Tag Archives: Universal Church

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part IX

In our overview and historical review concerning the doctrinal development of the “universal church,” we’ve arrived at a defining moment in the history of Christendom where all of the concepts and early beliefs coalesce to form the first official statement of universality.  As we left off in the last post, the Council of Nicaea was convened by Emperor Constantine, in 325 AD.  While the primary aim was to confront the spread of Arianism, a teaching that denied the deity of Christ, the production of the Nicene Creed would be a major step towards defining and defending the universal nature of the church.  Recall that latitude and grace must be given to those in the first few centuries after our Lord’s resurrection and ascension for their desire to uphold and maintain unity in the face of persecution and legitimate, widespread heresies.  However, as we’ll see and as history teaches, this would have disastrous consequences.

The Council of Nicaea, at its core, was convened by Constantine to champion unity in the face of ever-increasing division, particularly doctrinally, but we must not forget the moral divisions that had and were taking place as well, which were at the root of the Donatist Controversy.  Hoping to bring resolution to a far greater and more serious threat involving Arianism, which we defined last time, the the Council, and its subsequent results, are a bit of a mixed bag.  As Philip Schaff notes, “the council was divided in the beginning into three parties,” the orthodox party, those who held to the deity of Christ, the Arians, those who denied the deity of Christ, and the majority, who took a middle ground between the two but leaned more towards the orthodox.

As the Council concluded, essentially a series of debates and discussions, Needham writes that Hosius of Cordova, a western bishop and Constantine’s court adviser on church matters, “convinced Constantine that the bishops should accept a statement of faith which clearly taught that the Son was not a created being, but was eternal and divine.” (pg. 204)  The first to propose a creed were the Arians, which was rejected and ripped up causing 16 of the 18 signers to abandon the heresy of Arian.  Eusebius, the historian, proposed an existing creed, the Palestinian Confession, which had been approved by Constantine and agreed upon by the “Arian minority”, but their agreement caused suspicion among the orthodox party who wanted a creed that the Arians could not substantially agree to sign.  Finally, a confession was drafted to establish the deity of Christ which became known as the Nicene Creed.  It (in English) is below with the Anti-Arian statements highlighted in bold

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, begotten of the Father [the only-begotten; that is, of the essence of the Father, God of God,] Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father;
By whom all things were made [both in heaven and on earth];
Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down and was incarnate and was made man;
He suffered, and the third day he rose again, ascended into heaven;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.
And in the Holy Ghost.

Essentially, this creed stated that the Son was homoousios, or the same essence, as the Father.  In other words that they had the same nature and being.  Just as the Father was eternal and uncreated, so too was the Son.  Attached to this dogma was an anathema aimed towards the Arians, which declared them to be enemies of Christianity and that their books should be burned.  The anathema was as follows

“As for those who say, There was a time when He [the Logos] was not; and, He was not before He was created; and, He was created out of nothing, or out of another essense or thing; and, the Son of God is created, or changeable, or can alter – the holy, catholic and apostolic Church anathematizes those who say such things.”

It’s Important to observe that for the first time in history a statement on the unity of the catholic or universal church had been written and agreed to by the representative bishops and the presiding Constantine, giving power and authority to the state to enforce and act against all those who dissented.**  All but two of Arius’ supporters (as alluded to earlier) signed the creed leaving Arius himself, Secundus of Ptolemais and Theonas of Marmarica sent into exile by the order of Constantine.  As Schaff significantly notes, “This is the first example of the civil punishment of heresy; and it is the beginning of a long succession of civil persecutions for all departures from the Catholic faith.  Before the union of church and state ecclesiastical excommunication was the extreme penalty.  Now banishment and afterwards even death, because all offences against the church were regarded as at the same time crimes against the state and civil society.” (pg. 630)

As an aside, it’s significant to point out that the original Nicene Creed, cited above, is not what is commonly rehearsed today.  Rather, the modern “Nicene Creed” is actually the Creed of Constantinople, which was a product of the ecumenical Council of Constantinople, 381.  The two are similar, yet perhaps a significant difference is the addition of the “one, holy, apostolic, catholic, church” added as an article of faith in the latter creed and not simply a statement of authority over anathema.

The Nicene Creed stands alongside the Apostle’s Creed in historical significance.  By summarizing the Council of Nicea in promoting the deity of Christ, while rejecting Arianiasm in the form of a creed, the early doctrine of the universal church now, rather than being implied, could instead be enforced.  Rather than being a general principle, it is now codified.  There is a new standard which must be agreed and adhered to, or one is found to be in opposition of the “universal church,” which by the way was presided over by the emperor.  Let’s pause to consider this for just a moment.  Is it right and just to summarize the doctrine of Christ’s deity and make it a/the standard of unity?  Perhaps, but remember we are at a period in history of moral declension, nominal Christianity, and the rise of Christendom.  Adhering to a confession says little about the condition of the heart.  It could simply mean that one adheres to the Creed to avoid being killed.  In a sense it is a man-made law enforcing the gospel.  Does it then follow that the universal church as it was being built upon the episcopate, having become largely nominal, and referring entirely to a visible institution, now convened under the direction and leadership of the Roman emperor, may deem itself to be the unified ‘holy, catholic, apostolic church’ capable of not simply excommunicating heretics and apostates, but wielding the sword exiling and executing all those in opposition?  Surely nothing could go wrong with that.

Philip Schaff summarizes the Council of Nicaea as follows

The council of Nicaea is the most important event of the fourth century, and its bloodless intellectual victory over a dangerous error is of far greater consequence to the progress of true civilization, than all the bloody victories of Constantine and his successors. It forms an epoch in the history of doctrine, summing up the results of all previous discussions on the deity of Christ and the incarnation, and at the same time regulating the further development of the Catholic orthodoxy for centuries. (pg. 631)

Upon conclusion of the Nicene Council, one would think that unity had been achieved and the doctrine of Arianism defeated once and for all.  However that was not the case.  After Nicaea, Arianism was condemned as a heresy, but soon after regained widespread acceptance throughout the empire through the efforts of Eusebius of Nicomedia (not to be confused the historian Eusebius of Caesarea) under the support of Constantius in the East, one of Constantine’s sons among whom the empire was divided (Constans in the West).  In 328, just 3 years after the Council and Creed of Nicaea, Eusebius was able to get Constantine to recall Arius from exile, though his influence was now minimal and his life would soon end drastically (336 A.D.).  Nevertheless, Eusebius pressed Arianism forward and “started a campaign to have supporters of the Creed of Nicaea deposed and exiled.  He achieved his greatest success in 335, when he persuaded Constantine to banish Athanasius for political reasons.” (pg. 211)  As Needham notes, this is the first of 5 times that Athanasius, the great champion of the deity of Christ, would be exiled, spending 17 of his 45 years as bishop of Alexandria in exile.

Just 3 years after the decision at Nicaea, the “universal church” waffled and fell back into Arianism.  Then, just over 10 years later, Arianism was dominating and now had the sword in their hand.  This is the kind of inconsistency one could come to expect when

  1. The empire, or state, is involved in matters of faith and
  2. When monolithic unity is assumed or even falsely created and
  3. When representatives make decisions for the whole.

Simply put, the church, if we can even use that term at this point, is not to be unequally yoked, with the state or any other institution.  It is always an unholy alliance and always leads to disastrous consequences.  Finally, it should give us pause to reconsider what it means to be unified, along with what are visible alliances are based on, and the biblical basis for institutionalized Christianity.

That said, the Arian controversy would continue to deteriorate and divide an already fractured catholic church.  At the death of Constantine, in 337, the empire was divided between East and West with Constantius in the former and Constans in the latter.  The East was pro-Arian, but still had those who supported Nicaea, as well as those who supported Origen, who believed the Son was not created, but an inferior divine being.  This view was summarized as homoiousious, the slight change of one letter (i) and a big change in meaning.

In the midst of this, Julius I, who some historians consider to be the pope, reviewed the exile of Athanasius and the charges against him ruling that it was unjust.  As a result, a council was called at Antioch in 341 by Eastern bishops who rejected not only Julius’ ruling, but Rome’s right to rule in the matter, further adding fuel to a unhealed split that would be centuries in the making.  It was at this council that they formulated their aforementioned homoiousious doctrine.  All of this contributed to a full-scale schism between East and West.  Constantine’s two sons attempted to reconcile this brooding division by calling an ecumenical council at Sardica in 343.  Needham notes that the council was a complete disaster, “The Western bishops insisted that Athanasius and Marcellus [another Nicene bishop] must be allowed to take part.  The Eastern bishops refused.  And so the council broke up into two separate councils, Eastern and Western, which hurled curses at each other.  The East-West split had become total. ” (pg. 212) Though the situation would calm down some in 346 with the reinstatement of Athanasius, in 350, General Magnentius murdered Constans (West).  In 353 Constantius, the Arian sympethizer from the East, defeated Magnentius to unify the Empire and once again reignite the Arian controversy.

In the next post, we’ll wrap up councils and creeds by looking at the Council of Constantinople.  We’ll see how a reunification of the catholic or universal church paved the way out of the Patristic Period and into the Middle Ages.



**There is some debate about whether the Apostle’s Creed, which refers to the “holy catholic church” was written prior to the Nicene Creed.  While that is debatable, the history of the Nicaea seems more sure.

Nick Needham, 2000 Years of Christ’s Power, Part One: The Age of the Early Church Fathers. Grace Publications: 2011

Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Vol. 3: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity A.D. 311-500. Hendrickson: 2006

The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part VIII

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

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

Historian Philip Schaff comments on the importance of these councils

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In this Series:

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

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


The Historical Development of the Universal Church Theory – Part IV


[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.]


Without question, the third and fourth centuries are among the most important time periods in church history.  Arguably, this period is even more pivotal than the 16th and 17th centuries.  The reason for this is that these early centuries mark a major transition from the New Testament, apostolic ‘church’ to the more institutional, state-sponsored church.  In our first three posts in this series, we have traced these early developments, but we arrive now at a pivotal juncture.  

Before moving on to an overview of our third and final dissenting group, the Donatists, their Controversy, and its significance, we must introduce an important concept that had rumblings in the second century but reached maturation in the fourth century at the height of the Donatist movement. This concept is known as sacralism and its influence on the universal church spread rapidly and is still being felt today, 1600 years later.

Briefly, sacralism refers to a blending of society and religion.  Generally, it links religion with geography and ethnicity.  So, those who are born in a specific location, amongst a specific people, by default assume their religion.  Leonard Verduin, in his extremely helpful, but ostracized work The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, fleshes out this idea of sacralism. He writes

“For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean a society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed.”

Verduin then gives the example of Old Testament Babylon. In this example, we may recall that Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (Hebrew names Hanania, Mishael, and Azaria) were required to worship Babylonian idols or face the consequences of the sword, which for Daniel was the lion’s den and for the three was the fiery furnace. Those handing down the consequences we might today call the state or government, but since there was an intertwining with religion, indistinguishably so, Babylon is better termed, sacral. Additionally, in a similar way, Old Testament Israel was likewise sacral. The distinction between our examples of Babylon and Israel is that while the former was pagan, the latter was a Theocracy. All those living under its banner were expected to worship the One, True, and Living God, otherwise they would face excommunication and sometimes death. The king, as it was idyllic under David, essentially functioned as mediator between God and the people, though certainly this duty in worship was assigned formally to the Levitical priesthood.  That OT Israel was sacralist, does not make it bad or wrong, since it was God ordained for a specific people, in a specific place, at a specific time.  Additionally, remember as you read through 1 and 2 Kings that as the king went, so went the people. He was often to blame for leading the people into idolatry.

In the New Testament, with the arrival of Christ and the establishment of Christianity, this idea of sacralism was imploded from within. Christianity was not meant to create a monolithic society (at least not in this age), as with the examples of Babylon and Old Testament Israel, rather it creates a composite society, meaning that believers in Ephesus or Corinth could remain believers there and not be assimilated into the society of believers say in Rome or Colossae. In fact, it is Christianity’s diversity, while simultaneously maintaining its unity through a relationship to Christ, that makes it unique (see Rev. 5).

Again turning to Verduin

“It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one.”

Let that sink in for a minute, as it has ramifications into the 21st century, not merely the 4th. He goes on,

Wherever the Gospel is preached human society becomes composite; hence, since culture is the name given to the total spiritual heritage of an entire people, there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent. The New Testament vision does not pit a ‘Christian culture’ against a non-Christian culture rather does it introduce a leaven into any existing culture into which it insinuates itself, a leaven whereby that already existing culture is then affected.”

(Consider this when you hear that Christianity is losing the culture war)

The Roman Empire was entirely sacralist, sanctioning paganism as the official state religion.  As seen in the New Testament, first century Judaism did not mix with this sacralism, but stood apostate from it. As long as they lived peacefully under the emperor, they were free to continue their own worship (Acts 19), which should bring to mind the Jewish War of 66-70 AD, in which the Temple was destroyed. 

As it pertains to Christianity, remember that Christ was perceived to be the King that would overthrow the Roman government and lead a revolution, thus His followers were likewise viewed as revolutionaries who might refuse to submit to the Emperor. They were in fact those who “turned the whole world upside down” Acts 17:6, but not through political means. They understood our Lord’s statement, “My kingdom is not of this world.” John 18:36 Despite this, Christians were still seen as a threat and received the blame for everything that went wrong in Rome resulting in an unrelenting and brutal assault on them from Emperor’s Nero to Diocletian.

As with the earlier Babylonian sacralism, so too with the Roman Empire as again we see the darkside of sacralism, i.e. the ability and willingness to punish those individuals or groups who diverge from the government sanctioned and administered religion. Rome’s persecution of Christians was clearly a byproduct of sacralism.

However, it has oft been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed bed of the church. The martyrdom of Christians did not serve to suppress its growth. Just the opposite. It grew substantially faster than did the empire which had tried to kill it off.  The explosion of Christianity was seen in contrast to the decline of the Roman Empire.

Unfortunately, in the second century, whispers to assimilate Christianity into the sacral society of Rome were already beginning. Verduin points out that Meliton, bishop of Sardis in 175 A.D., declared in the ear of the emperor that he needed a quid pro quo relationship with the Christian God, “Only when Christianity is protected…does the Empire continue to preserve its size and splendor.” Verduin also cites a similar sentiment in Origen, 250 A.D., “If now the entire Roman empire should unite in the adoration of the true God, then the Lord would fight for her, she being still [the reference is to Exodus 14:14]; then she would slay more enemies than Moses did in his day.” (Verduin, pg. 30) Basically, this was the prosperity gospel on a massive, political scale.

Though persecution still continued, the general tenor against Christianity began slowly to shift towards using it for political gain. In other words, if you want a successful, lasting, empire simply claim allegiance to God, even if it is an external, superficial adherence. This at least provides some context to our statement earlier often attributed to Tertullian, “What hath the emperor to do with the church?”  He would have much more to say, particularly on the incipient notion of sacralism, “Nothing could be more alien to us than the state.  We Christians know of only one state, of which we are called citizens: the universe.”

In the next post, we’ll examine the emperor who arguably had more involvement with the church than any emperor before or after, Constantine.  It would be, either from him or his influence, that ‘Christian sacralism’ would take shape and further impact the development of the universal church.