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:


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Christian saved by grace through faith.


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