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§ 53. The Catholic Unity.


J. A. Möhler (R.C.): Die Einheit der Kirche oder das Princip des Katholicismus. Tübingen 1825. Full of Catholic enthusiasm for the unity of the church.

R. Rothe: Die Anfänge der christl. Kirche. Wittenb. 1837 (pp. 553–711). A Protestant counterpart of Möhler’s book.

Huther.: Cyprian’s Lehre von der Einheit der Kirche. Hamb. 1839.

J. W. Nevin: Cyprian; four articles in the "Mercersburg Review," 1852. Comp. Varien’s strictures on these articles in the same "Review" for 1853, p. 555 sqq.

Joh. Peters (Ultramontane): Die Lehre des heil. Cyprianvon der Einheit der Kirche gegenüber den beiden Schismen in Carthago und Rom. Luxemb. 1870.

Jos. H. Reinkens (Old Cath. Bishop): Die Lehre des heil. Cyprianvon der Einheit er Kirche. Würzburg, 1873.

Comp. also Hartel’s ed. of Cyprian’s Opera (3 Parts, Vienna, 1868–’71), and the monographs on Cyprian by Rettberg (1831), Peters (1877), Fechtrup (1878), and O. Ritschl (1883).


On the basis of Paul’s idea of the unity, holiness, and universality of the church, as the mystical body of Christ; hand in hand with the episcopal system of government; in the form of fact rather than of dogma; and in perpetual conflict with heathen persecution from without, and heretical and schismatic tendencies within—arose the idea and the institution of: "the Holy Catholic Church," as the Apostles’ Creed has it;232232    The Church of England retained the term "catholic" in the Creed, and the, ante-papal and anti-papal use of this; term (=general, universal); while Luther in his Catechism, and the Moravian church (in her liturgy) substituted the word "Christian," and surrendered the use of "catholic" to the Roman Catholics. "Roman" is a sectarian term (in opposition to Greek Catholic and Evangelical Catholic).32 or, in the fuller language of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan, "the One Holy Catholic Apostolic Church." In both the oecumenical symbols, as even in the more indefinite creeds of the second and third centuries, on which those symbols are based, the church appears as an article of faith,233233    Credo ecclesiam; yet not in (εἰς) ecclesiam, as in the case of the Divine persons33 presupposing and necessarily, following faith in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and as a holy fellowship,234234    Communio sanctorum. This clause, however, is not found in the original Creed of the Roman church before the fifth century.34 within which the various benefits of grace, from the forgiveness of sins to the life everlasting, are enjoyed.

Nor is any distinction made here between a visible and an invisible church. All catholic antiquity thought of none but the actual, historical church, and without hesitation applied to this, while yet in the eyes of the world a small persecuted sect, those four predicates of unity, holiness, universality, and apostolicity, to which were afterwards added exclusiveness infallibility and indestructibility. There sometimes occur, indeed, particularly in the Novatian schism, hints of the incongruity between the empirical reality and the ideal conception of the church; and this incongruity became still more palpable, in regard to the predicate of holiness, after the abatement of the spiritual elevation of the apostolic age, the cessation of persecution, and the decay of discipline. But the unworthiness of individual members and the external servant-form of the church were not allowed to mislead as to the general objective character, which belonged to her in virtue of her union with her glorious heavenly Head.

The fathers of our period all saw in the church, though with different degrees of clearness, a divine, supernatural order of things, in a certain sense the continuation of the life of Christ on earth, the temple of the Holy Spirit, the sole repository of the powers of divine life, the possessor and interpreter of the Holy Scriptures, the mother of all the faithful. She is holy because she is separated from the service of the profane world, is animated by the Holy Spirit, forms her members to holiness, and exercises strict discipline. She is catholic, that is (according to the precise sense of ὃλος, which denotes not so much numerical totality as wholeness), complete, and alone true, in distinction from all parties and sects. Catholicity, strictly taken, includes the three marks of universality, unity, and exclusiveness, and is an essential property of the church as the body and organ of Christ, who is, in fact, the only Redeemer for all men. Equally inseparable from her is the predicate of apostolicity, that is, the historical continuity or unbroken succession, which reaches back through the bishops to the apostles, from the apostles to Christ, and from Christ to God. In the view of the fathers, every theoretical departure from this empirical, tangible, catholic church is heresy, that is, arbitrary, subjective, ever changing human opinion; every practical departure, all disobedience to her rulers is schism, or dismemberment of the body of Christ; either is rebellion against divine authority, and a heinous, if not the most heinous, sin. No heresy can reach the conception of the church, or rightly claim any one of her predicates; it forms at best a sect or party, and consequently falls within the province and the fate of human and perishing things, while the church is divine and indestructible.

This is without doubt the view of the ante-Nicene fathers, even of the speculative and spiritualistic Alexandrians. The most important personages in the development of the doctrine concerning the church are, again, Ignatius, Irenaeus, and Cyprian. Their whole doctrine of the episcopate is intimately connected with their doctrine of the catholic unity, and determined by it. For the episcopate is of value in their eyes only, is the indispensable means of maintaining and promoting this unity: while they are compelled to regard the bishops of heretics and schismatics as rebels and antichrists.

1. In the Epistles of Ignatius the unity of the church, in the form and through the medium of the episcopate, is the fundamental thought and the leading topic of exhortation. The author calls himself a man prepared for union.235235    ἄθρωπον εἰς ἔνωσιν κατηρτισμένον.35 He also is the first to use the term "catholic" in the ecclesiastical sense, when he says:236236    Ad Smyrn. c. 8.36 "Where Christ Jesus is, there is the catholic church;" that is, the closely united and full totality of his people. Only in her, according to his view, can we eat the bread of God; he, who follows a schismatic, inherits not the kingdom of God.237237    ·Ad Ephes. c. 5. Ad Trall. c.7. Ad Philad. c. 3, etc37

We meet similar views, although not so clearly and strongly stated, in the Roman Clement’s First Epistle to the Corinthians, in the letter of the church of Smyrna on the martyrdom of Polycarp, and in the Shepherd of Hermas.

2 Irenaeus speaks much more at large respecting the church. He calls her the haven of rescue, the way of salvation, the entrance to life, the paradise in this world, of whose trees, to wit, the holy Scriptures, we may eat, excepting the tree of knowledge of good and evil, which he takes as a type of heresy. The church is inseparable from the Holy Spirit; it is his home, and indeed his only dwelling-place on earth. "Where the church is," says he, putting the church first, in the genuine catholic spirit, "there is the Spirit of God, and where the Spirit of God is there is all grace."238238    Adv. Haer. iii. 24."Ubi ecclesia ibi et Spiritus Dei, et ubi Spiritus Dei, illic et omnis gratia." Protestantism would say, conversely, putting the Spirit first: "Ubi Spiritus Dei, ibi ecclesia et omnis gratia."38 Only on the bosom of the church, continues he, can we be nursed to life. To her must we flee, to be made partakers of the Holy Spirit; separation from her is separation from the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Heretics, in his view, are enemies of the truth and sons of Satan, and will be swallowed up by hell, like the company of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram. Characteristic in this respect is the well-known legend, which he relates, about the meeting of the apostle John with the Gnostic Cerinthus, and of Polycarp with Marcion, the "first-born of Satan."

3. Tertullian is the first to make that comparison of the church with Noah’s ark, which has since become classical in Roman catholic theology; and he likewise attributes heresies to the devil, without any qualification. But as to schism, he was himself guilty of it since he joined the Montanists and bitterly opposed the Catholics in questions of discipline. He has therefore no place in the Roman Catholic list of the patres, but simply of the scriptores ecclesiae.

4. Even Clement of Alexandria, and Origen, with all their spiritualistic and idealizing turn of mind, are no exception here. The latter, in the words: "Out of the church no man can be saved,"239239    Hom. 3 in Josuam, c. 5. "Extra hanc domum, id est extra ecclesiam, nemo salvatur."39 brings out the principle of the catholic exclusiveness as unequivocally as Cyprian. Yet we find in him, together with very severe judgments of heretics, mild and tolerant expressions also; and he even supposes, on the ground of Rom. 2:6 sqq., that in the future life honest Jews and heathens will attain a suitable reward, a low grade of blessedness, though not the "life everlasting" in the proper sense. In a later age he was himself condemned as a heretic.

Of other Greek divines of the third century, Methodius in particular, an opponent of Origen, takes high views of the church, and in his Symposion poetically describes it as "the garden of God in the beauty of eternal spring, shining in the richest splendor of immortalizing fruits and flowers;" as the virginal, unspotted, ever young and beautiful royal bride of the divine Logos.

5. Finally, Cyprian, in his Epistles, and most of all in his classical tract: De Unitate Eccelesiae, written in the year 251, amidst the distractions of the Novatian schism, and not without an intermixture of hierarchical pride and party spirit, has most distinctly and most forcibly developed the old catholic doctrine of the church, her unity, universality, and exclusiveness. He is the typical champion of visible, tangible church unity, and would have made a better pope than any pope before Leo I.; yet after all he was anti-papal and anti-Roman when he differed from the pope. Augustin felt this inconsistency, and thought that he had wiped it out by the blood of his martyrdom. But he never gave any sign of repentance. His views are briefly as follows:

The Catholic church was founded from the first by Christ on St. Peter alone, that, with all the equality of power among the apostles, unity might still be kept prominent as essential to her being. She has ever since remained one, in unbroken episcopal succession; as there is only one sun, though his rays are everywhere diffused. Try once to separate the ray from the sun; the unity of the light allows no division. Break the branch from the tree; it can produce no fruit. Cut off the brook from the fountain; it dries up. Out of this empirical orthodox church, episcopally organized and centralized in Rome, Cyprian can imagine no Christianity at all;240240    "Christianus non est, qui in Christi ecclesia non est."40 not only among the Gnostics and other radical heretics, but even among the Novatians, who varied from the Catholics in no essential point of doctrine, and only elected an opposition bishop in the interest of their rigorous penitential discipline. Whoever separates himself from the catholic church is a foreigner, a profane person, an enemy, condemns himself, and must be shunned. No one can have God for his father, who has not the church for his mother.241241    "Habere non potest Deum patrem, qui ecclesiam non habet matrem."41 As well might one out of the ark of Noah have escaped the flood, as one out of the church be saved;242242    "Extra ecclesia nulla salus." Yet he nowhere says "extra Romanam nulla salus."42 because she alone is the bearer of the Holy Spirit and of all grace.

In the controversy on heretical baptism, Cyprian carried out the principle of exclusiveness even more consistently than the Roman church. For he entirely rejected such baptism, while Stephen held it valid, and thus had to concede, in strict consistency, the possibility of regeneration, and hence of salvation, outside the Catholic church. Here is a point where even the Roman system, generally so consistent, has a loophole of liberality, and practically gives up her theoretical principle of exclusiveness. But in carrying out this principle, even in persistent opposition to the pope, in whom he saw the successor of Peter and the visible centre of unity, Cyprian plainly denied the supremacy of Roman jurisdiction and the existence of an infallible tribunal for the settlement of doctrinal controversies and protested against identifying the church in general with the church of Rome. And if he had the right of such protest in favor of strict exclusiveness, should not the Greek church, and above all the Evangelical, much rather have the right of protest against the Roman exclusiveness, and in favor of a more free and comprehensive conception of the church?

We may freely acknowledge the profound and beautiful truth at the bottom of this old catholic doctrine of the church, and the historical importance of it for that period of persecution, as well as for the great missionary work among the barbarians of the middle ages; but we cannot ignore the fact that the doctrine rested in part on a fallacy, which, in course of time, after the union of the church with the state, or, in other words, with the world, became more and more glaring, and provoked an internal protest of ever-growing force. It blindly identified the spiritual unity of the church with unity of organization, insisted on outward uniformity at the expense of free development, and confounded the faulty empirical church, or a temporary phase of the development of Christianity, with the ideal and eternal kingdom of Christ, which will not be perfect in its manifestation until the glorious second coming of its Head. The Scriptural principle "Out of Christ there is no salvation," was contracted and restricted to the Cyprianic principle: "Out of the (visible) church there is no salvation;" and from this there was only one step to the fundamental error of Romanism: "Out of the Roman Church there is no salvation."

No effort after outward unity could prevent the distinction of all Oriental and Occidental church from showing itself at this early period, in language, customs, and theology;—a distinction which afterwards led to a schism to this day unhealed.

It may well be questioned whether our Lord intended an outward visible unity of the church in the present order of things. He promised that there should be "one flock one shepherd," but not "one fold."243243    John 10:16. It was a characteristic, we may say, an ominous mistake of the Latin Vulgate to render ποίμνη by ovile (confounding it with αὐλή). The Authorized Version has copied the mischievous blunder ("one fold"), but the Revision of 1881 has corrected it.43 There may be one flock, and yet many folds or church organizations. In the sacerdotal prayer, our Lord says not one word about church, bishops or popes, but dwells upon that spiritual unity which reflects the harmony between the eternal Father and the eternal Son. "The true communion of Christian men—’the communion of saints’ upon which all churches are built—is not the common performance of external acts, but a communion of soul with soul and of the soul with Christ. It is a consequence of the nature which God has given us that an external organization should help our communion with one another: it is a consequence both of our twofold nature, and of Christ’s appointment that external acts should help our communion with Him. But subtler, deeper, diviner than anything of which external things can be either the symbol or the bond is that inner reality and essence of union—that interpenetrating community of thought and character—which St. Paul speaks of as the ’unity of the Spirit,’ and which in the sublimest of sublime books, in the most sacred words, is likened to the oneness of the Son with the Father and of the Father with the Son."244244    Hatch, l.c. p. 187 sq.44



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