Tag Archives: Is there a universal church?

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part III

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

 

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

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

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

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

Berkhof places his finger on the pulse of these emerging dissenters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So much for an accurate history of the Novatians.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory- Part II

 

[On Thursdays, beginning March 8, 2018, I will publish a series of posts on The Historical Development of the Universal Church.  I began addressing this at an introductory level last year (see index tab) and with nearly a full year of thoughtful reflection, I’ve prepared a series that will overview this important, yet oft-misunderstood doctrine.  It will not appeal to everyone and may not interest anyone, but for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, at least, I want to publish them here.  Hopefully they will be instructive and thought-provoking.  The majority of them have already been written, so as not to interfere with regular posts.]

Part 1

If we are to properly understand the development of the universal church theory, then we must understand the foundation from which it sprang, namely the formation of the office of bishop, collectively called the episcopate.  According to church historian Philipp Schaff

“The most important and also the most difficult phenomenon of our period (AD 100-325) in the department of church organization is the rise and development of the episcopate as distinct from the presbyterate.” (Vol. 2 pg. 133)

Though I believe it can be shown that the presbyterate was itself a modification of the New Testament model, nevertheless it is clear that the episcopate shifted into a position of primacy during the 2nd Century.  Schaff continues his overview of this development by pointing out that it was driven by

“the need of a tangible outward representation and centralization, to illustrate and embody to the people their relation to Christ and to God, and the visible unity of the church.  It is therefore inseparable from the catholic principle of authority and mediation.”

The episcopate was a divergence from the New Testament supernatural, organic expression of the gathering of God’s people towards a more formal, rigid, and institutional organization whereby the bishops assumed authority and mediated God to the people.  While discussing the validity and evolution of the episcopacy is outside the scope of this overview, we will summarize its key proponents and then conclude with a word about its impact on the historical development of the universal church.

The first seeds of this development of church governance can be traced to Ignatius (AD 35-107), who interestingly is the also the source for the first recorded use of the term catholic church, linking the two together from their source.  With Ignatius, specifically in his epistles, we find him proposing, “earnest exhortations to obey the bishop and maintain the unity of the church against the Judaistic and docetic heresies.”  Additionally, Schaff comments on these developments from Ignatius, “The human bishop is the centre of unity for the single congregation, and stands in it as the vicar of Christ and even of God.  The people, therefore, should unconditionally, obey him, and do nothing without his will.  Blessed are they who are one with the bishop, as the church is one with Christ, and Christ with the Father, so that all harmonizes in unity.  Apostasy from the bishop is apostasy from Christ, who acts in and through the bishops as his organs.” (Vol. 2, pg. 146)

In his own words, Ignatius writes, “Let all of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ [follows] the Father; and the presbytery as ye would the apostles; and reverence the deacons as the ordinance of God.  Without the bishop let no one do anything connected with the church.  Let that Eucharist be accounted valid which is [offered] under the bishop or by one he has appointed.  Wherever the bishop is found, there let the people be; as wherever Christ is, there is the catholic church.  Without the bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to celebrate the love-feast.”

It is significant that in our examination of the promise of Christ’s dwelling with the gathering of His people (Matthew 18:20), we see no mention of a bishop, pastor, or any other “office”.  Nevertheless, in the previous two quotes, we see that Ignatius’ doctrine of the episcopate establishes the bishop as the rule and authority of a congregation, who in turn should obey him unquestionably.  Ignatius intertwines the bishop with the unity of the church, faithfulness with obedience to the bishop, and apostasy from the bishop as equivalent to apostasy from Christ.  Primarily, Ignatius is establishing the bishop as the vicar, or earthly representative of Christ.  This is the basis for the Roman Catholic papal (pope) system.  Clearly then, any person or group that would dissent from the bishop, either on the basis of doctrinal or moral grounds, would be immediately banished and labeled an apostate, or worse…a heretic.  As Schaff notes, this essentially makes salvation dependent upon obedience to the bishop.

Can any passage of Scripture be used to support this position?  No.  Clearly then, with the “early church fathers” we already find a departure, at least as it relates to ecclesiology, from the New Testament pattern. This is worth keeping in mind as we continue through this series.

One final note on Ignatius, it’s in his writings that we find the requirement of celibacy within the episcopate, “the ascetic system of Catholicism starts in celibacy, as the hierarchical organization of Catholicism takes its rise in episcopacy.” (Vol. 2, pg. 147) For opposition to this, see 1 Timothy 4:3

Next we turn to Irenaeus (AD 125-202) and Tertullian (AD 155-240), whose doctrine of the episcopate is less developed than that of Ignatius.  With Irenaeus we see two key movements, namely the episcopate as a continuation of the apostolate (apostolic succession, which clearly smells of Roman Catholicism) and the assertion of doctrinal unity in opposition to heresies.  While initially embracing the episcopate, in Tertullian we see a departure from supporting the episcopate with his embrace of Montanism (more on this later) as he asserted that the church does not consist of bishops, but instead is comprised of a priesthood of all believers.

The foremost proponent of the episcopate during this period was Cyprian (200-258).  By far the major advancement of the episcopate, along with Ignatius’ early doctrine of the catholic or universal church, is found in the writings of Cyprian, who, as Schaff notes, is the “typical high-churchman of the Ante-Nicene age.” (Vol. 2, pg. 150)  The key summary statement from Cyprian is, “The bishop is in the church, and the church in the bishop, and if any one is not with the bishop he is not in the church.”  This, as with Ignatius, equates Christianity with obedience and submission to the bishop.  It’s important to note that Cyprian provides the clearest expression of the papacy in its infancy, beginning with the superiority of Peter and advancing the idea of apostolic succession that appeared in earlier writers*.

In closing our overview of the episcopate as the pillar of the universal church, we have a summary from historian Philipp Schaff

“We cannot therefore assume any strict uniformity [in the early episcopate].  But the whole church spirit of the age tended towards centralization; it everywhere felt a demand for compact, solid unity; and this inward bent, amidst the surrounding dangers of persecution and heresy, carried the church irresistibly towards the episcopate.  In so critical and stormy a time, the principle, union is strength, division is weakness, prevailed over all.  In fact, the existence of the church at that period may be said to have depended in a great measure on the preservation and promotion of unity, and that in an outward, tangible form, suited to the existing grade of culture.  Such a unity was offered in the bishop, who held a monarchial, or more properly patriarchal relation to the congregation.

In the bishop was found the visible representative of Christ, the great Head of the whole church.  In the bishop, therefore, all sentiments of piety found a centre.  In the bishop the whole religious posture of the people towards God and towards Christ had its outward support and guide.” (Vol. 2, pg. 142-143)

The universal church theory was built on the foundational establishment of the episcopate.  If the latter is proved to be unbiblical and a departure from the New Testament, what does that say about the former?

In our next post, we’ll examine how this newly formed episcopate and universal church dealt with dissenters from three movements that separated from the bishops and the people of the universal church, primarily due to a lack of holiness.

 

  • Update 4/6/18 – I’m going to hold off on this assertion for now.  I should’ve noted that although Cyprian’s thoughts were later interpreted to support the papal concept, his own beliefs were that a single bishop should not have more authority than any other bishop.  Essentially he favored an equality of bishops, which would therefore undermine the papacy.  The confusion arises over his interpretation of Peter’s role as the rock in Matthew 16, it sounds pro-Papal, but in practice he held a different view.

 

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part 1

 

[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.]

 

Recently we looked at the inception of a gathering of God’s people and saw that where two or three, at minimum, are gathered together in the name of Christ, He has promised to be among them.  This small gathering outlines the parameters for what is commonly called church.  We left that post with the question of whether this definition of a minimal gathering could or ever has been rightly applied to a universal concept of church.  While it’s been several months since we broached the discussion of our modern conception of church and its development, today we return to the issue of the origin of the universal church theory.

It’s not uncommon in Christian parlance to hear mention of the universal church (and relatedly the visible/invisible distinction), after all the term shows up in some of the most frequently quoted creeds and confessions such as the Apostle’s, Nicene, and Westminster, as we’ve seen introduced and defined in A Universal Theory of the Church (more on this later).

In that post, we saw that a traditional definition was, “The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that fills all in all.” ** As we recall this definition and begin our series here, it will become evident how the early conception of the universal church and this post-Reformation definition differ drastically.  Also, it will be important to remember the definition of ekklesia, an assembly or gathering, which is translated into English as church.

Finally, in previous posts we have seen that the Scriptures overwhelming apply this term ekklesia (church) to a local gathering.  Before proceeding, we must ask can either the meaning or use of ekklesia or the aforementioned promise of Christ’s presence in that gathering, ever be applied to all believers from all time, past, present, and future?

The answer clearly is no.

There has never been a time when all believers have been gathered together, nor has there ever been a time when Christ has dwelt in the midst of a universal gathering.  Using this universal language also does an injustice to future believers as well, meaning, despite the definition from the Westminster Confession, we cannot logically refer to a universal church occurring in the present if it has yet to be gathered or has members who are yet to be saved.  On this basis, and others that we will see, it is far more appropriate to refer to an Eschatological Church, rather than a Universal Church.  More on this later in the series.

Moving from that introduction to a personal note, when I was first exposed to Reformed theology, I simply took the use of universal and invisible church as fact, without bothering to look at their origins or biblical bases.  I remember clearly making this distinction to a youth group I was pastoring, simply on the basis of what I had read in Reformed literature.  What happened in my case, and in the case of so many others, is that we read or hear of these terms, see their association with Reformed theology, and simply assume they are correct.  We then search for passages of Scripture to support their meaning.  That is the height of eisegesis, or reading meaning into a passage, and it is an improper way to learn or practice theology.

Before looking at individual passages of Scripture that have been used to argue for the existence of the universal and invisible church, we turn our attention, historically, to understanding the development of the universal term first, from the period known as the Patristic Period, sometimes called the Ante-Nicene (before Nicaea) Period.  This generally refers to the time after the apostles through those called the apostolic fathers until roughly the time of Augustine (approximately 100 – 451 A.D.).  This period of history is crucial for understanding the origin of many forms and functions for what has become known as church, not the least of which was the development of this universal concept of the church.

Turning again to Louis Berkhof, our helpful guide for over-viewing church history, we read that during this period,

“the Church began to be conceived as an external institution, ruled by a bishop as a direct successor of the apostles, and in possession of the true tradition.  The catholicity of the Church was rather strongly emphasized.  Local churches were not regarded as so many separate units, but simply as parts of the one universal Church.”

Immediately one can recognize the early seeds of the Episcopal form of government and feel early rumblings for the development of the Roman Catholic Church.  Also, here in this brief description we find that this period marked a shift from the Scriptural focus on the local church, to a more broad focus on the universal church.  Finally, notice that this inception of a universal church referred to an external church, meaning a visible, tangible church, with a bishop as its head.  This is distinctly different than the universal, invisible focus mentioned in the Westminster Confession above.

These developments were a product of the time and culture.

The overwhelming desire, and the perceived necessity, was to establish church unity, beginning at the head with an episcopate (group of bishops) and extending to the body with the catholic or universal church.  One of the chief purposes for this was to stem the rising tide of various so-called heresies, though certainly the local and widespread persecution was also a factor.  On the one hand, this was noble attempt to remain steadfast and combat errors.  On the other hand, it was an overreaction with catastrophic results.  One final introductory note, in addition to a desire for unity, visible leadership, and external organization, there was an increasing desire for an association of the church with the state, a term called sacralism, which we’ll flesh out later in this series.

In the next post, we’ll turn our attention to the episcopate, which is critical to the development of this early universal church doctrine.

[**Edit 3/8/2018: While there is certainly a difference that takes place between the early definition of universal, and visibile, church and the definition cited above from the Westminster Confession, the confession also defines the visible church, which I should’ve included.  Here is the paragraph from the Westminster Confession:

The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion; and of their children: and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.

We will flesh out these distinctions later in the series.]