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.

Every Day

 

The book of Hebrews weaves a tapestry of exhortations for believers between passages on the fulfillment of Old Covenant types and shadows by our Lord in the New Covenant.  While there are certainly individual warnings and exhortations, there are a number specifically applying to the community of God’s people.

One example of this occurs in Hebrews 3:13, 13 But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Not to be quickly dismissed, the conjunction “but” links this verse with the one immediately preceeding it, “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God.” 

As seen in the opening of verse 13, what follows is an exhortation.  This word, parakaleo, may also be translated beseech, or more clearly to strongly encourage, literally “you-be-beside-calling” or more personally, we might even say “me-beside-you-calling.”  It carries with it, rather obviously, an implied communication between two parties, which becomes clearly stated with the phrase that follows, one another.  While not the more familiar Greek word, allelon, translated one another, it nevertheless carries with it the same significance.  When combined with our previous word, we arrive at a command for mutual admonishment.  In case there would be any question as to the frequency of this exhortation, our Lord provides the parameters, every day.

Summarizing this verse so far, we have

What: Exhort

Who: One Another

When: Everyday

Now, we move on to the “why” or the purpose of the exhortation, an application for the doctrine of one-anothering, “that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”  As the author directs his command to his audience, we find there are three key words in this phrase: hardened, deceitfulness, and sin.

The first, hardened, refers to the condition of the heart and may well be translated as stubborn or obstinate.  This is the second of three times that this word occurs in this chapter of Hebrews.  The first and third uses are in reference to the Israelites in the wilderness who, “hardened their hearts”.  It is safe to say that these two additional uses provide the bookends for the meaning of the warning in our verse, which clearly warns the reader to guard against the hardening of the heart by holding up the example of the Wilderness Generation.  Recall from above that verse 12, linked to this one, references an evil, unbelieving heart, which is the completion of the hardening process.

Second, deceitfulness.  While this particular word is not used often in the New Testament, interestingly it occurs in the parable of the four soils, “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Matthew 13:22  Used more generally here, and not merely as an effect of riches, it carries the idea of seduction.  In other words, tempting by way of deception or lies; promising a desire that cannot be delivered unto satisfaction.

Which brings us to the final word, sin.  The principal actor in the aforementioned deception and the root cause of the hardness of the heart.  Sin.  We’ve become so accustomed to hearing the word that it’s likely lost its effectiveness.  Generally summarized by missing the mark or falling short, these too fail to convey the weight of what this word means.

Sin is nothing less than rebellion against the Almighty God.

Recall again that the bookends for this passage is the Wilderness Generation, which is specifically said to be in rebellion against God.  Turning to a general definition of rebellion we find it meaning, “an act of violent or open resistance to an established ruler.”  When we sin, we are literally defying the authority of God.  If we are to grasp the weight of what sin means, we must begin here.

Like a lump of clay in the hot sun, sin hardens the heart through seductive deception that appeals to our flesh but simply cannot deliver on what it promises.  Graciously, in this passage our Lord provides a remedy against the hardness of heart brought about by the deceitfulness of sin and it is found in the one-anothering of mutual encouragement…daily.

Perhaps one of the reasons why professing Christians appear so weak and holiness, even a desire for holiness, is so lacking is that we have failed to obey the commands of one-anothering on a daily basis.  We have become so accustomed to superficial, once-a-week encounters that we are missing out on one of the principal remedies against sin and one of the primary tools for growing in our walk with God.

Daily encouragement from fellow believers.

 

The Unwelcome Fellow Traveler

 

In the 12th chapter of C.S. Lewis’ The Horse and His Boy, there is a fascinating portrayal of Christ’s words, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:5; cf. Deuteronomy 31:6) even in the midst of our own self-pity and despair.  In the scene, the boy, Shasta, is making his way towards the city of Anvard in order to warn them of a pending, unwarranted attack from Rabadash.  After coming to a fork in the road, and ducking along the right-fork away from Rabadash and his men, his exhaustion and self-pity is interrupted by the presence of fear.

“Shasta discovered that someone or something was walking beside him.  It was pitch dark and he could see nothing.  And the Thing (or Person) was going so quietly that he could hardly hear any footfalls.  What he could hear was breathing.  His invisible companion seemed to breathe on a very large scale, and Shasta got the impression that it was a very large creature.  And he had come to notice this breathing so gradually that he had really no idea how long it had been there.  It was a horrible shock.

It darted into his mind that he had heard long ago that there were giants in these Northern countries.  He bit his lip in terror.  But now that he really had something to cry about, he stopped crying.  

The Thing (unless it was a Person) went on beside him so very quietly that Shasta began to hope he had only imagined it.  But just as he was becoming quite sure of it, there suddenly  came a deep, rich sigh out of the darkness beside him.  That couldn’t be imagination!  Anyway, he had felt the hot breath of that sigh on his chilly left hand.

If the horse had been any good – or if he had known how to get any good out of the horse – he would have risked everything on a breakaway and a wild gallop.  But he knew he couldn’t make that horse gallop.  So he went on at a walking pace and the unseen companion walked and breathed beside him.  At last he could bear it no longer.

‘Who are you?’  he said, scarcely above a whisper.

‘One who has waited long for you to speak,’ said the Thing.  Its voice was not loud, but very large and deep.

‘Are you – are you a giant?’ asked Shasta.

‘You might call me a giant,’ said the Large Voice. ‘But I am not like the creatures you call giants.’

‘I can’t see you at all,’ said Shasta, after staring very hard.  Then (for an even more terrible idea had come into his head) he said, almost in a scream, ‘You’re not–not something dead, are you? Oh please–please do go away.  What harm have I ever done you?  Oh, I am the unluckiest person in the whole world!’

Once more he felt the warm breath of the Thing on his hand and face.  ‘There,’ it said, ‘that is not the breath of a ghost.  Tell me your sorrows.”

Shasta was a little reassured by the breath:

so he told how he had never known his real father or mother and had been brought up sternly by the fisherman.  And then he told the story of his escape and how they were chased by lions and forced to swim for their lives; and of all their dangers in Tashbaan and about his night among the tombs and how the beasts howled at him out of the desert.  And he told about the heat and thirst of their desert journey and how they were almost at their goal when another lion chased them and wounded Aravis.  And also, how very long it was since he had had anything to eat.

‘I do not call you unfortunate,’ said the Large Voice.

‘Don’t you think it was bad luck to meet so many lions?’ said Shasta.

‘There was only one lion,’ said the Voice.

‘What on earth do you mean?  I’ve just told you there were at least two the first night, and –‘

‘There was only one: but he was swift of foot.’

‘How do you know?’

“I was the lion.”  And as Shasta gaped with open mouth and said nothing, the Voice continued.  ‘I was the lion who forced you to join with Aravis.  I was the cat who comforted you among the houses of the dead.  I was the lion who drove the jackals from you while you slept.  I was the lion who gave the Horses the new strength of fear for the last mile so that you should reach King Lune in time.  And I was the lion you do not remember who pushed the boat in which you lay, a child near death, so that it came to shore where a man sat, wakeful at midnight, to receive you.'”

The weight of this scene probably cannot be rightly felt unless you’ve read the book, but nevertheless, the scene should be poignant.  At the heart of what young Shasta was experiencing was self-pity, considering himself the unluckiest person in the world.  That perhaps no one had ever had it so bad as he had.  As he laments, unsuspectingly to Aslan the Lion, he lays out all the troubles that he has experienced, including known, fear-laden encounters with multiple lions.  To his surprise, there was only 1 lion, Aslan himself.

This portrait of the Christ-like figure is emblematic of how Christ walks at the side of His own.  Often times, we lament that no one has had it as bad as we have.  We often see evil in every trial, but much like the character from the story above, or we may even say the biblical figure Job, we need to recognize that the hand behind these afflictions is none other than the hand of God.  All the while He leads, directs, pushes, steers, and guides according to His own sovereign pleasure for the accomplishment of His divine will.  Christ our Lord has promised He will never leave us nor forsake us.  It is to our detriment that our perception of being unlucky, cursed, or even picked on by Satan, does not match reality that it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

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"