Tag Archives: Cyprian

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VII

[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.]

The Donatist Controversy, born out of the Diocletian persecution (305 A.D.) raged on from 311 to around 361 A.D., a period marked with ebbs and flows of violence from both sides and forced submission of the Donatists to the newly minted church-state.  By 361, the catholics considered the debate beneath them, resulting in largely a peaceful coexistence.  For thirty-plus years, this controversy laid relatively dormant.

In 393, interest in the Donatists was renewed by one of the most prominent and significant theologians in history, Augustine.  From here until 411, Augustine stirred back up opposition to the Donatists and sought, first their reconciliation but later their coercion to the catholic church.  It is properly at the feet of Augustine where one may find the early formulation of Roman Catholic ecclesiology as well as what would become Protestantism.  It’s with him that our discussion of the universal church theory in the early centuries reaches its apex.

Regarding Augustine’s position on ecclesiology, Louis Berkhof states he “was not altogether consistent in his conception of the Church.”   This inconsistency reverberates to this day and is partly the motivation behind this entire series of posts on the historical development of the universal church theory. This  confusion of Augustine’s is fleshed out more clearly in the following summary from Berkhof

“On the one hand he shows himself to be the predestinarian, who conceives of the Church as the company of the elect, the communio sanctorum, who have the Spirit of God and are therefore characterized by true love.  The important thing is to be a living member of the Church so conceived, and not to belong to it in a merely external sense.  But on the other hand he is the Church-man, who adheres to the Cypranic idea of the Church at least in its general aspects.  The true Church is the catholic Church, in which the apostolic authority is continued by episcopal succession.  It is the depository of divine grace, which it distributes through the sacraments.  For the present this Church is a mixed body, in which good and evil members have a place.  In his debate with the Donatists he admitted, however, that the two were not in the Church in the same sense.  He also prepared the way for the Roman Catholic identification of the Church and the Kingdom of God.”

With Augustine, we find two competing positions on the nature of the church.  First, the church is the communion of the saints, comprised of the elect, those who have been regenerated by the Spirit, and those of internal membership, not external.  To which the dissenting groups that we have discussed in previous posts might give a hearty ‘amen!’

On other hand, as Berkhof notes, Augustine is a product of Cyprianic thought and remains consistent with the view espoused of the day where church refers to a catholic, external, institution which is led and ruled by the episcopate.  It is not merely comprised of the elect, nor is it merely a communion of the saints, but is a mixed body, good and evil, wheat and tares, sheep and goats.  Is it any wonder then that both Protestants and Roman Catholics stake a claim to him?  Augustine is often claimed by the former for his soteriology, but by the latter for his ecclesiology.

From 393-405 A.D., Augustine waged a war of preaching and propaganda against the Donatists.  In the former, he labored for reform amongst the loose and lax catholics that had come to mar the purity of the church.  In the latter, he sought those bishops who had been removed for disciplinary reasons.  Logically, appealing to the marginalized and outcast is generally the path for garnering public support.  But make no mistake, Augustine preached, verbally and in written form, with conviction.

In 405, Augustine’s war against the Donatists took the form of ‘governmental suppression’.  It was in this year that the Edict of Unity was passed which labeled the Donatists as heretics, a label that would last in perpituity as well as making them subject to heresy laws, which resulted in essentially their disbanding.  Again, the work of Christian sacralism.  This period is also marked by Augustine’s well known theory of coercion, “compel them to come in” taken from Luke 14:23, “And the master said to the servant, ‘Go out to the highways and hedges and compel people to come in, that my house may be filled.”  In a letter to Vicentious he writes

I have therefore yielded to the evidence afforded by these instances which my colleagues have laid before me. For originally my opinion was, that no one should be coerced into the unity of Christ, that we must act only by words, fight only by arguments, and prevail by force of reason, lest we should have those whom we knew as avowed heretics feigning themselves to be Catholics. But this opinion of mine was overcome not by the words of those who controverted it, but by the conclusive instances to which they could point.

The Donatist Controversy came to an end in 411, nearly 100 years after it began.  The catholic Emperor called for a comparison of the two sides, a collatio, over which a catholic, Marcellinus, presided.  Not surprisingly, the catholic side prevailed.  In 412, taxes and heavy fines were levied against all those who failed to join the catholic church, again the power and leverage of Christian sacralism at work.

With Augustine, his own confusion and lack of clarity with regard to the church is clearly one that has been perpetuated throughout history.  Remember that our 17th Century Westminster Confession definition of the universal church was both visible and invisible, extending to the elect of all ages.  This dichotomy is rooted in Augustine’s ecclesiology, though he had yet to fully make the distinction between visible and invisible.  In fact, Augustine’s assertion of the church as the elect or communio sanctorum would largely fade away for nearly a thousand years.

In the Patristic Period, the universal church exclusively referred to a visible, external, and headed by the bishop, church.  I’ve found no evidence among the historians to conclude otherwise.  It excommunicated those who disagreed and marginalized those who dissented.  Once it married the state, it then coerced with physical force, tariffs, and later physical death.

As noted, until Augustine, the doctrine of the universal church had been largely focused on an external, visible entity with the bishop at its head.  As such, they were able to concentrate on unity, as a catholic church, against “heresies”.  Augustine, perhaps recognizing the inconsistency with this position, also recognizes that the “church” is comprised of the elect.  His difficulty comes when making a defense against the Donatists where he puts forth the teaching of the church as a mixed community.

This mixed community, for Augustine, finds its source in Matthew 13 with the parable of the weeds.

24 He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, 25 but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat and went away. 26 So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared also. 27 And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have weeds?’ 28 He said to them, ‘An enemy has done this.’ So the servants said to him, ‘Then do you want us to go and gather them?’ 29 But he said, ‘No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them. 30 Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, “Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”

Our Lord provides the interpretation for this parable

36 Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples came to him, saying, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field.” 37 He answered, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man. 38 The field is the world, and the good seed is the sons of the kingdom. The weeds are the sons of the evil one, 39 and the enemy who sowed them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. 40 Just as the weeds are gathered and burned with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, 42 and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

Excerpts from Augustine’s interpretation are as follows:

You will easily understand, beloved brethren, the hidden meaning of this Gospel, when you remember what we said about some other words of Holy Scripture comparing the just and the wicked in the Church of God to the wheat and the cockle. By this figure we are taught that the threshing-floor is not to be left before the time of the harvest, that the cockle may not be taken away without being separated from the wheat; for the floor would be deprived of its due, and the wheat thus taken off could not be preserved in the barn.

and

But they [Donatists] will, perhaps, say, in order to excuse their errors and justify their conduct, that the Sacred Books were once handed over to the pagans by some Christians afraid of torments and tortures. But since these Christians being unknown, cannot be discovered, now this one and then another is accused of that crime. Yet, whatever may be the truth about these Christians, I ask whether their infidelity has destroyed the Faith which comes from God? Is it not the same Faith that God once promised Abraham, saying that all nations should be blessed in his seed? And what are we taught by this Faith? To let both, that is, the good seed and the cockle, the just and the wicked, grow up in the field of the Church, namely, the world, until the time of the harvest, the end of the world.

and again from Chapter 9 in the City of God

But while the devil is bound, the saints reign with Christ during the same thousand years, understood in the same way, that is, of the time of His first coming.  For, leaving out of account that kingdom concerning which He shall say in the end, “Come, ye blessed of my Father, take possession of the kingdom prepared for you,” the Church could not now be called His kingdom or the kingdom of heaven unless His saints were even now reigning with Him, though in another and far different way; for to His saints He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the world.”  Certainly it is in this present time that the scribe well instructed in the kingdom of God, and of whom we have already spoken, brings forth from his treasure things new and old.  And from the Church those reapers shall gather out the tares which He suffered to grow with the wheat till the harvest, as He explains in the words “The harvest is the end of the world; and the reapers are the angels.  As therefore the tares are gathered together and burned with fire, so shall it be in the end of the world.  The Son of man shall send His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all offenses.”  Can He mean out of that kingdom in which are no offenses?  Then it must be out of His present kingdom, the Church, that they are gathered.

…Therefore the Church even now is the kingdom of Christ, and the kingdom of heaven.

It is plain from the sermon above, that Augustine conflated the church with the world, thereby concluding that the church = the field in the parable from Matthew 13.  From his words in the City of God, this reveals a deeper hermeneutical error in which he equated the kingdom with the church.  This interpretation remained largely intact throughout the medieval period, lending itself to the development of the Roman Catholic Church, until the Reformation of the 16th Century and later where it clearly influenced the Westminster Confession articles on the nature of the church.

The Patristic doctrine of the universal church was clearly in reference to an external, visible, and institutional church, which later joined hands with the state.  This nature of the church reached its apex in the teaching of Augustine, who did not oppose the historical teaching, i.e. from Cyprian, but instead upheld it finding exegetical proofs in Matthew 13, et.al.  This interpretation allowed him to understand and explain why the universal church was so morally bankrupt and equipped him to defend against the arguments of the Donatists.

Unfortunately, his interpretation of the field as the church, rather than the world, undercuts this entire notion of a universal church as it had come to be expressed by the apostolic fathers, from approximately 100-451 A.D.

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VI

 

[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.]

The post below is a a little longer than the others in this series.

In our last post from this series we looked at the development of “Christian sacralism” through the influence of Emperor Constantine.  We also saw its effects upon the growth and expansion of the so-called universal church and how it’s evolution, essentially its institutional unity and episcopal leadership, were instrumental for the arrival of Constantinianism, or the marriage of Church with State.  A marriage that resulted formally in Christendom, or nominal Christianity.  This was a union that would not be easily broken and continues to bear bad fruit to this day.

One particular area of rottenness was the influx of immorality into the universal or catholic church, a byproduct of Christian sacralism.  This increasing lack of discipline, which existed in the centuries prior, as we’ve seen, increased exponentially with the merger with the State, but interestingly its influence occurred in two opposite directions.  Historian Phillip Schaff points out that the first influence “increased the stringency of discipline and led to a penal code for spiritual offences.”  Essentially this resulted in an enactment of civil punishment on all those who would oppose Christendom, which would lead to the death penalty for heretics and wars against infidels.  Second, “with an increasing stringency against heretics, firmness against practical errors diminished.  Hatred of heresy and laxity of morals, zeal for purity of doctrine and indifference to purity of life, which ought to exclude each other, do really often stand in union.”  Basically the 4th Century suffered from the same errors of Jehu (2 Kings 9-10), that of zeal against the idolatrous all the while harboring golden calves within their own hearts.  This is the height of hypocrisy, but its to be expected when the emphasis shifts towards an institutional, external, now state-sponsored church, if we can even use that term anymore and still retain the biblical meaning of ekklesia. (as an aside, all of this is not to take away from the genuine believers, and there were many, who loved the Lord and sought personal holiness)

Turning to Schaff again, he eloquently states the primary issue, “In that mighty revolution under Constantine the church lost her virginity, and allied herself with the mass of heathendom, which had not yet experienced an inward change.” (pg. 357)  Again, as we’ve asked in previous posts from this series, can this usage of “church” with the adjective universal rightly describe and define the “church”, or more accurately the ekklesia, that Christ died for?

No.

In this post, we want to look again at a schism, or movement in opposition from the catholic church.  Recall that in Part III of this series we introduced two of these prominent movements, Montanism and Novatianism, that opposed the universal or catholic church and her episcopacy.  Once again, we’ll turn to Berkhof for a review on the climate of schisms

The early Church Fathers, in combating these sectaries, emphasized ever increasingly the episcopal institution of the Church.  Cyprian has the distinction of being the first to develop fully the doctrine of the episcopal Church.  He regarded the bishops as the real successors of the apostles and ascribed to them a priestly character in virtue of their sacrificial work.  They together formed a college, called the episcopate, which as such constituted the unity of the Church.  The unity of the Church was thus based on the unity of the bishops.  They who do not subject themselves to the bishop forfeit the fellowship of the Church and also their salvation, since there is no salvation outside of the Church.

To reiterate, the universality or catholicity of the church was rooted in the episcopate, or office of bishops.  As we’ve seen with various movements opposed to the universal church they sometimes occurred because of doctrine, but most often because of practice, i.e. a laxity in morality.  Any movement of opposition or dissidence against the catholic church and especially her bishops was a forfeiture of salvation, because, “outside the church there is no salvation.”

This, however, created a major problem.  What to do with those apostates who wanted back in, the lapsed, and what to do with those who were baptized outside of the catholic church who wanted to join, the heretics?  This debate was not new and not easily settled.  In the third century, Cyprian held the position that those who were baptized outside the catholic church were invalid and therefore not allowed in without rebaptism.  He was opposed by Stephen (who the Roman Catholic Church view as one in the successive line of popes), who took the position that a baptism outside the catholic church was valid.  These debates concerning discipline and baptism ultimately led a system of penitence, which of course becomes an issue again with the Reformation. 

Fast forward a century and we arrive at another schism from the catholic church, one that again revolved around this issue of discipline and more specifically who was in/out of the universal, catholic church.  This third group, the Donatists, were arguably the most significant and garnered the most opposition.  Historian Philipp Schaff introduces this critical schism

Donatism was by far the most important schism in the church of the period before us (311-590).  For a whole century it divided North African chuchces into two hostile camps.  Like the schisms of the former period (100-325), it arose from the conflict of the more rigid and the more indulgent theories of discipline in reference to the restoration of the lapsed.  But through the intervention of the Christianized state, it assumed at the same time an ecclesiastical-political character.  The rigoristic penitential discipline had been represented in the previous period especially by the Montanists and Novatians, who were still living; while the milder principle and practice had found its most powerful support in the Roman church, and, since the time of Constantine, had generally prevailed. (Vol. III pg. 360)

The Donatists were born out of the bloodied soil of martyrdom that arose from the persecution of Diocletian.  The Donatist Schism officially began after the 311 Edict of Toleration, but finds its roots in 305 at the height of the Diocletian Persecution. Historian N.R. Needham provides a succinct overview of the movement’s beginnings

“The last great persecution under Diocletian had left the Church in North-West Africa bitterly divided.  Large Numbers of Christians refused to recognise the new bishop of Carthage, Caecilian (appointed in 311), because one of the bishops who ordained him had allegedly handed over the Bible to be burnt during Diocletian’s persecution.  The result was a split: two rival Churches came into being, each claiming to be the true Catholic Church in North-West Africa.  One Church was led by Caecilian, the other by a rival bishop called Donatus (died 355).  The followers of Donatus were called ‘Donatists’.

Basically, during the persecution from Diocletian, bishops were specifically targeted, many were killed, but some, perhaps out of self-preservation, handed over the Scriptures or denied the faith altogether.  Those who did were called traditores, i.e. traitors.  These traditors sought restoration back to their position of bishop by means of penance once the persecution had ended.  One of these restored bishops was responsible for the ordination of another bishop, Caecilian, and it was that ordination, along with any subsequent baptisms administered by him, that was called into question.  At some point, we will need to address what baptism actually meant in the early church, but that place is probably not in this series.

The problem, from the Donatist perspective, was that an apostate should not be allowed restoration, especially to the position of bishop.  All sacraments administered downstream of this bishop would therefore be invalid.  This belief was similar to the earlier response from Cyprian mentioned above because of the emphasis on the worthiness of the one administering the baptism.

In modern terms, imagine if a pastor apostatized the faith but later repented.  Should he be restored to his position of pastor?  If so, should he then be allowed to administer baptism and the Lord’s Supper?  Would those baptisms be considered valid?

Because Donatism has often been labeled a heresy and because the summation of the movement has been about the one particular incident, then the stand they made might seem like much ado about nothing.  But at its heart was much more than whether one particular bishop who had denied the faith was qualified to ordain another bishop and subsequently whether that bishop could perform baptisms.  More than this, a debate was forming over the nature of the church, i.e. who was in and who was out, as well as whether holiness can rightly define membership.

Schaff summarizes,

“The Donatist controversy was a conflict between separatism and catholicism; between ecclesiastical purism and ecclesiastical eclecticism; between the idea of the church as an exclusive community of regenerate saints and the idea of the church as the general Christendom of state and people.  It revolved around the doctrine of the essence of the Christian church, and, in particular, of the predicate of holiness.” Vol III pg. 365

In 316, Constantine ordered the exile of all Donatists and the confiscation of their buildings, displaying the early effects of the newly installed Christian sacralism.  When these efforts at reconciling the Donatists with the catholic church failed, Constantine reversed his order in 321.

If you’ve followed along with this series up to this point, you may be asking whether this discussion of the universal church even matters.  For the Donatists, it did.  They were willing to die for the nature of the church.  This wasn’t and isn’t simply a matter of semantics, it was and is a matter of holiness.  It was and is about who can rightly be called the children of God.  It was and is about how the people of God embrace the pilgrim mindset as they live in this world.  Was the Donatist argument flawed?  Maybe, but the debate that lasted for over a century was revealing.  Simply put, the ongoing debate was due to a faulty conception of a universal/catholic church.

To get to the crux of this issue, it’s necessary to quote Phillip Schaff at length

“The Donatists, like Tertullian in his Montanistic writings, started from an ideal and spiritualistic conception of the church as a fellowship of saints, which in a sinful world could only be imperfectly realized. They laid chief stress on the predicate of the subjective holiness or personal worthiness of the several members, and made the catholicity of the church and the efficacy of the sacraments dependent upon that. The true church, therefore, is not so much a school of holiness, as a society of those who are already holy; or at least of those who appear so; for that there are hypocrites not even the Donatists could deny, and as little could they in earnest claim infallibility in their own discernment of men. By the toleration of those who are openly sinful, the church loses, her holiness, and ceases to be church. Unholy priests are incapable of administering sacraments; for how can regeneration proceed from the unregenerate, holiness from the unholy? No one can give what he does not himself possess. He who would receive faith from a faithless man, receives not faith but guilt.  It was on this ground, in fact, that they rejected the election of Caecilian: that he had been ordained bishop by an unworthy person. On this ground they refused to recognize the Catholic baptism as baptism at all. On this point they had some support in Cyprian, who likewise rejected the validity of heretical baptism, though not from the separatist, but from the catholic point of view, and who came into collision, upon this question, with Stephen of Rome.

Hence, like the Montanists and Novatians, they insisted on rigorous church discipline, and demanded the excommunication of all unworthy members, especially of such as had denied their faith or given up the Holy Scriptures under persecution. They resisted, moreover, all interference of the civil power in church affairs; though they themselves at first had solicited the help of Constantine. In the great imperial church, embracing the people in a mass, they saw a secularized Babylon, against which they set themselves off, in separatistic arrogance, as the only true and pure church. In support of their views, they appealed to the passages of the Old Testament, which speak of the external holiness of the people of God, and to the procedure of Paul with respect to the fornicator at Corinth.”

The questions that revolved around the Dontatist interpretation and application of Cyprian would remain, and the controversy would rage on for decades, until the arrival of Augustine, who would take up the banner of the catholic church and seek to silence the Donatist dissenters.  History remembers Augustine as the clear “winner” of this debate, as his works have survived and been a great influence, while the Dontatists have faded away.  But was he right?  We’ll examine his rebuttal in the next post.

The three “sects” that we’ve looked at up to this point, Novatianism, Montanism, and their culmination in Donatism, stand as sign posts for those who would challenge the authoritarian, institutional catholic church.  Additionally, they are evidence that orthodox believers, whether in sects or as separatists via schism, existed outside of what called itself the “universal church”.  Historically, all three have been referred to as heresies.  A heresy, rightly defined, is a belief that goes against Scripture.  Unfortunately, most of these early sects were called heresies because they went against the beliefs of the church while attempting to uphold Scripture.  You can almost hear the arguments forming for who holds the supreme authority, the church or the Scriptures? Sola Ecclesia or Sola Scriptura.

This isn’t to say of course that each of these movements were wholesale biblical, but neither were they wholesale heretical.  What they were, were early attempts to reform the church and conform her more to the image of the New Testament church.  They were begun by people who were not afraid to step outside of an external, institutional and eventually state-sponsored church.  Unfortunately, because of excesses in the movements, often tangential, they are largely viewed as heretical sects, but as we’ve seen and will ultimately conclude, this is a problematic and extremely slippery slope.

 

 

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)