The development of catholic organization and doctrine

The popularity of Gnosticism, the teaching of Marcion, and the Montanist movement forced others who regarded themselves as Christians to develop a tighter organization and to give added attention to the clarification and formulation of their beliefs. At the outset, in the middle of the first century or earlier, all that was required for admission to the Christian fellowship represented by the Church was repentance, the affirmation that Jesus is Lord, baptism, and the reception of the Holy Spirit. The wide variety which was appearing in bodies which claimed the Christian name, especially the Gnostics and the Marcionites, seemed to call for a more detailed definition of the Gospel and additional tests for admission to the Church and continued membership in it. Thus came notable steps in the development of what was early called the Catholic Church and which soon, if it did not already do so, embraced the majority of those who thought themselves to be Christians.

The word Catholic as applied to the Church only gradually came into circulation. The earliest known use of the term is in the letter of Ignatius to the church in Smyrna. In this he declared that "wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church." We next find the term in a letter from the church in Smyrna written about the year 155, describing the martyrdom of Polycarp. There it is employed at least three times, twice where it might be taken to mean simply "universal," but once where it clearly has the connotation of orthodox. By the end of the second century the word Catholic was increasingly applied to the Church and in a technical manner, meaning both universal and orthodox. In the latter sense it was intended to distinguish the body which was regarded by its leaders as orthodox as against bodies and individuals which were thought of as heretics, in other words, professed Christians who were deviating from true Christianity.

In the development of the Catholic Church three motives were present. One was the desire to unite all Christians in conscious fellowship. A second was to preserve, transmit, and spread the Christian Gospel in its purity, that men may enter into the fullness of the life which it reveals and makes possible. The third was to bring all Christians together into a visible "body of Christ." In practice the three proved to be reciprocally contradictory, for in the process of defining the faith and of developing an organization bitternesses arose which were a palpable contradiction of the love which is the chief evidence of Christian unity. Those who regarded themselves as Christians separated into organizations which denounced one another and as an indication of their disagreement excommunicated, that is, refused to admit to the rite instituted by their professed Lord, those from whom they differed. They endeavoured to make of the Lord's Supper, the Eucharist, the memorial of Christ's sacrificial death, a sign and bond of unity, but by that very effort they rendered it an outstanding evidence of their divisions.

The claims of the Gnostics, the Marcionites, and the Montanists compelled those Christians who did not agree with them to seek to determine and make unmistakably clear what the Gospel is. To do this they sought, naturally, to go back to Christ himself. To determine what Christ had been, taught, and did they attempted, also quite understandably, to discover what had been said by the most intimate friends of Christ, the apostles, those who were believed to have been commissioned by him to perpetuate and spread his teachings. They endeavoured to do this in three ways: (1) by ascertaining lines of bishops who were in direct and uninterrupted succession from the apostles and could therefore be assumed to be transmitters of the apostolic teachings, (2) by determining which writings were by the apostles or clearly contained their teachings and bringing them together in a fixed and authoritative collection, and (3) by formulating as clearly and briefly as possible the teachings of the apostles so that Christians, even the ordinary unlettered ones among them, might know what the Christian faith is, especially on the points in which the Catholic Church differed from Gnostics and Marcionites. Thus an impulse was given to what from that time to the present have been distinguishing marks of the churches in which the majority of those who profess and call themselves Christians have had membership — the apostolic succession of the episcopate, the New Testament, and the Apostles' Creed. These three features of the Catholic Church were by no means entirely due to the effort to ascertain what the true faith is: they were already present in embryo. However, their development was assisted and their form in part determined by the struggle to ensure that the Gospel should be preserved and transmitted in its pristine integrity.

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