Monday, July 30, 2007

Salvation Obscured in the Early Church

In the second century, Marcion, the Gnostic, was teaching that the Old Testament god who gave the law was evil, while the New Testament God who gave the gospel was good. This dualism was condemned by Tertullian who criticized Marcion for separating law and gospel. Pelikan records:

"Marcion’s ‘special and principal work,’ was ‘the separation of the law and the gospel’; his special and fundamental religious conviction was a single minded dedication to the gospel."

In response to the Gnostic heresy, subsequent generations of Christians considered the gospel to be a new law and were reluctant to distinguish between law and gospel for fear of being accused of the Marcionite heresy. Unfortunately, the commingling of law and gospel is what led the early church to misunderstand the meaning of salvation. The distinction between the law and promises in Romans and Galatians is essential to understanding Paul's doctrine of justification by faith alone apart from works.

For Justin Martyr, Ireneaeus, and Athanasius, the understanding of salvation was synergistic. This was due to the fact that the prevailing thought of the culture was determinism. Pelikan writes:

"Ovid represented Jupiter as acknowledging to the other gods that both he and they were ruled by the fates. But in the period of the empire this consciousness of fate grew even more dominant, as the Stoic doctrine of necessity coincided with the incursion of the Chaldean astrologers. ‘Reason compels us to admit,’ Cicero asserted, ‘that all things take place by fate….namely, the order and series of causes.’ Stoicism identified fate with the divine will, but in the process had to surrender the freedom of the human will."

Stoicism and other deterministic ideas in the culture caused the early church fathers to emphasize the freedom of the will and moral responsibility. It was not until the Pelagian heresy that the Western Church through Augustine would have to pay closer attention to her anthropology. Through Augustine and the Council of Orange in 529, the Western Church affirmed salvation was monergisitic by grace alone, while rejecting Augustine’s more extreme doctrines such as double predestination, and the irresistibleness of grace. Rome ratified the canons of the Council and it became the official teaching of Western Christianity. However, with Pope Gregory the Great, the notions of merit and human initiative were re-introduced, and Medieval theology tended to go back and forth between synergism and monergism. Alternately, in the East, Augustine’s thought was opposed by Vincent of Lerins who stated that true Catholicism was what was believed “everywhere, always, by all (ubique, simper, ab omnibus).” Since Augustine’s doctrine of salvation by grace alone was not believed everywhere, always, and by all, Christians were free to disagree with it.

The early church’s ecclesiology was centered on the unity derived from the episcopate. Through the episcopate, the hierarchy of the church preserved unity and stability which initially, did not include the supremacy of the Pope. Pelikan writes:

"For both Ignatius and Cyprian, moreover the bishop was the key to authentic unity, and schism was identified as party spirit in opposition to him….on earth there was only one church, and it was finally inseparable from the sacramental, hierarchical institution."

Concerning the Pope, it was not Leo who furthered the rise of papal primacy in re-defining the church’s ecclesiology. Instead, it was Gregory the Great who “asserted the principle that ‘without the authority and the consent of the apostolic see, none of the matters transacted [by a council] have any binding force.’”

Further, through Gregory the Great, the doctrines of purgatory and the sacrifice of the Mass were given new meaning. On the basis of the Apocrypha which was in usage in North Africa, Augustine asserted that ‘there were temporary punishments after death’ and that it was appropriate to pray that some of the dead be granted remission of sins. On the basis of Augustine, Gregory affirmed the doctrine of purgatory. Pelikan writes, “Such men [in purgatory] were ‘somewhat deficient in perfect righteousness,’ but could be aided by the intercession of the departed saints and of the faithful here on earth.” To this was added the sacrifice of the Mass which was now seen as an offering on behalf of the departed in purgatory. Gregory the Great wrote:

"If guilty deeds are not beyond the absolution even after death, the sacred offering of the saving Victim consistently aids souls even after death, so that the very souls of the departed seem sometimes to yearn for this."

As we can see, doctrinal development occurred in the Church that was not always on the basis of Scripture. In addition, not everything confessed by the Roman Catholic Church today was confessed by the early church.

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