"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)
Saturday, May 17, 2008
Branches or Schisms? Part II
UPDATE: See the updated version of this post by clicking here.
This is a follow-up of my previous post titled "Branches or Schisms?". In my paper "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy", I argued that what lies behind the notion that the Church per se is invisible [visible only in that embodied believers are visible], is a gnosticism that eschews matter and is in that way in conflict with Christ's incarnation. This gnosticism treats the Body of Christ as something in itself invisible/spiritual, having no unified organizational structure. (See my post titled "Christ founded a visible Church".) It eliminates unity as a mark of the Church, either by making unity only a '*contingent* mark of the Church', or by treating unity as a 'necessary but *invisible* mark of an *invisible* Church'.
Recently I saw a diagram that is based on this gnostic notion that the Church per se is invisible. I found it on the web site "request.org", which describes itself as "A free website for teaching about Christianity in Religious Education." The diagram can be found on request.org's page explaining denominations. Here is a small version of the diagram: (Click on the diagram to see a larger version.)
I want to point out two things about the above diagram. First, notice that the 'trunk' of this 'tree' takes a strange bend to the right, in the lower-middle of the diagram. The person who made the diagram determined that there must be no 'branch' that is the continuation of the 'trunk'. He or she thus assumed that the Church has no principium unitatis (i.e. principle of unity) such that the Church necessarily retains her unity through every possible schism. The assumption that the Church has no principium unitatis is itself based on a deeper assumption, namely, that the Church per se is invisible/spiritual, and therefore that her essential unity is at an invisible/spiritual level. Her visible unity is not essential to her being. That idea is quite similar to claiming that the integrity of a living body is not essential to its being, as though a living body's being blown into thousands of pieces by a powerful bomb does not detract from the existence of that body. Only if the Church is itself invisible (i.e. spiritual, immaterial) would the Church continue to exist after the disintegration of her visible unity. Hence the diagram above presumes that the Body of Christ, i.e. the Church itself, is invisible/immaterial, and in that way the diagram is in conflict with the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ.
The second thing to notice about Diagram 1 is that it shows there to be a single 'trunk' at least up to 1054 (I say "at least" because it is drawn such that the 'trunk' appears to continue into the 16th century). But Diagram 1 does not show what the 'tree' looks like through the first millennium. And that hides the challenge to the gnostic assumption that went into the making of Diagram 1. During the first millennium, the 'tree' looks something like this: (click on the diagram below for a larger version)
This raises serious questions about the veracity of Diagram 1. If all those sects of the first millennium were separations from the Church (and Diagram 1 clearly assumes that to be the case, since it shows the Church to be visibly *one* just prior to 1054), then why should we think that at some point (either following 1054 or during the 16th century) there is no continuing 'trunk', and that therefore these divisions of the second half of the second millennium are all equally authentic 'branchings within' the Church? What is it that makes separations of the first millennium *schisms* and *heresies*, but makes separations of the second millennium mere *branchings within* the Church? Whose determination about whether something is a mere "branch of the Church" or a "schism from the Church" is authoritative? Is it for each person to decide for himself? If so, then if the Ebionites were to construct a diagram of the Church they could begin the branching in 63 AD, and call themselves an authentic branch of the Church.
It looks like the person who made Diagram 1 simply decided that all the divisions of the first millennium were "separations from the Church", while the divisions of the second millennium were "separations within the Church". But on what basis did he or she make this decision? On the basis of some shared "mere Christianity" of the second millennium? Why then couldn't the extension of "mere Christianity" include all these sects of the first millennium? Who gets to determine the extension of "mere Christianity"? How is it not arbitrary that, for example, the Baptists, are thought to be included within "mere Christianity" while the Monophysites are not? The Pentecostals are, but the Montanists are not? And so on. The answer cannot be "Well the Baptists and Pentecostals share my general interpretation of Scripture", because any Monophysite could say the same thing about fellow Monophysites. It is naive to assume that heretics and schismatics don't appeal to Scripture to justify their positions: see here and here. What counts as "mere Christianity" therefore cannot be based on what people defend using Scripture. Unless the Protestant wishes to allow "mere Christianity" to extend to all these divisions of the first millennium, he will need some non-arbitrary, non-stipulative way of limiting the extension of "mere Christianity" to what Protestants have in common with Catholics and Orthodox. But it seems to me that that is precisely what he does not have.
Both the Catholics and the Orthodox agree that the trunk of this 'tree' did not end in 1054. (The Catholic Church claims it continues with her; the Orthodox claim it continues with them.) So the Protestant who wishes to conceive of all the Protestant denominations as branches of the Church, must either claim:
(1) That the separation of the Catholics and the Orthodox was the first "branching within" the Church, OR
(2) That the Church continued with the Orthodox, the Pope being in schism from the Church, OR
(3) The Church continued with the Pope, the Orthodox being in schism from the Church.
If the Protestant claims that (1) is true, then he must explain why the Catholic-Orthodox split is a mere "branching within" (i.e.does not involve a schism from the Church) when every other split in the prior history of the Church involved a "schism from" the Church and the preservation of the unity of the Church. He will need to show the principled difference between a "branching within" and a "schism from", and the basis for determining, in any division, whether it is a 'branching within' or a 'schism from', and, if it is a 'schism from', which of the separating groups is the continuation of the Church Christ founded, and why. [Remember, both Orthodox and Catholics reject (1); accepting (1) is a modern Protestant notion.] But the Protestant cannot (while remaining Protestant) accept (2), because (2) implies that Protestantism is no better than a "branching within a schism from" the Church, and therefore that Protestants should become Orthodox in order to be reconciled to the Church. But if the Protestant accepts (3), then if the diagram doesn't include the Reformation it looks something like this: (click on the diagram for a larger version)
But if the Protestant accepts Diagram 3, he is going to have a very difficult time justifying Diagram 1 over something like Diagram 4: (click on the diagram for a larger version)
Nor will he likely wish to claim that some particular Protestant denomination is the 'trunk', i.e. the institution Christ founded. So there seem to be three choices for the Protestant: (1) a gnosticism that treats the Church itself as invisible, and thus allows all the divisions of the first two millennia (or any arbitrary subset of them) to be "branches within" the Church, (2) Orthodoxy, or (3) Catholicism.