[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.]