Tag Archives: Church History

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VIII

In a recent series, we walked through the origin and history of what we’ve termed the Universal Church theory.  We began by noting how the term used today, informed largely by the Westminster Confession, is not how it was used when it was developed during the Patristic Period (the first 400 years or so since the birth of Christ).  The chief differences being the Patristic emphasis on the visibility and organization of the catholic or universal church and its dependence on the episcopate.  From there, we walked methodically through these developments, noting the significance of this episcopate, as well as persecutions, schisms, so-called heresies as well as genuine departures from orthodoxy, the development of Christian sacralism, and culminating with the Augustinian view of the universal church, which was anything other than consistent.

With this review in mind, there are a few loose ends that need to be tied up before moving on to next historical period, and then eventually reaching some contemporary conclusions, not the least of which will be considering the concept of the ‘eschatological church.’  Our study of these developments would be incomplete without at least a brief mention of the councils and creeds that littered the landscape during and at the conclusion of our period under discussion.  It’s towards their impact on the development of the universal church theory that we now turn our attention.

Historian Philip Schaff comments on the importance of these councils

“Above the patriarchs, even above the patriarch of Rome, stood the ecumenical or general councils, the highest representatives, of the unity and authority of the Old Catholic church.  They referred originally to the Roman empire, but afterward included the adjacent barbarian countries, so far as those countries were represented in them by bishops.  They rise up like lofty peaks or majestic pyramids from the plan of ancient church history, and mark the ultimate authoritative settlement of the general questions of doctrine and discipline which agitated Christendom in the Graeco-Roman empire.” (Schaff vol. 3 pg. 330-331)

With this background into the councils and synods, we need to observe first it’s superiority, representing the highest order of unity and authority in the universal (catholic) church.  Second, we need to note that these councils were originally confined to the Roman Empire, only later extended to “barbarian countries,” but only in so much as they were represented by bishops.  Third, they were generally convened to settle matters or disputes concerning doctrinal issues.  In the face of the many heresies and schisms, these councils would sometimes allow both positions to be represented and heard and then collectively decide what was orthodoxy and what was not.

Within this system of synods, there was an order of “hierarchical gradation” broken down from smallest to largest as follows:

  • Diocesan or district councils
  • Provincial councils
  • Patriarchal councils
  • National councils
  • Ecumenical councils (superior and most important)

While there were some councils and synods convened in the third century, the real emphasis, for our purposes, is on the ecumenical councils beginning in the fourth century, of which there are two of interest, beginning in 325 with the Council of Nicaea and then 381 with the Council of Constantinople.  Throughout a period of 462 years a total of Seven Ecumenical councils were convened.  These were referred to as ecumenical for two primary reasons.  First, because they were supposedly representative of Christendom, which in itself is troubling, because it doesn’t necessarily mean genuine Christianity, only that outwardly or in name only.  Furthermore, as we’ve already hinted at, these councils were typically restricted to the Roman Empire and largely aristocratic or based on class.  Schaff notes, “strictly speaking, none of these councils properly represented the entire Christian world.” (Vol. 3, pg. 333)  Yet, as we’ll see they functioned as though they did.  Though the bishops in attendance were mostly elected representatives, nevertheless, given the geographic, class, and laity restrictions, it’s easier to see the infancy of Presbyterianism rather than Congregationalism, even if on a larger scale.  Second, they were ecumenical because of the “result, the importance and correctness of the decisions, and above all, the consent of the orthodox Christian world.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg 334)

Typically, these ecumenical councils were dominated by the presence of eastern (Greek/Oriental) bishops and were generally presided over by the emperor, further blurring any remaining distinction between church and state from the 4th Century on.  Turning to Schaff again, he notes, “The ecumenical councils have not only an ecclesiastical significance, but bear also a political or state-church character.” pg. 334  This isn’t a point to gloss over, the reigning emperor called, presided over, sometimes  influenced, and ratified the decisions, of which the doctrinal were called dogmas and the disciplinary were called canons.  These decisions were authoritative, being enforced by the state, and likewise considered to be “invested with infallibility” (Schaff, Vol. 3 pg. 340).  In fact, many, from Constantine, to Athanasius, Pope Leo and Pope Gregory, to Justinian and others considered the decisions of these councils (at least the first four) to be the words of God or on par with Scripture itself.  Clearly then the stage was set that any disagreement against the councils dogmas were spiritual rebellion against God Himself and political rebellion against the empire.  All of this is well and good, if the decision turns out to be Scriptural, but again, what right has the empire to uphold Scripture.  And what happens when the State shifts her position, as she is want to do?  Stated as a summary of the Dontatist Controversy, “What has the emperor to do with the church?”  It should be noted on this point that Augustine bears a sense of sanity by rightly subordinating the councils to Scriptures themselves, at least in so far as his own catholicity would allow, “I would not believe the gospel, did not the authority of the catholic church compel me.” (Schaff, Vol. pg. 344)

As Schaff and others have noted, the synodical system had its origin in the apostolic council at Jerusalem.  In a future post (Lord willing), we’ll look at this event from Acts 15 to see if it was indeed a valid reference and basis for synods and councils, or even later, Presbyterianism.  Though Acts 15 may be an improper scriptural basis, the motivation for these councils seems proper, at least at the surface level, namely to unify truth and eradicate error.  Despite this, the convention of these councils reveal troubling and fundamental flaws with this early assumption of universality or catholicity, and while initially the results were favorable, the precedent for a mixed body of politics and religion acting as representatives for the majority would be disastrous.  Furthermore, the presence of a presiding emperor over matters of faith is a dangerous precedence.  Not only were the emperors pagan, but they wielded the sword.  Think about this for just a moment, would a true follower of Christ submit themselves to the authority of a president or king that dictated what they should believe or how they should worship?

Of these seven ecumenical councils, the first four of which are held in high regard among evangelical orthodoxy (Schaff), by far the most important was the aforementioned Council of Nicaea convened by none other than Emperor Constantine, who at the time of convention had not yet been baptized, a remarkable point considering the period in which these events took place.  This council, “settled the doctrine of the divinity of Christ, and condemned the Arian heresy.” (Schaff, Vol. 3, pg. 334) [We should note that this heresy is still alive and well today, most popularly promulgated by  the Jehovah’s Witnesses.]

Briefly, the Arian Controversy was so named for its chief proponent, Arius, who was a presbyter (elder) in the eastern part of the Roman Empire.  Arius believed that “the Father alone was God.  The Logos, or Son…was a created being – formed out of nothing by the Father before the universe was made.  There was once a time when the Son had not existed.”  Needham remarks that this controversy, which Arius helped to spread, was the “greatest theological controversy in the history of Christianity.” (Needham, pg 201)  Arius was chiefly opposed by Alexander, his bishop, who in 320 assembled a council of Egyptian bishops and declared Arius a heretic.  Arius, who was politically connected via the school of Lucian of Antioch, rallied former students to his cause and soon the controversy extended to leaders throughout the east.  It was in the throes of this controversy that Constantine entered, feeling “it was his duty as a Christian emperor to restore unity to his Empire’s divided Church.” (Needham, pg 203).  To resolve the controversy, Constantine convened the first ecumenical Council which met in 325 AD at Nicaea.

To this council, Emperor Constantine invited 1800 bishops to Nicaea, 1000 of which were from the East and 800 from the West, though the actual number of attendees was likely between 250 and 318.  Driven by his desire for unity, upon the heels of his victory and ascension to absolute power in 323 AD, Constantine met in 325 with the bishops, Eusebius and Athanasius (archdeacon) among them, in a little commercial town called Nicaea to settle the Arian controversy.  The decisions, dogma and canon, of this council is recorded for us in the Nicene Creed.

In the next post, we’ll look at the results of the Council of Nicaea, specifically the Nicene Creed, the impacts it had on the notion of a universal church, and then conclude with a brief look at the Council of Constantinople 381.

In this Series:

Needham, Nick.  Two Thousand Years of Christ’s Power: The Age of the Early Church Fathers, Part 1. London: Grace Publication Trust, 2011.

Schaff, Philip.  History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600. Available online here: https://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc3.html


Reviving the Doctrine of Church Studies


It’s been a few months since we visited our ongoing study regarding the form and function of church.  We left off with an introduction to the universal concept of church as defined by the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646.  Recall that generally speaking, the doctrine of the universal church finds chief support in Matthew 16:18 as compared with Matthew 18:17, though as we’ll soon see, whether rightly or wrongly some other verses are brought into the mix for support as well.

Additionally, in that last post, we looked at three key issues which have been the source of debate and disagreement regarding the nature of a universal church theory.  They were:

  1. The theory of the universal church conflates the concept of the people of God (church) with the concept of ekklesia (gathering), the New Testamen Greek word that is translated as church in our English bibles..
  2. The theory of the universal church, at its core, asserts too much continuity between Israel and the Church.
  3. The theory of the universal church is rooted in equating the church with the kingdom of God and the church with the family of God.

We left that post with anticipation of a historical look at this theory’s development and to hopefully determine whether any of these objections have merit.  That is where we find ourselves today, reviving our studies on the doctrine of the church.

In order to accomplish this historical review, we’ll lean heavily on the overview provided in the Systematic Theology of Louis Berkhof who provides a succinct history on the doctrine of the church.  I’ll be quoting him extensively as a solid, well-respected, point of reference, but ultimately to show how some of the conclusions we may reach are not unique, but have at least been mentioned in times past.  It of course does not mean that by citing him that we necessarily have come to agreement with his conclusions.  Generally speaking, Berkhof’s conclusions are typical of the Reformed tradition.

By way of continuing our review, in order to resume our series here, and as an introduction to Berkhof, we will follow his outline beginning with a well thought out introduction to the meaning and use of ekklesia in the New Testament (Old Testament as well).  For an expanded study, our post on this issue may be found here: What is an Ekklesia?

Berkhof writes,

“The New Testament also has two words derived from the Septuagint, namely, ekklesia, from ek and kaleo, “to call out,” and sunagoge, from sun and ago, meaning “to come or to bring together.”  The latter is used exclusively to denote either the religious gatherings of the Jew or the buildings in which they assembled for public worship, Matt. 4:23; Acts 13:43; Rev. 2:9; 3:9.  The term ekklesia, however, generally designates the Church of the New Testament, though in a few places it denotes common civil assemblies.” Pg. 555-556

As in our study, Berkof points out the two significant terms in the New Testament which find their roots in the Greek Old Testament (Septuagint), sunagoge (synagogue) and ekklesia, which as we’ve mentioned is translated into English as church.  After doubting the validity of deriving the meaning of ekklesia from the compound of ek and kaleo, Berkhof adds,

“Deissmann (1866-1937, German Protestant) would simply render ekklesia as ‘the (convened) assembly,’ regarding God as the convener.  Because the idea of the Church is a many-sided concept, it is quite natural that the word ekklesia, as applied to it, does not always have exactly the same connotation.  Jesus was the first one to use the word in the New Testament, and He applied it to the company that gathered about Him, Matt. 16:18, recognized Him publicly as their Lord, and accepted the principles of the Kingdom of God.  It was the ekklesia of the Messiah, the true Israel.  Later on, as a result of the extension of the Church, the word acquitted various significations.  Local churches were established everywhere, and were also called ekklesiai, since they were manifestations of the one universal Church of Christ.”

Here we may observe a few noteworthy points, namely the recognition that ekklesia refers to the “convened assembly” and that Christ’s use of ekklesia, from Matthew 16:18, alluded to those who were “convened” or gathered around Him.  That’s an important point that is often neglected and may aid to ones understanding of whether Matthew 16:18 is a universal church reference or not.  Remember that this particular verse is often championed as evidence of universal church, i.e. that Christ’s use of ekklesia here necessarily implies that He is talking about the whole community of God’s people.  Contrary to this, Berkhof is describing it as the actual fellowship of those around Him, beginning with the twelve.

After this, Berkhof begins his descriptions of these various uses or connotations of ekklesia in the New Testament, the first of which he discusses is the most frequent usage.  According to him the most frequently used meaning of ekklesia “designates a circle of believers in some definite locality, a local church, irrespective of the question of whether these believers are or are not assembled for worship.”  Here, Berkhof concludes that an ekklesia may be an ekklesia, even if they are not actually gathered together.  Additionally, he concludes that regardless of whether they are gathered or not, geographic location is still a determinant factor.  He then lists several passages as examples for gathered and ungathered, which I’ve included below.[1] This of course brings up an interesting point of discussion, which we’ll take up another time, namely, is a church a church when it is not gathered.

The second use of ekklesia in the New Testament, he concludes, sometimes “denotes what may be called a domestic ekklesia, the church in the house of some individual,” citing instances of this word in Rom. 16:23; I Cor. 16:19; Col. 4:15, and Philemon 2.  Along a similar line, Berkhof notes that at least once, Acts. 9:31, the word is used in the singular to denote a collection of churches from Judea, Galilee, and Samaria.  This usage is a debated passage and as he points out, “this does not yet mean that they together constituted an organization such as we now call a denomination.”

His final two uses, again by way of review for our own study here, are critical towards understanding the issue at hand, namely whether it is accurate to speak of an universal church, and if so, what exactly this should refer to.  He states, “in a more general sense the word serves to denote the whole body throughout the world, of those who outwardly profess Christ and organize for the purposes of worship, under the guidance of appointed officers.”  With some hesitancy, Berkhof suggests this is found in 1 Cor. 10:32; 11:22; 12:28 and possibly the intention for the use of ekklesia in Ephesians.  Interestingly, he doesn’t cite Matthew 16:18 as so many do, so we’ll need to examine these additional references if we’re to find evidence of a universal theory of church.  Finally, he states that the word in its “most comprehensive meaning signifies the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been or shall be spiritually united to Christ as their Savior.”  He cites some examples that I’ve listed below.[2]

Wit this point, let’s recall the actual meaning of the word under discussion here, namely ekklesia, which refers to a gathering and note too the most frequent usage cited above.  Would it therefore be proper or accurate to refer to the whole body of the faithful, whether in heaven or on earth, or whether or not they have been united to Christ or not (saved) as the ekklesia, i.e. church?

Summarizing then these uses of ekklesia in the New Testament, at least according to Louis Berkof, we have the following

  1. A convened assembly with God as Covener.
  2. First used by Christ in Matthew 16:18 – a reference to those convened about Him.
  3. A circle of believers in a definite geographic location.
  4. May or may not be gathered together (for worship), meaning that they may be called a church whether they are physically present together.
  5. Ekklesia in the New Testament often referred to a gathering in a particular house of an individual.
  6. Ekklesia may generally refer to the collected body of believers throughout the world.
  7. The most comprehensive meaning of ekklesia refers to the whole body of believers, whether in heaven or on earth, who have been united to Christ.

After giving an overview of how the meaning of the English word “church” was transferred to the use of ekklesia, which we looked at earlier in this post, Berkhof overviews other scriptural concepts that refer to the people of God (i.e. Body of Christ, Temple of the Holy Spirit, New Jerusalem/Jerusalem above, Pillar and ground of the truth) and then opens up his section on The Doctrine of the Church in History.  Here is where we will pick up in the next post for the purpose of understanding how this concept of the universal church has developed in history.

In the meantime, you can get caught up on this series here:

[1]Assembled: Acts 5:11; 11:26; 1 Cor. 11:18; 14:19,28,35; Not assembled: Rom. 16:4; 1 Cor. 16:1; Gal. 1:2; 1 Thess. 2:14

[2]Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 32; Col. 1:18,24

The Motivation of Luther


In our first post on the Reformation, in this broader series on church history, we simply introduced the Reformation with a few general thoughts on how some of the events surrounding this historical occasion have been subjected to tradition.  Here, we’ll discuss Luther’s 95 Theses as well as some correspondence surrounding the event to gain additional insight into his motivation.

When articulating Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses, we often hear his motivation presented as a desire to uphold “justification by faith alone” or sola fide.  However, it should be noted that Luther posted his theses, intended for academic debate only by the way, in 1517, while his doctrine of justification likely evolved and developed from at least that time (possibly a year or two earlier) until its full gestation around 1531 when he formally taught Galatians and penned its commentary.  Despite this, it’s probable that for Luther, “justification by faith alone” became part of his vernacular in 1519, two years after posting his theses, and the year which he taught the Psalms for the second time.  At the very least, it was likely this year that Luther became a Christian, at least as he describes in his own words.

Additionally, as we look to Luther’s own 95 theses, we would find them to largely espouse Roman Catholic doctrine and not, as we may have been led to believe, a protestation against her doctrine, instead upholding it.  Regarding the theses, Phillip Schaff writes, “They sound very strange to a modern ear [1858], and are more Catholic than Protestant.  They are no protest against the Pope and the Roman Church, or any of her doctrines, not even against indulgences, but only against their abuse.  They expressly condemn those who speak against indulgences (Th. 71), and assume that the Pope himself would rather see St. Peter’s Church in ashes that have it built with the flesh and blood of his sheep (Th. 50).  They imply belief in purgatory.  They nowhere mention Tetzel.  They are silent about faith and justification, which already formed the marrow of Luther’s theology and piety.  He wished to be moderate, and had not the most distant idea of a separation from the mother church. “  Citing Luther’s own comments on the republication of these theses in his collected works, Schaff writes, “I allow them to stand, that by them it may appear how weak I was, and in what a fluctuating state of mind, when I began this business.  I was then a monk and a mad papist, and so submersed in the dogmas of the Pope that I would have readily murdered any person who denied obedience to the Pope.” (Vol. 7, pg. 157)

Luther’s first correspondences regarding these 95 Theses was to the Elector, Archbishop Albert of Hohenzollern (Brandenburg; Mayence/Mainz) on October 31, 1517, the same day he posted his theses, where he decries the selling of indulgences without the Electors knowledge and consent.  The excerpt below summarizes the situation well.

“With your Electoral Highness’s consent, the Papal Indulgence for the rebuilding of St. Peter’s in Rome is being carried through the land. I do not complain so much of the loud cry of the preacher of Indulgences, which I have not heard, but regret the false meaning, which the simple folk attach to it, the poor souls believing that when they have purchased such letters they have secured their salvation, also, that the moment the money tingles in the box souls are delivered from purgatory, and that all sins will be forgiven through a letter of Indulgence, even that of reviling the blessed Mother of God, were any one blasphemous enough to do so. And, lastly, that through these Indulgences the man is freed from all penalties ! Ah, dear God ! Thus are those souls which have been committed to your care, dear father, being led in the paths of death, and for them you will be required to render an account. For the merits of no bishop can secure the salvation of the souls entrusted to him which is not always assured through the grace of God, the apostle admonishing us ” to work out our own salvation with fear and trembling,” and, that the way which leads to life is so narrow, that the Lord, through the prophets Amos and Zechariah, likens those who attain to eternal life to brands plucked from the burning, and above all, the Lord points to the difficulty of redemption. There fore, I could be silent no longer.”

As mentioned earlier, this letter affirms the motivation of Luther in calling out those who were preaching the sale of indulgences for salvation from purgatory as being out of step with the dogma of the Roman Catholic Church.  He therefore was not protesting against the RCC, but was appealing to her in order to correct these perceived deficiencies. Boiling down Luther’s focus, essentially he was shining a light on greed and corruption of the Roman Catholic Church and it was this, the love of money, not a disagreement over the pure doctrine of Scripture or even the inconsistent application of Rome’s corrupt doctrine, that would warrant such a strong response from the Pope.

He concludes his letter above, which accompanied a copy of his 95 Theses, with these words

“What else can I do, right reverend father, than beg your Serene Highness carefully to look into this matter, and do away with this little book of instructions, and command those preachers to adopt another style of preaching, else another may arise and refute them, by writing another book in answer to the previous one, to the confusion of your Serene Highness, the very idea of which alarms me greatly. I hope that your Serene Highness may graciously deign to accept the faithful service which your insignificant servant, with true devotion, would render you. The Lord keep you to all eternity. Amen. Wittenberg, the night before All Saints’ Day 1517.

If agreeable to your Grace, perhaps you would glance at my enclosed theses, that you may see the opinion on the Indulgences is a very varied one, while those who proclaim them fancy they cannot be disputed. Your unworthy son, Martin Luther”

This letter isn’t earth-shattering, but it does go along way in showing that Luther wasn’t initially acting as a revolutionary, nor was he acting in isolation from his superiors, rather he was appealing to the hierarchy of the Catholic Church to bring resolution to the errant ways of the indulgence preachers.  Remember that Luther posted these theses for academic debate.  The problem was that not one single professor or academic responded to the challenge.  For Luther, the real reformation, namely an internal one, was yet to come.  However, the match that the Lord would use to ignite the reformation had been nailed to the door.

Soli Deo Gloria.