The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part III

 

[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.]

 

In our first post in this series on the universal church we introduced its basic concept and early developments stemming from persecution and a desire for visible unity against the rising tide of heresy, beginning in the Ante-Nicene period (AD 100-325).

In the next post, we saw the significance of the formation of the episcopacy, or bishop-rule, as foundational for development of the universal church.  Essentially this equated the bishop with the universal church, and obedience to the bishop with salvation.  It is not difficult then to understand the context for Cyprian’s well-known Latin statement, extra ecclesiam nullus salus, or “outside the church, there is no salvation.”  In other words, if you are not with the universal church in her beliefs and practice, then you are a heretic.  However, in reality, what happens when said “church” begins to err and deviate from the New Testament?  She’s a ship that’s not easily turned.  Remember we already saw how the establishment of an episcopate was a departure from Scripture.  Once your foot steps onto the path of error, it could be miles (or centuries) before you realize how far from truth you’ve traveled.

In this post, we’ll see how and why opposition against the universal church and her bishops began to spring up.

Before we look at three dissenting groups from three subsequent centuries, mention must be given to the common presence of heresies from Christianity’s inception, particularly Gnosticism.  Adherents to this departure from scripture believed in a duality between spirit and flesh, which ultimately leads to a denial of Christ’s deity.  (Key scriptural references may be found 1 John, Col. 2, and probably Acts 8 – Simon)  This early movement, along with a later development known as Marcionism, paved the way for the early desire to unify the church against heresy.  Subsequently, all other departures from the universal church, or her bishops, whether correct or not, were viewed in the harshest of light.

Berkhof places his finger on the pulse of these emerging dissenters

“The increasing worldliness and corruption of the Church gradually led to reaction and gave rise to the tendency of various sects, such as Montanism in the middle of the second, Novatianism in the middle of the third, and Donatism at the beginning of the fourth century, to make the holiness of its members the mark of the true Church.”

So here is the scene: The church, using that word as a visible, external institution, was rapidly increasing but at the same time was undisciplined, becoming increasingly worldly and corrupt.  Again, we see the difficulty with using the language of “church”, as it must refer to an external, professing people.  Was there an overall corruption of genuine believers who were being sanctified by the Holy Spirit? Unlikely.  Rather, it’s more likely church here is referring to those who externally associated with Christianity, a.k.a. Christendom.

As a result of this downgrade in morality (and doctrine), sects concerned with holiness as the true mark of membership began to rise up and dissent against the universal church and her bishops.  The external institution, establishment of the bishop, and focus on catholicity (unity and universality) led to the reactions of these uprisings.

Turning our focus to these dissenting groups, the first under our consideration, Montanism, sprang up in the second century.  According to historian Philip Schaff, Montanism

“was not, originally, a departure from the faith, but a morbid overstraining of the practical morality and discipline of the early church.  It was excessive supernaturalism and puritanism against Gnostic rationalism and catholic laxity.  It is the first example of an earnest and well-meaning, but gloomy and fanatical hyper-Christianity, which, like all hyper-spiritualism, is apt to end in the flesh.”

Montanism, while diverse, is summarized by Schaff through four key features: 1. Continuance of miraculous gifts 2. The universal priesthood of believers 3. (Visionary) Millennarianism 4. Asceticism and Church Discipline

The most prominent focus by their opponents seems to have been on feature #1, specifically the continuation of prophetic gifts.  Despite history’s ascription of heresy to Montanism, it is often overlooked that Tertullian, a theological genius whose writings dominate the second and third centuries, was himself a Montanist and a thoroughly orthodox Christian at that.  Among his many apologetic writings were his defenses against the aforementioned Gnosticism and Marcionism.  Remember in our last post, we saw that Tertullian raised opposition against the concept of the bishop, or episcopacy.  His own brand of Montanism confirms the broad diversity that evolved within the cause, becoming in reality a multiplicity of sects, rather than a single monolithic movement.  Summarizing the view of Tertullian over and against the infant “catholic church”, E.H. Broadbent writes,

“…the eminent writer Tertullian, attaching himself to the Montanists, separated from the Catholic body. He wrote: ‘where but three are, and they of the laity also, yet there is a church.'”

Tertullian’s statement, establishing the minimum gathering of God’s people, which we’ve already examined, and the priesthood of believers, which we will examine, seems to be a reaction against the assertion that where the bishops are, there is the church, a sentiment made popular by Ignatius.  Think about this, here we have Tertullian, a faithful Christian whose writings have withstood the test of time, separating himself from what was known as the catholic/universal church due to a lack of holiness within it.  If this universal concept were a valid theory, it would have been impossible for Tertullian to leave and still remain faithful to Christ (according to their own definition), which is why to this day many Roman Catholics consider him an apostate and heretic.  With this first test case, cracks in the foundation of applying this doctrine consistently begin to appear.

Novatianism, the second of these reforming sects identified by Berkhof, is properly classified more as a schism than a heresy.  Generally, its development is traced to the third century.  Novatianism “advocated the strict discipline against the lenient practice of the dominant church.  The Novatianists considered themselves the only pure communion, and unchurched all churches which defiled themselves by re-admitting the lapsed, or any other gross offenders.” (Schaff, pg. 196).  Once again, we find a group willing to dissent and separate themselves from this early catholic/universal church on the basis of holiness.  And, yet again, we find that their movement was ostracized and condemned by the institutional church.  Again, we have practical evidence against a single, monolithic, “universal church” as it was defined in the Patristic Period.

After only a century or two, the New Testament church founded by Christ on the Apostles and Prophets had begun mutating into the institutional church and had experienced a major doctrinal decline, and unfortunately a major moral decline.  Commonly this downgrade is referred to as the “cliff phenomenon” and it is usually applied to the doctrine of Christ, but most ignore how it affected the doctrine of the church.  As with the Montanists, so too with Novatianists, both of whom were willing to separate from the institutional church because of laxity in its Christian profession.

The Novatian schism was met with strong opposition, particularly that of Cyprian (a student of Tertullian’s no less), “from his zeal for ecclesiastical unity and his aversion to Novatus” (the unofficial leader of the movement). (Schaff, p. 197)  Schaff notes that, “in spite of this strong opposition the Novatian sect, by virtue of its moral earnestness, propagated itself in various provinces of the West and the East down to the sixth century.  In Phrygia it combined with the remnants of the Montanists.  The council of Nicaea recognized its ordination, and endeavored, without success, to reconcile it with the Catholic church.  Constantine, at first dealt mildly with the Novatians, but afterwards prohibited them to worship in public and ordered their books to be burnt.”

So much for an accurate history of the Novatians.

On this last point, historian E.H. Broadbent rightly describes the oft-quoted proverb that history is written by the victors

“The fact that the Catholic Church system later became the dominant one puts us in possession of a great body of its literature, while the literature of those who differed from it has been suppressed, and they are chiefly known to us by what may be gleaned from the writings directed against them. It is thus easy to gain the erroneous impression that in the first three centuries there was one united Catholic Church and a variety of comparatively unimportant heretical bodies. On the contrary, however, there were then, as now, a number of divergent lines of testimony each marked by some special characteristic, and different groups of mutually-excluding churches.”

Because of this, historically the dissenting groups have received an unfair treatment.  Those who have attempted to accurately portray them have been castigated with the pejorative label, revisionist. One of the central problems in finding accurate histories on these groups, and others, is that historical theologians want to make these sects and dissenters monolithic, just as they view the catholic church.  If they find one person that has an errant view, far too often they attempt to ascribe it to the entire group or movement.  But that’s simply wrong.  A prime example of this is found among the Montanists, who had some members that denied the Trinity (Sabellianism).  In turn, opponents have often labelled the entire Montanist movement as anti-Trinitarian.  Historically this is proven to be a falsehood because, Tertullian, who we may recall from above was a Montanist, formulated the conception of the Trinity (from the Scriptures) which is still subscribed to today.  There is simply no evidence that he denied Christ or the Trinity later in life when he joined the Montanist dissenters.

The lack of charity through which historians have primarily viewed these dissenting groups is puzzling, particularly when we fast forward 1000+ years to the Reformation.  Reformers like Luther are venerated, while these early ‘reformers’ are vilified.  Perhaps a consistent view of history would clarify and unclutter much of the tradition and error which has crept in.

Summarily, in this period, there was a blending of the conception of God’s people as an organic spiritual entity with the visible manifestation of that entity, essentially conflating the two under the umbrella of the universal church.  While it was marked with the rise of sects, schisms, and legitimate heresies**, by far the most formidable opposition to the catholicity or universality of the church was the 4th Century Donatist schism.  Before we look at this critical development, we will take a tangential look at the rise of sacralism, or the unholy relationship of the church with the state, in our next post from this series.

 

 

**( I, in no way, want to validate those persons or groups that deny the nature of Christ or infallibility of the Scriptures.  I do, however, want to highlight those that are orthodox on primary doctrines, right in their motivation for holiness, but have been marginalized because of their dissent and branded heretical)

 

 

 

 

 

The Balance between Despair and Hope

 

In a previous post, we looked at the tendency of believers faced with the circumstances of affliction who despair to the point of asking the familiar questions, “Why this happening?” or “Where is God?”.  There we suggested that although this was the course and pattern of Job’s response to his affliction, perhaps he lamented too far and too long, reaching the point of failing to properly recognize the consistent and righteous character of God in his afflictions.  It was not until God’s extended discourse in reminding Job that it is He who orders His creation as He sees fit, even those things which on the surface might seem contrary to nature and even those things which might seem impossible to the natural mind, that Job’s eyes were opened to properly stop asking why and start asking Who.

Lest we should walk away from that post thinking that our response in the face of affliction and despair should be one of resignation or stoicism, in this post we want to add balance to argument by looking at the much neglected practice of lament.  The Psalms provide for us this balanced approach through its inclusion of numerous laments.  Here we find that pouring out our hearts in agony and anguish before God, may indeed be a proper response to our most difficult circumstances, i.e. afflictions.  It may even be that God is working in our hearts to draw out the marrow of lamentation.  However, we must be reminded not to linger here, lest despair overtake us and doubt of God’s goodness begin to enter our minds.

Psalm 13 provides a typical pattern of a lament, maintaining the balance between despair and hope.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I take counsel in my soul
    and have sorrow in my heart all the day?
How long shall my enemy be exalted over me?

Consider and answer me, O Lord my God;
    light up my eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death,
lest my enemy say, “I have prevailed over him,”
    lest my foes rejoice because I am shaken.

But I have trusted in your steadfast love;
    my heart shall rejoice in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord,
    because he has dealt bountifully with me.

The breaks above, provided by the ESV translators, highlight the transitions of the Psalm.  In vs. 1-3, we hear the words of the lament through a series of questions, much like the aforementioned, Why is this happening? and Where is God?  In vs. 4-6, there is a shift towards an appeal by the Psalmist to God for a response to his situation.  Then, in the last two verses we see the psalmist rest in the character of God, namely His goodness.

Entering into a lament shows a dissatisfaction with our circumstances; a recognition that things are not supposed to be this way.  Ultimately it is a desire for God to reconcile all that has been corrupted by sin.  It is toward this hope of reconciliation that our minds must then turn if we are to undergo lamentation properly.  If we linger in our despair, if we allow our minds to sink with the waves of doubt and depression, we show evidence of lacking faith as Peter did when walking on the water to our Lord.

The duration for how long we allow ourselves to lament over our afflictions, in order to maintain this proper balance, cannot be answered with any certainty, as it depends on a number of factors, not the least of which is the person and circumstance.  Nevertheless, universally, we must continually give ourselves over to prayer and continually fix our minds on the hope that is set before us knowing that our circumstances are only temporary and one day Christ will return to establish an eternity in which there will no longer be any crying; one in which He will wipe away all tears.

In closing, we need only to look at the life of our Lord to realize that lament has a proper place in the life of a believer.  Turning to the Scriptures, we find that Christ lamented over the death of Lazarus.  He lamented over the hardheartedness of Israel.  He lamented over the the pressing reality of experiencing the cup of God’s wrath.  And He lamented with outpouring  cries at the temporary abandonment from the Father as He bore the sins of many.  Yet all the while, He knew a better day was coming when sin would no longer exist, darkness would be engulfed by the light, and death would no longer reign over man.

When the time comes that we must navigate the darkness of despair, let us follow this pattern of our Lord by shining the light upon the hope of glory.

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.

 

Ephesians 4:15 "Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ"