[Listen to post here.]
~ ~ ~
“That point – and this is what makes it so truly sinister – lies very near to the centre of the New Testament Ecclesia, and the change that takes place here consists in a very slight shift of emphasis which can be characterized by saying that what was very near to the centre becomes itself the centre:” Emil Brunner, The Misunderstanding of the Church, pg. 75.
~ ~ ~
This post is part of a larger collection focusing on “Christocentricity/Eccentricity Spiritual Theory” (“C/E Spiritual Theory”, or simply “C/EST” for short.) Please see the permanent page, C/EST, for the full collection. For an initial “primer” on this spiritual theory, please read (and watch), “Christocentricity/Eccentricity Spiritual Theory” – Explained and Illustrated (with animated short)
We will now follow our 4-part “Scriptural Case Study” with an ” Historical Application” to show the usefulness of this spiritual theory when applied to early post-apostolic Church history.
“As the Twig is Bent…”
One of my great quests over the past four decades has been to understand how the Church/Christendom came to be shaped the way that it has over its long and complex history. If we look at the Ekklesia of the New Testament and compare it to the Christendom of today, it is hard to understand exactly how that simple, tender “sprout” gave rise to this massive, gnarly “tree.” What the apostles and first-century believers considered to be normal “ekklesia” and what people today consider to be normal “church” are, quite frankly, worlds apart. So, how did we get here? What were the underlying principles at work? How did the major movements develop? Where is it all heading? These are the questions that I have long sought deeper answers to.
The old adage, “As the twig is bent, so is the tree inclined,” certainly applies in the case of Church history. A primary focus of my quest, then, has been to go back to the earliest stages of the Ekklesia and see how “the twig [was] bent” early on, from apostolic Christianity though the first few centuries. That early shaping of “the twig”, for better or for worse, was a, if not the, primary influence that shaped the growth of “the tree” from that time forward.
It has been my understanding for many years that the most consequential development that took place early on within the Ekklesia following the death of the original apostles, and that which most dramatically shaped the Church from that time forward, was the rise of the office of the monarchical bishop (i,e. the “monepiscopate”.) This elevated, authoritarian office became broadly accepted and embraced by the Church during the second century.
It is also my conviction and contention that the shift from a plural episcopacy/presbytery overseeing the local ekklesia as servants under the immediate headship of Jesus Christ to the monepiscopacy governing the local ekklesia as the sole mediated head in the place of Jesus Christ represented a monumental slide into spiritual eccentricity that became the bedrock and spring of future ecclesiastical disunity, diminishment, distortion, and defilement. Ironically, these were the very things that the monepiscopacy was intended to protect and save the Church from.
“The Real Point of Departure…”
If that is indeed the case, then the question needs to be asked, “What were the prior and/or concurrent factors at work that gave rise to the office of the monarchical bishop?”
I had been aware of a number of these elements from past study but recently they have come into greater focus and clarity as the result of my stumbling across a very remarkable book by a renowned Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner (1889-1966.) His book, The Misunderstanding of the Church, is, quite frankly, one of the most groundbreaking, root-exposing treatises on the development of the Church from its earliest days to the present that I’ve ever read!
Although the entire treatise is one eye-opening, jaw-dropping chapter after another, I took a special interest in Chapter 8, “The Starting Point of Ecclesiastical Development.” Here Brunner digs into the earliest developments of the transition from the purely organic Ekklesia of apostolic times to the institutionalized Church of later centuries. I was especially interested to see what he had to say about the rise of the monarchical bishop. What he expressed there was not only wonderfully confirming and further enlightening, but the way in which he expressed the dynamics at work in those early post-apostolic days made me literally jump out of my chair and shout for joy! (That may seem a little extreme, but I think you will understand in a moment!)
Brunner begins this chapter by talking about the difficulty of pinpointing one event or factor that began the transition from the early organic Ekklesia to the later institutional Church, for as he put it, “…it is a question of a number of such elements, not of any single one, and that these are simultaneously developed and commingled in such a way that the net result represents the new phenomenon: the Church.” (pg. 74)
He then continues: “Nevertheless it is possible to locate a point that may be regarded as the real point of departure for the emergence and crystallization of the new tendencies.” (pg. 74, 75)
And then for me came “the Brunner bombshell”: “That point – and this is what makes it so truly sinister – lies very near to the centre of the New Testament Ecclesia, and the change that takes place here consists in a very slight shift of emphasis which can be characterized by saying that what was very near to the centre becomes itself the centre:”(pg. 75)
So, let’s just consider that for a moment…this extraordinarily well-educated, renowned theologian is right here identifying the most primal “real point of departure” that initiated the transition from organic, apostolic Ekklesia to post-apostolic, institutional Church. And he is identifying it as “a very slight shift of emphasis which can be characterized by saying that what was very near to the centre becomes itself the centre:” Now, if that isn’t “the language” of “C/E Spiritual Theory”, then I don’t know what is!
Is it possible, then, that right here at this most critical transition point in Church history, this “spiritual theory” is in fact a most fitting “lens” through which to look in order to rightly discern the spiritual dynamics at work? (I believe it is, and we will continue to explore that consideration in the remainder of this post!)
Brunner finishes his statement with a disclosure of precisely what that “point of departure” was, and to my surprise, it wasn’t the rise of the monarchical bishop. Instead it was a prior and concurrent spiritual eccentricity that had developed within the Ekklesia that became a primary impetus for the rise of the office of the monarchical bishop. That initial impelling factor, according to Brunner, was: “the sacred meal, the Eucharist.” (pg. 75)
Brunner continues to explain, “From being an act, perpetually repeated according to the Word of the Lord, by which the community seeks to realize itself as a fellowship with and in Christ, the festal meal becomes the essence of salvation itself and the thing which constitutes the community’s life.” (pg. 75)
Shortly hereafter he wrote, “…in the Ecclesia itself a fundamental though as yet hardly perceptible change had taken place through the over-valuation of the sacred meal.” (pg. 76)
Let’s pause again right there and view that statement through the lens of C/E Spiritual Theory. This sacred meal which has now become the center (i.e. the centerpoint of the original circle having shifted over) is effecting “fundamental…change” (i.e. a new circle is forming around it and the vectors are all re-orienting to the new centerpoint), and though subtle, this “change” is the result of the “over-valuation of the sacred meal.” (i.e the “hyper-inflation” of the new centerpoint.) These are C/E Spiritual Theory realities all expressed in a sentence.
Brunner continues on to describe some of the fundamental changes that this “over-valuation” fostered: (As you read, please think in terms of the C/E Spiritual Theory aspects of “diminishment” and “distortion.”)
“Previously it had been the work of the Holy Spirit which had imparted to the congregation its organic life: it was a spiritual unity and precisely as such the Body of Christ. But now it had become a sacramental unity. That personal fellowship which had characterized the earlier period was no longer necessary in order to receive and enjoy in common the benefits of the sacramental food of salvation…
“The Body of Christ is now no longer the communion itself but is becoming increasingly identified with the elements of the holy meal. Now Christians belong to each other no longer through the creative Word springing from the revelation in Christ and through the action of the Holy Spirit stirring the depths of the heart and dissolving the selfish isolation of the individual.
“Since the sacramental food becomes the essential thing, the Ecclesia is transformed from a spiritual koinonia, a unity of persons, into a unity flowing from common relationship to a thing, that is, into a collective. It is no longer the fruit of the Agape, the self-imparting love of God, which binds individuals to each other through a real gift of the Holy Ghost, but it has become that miraculous thing, the sacrament, which the members share with each other; they now receive the Body of Christ, instead of being the Body of Christ.” (pg. 77)
These descriptions speak clearly of the spiritually eccentric fruit of “diminishment” and “distortion” as well as a fundamental change to the Christocentric fruit of “unity” within the Ekklesia. If C/E Spiritual Theory is to prove fully accurate in this situation, then, there is one more aspect that ought to become evident: “defilement.”
That defilement that was ushered in through “sacramentalism” (i.e. “the over-valuation of the sacred meal”) was “institutionalism”, especially in relation to the rise of the office of the monarchical bishop (monepiscopate.)
Brunner continues further, “Institutionalism is produced by sacramentalism. Episcopacy is exalted through the emphasis laid on sacraments, and only from the sacramental point of view can we understand why precisely the office of bishop was valued and why it was valued to such an extent. The two movements — the institutional and the sacramental — stimulate each other and unite to produce their final effect. The priest-bishop becomes an apostolic authority. The presbyters and overseers, from being proved servants, become simply personages occupying the place of honour, but from among them there emerges the bishop as ‘the’ leader and embodiment of the unity of the Church.” (pg. 78-79)
The whole premise of The Misunderstanding of the Church that Brunner methodically and meticulously establishes and defends is reiterated in the beginning of this chapter 8: “So far our thesis has proved sound: the Ecclesia of the New Testament is a communion of persons and nothing else. It is the Body of Christ, but not an institution. Therefore it is not yet what it later became as the result of a slow, steady, hence unnoticed process of transformation: it is not yet a Church. The Church— firstly the early catholic, then the neo-catholic Roman church— is distinguished from the Ecclesia above all in this— that it is no longer primarily a communion of persons, but rather an institution…” (pg. 74)
Brunner sees this “institutionalism” as foreign to the Ekklesia as established by Christ and His apostles (i.e. a “defilement” from outside of “the original circle”.) And this institutionalism found its focus and locus in the authoritative office of the monarchical bishop of the second century and onward.
~ ~ ~
So much more could be said concerning this fundamental transformation that took place so early on in the history of the Ekklesia/Church. But may this suffice to show that what accounted for this history-shaping shift, at its most primal inception and on through its full development, was the principle of “spiritual eccentricity.” In addition, in keeping with the predictive nature of C/E Spiritual Theory, the transformation that ensued did indeed bear the predicted fruit of disunity, diminishment, distortion, and defilement.
As with the situation in Corinth, that we explored in the “Scriptural Case Study”, what similarly underlay and characterized this early portion of Ecclesiastical history, also underlays and characterizes most of Ecclesiastical history, in one iteration or another. This is what makes this C/E Spiritual Theory so valuable. It is a very powerful “tool” and “lens” for the purpose of analysis, discernment, and prediction. The beauty of it is that, in its essence, it is profoundly simple, and yet, in its outworking, it is simply profound!
We will continue in the next post to consider another watershed in Church history, the Protestant Reformation, and do so looking through the lens of C/E Spiritual theory. I think you will find it quite revealing! Please stay tuned!
The Stronghold of Spiritual Eccentricity (#propheticresistance)
“Christocentricity/Eccentricity Spiritual Theory” – Explained and Illustrated (with animated short)
“C/E Spiritual Theory” – A Scriptural Case Study (Part 1)
“C/E Spiritual Theory” – A Scriptural Case Study (Part 2)
“C/E Spiritual Theory” – A Scriptural Case Study (Part 3)
“C/E Spiritual Theory” – A Scriptural Case Study (Part 4)
Main page: C/EST
The Misunderstanding of the Church (Archive.org link)
By Emil Brunner
Translated by Harold Knight
Westminster Press – Philadelphia
Superb stuff, David. I’ve always believed that Brunner was under-valued as a theologian and ecclesiologist. I found his ‘The Divine Imperative’ most useful in this regard in my university research some years ago, especially his section on ‘The Community of Faith.’ What an outstanding illustration of your theory! Most think the problem started with Constantine in the 300’s AD, but as you have shown the eccentricity was there well before that with the abuse of ‘the holy meal,’ among other things. Thanks for pin-pointing that for us.
Grace and peace.
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thank you, dear brother! I had not been exposed to Brunner’s works until coming across this book. I found it to be mind-blowing, especially coming from someone so immersed in the Reformed theological camp! With the position that he takes concerning the institutionalization of the Church across the board, I’m not surprised if he’s been treated a bit as “outside the camp” and even “under-valued” as you said. I’m interested in reading more and will try to get a copy of “The Divine Imperative” now! 🙂
Thank you again for your encouraging and affirming feedback. Most valued!
Love and blessings!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks for the stimulation in the first place, David. Looking forward to your input on the Reformation, with its blessings and mistakes. I’m sure that’s going to be very enlightening also.
Thanks for your vote of confidence! 🙂 Pray that I’ll be able to boil it all down to a single blog post! Yikes!!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Wow, David! Wherever I see the word “office” in your writing, I think, there it is! Jesus never had an official position, or “office” held. Nor did his followers. With the advent of “office”/positions, that’s where the trouble begins.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Yes…as I see it, with office comes title, and with title comes entitlement, and with entitlement comes “think[ing] more highly of yourself than you ought”, the opposite of humility and servanthood. The kingdom of God is an upside-down kingdom from the ways of this world and yet Christians today cannot even conceive of His kingdom coming in a local expression of the ekklesia without “office” and “title” and professionalism and…
Lord God, renew our minds, and help us to repent!!!
Thanks for your comment, Lloyd!
LikeLiked by 1 person
Thanks, David. I’m not familiar with Brunner. Looks like I have some (more) reading to do. Have you read The Churches of God by G.H. Lang? Very good. He quotes from another book, The Organization of the Early Christian Churches by Edwin Hatch. Hatch researched the beginnings of the one-bishop system, showing that when this began to happen there were churches that didn’t go along with it, but continued to maintain their autonomy before the Lord of the Church.
LikeLiked by 2 people
Allan, thanks for those two references, neither of which I have read. (Looks like I’ve got some more reading to do as well!) Another book along this line that I have benefited from is The Torch of the Testimony” by John W. Kennedy of India. This book also traces those groups who remained outside of the institutional Church throughout Church history maintaining the testimony of the Lord and, in greater and lesser measure, the spirit and expression of apostolic Christianity. A very helpful read!
Thanks again for you comment and recommendations! Blessings, brother!
LikeLiked by 1 person