Steven Wedgeworth operates the Wedgewords blog and is the Founder of The Calvinist International website. Last week he wrote a thought-provoking article for the Calvinist International website titled “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church.”
This summer I plan to interact with Wedgeworth’s article in my columns at The Colson Center. However, before doing that I thought it would be helpful to pen some initial responses here in order to solicit some feedback and to give Pastor Wedgeworth an opportunity to correct me in any areas where I may have misunderstood his article.
Anyone who has read Pastor Wedgeworth’s writings will be aware that he has drunk deeply from the wells of Walter Lowrie. This is reflected in Mr. Wedgeworth’s frequent contention that
- There is no patristic theology of the Church, only various theologies.
- The emperors essentially created Orthodoxy by deciding who was “in” and who was “out.” It was only through legislation that the external unity of the Church was preserved.
- The only type of unity that existed was a local unity, to do with getting along with those next to you.
- Even after the Council of Nicea, Arians (people who denied the divinity of Christ) comprised much of the official leadership of the Church.
The last point is crucial, because it suggests that the Arians and other heterodox groups had legitimate standing in the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church, even after being officially condemned by the Council of Nicaea in 325. Instead of allowing the experience and consent of the Church over time to determine, retroactively, what the conceptual boundaries of the Church always were, this narrative places heretical sects on essentially the same footing as Nicene Christianity.
This is exactly the line Mr. Wedgeworth has taken in his recent article “The Myth of the Ecumenical Early Church.” He opens the article by disputing the use of the definite article before early Church. There is no such thing, he argues, as the early Church, and he seems to be uncomfortable referring to “ecumenical councils.” All we have is various churches, rival brands of Christianity competing for power. The only reason Nicene Christianity was considered ecumenical is because it was backed by Emperors.
Mr. Wedgeworth makes a lot out of the fact that the Nicene Creed took a few decades to be widely accepted and that it was only fully solidified through the Second Ecumenical Council at Constantinople (the convocation that produced the present Niceno-Constantinopolitan creed). He seems to treat it as a surprise that the councils sometimes took a long time to be widely recognized and he implies that it is a contested point that there were moments in time where it seemed that all was lost. Perhaps in the circles Wedgeworth moves there is a cardinal misunderstanding about these central facts of Church history, but frankly I have never read a book that presented the type of dehistoricized approach to creedal history that Wedgeworth has set himself up against.
The centerpiece of Wedgeworth’s article is a long list of numerous neo-Arian synods and confessions from the mid 4th century, proving that “the creed of Nicaea was an outsider.” Wedgeworth’s point is that the only type of ecumenical unity that existed was political and that the Emperor was the locus of Christian unity. Of course, many of the Emperors were heretics, so if it were true that the Emperor were the locus of Christian unity, then we must concede that there was never any real true Christian unity to begin with—which, I think, is precisely Pastor Wedgeworth’s point.
One problem with Pastor Wedgeworth’s view is that it is radically individualistic, for no historic Christian group has ever taught that the Emperor was the locus of Christian unity. The early Christians certainly did not think this way about their unity, as even a cursory read of St. Ignatius and St. Irenaeus will demonstrate. Rome teaches that the locus of Christian unity is and has always been the Bishop of Rome (who, by the way, was on the side of St. Athanasius), while the Orthodox Church sees the locus of Christian unity as the Faith itself and, by extension, therefore those bishops and laity who profess the true Orthodox faith at any given point of time. (Notice that the Orthodox Church does not believe Church unity to be located in a single, structural institution, despite the fact that many uninformed Protestants think the Orthodox believe this. The Orthodox Churches are unified in faith and in Eucharistic communion, but each autocephalous Church has its own structure and government.) But no group in the history of Christendom has ever taught that the Emperor was the true locus of Christian unity.
Now this does not, in itself, prove Wedgeworth’s thesis false. However, at a minimum it does suggest a certain strangeness that after nearly two thousand years of Church history we are only now in a position to appreciate the true nature of Christian unity as it existed in the apostolic Church.
Christians knew from earliest times that some separated themselves from the One Church thereby leaving the unity of the One Body of the One Christ. By the fifth century there were already several groups who had so separated — Docetists, Gnostics, Marcionites, Montanists, Arians, Eunomians, Pneumatomachians, Nestorians, Monophysites, Monothelites, etc. None of this disunity in Christendom broke the unity of the One Body of the Incarnate Christ. Nor does it imply that what unity did exist was a pseudo-unity generated by the contrivances of imperial politics.
Does this mean that there was always true ecumenical unity? It depends on what we mean by ecumenical, and part of the problem with Wedgeworth’s article is that he equivocates on this central term. In the early Church (and I employ the definite article unashamedly) the term ecumenical was used to designate an imperially convoked synod. But it is also used to denote a theologically authorized synod binding on the Church. Pastor Wedgeworth only acknowledges the first meaning. But imperial convocation doesn’t make a synod binding on the Church; it just makes imperial officers and those on the imperial payroll obligated to adhere to it. What made councils such as Nicaea and Chalcedon binding on the Church was the fact that they were eventually recognized as being ecumenical in the second sense. That is, they were ecumenical to the degree that they were seen to define the boundaries of the universal, catholic faith/Church handed down by the apostles. Being allergic to ecumenism in this second sense, Pastor Wedgeworth has no difficulty referring to the Arian party as part of “the Church” without qualification.
The surprising ease with which reformed pastors like Wedgeworth (who are ostensibly theologically conservative) can stretch the category of “Church” to cover heretical sects that denied the deity of Christ might form the basis of an interesting sociological study. However, it isn’t really that surprising: should Pastor Wedgeworth acknowledge that the Arians actually constituted a heretical sect outside the boundaries of the apostolic Church, then the early Church begins to look much more unified than he wishes to allow.
With the perspective of the Church as a whole as it has been guided by the Holy Spirit over time, we should be able to look back and see that the Council of Nicaea and the councils which followed it were truly ecumenical. That is, they were truly inspired by God as marking out the boundaries, and therefore the unity, of the one holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The fact that it took time to recognize this, and that the Council of Constantinople had to clarify the Nicene Creed, is not a new revelation to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Church history. No one disputes that ecumenical unity was a process back then as much as it is today. It has never been under dispute that it was only retroactively that many of these councils were ultimately recognized as being truly ecumenical and therefore binding. No one disputes that at the time of the ecumenical councils there was great confusion concerning the true faith, even among the faithful. And no one is saying that confused Arians in the 3rd and 4th centuries (before the boundary lines were fully recognized) were not Christian in some sense.
What I am suggesting, however, is that it would be very wrong for us to take as normative the confusion that existed then and appropriate it to ourselves now. Just because the process of solidifying the true faith was long and messy doesn’t mean that now we can’t look back and identify where the true Church really was. If we are not able, in hindsight, to do that, then we might well question what the purposes of the ecumenical councils even were.
Pastor Wedgeworth ends his article by saying “And it should be obvious to say that this truth is of more than academic value.” Pastor Wedgeworth does not explain what he thinks the practical consequences of his thesis actually are, but it isn’t difficult to guess. By denying that the Church had any universal common faith, Wedgeworth has created the conceptual room needed to justify the kind of divisions that have become commonplace within Protestantism as well as the types of theological innovation that create these divisions in the first place. But I think the shoe is actually on the other foot. The fact that Church history has been such a messy affair is a vindication of an ecumenical church led by the Holy Spirit. It is confirmation of the miraculous nature of the Church and apostolic tradition that it has survived down to the present day.