[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.