Introduction: Baptism and the Church in North Africa
In the comments to his post, David encountered the following critical comment:
I have to utterly disagree. Only when the Church was already shattered in a thousand pieces could one think or say this, that is, in the last two hundred years. That Christological-pneumatic unity is never phenomenologically visible can only appear self-evident to someone living on the far side of schism.David’s response to this criticism is, in my opinion, sound. Perhaps because he and I discussed it before he wrote his response. In any case, you’ll have to surf over and read the whole thing for yourself. But, this series aims at elucidating and grounding two of the claims that David makes in that response. Here they are:
I think the perception of a schism is a Catholic fiction from the start. The notion that there was ever some kind of pure visible unity is a fairy tale; it never existed.And:
However, the more important issue is what you think the church "is." If you think the church is an institution that mediates the grace of God to the world, then your position would be understandable.An excursus in the history of doctrine will bring some thickness to David’s claims. Don’t ever let the Roman Catholics tell you that Protestants destroyed the unity of the church. Long before Martin Luther, well before Rome and Constantinople anathematized each other in the 11th century, and even before the schisms surrounding the Council of Chalcedon, there were the Donatists and the Novatians. And the story of these North African controversies is one of local theological commitments and communities being marginalized through the development of a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology.
This is not to say that the Novatians and the Donatists were ultimately correct. And my discussion is more general, as opposed to a purely polemical undertaking. Hence the dry, boring professor-type bit. But it will show two things relevant to the aforementioned polemical context:
- History reveals a relationship between strong support of the church’s visible (organizational / political) unity on the one hand and a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology on the other.
- There were indeed serious schisms within the church besides those involving points of what would later be considered dogma – the doctrines of christology and the Trinity. Whatever else is involved, the language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy does not apply to the Novatian and Donatist schisms.