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The church fathers were the distinguished teachers in the Christian church from the death of the last apostle, circa 100 to 754. There were in all 54 such fathers. Those who lived and labored before the council of Nicea, 325, are known in history as the Anti-Nicene church fathers, while those who labored during and after this council bear the title of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. The Anti-Nicene fathers divide into six distinct groups: 1) The apostolic fathers: 2) The apologists; 3) The controversialists; 4) The fathers of the school of Alexandria; 5) The fathers of the school of North Africa; 6) The fathers of the school of Africa. The Nicene and Post-Nicene fathers divide into two groups: 1) The Greek church fathers; 2) The Latin church fathers.

In this writing we are occupied with the teachings of the fathers on the Catholicity (universality) and thus the oneness and the exclusiveness of the church. The most important personages in the development of the doctrine of the church are Ignatius of Antioch (died 117); Irenaeus, whose date of birth has been placed from about 115 to about 117; Cyprian, bishop of Carthage and born in this city about 200; and Augustine, the greatest of the church fathers since the apostolic times. His dates are 354-430. In the treatment of our subject, we limit ourselves chiefly to the writings of these fathers. In these writings, the church appears as possessing these marks.

The first to use the word “Catholic” as a description of the church was Ignatius. The term, as so used, occurs over and over in his epistles. “The church of God,” so reads the benediction that heads the epistle to the church at Smyrna, “and to all the congregations of the Holy and Catholic church in every place: mercy, peace, and love from God the Father. . .” The church is indispensable to salvation. Such is the view encountered. “He that is not in the church is deprived from the bread of life.” “He that separates himself from such and does not meet in the society where sacraments are offered. . .is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

Ireneaus speaks of the church as dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth. She received from the apostles the faith and preserves it. “It is necessary to seek the truth among others which it is easy to obtain from the church.” “Every man, whosoever will, can draw from her the water of life. For she is the entrance to life; all others are thieves and robbers. On this account are we bound to avoid them, but to make choice of the things pertaining to the church with the utmost diligence.”

The same high views of the church is taken by Clement of Alexandria. It is his opinion that “the true church, that which is really ancient, is one, and that in it those who according to God’s purpose are just, are enrolled. For from the very reason that God is one, and the Lord one, that which is in the highest degree is lauded in consequence of its singleness, being an imitation of the one first principle. In the nature of the one, then, is associated in a joint heritage the one church. . .Therefore,” so he continues, “in substance and idea, in origin, in pre-eminence, we say that the ancient and Catholic church is alone, collecting as it does in the unity of the one faith. . . those already ordained, whom God predestinated, knowing before the foundation of the world that they would be righteous. But the preeminence of the church, as the principle of union, is in this surpassing all things else, and having nothing like or equal to itself.”

We meet these same views in the writings of Origin. Out of the church no man can be saved.”

Cyprian, in his Epistles and in his tract: De Unitate Ecclesia, most forcibly set forth the unity, universality, and exclusiveness of the church. The church, he taught, alone is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. There are many rays of the sun, but one light. This also the church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere defused, nor is the unity of the body separated.

The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. Whosoever is separated from the church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the church; nor can he who forsakes the church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother. If anyone could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside the church.

Augustine’s views, as encountered in his replies to the Donatists, are as follows. There is one church which alone is Catholic. “Those are wanting in God’s love who do not care for the unity of the church; and subsequently we are right in understanding that the Holy Spirit may be said not to be received except in the Catholic Church. . . .Whatever therefore may be received by heretics and schismatics, the charity which covereth the multitude of sins is the special gift of the Catholic Unity.” Sacraments are the institutions of God, not of men. They do not therefore depend, in their working on the character of the administrator. Hence, heretical baptism need not be repeated on entering the Catholic church. But while heretics and schismatics have the true form of the sacraments, it is only in the Catholic church that the sacraments avail, for there only is that love bestowed for which they witness. But even in the Catholic church all are not wheat. There is a mixed company of good and bad. “It is not only by different baptisms but by the same, that good Catholics are saved, and bad Catholics and also heretics and schismatics perish.” The church is the owner of the nations which are Christ’s inheritance, and of the ends of the earth, which are His possession; hence it is universal; the seamless robe should not be rent. The Church is the net in the sea of the world, enclosing both the good and the bad, which are not to be separated until the net is drawn to the shore in the day of the final judgment. For unity is the net of the church, and toleration within the net essential to its preservation. The wicked members of the church do not contaminate the good by a communion which is only outward. The wheat and tares must grow together. The Catholics rear the Elijah altar, the Donatists the Baal altar over against it.

The Donatists were a powerful sect which formed itself in the Christian church of northern Africa in the beginning of the fourth century. They were held to be schismatics because they lived in separation from the Catholic communion. Their heresy, according to the judgment of the Church, was the belief that the sacraments were not valid, if administered by a wicked officebearer and thus that those who had delivered up their copies of the Scriptures under the compulsion of the Diocletian persecution were not eligible for office, as they had committed a mortal sin. The writings of Augustine, from which we quoted, represent a mighty effort on his part to prove to the Donatist that they erred in holding this view and that they sinned greatly in living in separation from the Catholic communion. Having broken with this communion, they were doomed, as out of it—such was Augustine’s contention—there is no salvation. He beseeches them, therefore, to return. He is genuinely concerned about them.

So did the fathers of this period, in their controversy on heresy and schism, maintain with great emphasis the oneness, universality, and exclusiveness of the church. And there is agreement between what they taught on this head of doctrine and the views set forth in our Reformed creeds on this same head. Of the holy Catholic church “We believe and profess,” we here quote the Confession, “one Catholic or universal church, which is an holy congregation, of true believers. . . .Furthermore, this holy church is not  confined, bound, or limited to a certain place or to certain persons, but is spread and dispersed over the whole world. . . (Art. XVII). We believe, since this holy congregation is an assembly of those who are saved, and that out of it there is no salvation, that no person of whatsoever state or condition he may be, ought to withdraw himself, to live in a separate state from it; but that all men are in duty bound to join and unite themselves with it; maintaining the unity of the Church; submitting themselves to the doctrine and discipline thereof. . . .It is the duty of all believers, according to the word of God, to separate themselves from all those who do not belong to the church, and to join themselves to this congregation, wheresoever God has established it. . .Therefore all those, who separate themselves from the same, or do not join themselves to it, act contrary to the ordinance of God.” (Art. XXVIII of the Belgic Confession).

What is here taught agrees with the views contained in Augustine’s replies to the Donatists. In fact, the agreement is so close—it is perfect—that the entire collection of statements (from the Confession) could have been taken verbally from these replies. And the doctrine with which we here deal is sound. But Augustine and the fathers in general of this and subsequent periods erred, seriously erred, in the interpretation and application of this doctrine. And the result of their error is the Roman hierarchy with its center of unity in the pope of Rome. Let us shed some light on this statement.

The fathers taught that the church is one. This, certainly, is good Scriptural doctrine. Unity proceeds from the truth that “there is but one God, one mediator also between God and men, Himself man, Christ Jesus, who gave Himself a ransom for all” (1 Tim. 11:5). So St Paul teaches: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even also as ye were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6). Without denying this, to be sure, Cyprian set forth, as a fundamental thought, the view that the unity of the church rises from the unity of the bishops. The bishops are the one episcopate, which, in the conception of Cyprian, is really the church in its essence. Together they form the council of the church (churches). As such they have the same jurisdiction over all the churches with the common officebearers (deacons, elders, and pastors), that the consistory, in our conception, has over the local flock. “And they are the Church who are a people united to the priest, and the flock which adheres to its pastor. Whence you ought to know that the bishop is in the church, and the church in the bishop; and if anyone be not with the bishop, that he is not in the church, and that those flatter themselves in vain who creep in, not having peace with God’s priests, and think that they communicate secretly with some; while the church, which is Catholic and one, is not cut or divided, but is indeed connected and bound together by the cement of priests who cohere with one another.” And again: “This unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the church that we may also prove the episcopate (the college of bishops) itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood; let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole.”

This last quotation is not clear and therefore has given rise to a controversy, still alive, whether Cyprian regarded all bishops as equal in authority; or held to the superiority of the bishop of Rome. He certainly looked upon Peter as the first bishop and, as such, the source of all priestly unity. And Rome was to him the highest church in dignity. “The Lord spake unto Peter saying, ‘I say unto thee, thou art Peter’. . . .And although to all the apostles, after His resurrection, He gives an equal power. . .yet, that He might set forth unity, He arranged by His authority the origin of that unity, as beginning from one. Assuredly, the rest of the apostles were also the same as was Peter, endowed with a like partnership both of honor and power; but the beginning proceeds from unity.” But in another place he says, “While the bond of concord remains, and the undivided sacrament of the Catholic Church endures, every bishop disposes and directs his own acts, and will have to give account of his purposes to the Lord.” The independence of bishops, and their intercommunion as one episcopate, is Cyprian’s theory of the unity of the church. Yet he saw in the pope the successor of Peter and thus the visible center of unity.

This same theory of Catholic unity is encountered in the writings of Augustine. In the chair of the Roman church Peter sat. Anastasias fills it today. In the chair of the church of Jerusalem, once sat James; in it John sits today, “with which we are united in Catholic unity.”

Certainly, it is but one step between the episcopate of Cyprian and the Roman hierarchy.

The fathers taught the Catholicity of the church. The church according to Scripture is this. The title “Catholic” from the Greek, is the equivalent of the Latin universal. It means that the church embraces all sorts of persons, is disseminated through all nations, comprehends all ages, and contains all necessary and saving truths, cures all diseases, and plants all graces in souls of men. The Catholicity of the Church comes plainly to view in the Scriptures. Christ commissioned His apostles to go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Their field is the world (Matt. 13:38). Blessed in Abraham are all the families of the earth.’ Christ is Lord of lords and King of kings. Having humbled Himself, He was highly exalted and received a name which is above every name, and at the name of Jesus shall bow every knee, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 11:1-11). The kingdom of the world shall become the kingdom of our Lord, and of His Christ: and He shall reign forever (Rev. 11:15). Head over all things, He claims for the communion of His Church all nations.

Catholicity presupposes unity and unity presupposes and includes holiness. If the church were not in principle holy she would not be in principle a unity. Sin sets man against God. As a consequence, sin sets man against man. Righteous love binds men to Christ, believer to believer, each branch of the church to all its branches. Conversely, holiness includes unity. If the church were not the one only mystical body of Christ, she would not be a holy communion.

While maintaining this, the fathers, and in particular Augustine, emphasized that, according to the requirement of Catholicity, the true church as to numbers be large and widely diffused. To the Donatists he puts the questions: “Answer me, wherefore have ye separated yourselves? Wherefore have ye erected an altar over against the whole world.” It was to their own episcopate only (the church in its essence is the episcopate. Such was their view, as was said) that they give the title “Holy Catholic Apostolic church” and this to distinguish it from the episcopate of every heretical and schismatic communion. Next to their own church were sects and thus no churches. Such is the contention of Augustine in his replies to the Donatists. And this is still the contention of the Roman hierarchy. All disobedience to her rulers is schism and dismemberment of the body of Christ. In their reasonings on the church, the fathers always proceeded from the premise that the entire congregation of true believers on earth was included in their ecclesiastical organization. They simply could not conceive of their being true children of God outside this organization. Breaking with their episcopate, living in separation from it, was to the fathers a heinous sin by itself. And to persist in this sin was the unmistakable mark of being reprobated. That such was the view is evident from the language which they employed in their controversy on schisms. “But when it is said that The Holy Spirit is given by the imposition of hands in the Catholic Church only, I suppose that our ancestors meant that we should understand thereby what the apostle says, ‘Because the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us.’ For this is that very love which is wanting in all who are cut off from the communion of the Catholic Church; and for lack of this, ‘though they speak with the tongues of angels and of men, though they understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and though they have the gift of prophecy, and all faith, so that they could remove mountains, and though they bestow all their goods to feed the poor, and though they give their bodies to be burned, it profiteth them nothing.’ But those are wanting in God’s love who do not care for the unity of the church; and consequently we are right in understanding that the Holy Spirit may be said not to be received except in the Catholic Church.”

Now it is not in itself wrong for a brotherhood of believers to apply to their communion only the title “One holy Catholic Church.” Their brotherhood may be just this. The family of Noah in the Ark was, and likewise the first congregation in Jerusalem. Also the churches represented and ruled by the episcopate to which the fathers belonged? Could Augustine with right point to this communion and say that, in distinction from all other communions, it alone deserved to bear the title “Holy, Catholic Church?” Augustine thought so. But, certainly, he thought wrong. There were the Donatists, to limit ourselves now to this one sect (sect in the appraisal of Augustine). The Donatists were little apart in doctrine, worship, and polity from the historic Catholic Church. They stood so close to this communion that Augustine wrote treatise after treatise in which he besought them to return. We need not hesitate to say that also the Donatists communion was the Catholic church, a historic manifestation of the body of Christ. Certainly its errors were not more serious than those of the teachers in the historic Catholic church.

What now was Augustine’s fundamental error? It was not this, that he made no room in his thinking for the distinctions: Church invisible and visible; church triumphant and church militant; church as organism and church as institute. He made these distinctions and also worked them as is evident from his writings. What then was Augustine’s fundamental error? It was this, that what he should have proved he assumed, namely, that his communion of churches and his communion only, was the one holy Catholic apostolic Church. But this he should have proved by applying to his churches the touchstone of scripture. Then he would have seen that even then the historic Catholic church, at least in its polity, was becoming the false church. Augustine’s error was that of all the fathers in general.