Tag Archives: Is there a universal church?

Paneled Houses

 

[This will be a little longer post than normal.  Rather than split it up into parts, I wanted to keep the flow together as I interact with MLJ on a very important, albeit controversial subject.]

Then the word of the Lord came by the hand of Haggai the prophet, “Is it a time for you yourselves to dwell in your paneled houses, while this house lies in ruins? Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways. You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. Haggai 1:3-6

One of the men from whom I have learned from the most is the late Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  His book The Plight of Man and Power of God was my first exposure to his ministry, but helped me to understand the depravity of man and the sovereignty of God.  His sermons on 1 John were an aid not only my own sermon preparation, but a balm to my own soul when I was bridging the gap as an interim youth pastor.  While his book Spiritual Depression helped navigate me out of the darkness that came with being passed over for a full-time pastoral position.  More recently, his lesser known message, Ecclesiola in Ecclesia completely rocked my ecclesiastical world, from which I have yet to recover.  Alongside this, another prominent message, placed into print, has impacted my views on the nature of the church.  It was delivered to the Westminster Assembly at Welwyn on June 19, 1963, later titled “‘Consider Your Ways’: The Outline of a New Strategy” and may be found in the collected works entitled Knowing the Times.  The text for this message has been included above, from Haggai 1:4-5.

After introducing his message, and walking through his reasons for the subject, Lloyd-Jones says, “…our tendency is to say that all is well.  We are in our ‘cieled [paneled] houses’ (Hag. 1:4); everything is all right with me; my church is flourishing; everything is going well; and we tend to forget the conditions that prevail in the greater part of the country.  I am increasingly appalled at this and troubled about it: faithful evangelical people all over the country cannot get fellowship, cannot get spiritual food, and are at their wits’ end as to what is to be done in their areas.  This is a tremendous challenge to us.” (Knowing the Times, pg. 169)

From here, Lloyd-Jones proceeds to decry various evangelical movements and societies which in his day tried to rectify these issues by unifying for various causes.  This leads him to the major question of his message: What is the Nature of the Church?

“In the light of what I have been saying it is obvious that it is the nature of the church which has become the major question and problem.  What is the Christian church?  What is the real nature of the church?  How do you decide that?  We are all agreed in saying that you can only decide the question by the Scripture, but, as I have already hinted, when it comes to the realm of practice and the realm of actual decisions so often we are influenced more by tradition and history than we are by purely biblical exposition.  We are so influenced by the need to maintain the status quo that we start with that rather than with the scriptural teaching.” (KTT pg. 178)

Realizing, with Lloyd-Jones, that this is indeed THE question that needs to be asked and answered, given the current condition of evangelicalism some 55 years after his message, has led me to read, write, and study much regarding how our practice of doing church, whether you call it liturgy or a worship service or something else, has come to be what it is.  Regardless of where we find ourselves on Sunday morning, is there anything that we participate in that looks like or even resembles anything from the New Testament?  As Lloyd-Jones points out, not only in this message but consistently in his ministry, when faced with this question we are guilty of the great error of reading our existing situation back into Scripture, our inherited position as he calls it.

“The argument is that throughout the centuries certain things have happened and developed so that we find ourselves confronted by an existing situation.  That is all right as an actual historical statement but if we make the traditional ‘existing situation’ our starting point, we face a grave danger.” (KTT pg. 178)

Looking to our present circumstances, even looking to history, particularly the post-Reformation era, is simply a blind guide.  The fact is that if we were to take Scripture alone into the Congo jungle, having no prior knowledge of what a church should look like, it would be impossible to produce what it is that we see and experience today.  Therefore we must, as Lloyd-Jones says, return to the New Testament.

After making the case that our churches are given much to the practice of expediency of the times in which we exist, rather than a consistent application from Scripture, he turns to his second great question, “What is a church?”

This is a question that I’ve Iabored long and hard over, fighting through the tendency to answer this question without reading the present situation back into Scripture.  I commend to you the series on ekklesia found in the Doctrinal Index Tab.

The answer, according to Lloyd-Jones, is that the New Testament picture of the church is, “a gathering of people who have been ‘born again’.  It is the association of people who are the body of Christ and member in particular.  It is those who are ‘in Christ’.  That is how the New Testament regards them; that is how it always addresses them.  They meet together, conscious of His presence in the midst, conscious that they are a spiritual society with the Holy Spirit as their companion, as the one who leads them, and the one who inspires them, as the one who has been given to them to lead them into all the truth.” (KTT p. 179)

This definition is a good working definition and a starting point for understanding and defining a church, or better an ekklesia.  Even using Lloyd-Jones’ definition, is it fitting to refer to a universal church?  This becomes one of his closing questions for discussion, “Is there anything spoken of in the New Testament apart from the local church?” (KTT pg. 193)  This isn’t a fringe, Plymouth Brethren, or marginalized Anabaptist asking such questions, this is the good doctor, the revered Martyn Lloyd-Jones.  Again, questions like this from him is why there are 8 posts and Lord willing more to come untangling this misapplication of a universal church (see the Doctrinal Index).

Returning to our question from Lloyd-Jones on what is the church, he brings us to Acts 2:41-47.  We’ll look at this passage in depth another time, but for now conclude with Lloyd-Jones, “Now that is the church.  The people who are being saved, who believe the truth, are conscious of this change in their lives; they have been taken out of the world, and are conscious of a new life and a new outlook, and have the desire to be with others who are the same; and the others gladly receive them.”

Next, Jones asks, “What, then, are the marks of a true church?”  This is naturally the next question.  What should a church look like or how does the ekklesia function when it gathers together.  Of the entire message, this is the only point of Jones’ that I would offer push back on, mainly because the answer to the previous two questions define how this particular question gets answered.  That said, Jones answers the question in accordance with traditional reformed views, The Preaching of the Gospel, The administration of the sacraments, and The administration of discipline are the marks of a church.

Finally, after making some applications of his message thus far to the situations and occurrences of his own day, Lloyd-Jones turns to his conclusion, a series of questions, in which he clearly points out that his goal is not to suggest a blueprint or a solution, only to ask questions and point us back to Scripture as the source of answers.

His first concluding question, which we mentioned earlier, concerns whether or not the New Testament speaks of anything other than the local church (He seems to be arguing against a visible, Catholic church).  Second, Jones says that in our look at history, we must return to the first two centuries.  He cautions that much of our time has been spent concentrating on the third and fourth centuries.  One may argue that this myopic view of history has resulted in a distorted view of the church, for which we are paying the price today.  Jones’ emphasis on the first two centuries is exactly right, and the reason why in our look at the universal church theory, we began with this period in order to see how the catholicity of the church came to be and why.

Third, Jones says that we then need to re-examine the history of Constantine and his supposed conversion.  This occurs in the fourth century, but remember that we must begin in the centuries prior in order to understand the events and circumstances that led to this.  Here is where we begin to find the putrid marriage of church with state.  The Reformers, as much as we may revere and appreciate them, were wrong to limit their views of church vs. state to Augustine and more specifically Constantine.  Jones writes,

“We have to be bold enough, in the light of the New Testament teaching, to query the most honoured names among us.  We have to venture to question and to query Martin Luther and John Calvin.  It would be a pathetic condition if we found ourselves saying that Calvin could never be wrong.  We have to question everybody, not that we think we are perfect – we know we are not – but we recognize that these men were fallible as we are.  We thank God for them; we rever their memories; but we do not believe they were perfect.  And, after all, they were men involved in such a fight and conflict that they could not possibly cover the whole field, and they tended to take certain things over.  To me, one of the tragedies of the Reformation was the way in which Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli tended to take over the notion of the state church.  They did it in different ways, but I think they all did it.” (KTT, page 194)

There is much more that could be said on this enlightening point from Jones, perhaps in a blog post soon, however the take away is that we simply cannot assume the position of the Reformers and adopt that to the twenty-first century.  They were working in a context that was coming out of the authoritarian abuses of the Roman Catholic Church.  Therefore, their audience was largely ignorant and unbelieving.  Why did Calvin preach every single day?  To get the Word of the Lord out to a starved and deprived people.  Unfortunately, as Lloyd-Jones so deftly points out, their position was proverbially out of the frying pan and into the fire.  In order to keep the momentum of the Reformation, avoid utter chaos from growing larger than it already had, and to provide protection against the power from Rome, the first and second generation reformers aligned their movement with the State, maintaining the concept of sacralism.

Not only the first couple generations of Reformers, but this continued into the time of the Puritans as well.  Per Jones,

“they all believed in a state church up to a point.  Their differences were about what form it should take.  We must examine whether they were not all wrong; whether their belief can be justified from the New Testament; and whether they were not guilty of accepting an inherited position.”

Though I genuinely love the Puritans, this indeed was their chief error.  They made some corrections to the positions of Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli, and they fought against the pretentious ‘church’ buildings of the day, but they didn’t go far enough.  What was their reward for maintaining an inherited position and then realizing its error?  The Great Ejection of 1662.  If the redwoods and oaks of the Reformation were guilty of adopting an inherited position, it is sheer arrogance to think that the same thing is not occurring in our day.  Therefore we must, must, return to the New Testament scriptures.

The final two questions that Lloyd-Jones poses are, “when does the church become apostate?” and the exercise of gifts in the church, specifically, “are we giving the members of the church an adequate opportunity to exercise their gifts?  Are our churches corresponding to the life of the New Testament church?  Or is there too much concentration in the hands of ministers and clergy?”  This section is summarized by the following lengthy, but nevertheless profound statement

“When one looks at the New Testament church and contrasts the church today, even our churches, with that church, one is appalled at the difference.  In the New Testament church one sees life and vigour and activity; one sees a living community, conscious of its glory and of its responsibility, with the whole church, as it were, an evangelistic force.  The notion of people belonging to the church in order to come to sit down and fold their arms and listen, with just two or three doing everything, is quite foreign to the New Testament, and it seems to me it is foreign to what has always been the characteristic of the church in times of revival and awakening.” (KTT, pg. 196)

As he concludes his message, Lloyd-Jones dismisses the idea that he has developed a new blueprint for the church, instead he says, “I do think…the time has come when it behooves us, indeed it is our bounden duty – because we are who and what we are and because of the grace of God to us – to face this question, of the nature of the church, together.

We cannot just go on in the position we have inherited, which we have inherited from mid- and post- Victorianism and Edwardianism.  The machine is still running so many of these things, but is it running to any good purpose?  It is for us to call a halt and to stop.” (KTT, pg. 196)

In my experience, I know of no other question that will generate more controversy, more side-eyed glances, more suspicion, than what is the nature of the church?  Assuming the inherited position is not only expected, it is enforced.  In fact some have gone so far as to suggest that one should not even ask this question, for fear of what might be found.  Jones alludes to as much in the conclusion of his message.

What then are we to do?  Simply put, a reexamination of Scripture on the nature – form and function – of the church, or as we have seen in studies here, the ekklesia.  Those in professional, paid, pastoral positions who assume the inherited position and refuse the allowance of others to Scripturally examine the nature of the church commit malpractice.   Those of us who sit amongst the pews and follow the inherited position like lemmings are guilty of a dereliction of duty.  Martyn Lloyd-Jones was not representing a fringe position in his clarion call to return to the New Testament description and teaching of the church.  His message was as relevant 55 years ago as it is now.  We would do well to follow his guidance and head his call.

 

Knowing the Times

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.