[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)