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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.