WE’RE ON A BOAT!:
THE CHURCH AS ARK IN EARLY CHRISTIANTIY
~ Adam Ployd ~
“If someone who was outside of the ark of Noah could escape, so could also someone who is outside the church” (Cyprian, unit. eccl. 6).
The categories of “insider” and “outsider” bear heightened significance in the story of the ark. The experience of an insider, safe on the ark, contrasts noticeably with that of an outsider, left to swim, sink, and drown.
In early Christianity, the ark came to signify the church. Those inside the church are saved; those outside are left to the flood of sin, corruption, and death. This image of the church-as-ark extends an interpretation of the flood first found in the New Testament. 1 Peter 3:20-21 identifies the “few, that is, eight persons [who] were saved through water” as a prefiguration of baptism that “now saves you.” While 1 Peter does not draw a straight line between the ark and the church, it establishes the entire Noah story a sea of interpretive possibilities for early Christian authors to navigate. The flood of figurative possibilities includes everything from the waters of baptism to the dove of peace that returned to the ark and the wicked raven that did not, and, of course the ark itself as the vessel within which a select few are saved. Within a few short centuries, the full force of this interpretive wave would crash upon the shores of Christian North Africa. Between the years of 196 and 411 C.E., Latin-speaking Christians in Carthage and surrounding areas fought over both what it meant to be a church-ark and who exactly was on the other side of the porthole. The existential significance of being inside or outside the ark translated easily to the deadly seriousness with which early Christians understood the necessity of being within the bounds of the true church.
The image of the church-as-ark appears as early as 196 C.E. in the work of Tertullian, the North African apologist and father of Latin Christianity. In his treatise “On Idolatry,” Tertullian draws a stark distinction between the life of the church and the sinful life of the world. The great sin of idolatry confronts the Christian at every turn, in the most seemingly innocuous activities such as attending a town festival or earning a living as a literature professor! Christians, Tertullian avers, must separate themselves from the sinful world as fully as possible. To drive the point home, he appeals to the image of the ark:
At all events, an idolater is not found in the type of the ark: no animal has been fashioned to represent an idolater. Let not that be in the church that was not in the ark (Idol. 24).
Tertullian’s brief treatment of the ark-church connection suggests that the parallel was already well established at this point. Noah’s ark prefigures the church, particularly in its insularity. Salvation comes to those who are gathered within its hull, and all the evils of the world are left outside to perish.
Half a century later, the North African church found itself in chaos because the clear line of demarcation between the church and the world, between the ark and the flood, had been breached. During the 240s-250s many Christians faced prosecution for failing to adhere to the edict of Decius requiring that all citizens sacrifice to the emperor. The variety of legal consequences—such as imprisonment, torture, banishment, or death—were bad enough, but the real threat was to the integrity of the church. Many Christians—far too many, from the point of view of those who defied the order and suffered the consequences!—either sacrificed or surreptitiously obtained certificates attesting that they had done so. Both actions brought scandal upon the church and bred dissension over how these grave sins should be addressed. While the rhetorical church-ark could grow stronger by suffering at the hands of the condemned world, the holy ship sprung a dangerous leak when Christians committed apostasy.
We can think of the crisis in this way: A boat is only secure inasmuch as it keeps a clear boundary between the people inside and the waters outside. Once the hull is breached and the inside and the outside begin to mix, then the boat is no longer a place of safety. In the eyes of third-century Christians, the same issue applies to the church. “Out there” lies the wicked world of sin and decay; “in here” is salvation, new life, and purity. But the line of demarcation must be closely guarded. Much like a small leak endangers the entire ship, serious sin in a few church members, especially in important leaders like bishops, threatens to corrupt the entire church.
Unfortunately, in its attempts to plug these leaks, the church punched a cavernous breach in its own hull. After the first round of prosecutions subsided, the North African church had to decide what to do with those who had apostatized. Some hardliners wanted to kick out all those who had sacrificed to the emperor and deny them any possibility for re-entry. On the other side, some were more concerned to heal the wounds in the church quickly in order that it might endure the next spate of imperial prosecution that was on the horizon. Therefore some bishops advocated for permitting the fallen to return to the church, either immediately or after a period of penance, perhaps even not until they were on their deathbeds.
In response to this dispute, a rigorous group of hardliners broke off from the rest of the church and formed their own community, associated with Novatian of Rome. Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage in North Africa, maintained a moderate policy on re-entry into the church, but was opposed by so-called Novatianists who sought to promote their own communion as the true church, unsullied by association with the sins of those who had lapsed in the face of persecution.
This conflict raised two questions for Cyprian: First, can there be more than one true church? Second, should baptisms in the Novatian communion transfer to Cyprian’s communion, or is a second baptism required? Cyprian’s solutions to both of these issues draw upon the image of the church-as-ark. As to the legitimacy of a competing communion, Cyprian exclaims:
It is not possible for the bride of Christ to be counterfeited/adulterated… Whoever dissociates himself from the church is joined to an adulteress. He is cut off from the promises of Christ, and neither will he who abandons Christ’s church attain to Christ’s rewards… He cannot have God as his Father who does not have the church as his Mother. If someone who was outside of the ark of Noah could escape, so could also someone who is outside the church… He who ruptures Christ’s peace and concord acts against Christ. He who gathers elsewhere than in the church scatters Christ’s church (unit. eccl. 6).
The very idea of a competing church is ludicrous to Cyprian. The church-as-ark operates by disjunctive logic. Either you are in it, or you are not. At best, Novatian’s “church” is a tiny dinghy pretending to be a mighty ark, and its deluded passengers are doomed to capsize. At worst, Novatian’s schism rocks the boat of the true church, threatening to rip through the bitumen and cedar, exposing what should be the most seaworthy of vessels to the waves of destruction.
But what of those who jump ship from Novatian’s dinghy to Cyprian’s ark? Must they be baptized again, or is the baptism they received from Novatian’s church legitimate enough? To answer these questions, Cyprian again appeals to the church-as-ark image:
By this testimony [1 Peter] established that the ark of Noah, which is one only, was a type of the church, also one. And if at that time it had been possible for a man, not in the ark of Noah, to be saved by water during that baptism of the world when it was being purged and purified, then it would also be possible today for a man not in the church to be given life by baptism, whereas it is to the church alone that the power to baptize has been granted (ep. 69.2.2).
Again Cyprian deploys the disjunctive logic of the ark imagery. One is either inside, which is good, or outside, which is not quite as good. Baptism in the faux-church, the tiny dinghy, of Novatian is not truly baptism. Novatian’s water is as salvific to those outside the true church as the floodwaters are to those outside Noah’s ark.
The rhetorical power of this image of the church-as-ark perdures in North African Christianity. After Constantine legalizes Christianity in 313, however, the stark “insider” vs. “outsider” imagery becomes problematic. One can no longer descry clear lines of demarcation between the church and the world. Although some churches, like the Donatists, continue to promote the disjunctive logic of Cyprian, a more mystical interpretation of the church-as-ark arises in the writings of Augustine, which become authoritative for later Western Christianity. For Augustine, not every member of the earthly church is a passenger on the church-ark. Only the elect, those who have the Holy Spirit working within them, are truly saved. This spiritual reinterpretation demonstrates the rhetorical power of the church-as-ark. On the one hand, it evokes the ultimate distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders,” between those who are saved and those who are doomed. On the other hand, the image is malleable enough to be recast in new contexts with new understandings of who is on the ark and who is just treading water.
Church as Ark, stonework on a beach boulder
Iviron Monastery, Mount Athos, Greece
The image is malleable enough to be recast in new contexts with new understandings of who is on the ark and who is just treading water.
This image, taken from a drawing in the Rudder (a book listing the canons of the Church), This icon depicts the Church as an ark of salvation led by Christ but filled with His holy ones.
by painter Sandy Frazier
Orthodox Church as Ark
Digital Icon inspired by 17th century prototypes
sold by Dormition Skete
Christ is at the prow, Peter and Paul hold the three-pronged anchor to symbolize the Trinity, with Mary, Matthew, Mark, Luke, & John, along with several Church Fathers inside the ship.
On land, at the bottom are several enemies of Christ and his church. Highlights from left to right: Antichrist, the beast of the New Age, a generic persecuting ruler, Emperor Leo, Martin Luther ready to shoot his rifle, Vladimir Lenin also ready to shoot, a beast with Muhammad symbolizing Islam, the Pope as the vicar of Christ since 1054 trying to pull down Christ, Eftyches as the 4th and 5th century heresiarch, and Athenagoras as the father of modern day ecuminism.
Orthodox church as Ark
(see bottom of page for more information)
Arka Pana in Nowa Huta, Poland
Tecamachalco Church in Puebla, Mexico
"I'm on a Boat"
The Lonely Island featuring T-Pain
Noah’s ark prefigures the church, particularly in its insularity. Salvation comes to those who are gathered within its hull, and all the evils of the world are left outside to perish.
"I'm on a Boat"
(see video below)
The flood of figurative possibilities includes everything from the waters of baptism to the dove of peace that returned to the ark and the wicked raven that did not, and, of course the ark itself as the vessel within which a select few are saved.