object in its place.  It was content to worship the Christian God in an off-the-street place and to ignore the Object that stood in a place where none belongs, being careful that no one would have reason to complain that by so worshiping at an esoteric shrine the Christians were drawing themselves away from the affairs of the Roman life.”

Essentially, Verduin is detailing the “pilgrim” mentality, described frequently in Scripture and adopted by faithful believers throughout the ages.

After the widespread and brutal persecution of Christians at the hands of Emperor Diocletian (303-311), which we’ll look at in a future post, and the passage of the Edict of Toleration (311) by Emperor Galeriaus (along with Constantine and Licinius) the stage was set for the perfect storm of Constantine and “Christian sacralism”.  Seeking to gain full control of the empire he had inherited, Constantine believed his military could not compete with the divination being practiced by his rival, Maxentius.  He therefore sought “supernatural” help, as it were, by turning to the God of Scripture. Schaff summarizes the events prior to the battle at Rome on October 27, 312

“[Constantine] leaning already towards Christianity as probably the best and most hopeful of the various religions, seriously sought in prayer, as he related to Eusebius (his biographer), the assistance of God of the Christians, while his heathen antagonist Maxentius, according to Zosimus, was consulting the sibylline books (prophetic and mysterious) and offering sacrifice to the idols.” (vol. 3, pg. 27)

As the well-known story goes, Constantine, either by way of dream or vision, sees a sign of the cross in the clouds and a vision of Christ Himself saying, “By this sign thou shalt conquer!” Verudin summarizes this epiphany, “There he had it! Make the religion of Jesus the religion of the empire and then look to it to achieve the consensus that he, sacralist that he was, and remained, felt he had to have.” (pg. 31

We may pause to reflect briefly upon whether the cross of Christ, not merely the symbol or charm one would wear on a necklace, but its meaning, the death of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ taking upon Himself the sins of those who would believe and suffering the wrath of God in their place, has any business being mingled in the political affairs of men, their wars, and their lust for power?

Verduin summarizes succinctly,

“The problem to which Constantine sought a solution was political rather than religious.”  

“We wish to say in passing (for we shall return to this matter later in this study) that this was to read a new and totally strange meaning into the ‘Cross.’  Is the Cross of Christ then a thing whereby emperors ambitions are realized?” (pg 31)

Finding the opportunity he had been longing for, Constantine then inscribed the symbol from his vision, overlapping Greek letters chi and rho, the first two letters of Christos (Christ), on the helmets and shields of his soldiers and went on to have victory over Maxentius at Rome, thereby taking a significant step towards unifying the empire under his rule (finally accomplished in 324 after the defeat of Luicinius).

This symbol, along with Christianity became the trend of the day, though not without its setbacks and difficulties. It also began the process for unification of the spiritual kingdom which Christ had come to establish, with the faltering empire of Rome, who sought to reclaim her glory. These developments did not happen overnight. Instead there were significant ebbs and flows that came and went with various emperors. In fact, some might argue that a greater advance of sacralism happened under Theodesius rather than Constantine. However, it’s often easier to pin its inception to the reign of Constantine.

There were certainly benefits from Constantine’s favor towards Christianity, for example the abolishment of ordinances offensive to Christians, the freedom of Christian slaves, the advancement of Christian education, and those debatable policies such as the civil observance of Sunday, contributions to the liberal building of churches and support of clergy, and assembling the Council of Nicea.  However, “Constantine stands also as the type of an undiscriminating and harmful conjunction of Christianity with politics, of the holy symbol of peace with the horrors of war, of the spiritual interests of the kingdom of heaven with the earthly interests of the state.” (Schaff Vol. 3, pg. 12)

Additionally, with Christianity soon to become the state sponsored religion, it now held the responsibility of punishing civil AND religious disobedience.  “Now also, however, the lines of orthodoxy were more and more strictly drawn; freedom of inquiry was restricted; and all departure from the state-church system was met not only, as formerly, with spiritual weapons, but also with civil punishments.  So early as the fourth century the dominant party, the orthodox as well as the heterodox, with the help of the imperial authority practiced deposition, confiscation, and banishment upon its opponents.  It was but one step thence to the penalties of torture and death, which were ordained in the middle age, and even so lately as the middle of the seventeenth century, by state authority, both Protestant and Roman Catholic….” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg. 7)

Constantine would go on to make Christianity visible and his edict of toleration of 313 would eventually lead to the exclusivity of Christianity in the Roman Empire. Furthermore, Constantine paved the way for the laws of Theodesius (379-392), which far more aggressively drew together the relationship of the universal church with the state.  As it relates to our study of the universal church, it was her organization and unity that allowed such a relationship to be formed with the state.  Schaff highlights this arrangement, “For only as a catholic, thoroughly organized, firmly compacted, and conservative institution did it meet his (Constantine’s) rigid monarchical interest, and afford the splendid state and court dress he wished for his empire.” (vol. 3, pg. 31)

Christian sacralism would soon become a reality. All those who would oppose the catholic church would now be subject to civil penalties, even death.  Now, not only would the church universal be wed to the state, she would wield the sword of the state against all religious opposition and dissidents, setting the stage for the infamous religious wars that would follow.  

As one may imagine, this marriage further diluted an already morally watered down universal church. To be born, not merely born again, in the Roman Empire, now meant an inherent Christianity, not paganism. Now the universal church would fully embrace the masses, regardless of whether or not they were genuinely converted.  Worldliness had indeed come to infect the universal church on a grander scale.  Schaff comments,

“From the time of Constantine church discipline declines; the whole Roman world having become nominally Christian, and the host of hypocritical professors multiplying beyond all control.” (intro vol. 3, pg. 8)

Do any of these occurrences regarding the “universal church” resemble anything about Christ’s ekklesia that He came to establish?  Clearly the answer is no.

Under the umbrella of these events, namely the reign of Constantine, the establishment of Christian sacralism, and the punishment of heretics by the sword, from which our third dissenting group, the Donatists, would emerge. We will examine their movement in our next post.

Sacralism is not limited to the 4th and 5th Centuries. In fact, it would dominate the next 1100 years until the Reformation. At that point, sacralism did not die out, but reinvigorated. Specifically with Martin Luther, we find the shift from the state’s marriage to Roman Catholicism to a new, younger, more attractive and virile bride, Protestantism.

A Reformation that began with similar motives as those others which had gone before, i.e. Montanism, Novatianism, Donatism, et.al. shifted towards a Magisterial Reformation, one which was dependent upon the state to further its reform and utilized the sword against any would be dissidents.

Schaff highlights the effects of Constantine’s sacralism that would trickle down and pollute the “church” for ages and significantly impact the Reformation,

“Constantine, the first Christian Caesar, the founder of Constantinople and the Byzantine empire, and one of the most gifted, energetic, and successful of the Roman emperors, was the first representative of the imposing idea of a Christian theocracy, or of that system of policy which assumes all subjects to be Christians, connects civil and religious rights, and regards church and state as the two arms of one and the same divine government on earth.  This idea was more fully developed by his successors, it animated the whole middle age, and is yet working under various forms in these latest times; though it has never been fully realized, whether in the Byzantine, the German, or the Russian empire, the Roman church-state, the Calvinisitic republic of Geneva, or the early Puritanic colonies of New England.”  Schaff Vol. 3, pg. 12

Thus, with Constantine we have the birth of Christendom.

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.

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory- Part II

 

[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.]

Part 1

If we are to properly understand the development of the universal church theory, then we must understand the foundation from which it sprang, namely the formation of the office of bishop, collectively called the episcopate.  According to church historian Philipp Schaff

“The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period (AD 100-325) in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate.” (Vol. 2 pg. 133)

Though I believe it can be shown that the presbyterate was itself a modification of the New Testament model, nevertheless it is clear that the episcopate shifted into a position of primacy during the 2nd Century.  Schaff continues his overview of this development by pointing out that it was driven by

“the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church.  It is therefore inseparable from the catholic principle of authority and mediation.”

The episcopate was a divergence from the New Testament supernatural, organic expression of the gathering of God’s people towards a more formal, rigid, and institutional organization whereby the bishops assumed authority and mediated God to the people.  While discussing the validity and evolution of the episcopacy is outside the scope of this overview, we will summarize its key proponents and then conclude with a word about its impact on the historical development of the universal church.

The first seeds of this development of church governance can be traced to Ignatius (AD 35-107), who interestingly is the also the source for the first recorded use of the term catholic church, linking the two together from their source.  With Ignatius, specifically in his epistles, we find him proposing, “earnest exhortations to obey the bishop and maintain the unity of the church against the Judaistic and docetic heresies.”  Additionally, Schaff comments on these developments from Ignatius, “The human bishop is the centre of unity for the single congregation, and stands in it as the vicar of Christ and even of God.  The people, therefore, should unconditionally, obey him, and do nothing without his will.  Blessed are they who are one with the bishop, as the church is one with Christ, and Christ with the Father, so that all harmonizes in unity.  Apostasy from the bishop is apostasy from Christ, who acts in and through the bishops as his organs.” (Vol. 2, pg. 146)

In his own words, Ignatius writes, “Let all of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ [follows] the Father; and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons as the ordinance of God.  Without the bishop let no one do anything connected with the church.  Let that Eucharist be accounted valid which is [offered] under the bishop or by one he has appointed.  Wherever the bishop is found, there let the people be; as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church.  Without the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate the love-feast.”

It is significant that in our examination of the promise of Christ’s dwelling with the gathering of His people (Matthew 18:20), we see no mention of a bishop, pastor, or any other “office”.  Nevertheless, in the previous two quotes, we see that Ignatius’ doctrine of the episcopate establishes the bishop as the rule and authority of a congregation, who in turn should obey him unquestionably.  Ignatius intertwines the bishop with the unity of the church, faithfulness with obedience to the bishop, and apostasy from the bishop as equivalent to apostasy from Christ.  Primarily, Ignatius is establishing the bishop as the vicar, or earthly representative of Christ.  This is the basis for the Roman Catholic papal (pope) system.  Clearly then, any person or group that would dissent from the bishop, either on the basis of doctrinal or moral grounds, would be immediately banished and labeled an apostate, or worse…a heretic.  As Schaff notes, this essentially makes salvation dependent upon obedience to the bishop.

Can any passage of Scripture be used to support this position?  No.  Clearly then, with the “early church fathers” we already find a departure, at least as it relates to ecclesiology, from the New Testament pattern. This is worth keeping in mind as we continue through this series.

One final note on Ignatius, it’s in his writings that we find the requirement of celibacy within the episcopate, “the ascetic system of Catholicism starts in celibacy, as the hierarchical organization of Catholicism takes its rise in episcopacy.” (Vol. 2, pg. 147) For opposition to this, see 1 Timothy 4:3

Next we turn to Irenaeus (AD 125-202) and Tertullian (AD 155-240), whose doctrine of the episcopate is less developed than that of Ignatius.  With Irenaeus we see two key movements, namely the episcopate as a continuation of the apostolate (apostolic succession, which clearly smells of Roman Catholicism) and the assertion of doctrinal unity in opposition to heresies.  While initially embracing the episcopate, in Tertullian we see a departure from supporting the episcopate with his embrace of Montanism (more on this later) as he asserted that the church does not consist of bishops, but instead is comprised of a priesthood of all believers.

The foremost proponent of the episcopate during this period was Cyprian (200-258).  By far the major advancement of the episcopate, along with Ignatius’ early doctrine of the catholic or universal church, is found in the writings of Cyprian, who, as Schaff notes, is the “typical high-churchman of the Ante-Nicene age.” (Vol. 2, pg. 150)  The key summary statement from Cyprian is, “The bishop is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.”  This, as with Ignatius, equates Christianity with obedience and submission to the bishop.  It’s important to note that Cyprian provides the clearest expression of the papacy in its infancy, beginning with the superiority of Peter and advancing the idea of apostolic succession that appeared in earlier writers*.

In closing our overview of the episcopate as the pillar of the universal church, we have a summary from historian Philipp Schaff

“We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity [in the early episcopate].  But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate.  In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all.  In fact, the existence of the church at that period may be said to have depended in a great measure on the preservation and promotion of unity, and that in an outward, tangible form, suited to the existing grade of culture.  Such a unity was offered in the bishop, who held a monarchial, or more properly patriarchal relation to the congregation.

In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church.  In the bishop, therefore, all sentiments of piety found a centre.  In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide.” (Vol. 2, pg. 142-143)

The universal church theory was built on the foundational establishment of the episcopate.  If the latter is proved to be unbiblical and a departure from the New Testament, what does that say about the former?

In our next post, we’ll examine how this newly formed episcopate and universal church dealt with dissenters from three movements that separated from the bishops and the people of the universal church, primarily due to a lack of holiness.

 

  • Update 4/6/18 – I’m going to hold off on this assertion for now.  I should’ve noted that although Cyprian’s thoughts were later interpreted to support the papal concept, his own beliefs were that a single bishop should not have more authority than any other bishop.  Essentially he favored an equality of bishops, which would therefore undermine the papacy.  The confusion arises over his interpretation of Peter’s role as the rock in Matthew 16, it sounds pro-Papal, but in practice he held a different view.