Category Archives: Church History

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.]

Luther’s 3 Divine Services

With the recent celebration of the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, many us were focused on the single event of Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door (October 1517), which he posted to generate academic debate.  However, caution should be exercised in pinning a single event or day to such a widespread and complex movement.  There was much more to come for Luther and the Reformers, with arguably more significant events.

One area of neglect that I’ve noticed in most studies of the Reformation in general, and Luther in particular, is the significant attention that a reformation of worship garnered.  Yes, it is true that we read of Luther’s (eventual) formula of justification by faith and yes, the authority of the Scriptures under-gird all that Luther did.  Yet once the break with Rome had been made, and the unfortunate marriage with the State had been formed, Luther recognized the need to modify worship in order to break with his perceived errors of Rome and provide an alternative for the people.

In January of 1526, Luther wrote instructions titled “The German Mass and Order of Divine Service”.  Having realized the changes that needed to be made to his earlier 1523 order of worship, Luther writing in the opening Preface of his later work informs readers that his order of worship is not intended to

“make of it a compulsory law, or to ensnare or make captive thereby any man’s conscience, but to use it agreeably to Christian liberty at their good pleasure, as where, when and so long as circumstances favour and demand it.”

Clearly then, though Luther would proceed to make recommendations for the order and liturgy of worship services, his intention is in no way to bind the consciences of men to this order, and most certainly not to allow it to fall back into the trappings of formal rigidity as with Rome.  He even leaves a caveat that should these instructions become unnecessary or outdated, discontinue them.

Additionally, he points out that the Order to follow is not for the “sake of those who are Christians already…but for the sake of those who are to become Christians.  For the sake of such, we must read, sing, preach, write, and compose….”  In other words, the service order that Luther was about to set down was meant strictly for unbelievers, with the goal of evangelizing them.

Don’t gloss over that, it’ll come back up later.

As Luther begins to outline his recommended order of divine services, he identifies three separate and distinct services.  First, is the Latin Divine Service or Latin Mass, called the Forumla Missae.  This service was a holdover from the services administered by the Roman Catholic Church, with perhaps the lone omission being the Canon of the Mass.  However, in Luther’s own words concerning this divine service, he writes,

“This I do not want to have set aside or changed; but as we have hitherto kept it, so should we be still free to use it where and when we please, or as occasion requires.  I do not want in anywise to let the Latin tongue disappear out of Divine Service; for I am so deeply concerned for the young.”

This service was to have singing and reading on “alternate Sundays in all four languages – German, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.”  So with this first service, Luther maintains, at least partially, the worship from the Roman Catholic experience with the purpose of maintaining Latin proficiency and exposure among the public, particularly the youth.  Further justification for keeping this service maybe deduced from its defense written in 1523

I have been hesitant and fearful, partly because of the weak in faith, who cannot suddenly exchange all old and accustomed order of worship for a new and unusual one, and more so because of the fickle and fastidious spirits who rush in like unclean swine without faith or reason, and who delight only in novelty and tire of it as quickly, when it has worn off (Luther’s Works 1965, 53:19).

Remember that prior to Luther’s own translation of the Scriptures in the modern vernacular of German, Latin was the only language the Scriptures were available in and the Roman Catholic services were conducted by the priests solely in Latin.

Luther’s Second Divine Service was the German Mass.  Luther considered this for the “sake of the simple laymen” where both this and the previous divine service should be “held and publicly celebrated in church for the people in general.  They are not yet believers or Christians.”  Remember that these divine services are not intended for believers.  They have exclusively unbelievers as their focus, as Luther adds, “So far it is no question yet of a regularly fixed assembly wherein to train Christians according to the Gospel: but rather of a public allurement to faith and Christianity.”

Without question, according to Luther’s own words, these divine services with all of their vestments, singing, preaching, readings of Scripture, celebrations of the Mass, attention on language, etc., were in their entirety meant for the evangelism of unbelievers.

The Third Divine Service, according to Luther, was one in “which the true type of Evangelical Order should embrace, must not be celebrated so publicly in the square amongst all and sundry.”  In the opening description, this service is meant to be in complete contrast with those mentioned earlier as it was considered exclusively for believers.  In this particular service, Luther goes into more specific detail.  Below is an extended quote

“Those, however, who are desirous of being Christians in earnest, and are ready to profess the Gospel with hand and mouth, should register their names and assemble by themselves in some house to pray, to read, to baptize, and to receive the sacrament and practise other Christian works.  In this Order, those whose conduct was not such as befits Christians could be recognized, reproved, reformed, rejected, or excommunicated, according to the rule of Christ in Matt. xviii.  Here, too, a general giving of the alms could be imposed on Christians, to be willingly given and divided among the poor, after the example of St. Paul in 2 Cor. ixHere there would not be need of much fine singing.  Here we could have baptism and the sacrament in short and simple fashion: and direct everything towards the Word and prayer and love.”

Now, this particular Divine Service outlined and described by Luther may not strike you at first, but it should, for Luther has often been credited as the designer of the Protestant Order of Worship, as well as credited for the introduction of congregational singing.  The problem is that the modern features of worship, primarily from the German Mass, which we so freely incorporate today, were intended by Luther to be strictly for unbelievers as an aide to evangelism.  The Divine Service for believers was to be private, intimate, sans singing, and centered around the Word, prayer, and love.

We might ask, why then were the evangelistic services of Luther’s copied and not his divine service for believers?  Because it never happened.  Divine service number three, in Luther’s descriptions, never existed.  It was for him, idyllic, but unrealistic.  Why?  Because the quantity and quality or depth of Christians during this time was limited.  In Luther’s own words

“In one word, if we only had people who longed to be Christians in earnest, Form and Order would soon shape itself.  But I cannot and would not order or arrange such a community or congregation at present.  I have not the requisite persons for it, nor do I see many who are urgent for it.  But should it come to pass that I must do it, and that such pressure is put upon me as that I myself unable with a good conscience to leave it undone, then I will gladly do my part to secure it, and will help it on as best I can.”

In the meantime, Luther was resolved to proceed with the previous two Divine Services, “until those Christians who are most thoroughly in earnest shall discover each other and cleave together.”

It is more than likely that when we read of Luther’s services in his works, post-1526, we are not reading of services designed for believers to worship God.  We are not seeing the celebration of worship music introduced to the congregation and removed from the choirs so that Christians might sing praises to God.  We are seeing divine services designed to reach the masses for the purpose of evangelism.  Luther was ready and willing to use any means necessary to bring them to Christ.

Though we’ve seen how Luther retained much of his Roman Catholic influence and tradition, with of course some obvious objections to the Mass, one additional note that we must mention is in regards to his overall philosophy of worship.  Whereas the Regulative Principle of Worship was advanced by Calvin, a reform upon Luther, Martin Luther advanced what is called the Normative Principle of Worship.  The former restricted worship to only those things which Scripture commands or offers as examples, while the latter broadens worship to include everything not expressly forbidden in Scripture.  This is why we see such wide variety in Luther’s worship services.

Given all this, how then does it impact how we view our present day “divine services” knowing that in many respects Luther’s model was the prototype for Protestantism?  How should this impact the order for believers, in their own divine services?

If God should be willing…more to come.

Soli Dea Gloria.

 

A Snippet of the Radical Reformation

 

In the last decade or so there has been a resurgence of what is traditionally known as reformed theology.  Defining this can be a bit tricky.  Some, perhaps most, simply conclude that reformed theology is defined by the doctrines of grace, i.e. total depravity, unconditional election, limited atonement, irresistible grace, and perseverance of the saints.  Others however, hold that this is just the beginning and that to be truly called reformed includes so much more, beginning with holding to one of the historic confessions of faith, i.e. Westminster Confession of Faith or the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith.  This has led to splintering within the movement into at least two groups (and probably more), the “Neo-Reformed” and the historic or confessional reformed.

Regardless of which camp one finds themselves, my fear is that both groups are subject to ignorance of historical theology.  By that I mean that they embrace the tradition of the Reformers without understanding what it is that they were doing, including both what they did right AND what they did wrong.  When this happens, the Reformation is skewed and takes on mythological characteristics, while Reformers, such as Martin Luther, become cartoonish super heroes.  To begin to understand the Reformation, one must understand the term sacralism as well as the relationship between church and state.  Additional terms to reckon with would be: the definition of a magisterial reformer (hint: it doesn’t mean majestic),  the Radical Reformation and its “Reformers”, and the Anabaptist movement, which has been unfairly labeled a wholesale heretical movement.

A good start for unpacking this history is The Reformers and their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin, who because of his own emphasis on the error of sacralism and its trappings has been called a revisionist and accused of being historically biased.  This seems to be an unfair assessment and an uncharitable reading of his material.

In the video below, Dr. James White provides a brief glimpse into this alternate, or we might say ignored, view of Reformation history as he stands at the “prison” site of  Fritz Erbe, who was placed in a deep hole for refusing to baptize his children from 1540 until his death in 1548.  His total imprisonment lasted more than 15 years, again the crime was refusing to baptize his infant children.

The site of his dungeon imprisonment?

Wartburg Castle.

The same Wartburg Castle where 10 years earlier Martin Luther was given refuge from the persecution of the Roman Catholic Church.  The same Wartburg Castle where Luther translated the Scriptures into German.  Think about this for a moment and let it revise your own understanding of the Reformation.

As White points out, the translation of the Scriptures by Luther into the modern vernacular happened just a few yards from where Erbe was tortured and left to rot in a deep dark hole.  Erbe read and applied these same Scriptures.  Yet here we have self-professing Christians who were willing to imprison and torture another self-professing Christian simply because he refused to baptize (and rightly so) his children.  This is the danger of sacralism and it is shear ignorance to think that its effects are not among us today.  The Reformation certainly had positive effects, namely its break from the Roman Catholic Church.  However, the Protestant divorce from the RCC only led to an unholy affair with the State, and the State, as we know, wields the sword.  In one sense, it was out of the frying pan and into the fire for the “church”.  Erbe’s story is only the tip of the iceberg of the torture and persecution that professing believers faced at the hands of other professing believers for simply standing up for their beliefs of the Scriptures.

HT: The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness