Category Archives: Church History

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.

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part 1

 

[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.]

 

Recently we looked at the inception of a gathering of God’s people and saw that where two or three, at minimum, are gathered together in the name of Christ, He has promised to be among them.  This small gathering outlines the parameters for what is commonly called church.  We left that post with the question of whether this definition of a minimal gathering could or ever has been rightly applied to a universal concept of church.  While it’s been several months since we broached the discussion of our modern conception of church and its development, today we return to the issue of the origin of the universal church theory.

It’s not uncommon in Christian parlance to hear mention of the universal church (and relatedly the visible/invisible distinction), after all the term shows up in some of the most frequently quoted creeds and confessions such as the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Westminster, as we’ve seen introduced and defined in A Universal Theory of the Church (more on this later).

In that post, we saw that a traditional definition was, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all.” ** As we recall this definition and begin our series here, it will become evident how the early conception of the universal church and this post-Reformation definition differ drastically.  Also, it will be important to remember the definition of ekklesia, an assembly or gathering, which is translated into English as church.

Finally, in previous posts we have seen that the Scriptures overwhelming apply this term ekklesia (church) to a local gathering.  Before proceeding, we must ask can either the meaning or use of ekklesia or the aforementioned promise of Christ’s presence in that gathering, ever be applied to all believers from all time, past, present, and future?

The answer clearly is no.

There has never been a time when all believers have been gathered together, nor has there ever been a time when Christ has dwelt in the midst of a universal gathering.  Using this universal language also does an injustice to future believers as well, meaning, despite the definition from the Westminster Confession, we cannot logically refer to a universal church occurring in the present if it has yet to be gathered or has members who are yet to be saved.  On this basis, and others that we will see, it is far more appropriate to refer to an Eschatological Church, rather than a Universal Church.  More on this later in the series.

Moving from that introduction to a personal note, when I was first exposed to Reformed theology, I simply took the use of universal and invisible church as fact, without bothering to look at their origins or biblical bases.  I remember clearly making this distinction to a youth group I was pastoring, simply on the basis of what I had read in Reformed literature.  What happened in my case, and in the case of so many others, is that we read or hear of these terms, see their association with Reformed theology, and simply assume they are correct.  We then search for passages of Scripture to support their meaning.  That is the height of eisegesis, or reading meaning into a passage, and it is an improper way to learn or practice theology.

Before looking at individual passages of Scripture that have been used to argue for the existence of the universal and invisible church, we turn our attention, historically, to understanding the development of the universal term first, from the period known as the Patristic Period, sometimes called the Ante-Nicene (before Nicaea) Period.  This generally refers to the time after the apostles through those called the apostolic fathers until roughly the time of Augustine (approximately 100 – 451 A.D.).  This period of history is crucial for understanding the origin of many forms and functions for what has become known as church, not the least of which was the development of this universal concept of the church.

Turning again to Louis Berkhof, our helpful guide for over-viewing church history, we read that during this period,

“the Church began to be conceived as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a direct successor of the apostles, and in possession of the true tradition.  The catholicity of the Church was rather strongly emphasized.  Local churches were not regarded as so many separate units, but simply as parts of the one universal Church.”

Immediately one can recognize the early seeds of the Episcopal form of government and feel early rumblings for the development of the Roman Catholic Church.  Also, here in this brief description we find that this period marked a shift from the Scriptural focus on the local church, to a more broad focus on the universal church.  Finally, notice that this inception of a universal church referred to an external church, meaning a visible, tangible church, with a bishop as its head.  This is distinctly different than the universal, invisible focus mentioned in the Westminster Confession above.

These developments were a product of the time and culture.

The overwhelming desire, and the perceived necessity, was to establish church unity, beginning at the head with an episcopate (group of bishops) and extending to the body with the catholic or universal church.  One of the chief purposes for this was to stem the rising tide of various so-called heresies, though certainly the local and widespread persecution was also a factor.  On the one hand, this was noble attempt to remain steadfast and combat errors.  On the other hand, it was an overreaction with catastrophic results.  One final introductory note, in addition to a desire for unity, visible leadership, and external organization, there was an increasing desire for an association of the church with the state, a term called sacralism, which we’ll flesh out later in this series.

In the next post, we’ll turn our attention to the episcopate, which is critical to the development of this early universal church doctrine.

[**Edit 3/8/2018: While there is certainly a difference that takes place between the early definition of universal, and visibile, church and the definition cited above from the Westminster Confession, the confession also defines the visible church, which I should’ve included.  Here is the paragraph from the Westminster Confession:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

We will flesh out these distinctions later in the series.]