This is the third installment of our book review of David Bercot’s Will the Real Heretic Please Stand Up?. At this point our goal is to represent the content of the book and in a later post we will evaluate the content. You can read about the doctrine and lifestyle of the early church here and here.
In this third installment I want to trace how, in the mind of Bercot, we left the faith represented in Early Christianity and came to the predominate views that are now seen in the Evangelical Christian world.
Bercot starts making his point by describing what he calls four walls that protected the lifestyle and doctrine of the Early Church. These walls were:
1. The firm conviction that there was no new revelation after the time of the apostles.
2. The church’s separation from the world.
3. The voluntary practice of referring questions to the elders in churches where apostles taught.
4. The autonomy of each congregation (118).
Bercot states that as long as these four walls were intact, then it would be difficult to see major changes in the church. As you might expect Bercot then describes how each of these walls “crumbled.” Bercot sees the destruction beginning with the Emperor Constantine.
Removal of these Walls
Constantine is said to have seen a sign in heaven of a cross before a major battle he was leading to unite the Western Roman Empire. The sign also had an inscription that said “By this, conquer.” A dream where Christ told him to construct a military standard in the form of a cross followed this sign. Constantine won the battles and gave the God of the Christians the credit for the victory (121, 122). This convinced Constantine that he needed to worship this God and make sure the church also faithfully worshiped Him. The result was Constantine gave the church legal status and prestige, something that it had not had.
This new found status and prestige led the church to rethink the negative attitude they had toward change. Change had been equated with error, but now was embraced as necessity. They felt that the Christian faith could evolve for the better. Thus the first wall crumbled.
This new found favor with the Empire and Emperor also deteriorated the separation between the church and the world. The church that once faced the Roman sword was now using the Roman sword to silence “heretics.” Evangelism, which was formally done through lifestyle and conversation, was now being accomplished through the building of beautiful edifices and marketing Christian relics, sites, and feasts. Once large amounts of “converts” were made it was reasoned that this growth was an indication that God approved their new changes.
Constantine’s desire to keep God’s blessing upon the church, and by extension the Empire, also led to the crumbling of the final two walls. Instead of discussing doctrinal disputes with church elders and then these decisions being decided at a local level, Constantine decided to have councils that were Empire wide and from these councils came creeds defining the Christian faith. Instead of local elders meeting to discuss matters of doctrine and practice this became centralized and so error and change could become wide-spread quickly.
Bercot argues that as long as the four walls stayed intact, then Early Christianity would not have changed in the ways that we see today. Yet, since these four walls crumbled, then changes in doctrine, lifestyle, leadership, and emphasis followed.