"Let unity, the greatest good of all goods, be your preoccupation." - St. Ignatius of Antioch (Letter to St. Polycarp)

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Mary, Monocausalism and Ecclesial Unity


"The Coronation of the Virgin"
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velázquez 1599-1660

We sometimes forget how much Satan hates Mary. He is "enraged" [ὠργίσθη] with the woman. (Rev 12:17) We think we can be 'neutral' about Mary. But we cannot be 'neutral' about Mary. If we treat her like any other woman, we are performatively denying the deity of her Son. If her Son is divine, then she is what the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus, 431 AD) declared her to be, i.e. the Theotokos, "God-bearer", or "Mother of God":

"If anyone will not confess that the Emmanuel is very God, and that therefore the Holy Virgin is the Mother of God (Theotokos), inasmuch as in the flesh she bore the Word of God made flesh [as it is written, "The Word was made flesh"]: let him be anathema."

If we would treat a queen with great respect and honor, simply because she is the wife of a king, how much more should we treat the Mother of God with respect and honor? Satan wants us to treat Mary as any other woman, because Satan hates the incarnation. Belittling Mary is one of his ways of getting us implicitly to deny the incarnation by falling into some form of Nestorianism, as I explained in 2006 in my "What does the Catholic Church believe about Mary, and Why?"

In my conversations with Evangelicals, I find that many reject the term "Mother of God", and say that Mary was merely the mother of Jesus (which they then qualify as meaning the mother of his human nature). They do not realize that they have thereby fallen into a form of Nestorianism that denies that the One of whom she is the mother is none other than the Second Person of the Trinity, not merely a human nature.

I also frequently encounter among Evangelicals what I call a 'monocausal' way of thinking. Monocausalism, as I am using the term is the assumption that only one cause can be operative at a time in order to bring about an effect. We can see monocausalism in the assumption that if Jesus saves us, then we must contribute nothing to our salvation, and no one else can contribute to our salvation. Or if Jesus forgives us our sins, then there is no need for a priest to absolve us. And the same way of thinking views requesting the prayers of the departed saints as detracting from Christ's mediatorial role, and views honoring Mary or honoring a departed saint as detracting from Christ's honor, as though honor is a limited commodity. Persons operating within the monocausal paradigm have difficulty with Jesus' teaching that as we do it unto the least of these His brethren, we do it unto Him. They have difficulty with Jesus' question to Saul on the road to Damascus: "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?" (Acts 9:4) They have difficulty understanding how we are supposed to love our neighbor as ourselves, while obeying the command to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength. They have difficulty understanding how the woman in Revelation 12 can refer to Mary *and* the Church *and* Israel. The antidote to monocausalism is a good education in philosophy, wherein we learn how multiple causes can act in different ways simultaneously to bring about an effect, without competition or overdetermination. One can love one's neighbor and in the very same act be loving God and oneself, for multiple ends can be pursued simultaneously in the very same act, when these ends are arranged hierarchically.

All that to say that so much of what worries Protestants about Catholic treatment of Mary is based on a philosophical monocausalism. For example, the Catholic hymn "Salve Regina" involves calling on Mary to pray for us and have mercy on us. In the Protestant mind, only God can receive prayer and show mercy. Therefore, in the Protestant mind, this hymn deifies Mary, and is thus blasphemy or idolatry. But the hymn only deifies Mary if one imports monocausalism into the picture. But monocausalism is something the Catholic Church rejects, as implying either deism or occasionalism. Similarly, in the Protestant mind, if Mary makes a promise regarding wearing the brown scapular and hell, then Mary is doing something only God can do, promise salvation. But again, this is based on a monocausal way of thinking, as though if Mary makes such a promise regarding salvation, then this is somehow in competition with salvation through Christ. But for Catholics, praying to saints is no more incompatible with Christ being "the one Mediator between God and men" than is asking your next-door neighbor to pray for you. Whatever Mary does, always is through her Son, and to her Son, just as whatever St. Paul (or any other saint) does is always for the sake of Christ.

Honoring Mary honors Christ, for it is only because of her Son that Mary is even known to history. Who is she? She is the Mother of God. That is why she is known. And so honoring her is a way of proclaiming the gospel that God became man. It is right to treat a thing according to what it is. So Mary deserves to receive the honor of a Queen Mother. But Mary is not divine, and therefore should not be treated as though she is divine. So, the notion that either we must choose between treating Mary as divine or treating her as any other woman, is a false dilemma. The middle position is the Catholic position; Mary is deserving of more honor than any other saint, but she is never to receive adoration, which is reserved exclusively for God. To read a good Catholic presentation of the Catholic understanding of Mary, see Scott Hahn's book Hail, Holy Queen.

Salve Regina!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Solemnity of the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus




Today, the Friday after the second Sunday after Pentecost, is the Solemnity of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. What is the passion of Christ's Sacred Heart? Pope Benedict, in his book Behold the Pierced One, writes:


"We see who Jesus is if we see him at prayer. The Christian confession of faith comes from participating in the prayer of Jesus, from being drawn into his prayer and being privileged to behold it; it interprets the experience of Jesus' prayer, and its interpretation of Jesus is correct because it springs from a sharing in what is most personal and intimate to him".

One of Jesus' most personal and intimate moments with us, when He openly discloses His Sacred Heart to us, is described in John 17 when Jesus prays to His Father. As we 'listen in' on Jesus' prayer to the Father, we are hearing one Person of the Trinity talk to another Person of the Trinity. We are even hearing the heart of the Father, for as St. John tells us, Jesus, "the only begotten God who is in the bosom [κόλπον] of the Father, has revealed [ἐξηγήσατο] the Father." (St. John 1:18)

This is an amazing privilege. When a friend opens his or her heart to another friend, this is an invaluable gift, a gift of the heart; no material good can match it in value. The very act speaks, saying "I trust you". The very act of opening one's heart is thus an act of love, and it moves our heart to respond in gratitude and tenderness and even a kind of reverence, because we perceive the immense value of what has been given to us, a kind of participation in the heart of another person.

Even more so, when Christ opens His heart to us, in letting us hear His prayer to the Father, this is an act of tremendous love and humility toward us. He is making Himself vulnerable to us, entrusting us with His heart, allowing us to receive His heart with gratitude and joy, or reject it with apathy or preference for other things. If we receive the Sacred Heart He opens to us in John 17, we experience there His blessed communion with the Father, that eternal activity of His heart in which He receives from and gives back to His Father the most perfect love and fellowship, the most transparent and unreserved union of hearts, of which all human friendships are a mere imitation.

In John 17 we are hearing what is going on 'inside' God, inside the Trinitarian community of divine Persons. We are being given the amazing gift of a glimpse inside the Trinity. And what do we hear? We hear Jesus asking the Father that all Christ's followers would be one, as He and the Father are one. The unity of His people is the passion of Christ's Sacred Heart. And that is because unity is the telos (goal, aim, end) of love. We cannot claim to love one another, and not be seeking unity with one another. (See here). And because human persons are embodied, love between human persons involves visible unity, as I showed in "Sex, Dualism, and Ecclesial Unity". The passion of Christ's Sacred Heart is the *visible* unity of all His disciples.

Today I came across the following photograph, taken in Belfast:


The "peace wall" in Belfast, dividing Catholics and Protestants
Source: Phil Chevalier, via Dave Armstrong)

This wall apparently had to be extended upward, because Catholics and Protestants were throwing things over it, in their hostility toward one another. This wall is not a failure to demonstrate visibly an underlying pristine unity; rather, this wall is a visible, bodily expression of an underlying disunity at the level of heart, soul, mind and body.

The love that seeks the unity of all Christ's followers, the love revealed in Christ's Sacred Heart through His prayer in John 17, seeks to break down such walls, and especially the wall of hatred and separation that these physical walls instantiate (Eph 2:14).

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ, let us resolve, with the help of God's grace, to tear down this wall, and that in our hearts on account of which such a wall was built. Let us come in humility and repentance and charity to the ecumenical table, and seek full visible unity with each other, having hearts with like passion as that of our Savior Jesus Christ. He freely offers His heart to us in love; let us do likewise to one another.

Dear Lord Jesus, we ask you to join our hearts to your Most Sacred Heart. Forgive us our sins. May the passion of Your Most Sacred Heart be also the passion of our hearts, in union with You. Please tear down those walls that divide us from each other. And please use us to do so, not by our worth or strength, but in our weakness, through our sacrifices of love in imitation of your ultimate sacrifice of love. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Eve, the Eucharist, and the Bride of Christ


"Creation of Eve"
Sistine Chapel Ceiling
Michelangelo (1475-1564)

To understand what it means that the Church is the Bride of Christ, we need to understand the relation of Eve to Adam. As God made Eve from the rib taken from Adam's side while he slept, so likewise God is now making a Bride for His Son, from the blood and water that flowed from His side while He slept in death upon the cross. Eve was flesh of Adam's flesh. She was not merely the same *kind* of flesh as Adam; she was made out of Adam's very substance. Eve did not merely share the same human form or essence as Adam; their unity (even before Adam awoke) was ontological, that is, a unity of being. Her being was derived from his being, though not of his making.

When we watch an infant being born, we not only see the extraordinary sight of one human being coming out of the body of another human being, we directly experience the derivative and participatory nature of the infant's being. Eve's being was likewise derived from Adam's, though there are some important differences. She did not spring from his loins, but was taken from his side.
Adam did not participate through his intellect or will in Eve's coming to be. Nor was she the result of any natural function of his organs. God alone took the rib from Adam's side, and the rib was not something already intrinsically disposed to become Eve. For these reasons, Adam was not Eve's procreator; she was co-created with him. The two additional divine acts (i.e. taking the rib from Adam, and making Eve out of the rib) formed Eve not ex nihilo but as a continuation of the divine act by which Adam had already been made.

In her coming to be, therefore, Eve
participated in the very act by which Adam was given being, because her being was derived from his being. In her substance, she was Adam; she was another one of him. She was "bone of his bones, and flesh of his flesh". He had named the other animals, according to what they were. When God brought this new creature to Adam, he likewise named her according to what she was: אישה ('Ishah', woman): she who came out of Man. "She shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man." (Genesis 2:23)

But she was not identical to him; she was different from him in ways that complemented him. Adam was immediately drawn to her both by her likeness to him and by her difference from him -- because of the love he already had for himself. That in her that was his (i.e. which was, in some real sense, *him*) and was the same as him, he loved because he already loved himself. And that in her that was different from him, he loved because he loved the fulfillment and actualization of his own nature, and her differences from him matched him in just this complementary way. In her he found companionship that suited and completed both his human nature and his manhood. Thus when St. Paul says in Ephesians 5:28 that husbands ought to love their own wives as their own bodies, we should not read this as an arbitrary stipulation, but as a call to live according to reality, according to the ontological relation between men and women described in this account in Genesis 2.

All of this, however is a type of Christ and the Church, as St. Paul, quoting the very next verse in Genesis 2, goes on to say in Ephesians 5:31-32:

"For this cause a man shall leave his father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is great; but I am speaking with reference to Christ and the Church."

The Church is also clearly described as the Bride of Christ in Revelation 19:7; 21:2,9. And St. Paul tells us that Christ is the second Adam. (cf. Romans 5:14; 1 Corinthians 15:22,45)

Many people affirm that the Church is the Bride of Christ, while failing to see how the Bride has to be fashioned out of that which comes from the side of Christ, such that her being and life is derived from His being and life. When God the Father brings the Church to Jesus, the second Adam will say what the first Adam said: "Bone of My bones, and flesh of My flesh", and He will give her a new name that means "taken out of Me". If we fail to recognize that the Bride must be made out of the blood and water that flowed from Christ's side, we fall into a gnosticism that treats some mental act (e.g. faith) as sufficient. Yes, God could have made Eve ex nihilo if God had wanted to do so; God is omnipotent. But if God had done so, the union of Adam and Eve would have been diminished. Their ontology would not have been shared and ordered toward each other, any more than ours is with the angels and the animals. And hence their love for one another would have been diminished. This is why merely believing in Christ is not sufficient for becoming His Bride; we must be washed in the water that flowed from His side, and eat His Body and drink His Blood. This is what it means to become a partaker of the divine nature, to become a partaker of the life of the second Adam, so that at the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9), He looks upon His Bride and loves her as He loves Himself, because she is His very own life, His very own flesh and blood.

How do we receive the water and blood that flowed from Christ's side? We receive them in the sacraments, especially baptism (i.e. the gateway to the other sacraments) and the Eucharist (the greatest of the sacraments). In baptism we are incorporated into the Bride. In the Eucharist we receive the living Body and Blood of the second Adam, so that we are made to live with His divine life, just as Eve was made not from inert matter taken from Adam, but from a living part of him. The life that was in Eve's body was the life that had been in Adam's body. When he looked at her, he saw his own life, his own substance, and he loved her, just as God the Father looks at His only begotten Son and sees His own Word and Thought and Being ("consubstantiálem Patri"), and loves Him. When we understand that Eve had to be made out of Adam, in order to be a bride for him, then we can better understand John 6, where Jesus says,

"The bread which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh, ... unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats Me, he also shall live because of Me." (John 6:51,53-57)

Jesus is here talking about "life", and how to acquire it. He is saying that the source of life is the "living Father", and that Jesus "lives" because of the Father, and that we can have this life only by eating the flesh of the Son of Man (i.e. the Son of Adam), and drinking His blood. This is how the Father is making a Bride for the second Adam. The second Adam has only one Bride, and we who are many, are made one Body, because we partake of one bread, which is His flesh. St. Paul says:

"Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread." (1 Corinthians 10:17)

Since we receive the life of the second Adam through the sacraments, it is important, to say the least, to be able to distinguish valid sacraments from invalid sacraments. We need to be able to know whether the baptism or Eucharist we are receiving is valid, and is truly giving us the life of Christ. We do not want to be receiving mere imitations of the sacraments. If we had no way of knowing whether our sacraments are valid, we would not know whether our baptism is valid, and whether we are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ, the very Bread of Life by which "we who are many are made one Body".

The Catholic Church recognizes the validity of Protestant (Trinitarian) baptisms. But the Catholic Church (and the Orthodox) believe that Protestants do not have the Eucharist, not having maintained Apostolic succession. (This was part of the clarification that the Catholic Church released in July of last year titled Responsa ad quaestiones.) Protestants, however, believe that they do have a valid Eucharist, and that Catholics have it too.


Because Catholics and Protestants agree that sharing the Eucharist is an *essential* condition for true unity, it seems important to ask the following questions:
Couldn't any heretical sect claim that its Eucharist is valid? If so, whose determination of what is necessary for a valid Eucharist is authoritative, and what does this authority teach is necessary in order to have a valid Eucharist? Claiming that this is up for "the whole Church" or "the people of God" to decide only pushes back the question or falls into circular reasoning, or appeals to something abstract like "mere Christianity".

In order to be the one Body which is the Bride of the second Adam, we need to partake of the one Bread which is His flesh and blood, taken from His side. And in order to know whether we are partaking of that one Bread, we need an authoritative witness of what is necessary for a valid Eucharist. But Scripture alone cannot play the role of authoritative witness, because it can be interpreted in many false ways, and no one holding a false interpretation thinks his own interpretation is false. Hence the issue of authority is absolutely essential, and unavoidable, for determining where is the one Bread by which we eat the flesh and blood of the second Adam and receive His life and are made into His eternal Bride.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi and Ecclesial Docetism


"The Institution of the Eucharist"
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)


Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Benedict's comments on unity with respect to this feast can be found here.

In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD) says the following of certain heretics:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.

To which heretics is St. Ignatius referring? Docetists. We can see that from what he says only a few paragraphs before.

"But if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound. And why have I also surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wildbeasts? ... For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body?" (my emphases)

In discussions with various Evangelicals, I quite commonly encounter the following sort of claim: "The Church is already fully one; our task is to take what is already true of the invisible Church, and make it visible." I have seen that notion lately here, here, here, here, and in Geoffrey W. Bromiley's book The Unity and Disunity of the Church (Eerdmans, 1958). Bromiley attempts to avoid both "invisible unity" and "institutional unity", but his proposed alternative, i.e. "unity in Christ", is indistinguishable from "invisible unity". One of the implications arising from the notion that the unity of the Church is invisible, is that there is no reason to pursue visible unity. To pursue visible unity is to fail to realize that we are already entirely one in the invisible realm. Hence for those holding this "invisible unity" notion, calls to pursue visible unity have to be supported by pragmatic, stipulative or voluntaristic reasons.

In January of this year, I argued in "The Incarnation and Church Unity" that this notion [i.e. that the unity of the Church is invisible] is a form of ecclesial docetism. It treats the Body of Christ as fundamentally immaterial, spiritual, and invisible, having only a visible appearance in the world, but not actually being a visible Body. Why do I say that it treats the Body of Christ as though it is not actually a visible Body? Because visible unity is essential and intrinsic to a body; if a body ceases to be visibly one, it ceases to be. So if visible unity is only accidental to something, that something is not a living body; it is, at most, only the appearance of a body. Hence those who claim that the Body of Christ is invisibly one and visibly divided, are treating the Body of Christ as though it were merely an *apparent* Body, not an actual Body. And therefore it should be clear why this position is rightly described as ecclesial docetism.

In response to my argument, Jonathan Bonomo suggested that Catholic ecclesiology is Eutychian. He wrote:

[I]f we're going to compare our ecclesiologies to Christological heresies, I don't see how yours would escape the charge of Eutychianism: mixing the inner/outer until they become prone to confusion. I'm not myself making the charge, mind you. But I don't see why making a distinction between the inner and outer while ardently holding to their essential union should be charged with docetism, while essentially identifying them should be exempt from other corresponding charges.

Must one choose between Docetic and Eutychian ecclesiologies? Is the Catholic ecclesiology Eutychian? No and No. Docetism denies that Christ ever took on a human nature. According to Docetism, Christ only appeared to be human, but did not actually have a human body. Eutychianism, which is also called Monophysitism (meaning "one nature") was condemned at the Fourth General Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. According to the Monophysites, Jesus' humanity was absorbed into His divine nature such that He no longer has a human nature, having only His divine nature (hence "Monophysitism").

Docetism and Eutychianism both deny that Christ has a human nature. For that reason, both Docetic and Eutychian notions of the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ) treat the Church as in itself invisible, spiritual, and immaterial, only visible in the sense that it makes use of embodied human believers in much the same way that the Logos (i.e. the Second Person of the Trinity), according to a Docetic conception, might make use of material elements in order to appear as though having a body, but would not actually be made up of those material elements, nor would they be parts of Him. Chalcedonian Christology, with its affirmation of two distinct natures united without mixture in one hypostatic union, entails that the Church as the Body of Christ is in itself visible and hierarchically organized as one corporate entity. (cf. Mystici Corporis Christi, 16) The real distinction between Christ's divine nature and His human nature does not imply that the Body of Christ is not necessarily visibly one. Rather, it is His having a real human nature that entails that the Body of Christ is necessarily visibly one.

Jonathan apparently thinks that the Catholic claim [that the visible Body of Christ is essentially one] mistakenly attributes to the visible aspect of the Church what is only true of the invisible aspect of the Church, and in that way falsely attributes what is only true of the divine nature to the human nature, as Eutychianism does. But Jonathan's claim is based on the implicit assumption that a living human body is not essentially visibly one. And yet a living human body is essentially visibly one. If it ceases to be visibly one, it ceases to be. Hence, its visible unity is essential to its being. Therefore, the Catholic claim that the [visible] Body of Christ is essentially visibly one is not Eutychian. Rather, the charge that Catholic ecclesiology is Eutychian is based on the mistaken notion that visible unity is not intrinsically essential to a living human body.

One possible objection is that the Eucharistic Body of Christ is not essentially visibly one, since there are many consecrated hosts. And so therefore the Mystical Body of Christ is not necessarily essentially visibly one. But the Eucharistic Body of Christ differs from the Mystical Body of Christ in an important and relevant way. It is not the case that a consecrated host is a *part* or *member* of the Eucharistic Body of Christ.

Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ. (CCC 1377)

But Christ is the Head of His Mystical Body. Every member of the Mystical Body of Christ is joined to Christ, but only He is the Head. That means that Christ is not present "whole and entire in" the members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the way He is in each of the parts of the Eucharistic species. The members of the Mystical Body of Christ must remain united to the Head of that Body, in order to remain in that Body, but no part of a consecrated Host must remain visibly united to the other parts of that Host, in order to remain wholly and entirely Christ.

Christ and his Church thus together make up the "whole Christ" (Christus totus). (CCC 795)

For that reason, the Mystical Body is
essentially visibly one, even though "the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ".

To see video clips of our Corpus Christi procession and benedictions from last year, see here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks to Mark Abeln of Rome of the West for these videos.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

What Is The True Church? Part 2


"Disputation of the Holy Sacrament"
Raphael (1483-1520)

Ecumenically minded folks tend to talk a lot about common ground. I, on the other hand, though no less intent on effecting ecclesial unity and reconciliation, tend to focus mostly on what still divides us. That is because I believe that we cannot be truly one simply by plastering over our differences or sweeping them under the rug. That is false ecumenicism, in my view. Of course recognizing and declaring our common ground has been an important necessary step in even getting us to the ecumenical dialogue table during the past century. But a genuine ecumenical spirit is one that not only affirms our common ground both in truth and charity, but at the same time tenaciously and in tandem seeks out the most fundamental root causes and reasons for our disagreements and divisions.

It is easy to talk 'above' the root causes. For example, if you listen to Douglas Kelly's talk (now requires sign-in, which is free), notice how many times he quotes John Calvin. But the relevant meta-level questions behind the practice of quoting Calvin are these: What authority has Calvin? Who sent him, commissioned him, ordained him, or otherwise authorized him to speak on behalf of the Church? Or, why should we believe and receive the teaching of someone whom the Church has not authorized to teach or preach? (To understand better the Catholic paradigm about those questions, see St. Francis de Sales' The Catholic Controversy.)
Unless and until we recognize and answer these meta-level questions, ecumenical dialogue will be an exercise in talking past each other. Genuine ecumenical dialogue cannot be only a presentation of our own particular tradition; it must zero-in on the meta-level questions, and seek out ways to reach agreement about the answers to those questions.

Last year I asked a Protestant the following question: "If Protestantism were a schism from the Catholic Church, and not the continuation of the Church, how would we know?" He replied, "Protestantism would be teaching a different gospel than the one it teaches." The problem with that reply is that any heretic from any heresy throughout history could have said the same thing about his own heretical sect. In short, that reply is obviously question-begging. In order to come to an agreement about "What is the true Church?", we have to find a non-question-begging way of distinguishing the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" from heresies and schisms. And that means that we have to look at the metal-level differences between the various paradigms.

So what are the meta-level differences that divide Protestants and Catholics? When we examine the differences between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church, as I did in Part 1, we find a methodological difference between Catholics and Protestants in the respective ways in which they seek out the natures of the marks of the Church. Protestants approach questions of theology and ecclesiology as though Scripture alone is the only authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy. Catholics, on the other hand, approach such questions under the inseparable authorities of Scripture, Tradition and the living Magisterium.

The "Scripture alone" way of thinking could also be characterized as "No living Magisterium". It is manifested in its essence at the birth of Protestantism, in Martin Luther's statement at the Diet of Worms:

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God."

Luther had made his conscience ultimately subject to his own interpretation of Scripture, not ultimately subject to the Church's decisions. This "No living Magisterium" way of approaching Scripture entails a practice wherein each person believes and does what is right in his own eyes, according to his own interpretation of Scripture. And the result is a manifold plurality of beliefs and practices.

Protestants and Catholics cannot ultimately resolve their disagreements by simply appealing to Scripture as if there is no Tradition and Magisterium, or by appealing to the Catholic Tradition and Magisterium. That would beg the question either way. Their disagreements all seem to depend on this more fundamental difference of Protestants not having, and Catholics having, Catholic Tradition and a living Magisterium. So that should be the point of focus for ecumenical dialogue. But this is tricky, because both sides can be tempted at this point to beg the question by seeking to resolve the difference according to their own paradigm: Catholics by appealing to Scripture as interpreted and understood within the Tradition and under the living Magisterium, and Protestants by appealing to Scripture apart from that Tradition and Magisterium.

Let me suggest that we step back and look at the origin of both positions from both paradigms. How was it, that the Catholic Church came to believe in, and Protestants came to deny, the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? According to the Catholic Church, the Gospel was handed on in two ways by the Apostles: orally, and in writing. (CCC 76, 78) In the writings of the early Church fathers we (from the viewpoint of the third millennium) find witness to this Tradition. Likewise, according to the Catholic Church, the living Magisterium has been with the Church since the day of Pentecost, first in the Apostles themselves, and then subsequently in the bishops whom they appointed. (CCC 77) So according to the Catholic Church, the Tradition and the living Magisterium have their origin in the Apostles.

How then did Protestants come to deny the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? That is a more complicated story, but the short of it is that Luther and other early Reformers saw certain abuses and corruption (e.g. the selling of indulgences) in the Church, and appeared to discover a different gospel in the New Testament Scriptures than the one taught by the Catholic Church. This led them to call into question both the Tradition and the living Magisterium, and call for a return to Scripture as the norm for faith and practice. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic Church had fallen into apostasy, and the Protestants were the true Christians, the continuing Church, the ones carrying on the Apostles' doctrine.
The Protestant justification for departing in various respects from the doctrines, practices, and communion of the Catholic Church of the early 16th century was that Protestantism was recovering things that had been lost in the first century, and abandoning things that had been unjustifiably added since the first century. From the Catholic point of view, the [early] Protestants were both heretics and schismatics, having departed from the Catholic Church and from the apostolic doctrine which she had guarded and preserved for one and half millennia.

How do we determine whether (1) the Catholic Church was apostate and the Protestants were the true Christians carrying on the Apostolic doctrine, or (2) the Catholic Church was not apostate and the Protestants were heretics and schismatics? How do we even begin to answer that question? One possible way to answer it is by searching the Scriptures. But, as I have pointed out above, this approach simply begs the question against Catholics, just as appealing to Pope Leo X's papal bull excommunicating Luther would beg the question against Protestants. It implicitly assumes the truth of the Protestant paradigm, that there is no Magisterium under which Scripture should be interpreted.

Another way of looking at this disagreement is to examine together the history of the Church from its infancy to the 16th century, and see if that helps us determine whether the Protestants were the continuation of the Catholic Church or a schism from the Catholic Church. Obviously such an historical survey is beyond the scope of a blog post! But perhaps we can note a few things. There is no real dispute, I think, concerning whether the Apostles appointed bishops, and whether these bishops appointed successors, etc., and whether this was essential to the Nicene understanding of apostolicity. Nor is there any real dispute, in my opinion, concerning whether the Apostles spoke and practiced no more than what was written in the New Testament. So there is no real dispute, in my view, about the *origin* of the Magisterium and Tradition. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics had to do with the manner in which these changed over the next 1500 years. The Catholic Church viewed itself as preserving the apostolic deposit, developing it, and not corrupting it. The Protestants viewed that 'development' more suspiciously as, in various respects, a corruption of and departure from the original Apostolic deposit. This is how Protestants justified proposing novelties such as sola scriptura and sola fide, as a way of countering what they saw as unjustified additions to and corruptions of the gospel. (To see that these two Protestant principles were novel, see Dave Armstrong's excellent work here and here. He quotes Protestant theologian Alister McGrath as pointing out that sola fide was unknown from the time of St. Paul to the Reformation.)

Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is indefectible; she can neither perish from the world nor depart from "her teaching, her constitution and her liturgy". (Ott, p. 296) See, for example, what St. Irenaeus says at the end of the second century about the Church's indefectibility here. Likewise, St. Augustine says, "The Church will totter when her foundation totters. But how shall Christ totter? ... as long as Christ does not totter, neither shall the Church totter in eternity." (Enarr. in Ps. 103, 2, 5) Elsewhere, writing about Psalm 48:9 (which is Psalm 48:8 in Protestant Bibles) St. Augustine says:

Let not heretics insult, divided into parties, let them not exalt themselves who say, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there." (Matt 24:23) Whoso says, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there," invites to parties. Unity God promised. The kings are gathered together in one, not dissipated through schisms. But haply that city which has held the world, shall sometime be overthrown? Far be the thought! "God has founded it forever." If then God has founded it forever, why fearest thou lest the firmament should fall?"

And in his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed (1:6), St. Augustine writes:

The same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can; be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they all went out of it, like unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity.

In contrast to the Catholic notion of indefectibility, Protestants affirm ecclesial indefectibility by applying it to an "invisible Church" or some hidden remnant perduring invisibly through the middle ages of the Church. But the notion of an "invisible Church" is itself a 16th century novelty, as Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out. Either way, there seems to be no practical or visible difference between an "invisible Church" being indefectible and the [visible] Church being defectible.

Ultimately then, it seems to me, the fundamental underlying difference between Protestants and Catholics is not doctrinal or even methodological; the doctrinal and methological differences are results of a more fundamental difference. The fundamental difference, I think, is dispositional. We might more properly call it an attitude or stance of the will toward Christ's relation to His Church. Catholics trust that Christ is providentially guiding and protecting His Church through all time, until He returns, even when we see sinfulness and error in her leaders. In that trusting, open stance, the development of the Church, particularly with respect to doctrine and practice, is viewed as an organic and Spirit-guided blossoming of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church by Christ through the Apostles. The does not mean that the Church never needs reforming. But under this stance or disposition, reforming the Church never involves a rejection of what has been laid down as dogma, and never involves leaving the Church or forming a schism.

The opposing attitude or disposition is one of suspicion and distrust; I have called it "ecclesial deism". It can be seen in the Montanists, the Novatians, the Donatists, Joachim of Fiore, the Cathars, the Reformers, the Jansenists, and the Mormons. Conceiving of the Church in a gnostic, de-materialized way as something invisible is, I think, a result of an underlying ecclesial deism. Such a person adopts a gnostic de-materialized notion of the Church in opposition to what the Church believes and teaches about herself, because of some kind of ecclesial deism that is at least implicitly held.

Is there any relation between faith in Christ, and believing the Church? Traditionally, these were seen as inseparable. In the faith itself, spelled out in the Creed, is the line: "Credo ... et unam, sanctum, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam". "I believe ... one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". We believe "in God the Father", and "in Jesus Christ His only Son", and "in the Holy Spirit". But we don't merely believe in the Church -- we believe the Church. Clearly it does not make sense to believe an invisible Church. St. Augustine treated recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Church as the ground on which to believe the Gospel. Hence he could say:

"For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."

Trusting Christ was inseparably bound up with trusting the Church, for one had to trust that Christ was guiding and protecting His Church and operating through her, in order to know anything about Christ through the testimony of the Church. (See my post "Church and Jesus are Inseparable".)

When we take up a hermeneutic of suspicion toward the Church, there is virtually no possibility of growing in our faith in Christ. We become cynical and disengaged. We are left with no option but trying to find and grow closer to Jesus on long walks in the forest or in the mountains or under the stars. We are reduced to the individualist/gnostic that we know can't be right, and even despise. (If it sounds like I've been there, that's because I have.)

If the Church cannot be trusted, then of what use is a verse like the following:

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)

If the Church cannot be trusted then we would not be able to distinguish those who "went out" from those who "remained with us". (The corollary of this verse is that those who return to us were really "of us", in some sense.) Douglas Kelly says that Calvin makes it clear that he and the other Reformers "didn't purposely leave the organized Church in schismatic fashion, but they felt they had been forced out." (That is at 1:02:00 in the audio recording of his talk.) I have heard that same kind of claim many times, i.e. that the Reformers did not intend to form a schism or start a new Church, but were forced out by the Catholic Church. What is relevant is not the words 'intend' or 'force', but rather the word 'out'. I have never heard or read any Catholic say that Catholics were forced out of the Church by Protestants excommunicating them. Protestants justify their claim that they (and not the Catholics) are the continuation of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" by treating the Church as essentially invisible.

When I was a Protestant, I thought that Protestants had only been forced out of a mere institution (an institution made only by mere men), not the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", which in my mind was essentially invisible. But couldn't any heretical sect of the previous 1500 years have claimed the same thing about itself? How does redefining the Church as essentially invisible not entirely nullify the penalty of excommunication? (Matt 18:17-18) These are challenging and even painful questions, I understand, but I see no other way of reconciling Protestants and the Catholic Church than by facing head-on what exactly happened in this 16th century separation. If we do not have a principled distinction between the sort of division that occurred between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and the sort of division that occurred between all the heresies and schisms of the first 1500 years and the Catholic Church, then how can we non-arbitrarily affirm the former and reject the latter? They too were following Scripture, according to their own interpretations (see here and here).

Let us continue to focus on the *fundamental* points of disagreement, the ones that stand under and behind all the others, the ones that ultimately distinguish the Protestant and Catholic paradigms.

Lord Jesus, we pray for the reunion of all Christians in full visible unity, that the world may know that the Father sent You and loves us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What Is the True Church? Part 1



Francis A. Schaeffer
In the Fall of 1997, the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary sponsored a lecture series titled "What Is the True Church?". The Anglican position was presented by J.I. Packer. The Reformed view was presented by Douglas Kelly. The Orthodox position was presented by Nicholas Triantafilou. The Lutheran position was presented by Roger Pitellko. And the Catholic position was presented by Richard John Neuhaus. The audio of these talks can be downloaded for free here (requires sign in, which is free).

I was present at these talks; I was in my fourth year of seminary at the time. I remember coming away from this lecture series wondering what was the most fundamental reason that these men disagreed with each other. At that time, I did not understand what the *fundamental* underlying reason for the disagreement was, though I think I have a better understanding of it now, and I have been trying to write about it here on Principium Unitatis over the past year. In particular, I remember listening to Fr. Neuhaus' talk and thinking the following: Here is a man who obviously loves Christ, a man learned in Scripture, theology and Church history. How could he possibly not understand that Scripture teaches what we [Presbyterians] believe? He is not the sort of person (in his character) to distort Scripture deliberately. Nor is he an anti-intellectual who is unaware of all that our great Reformed scholars have written in defense of Reformed theology. Why did he become Catholic, instead of becoming Presbyterian? How could he possibly know all that he knows, and be a genuine truth-loving person, and still leave Protestantism, for the Catholic Church, of all things!? Why couldn't the highly-skilled exegetes on our faculty at Covenant (and at Concordia) simply take him aside and show him from the Hebrew and Greek that his interpretations of Scripture were clearly wrong?

It was only later that I read Fr. Neuhaus' article "How I Became the Catholic I Was". But at that time (i.e. 1997), I could not see or even conceive of the Catholic paradigm, about which I wrote last year (see here). I did not even know there was such a thing. I could see theology only from a Protestant point of view, and from that point of view, Fr. Neuhaus' Catholic position was obviously and seriously flawed. For that reason, Fr. Neuhaus' move to Catholicism was a mystery to me; I simply couldn't make sense of it. So I did what I did with all those other things that didn't make sense to me theologically -- I put it in a mental closet and closed the door. But the door wouldn't stay closed, and the closet kept accumulating more and more "does-not-compute"s.

What I did not understand then, but understand much better now, is that what divides Christians are meta-level disagreements. (See my recent comment on meta-level questions here.) So often, when we try to resolve that which divides us, we fail to recognize and address the meta-level points of disagreement.
But given Tertullian's admonition, it does not seem appropriate to enter into a debate about first-order questions without first considering the meta-level questions. When a person is operating within a paradigm, and trying to resolve a disagreement with another person who is operating within a different paradigm, the discussion will make no headway toward agreement until they first recognize that they are each operating in a distinct paradigm, and then learn each other's paradigms, and then compare each other's paradigms on the basis of common ground, not question-begging claims.

Here I want to compare the Reformed answer to "What is the True Church?" with the Catholic answer to that question, and then point out the meta-level differences, that is, the underlying differences that account for the differences between the Reformed and Catholic answers to this question. I will do this in two parts. Part 1 will focus on the difference between the Reformed and Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church. Part 2 will focus on the meta-level differences that lie behind these conceptual differences.

I was taking notes on Douglas Kelly's comments on the four marks of the Church as given in the Creed: Unam, Sanctum, Catholicam, et Apostolicam Ecclesiam, i.e. the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As I was doing so, I noticed that Kelly's conceptions of "one" and "apostolic" were formalized, that is, de-materialized. When I say "de-materialized" I am referring to matter in the sense of "form and matter". A de-materialized conception of the gospel, for example, reduces it to a message (see here). A de-materialized conception of the Church is a kind of gnosticism, as I argued here. When I noticed that Kelly's conceptions of "one" and "apostolic" were de-materialized, I wondered if the same was true of his conceptions of "holy" and "catholic". Those turned out to be de-materialized as well. Then I looked at paragraph 881 in the Catholic Catechism, which reads:



"This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic." These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities." (my emphasis)

If these four marks are "inseparably linked to each other", then it is no coincidence that all four of Kelly's conceptions of the marks of the Church are de-materialized in comparison to the Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church. To de-materialize one of the marks is necessarily, it seems, to de-materialize them all. And de-materializing our conceptions of the marks of the Church means that we lose sight of the Church as a "visible sacrament" of the unity that come to mankind through Christ. (Lumen Gentium 9)

Unam:
The Catholic understanding of the unity of the Church is that the Church is visibly one, because the Church is the *Body* of Christ. Notice that this is not merely a formal (i.e. doctrinal unity), or an abstract unity, or an immaterial unity. The Church is one hierarchically organized body, one institution. It is not a mere collection or plurality of individuals or groups. That would still be, in actuality, a plurality only treated conceptually as if it were a unity. Nor is the Church merely one in belief and practice. The Church is one in being; it is one visible body or institution.

The Reformed conception of the unity of the Church, on the other hand, is de-materialized in that the Church's unity is thought to be fundamentally spiritual, immaterial, and invisible. In the Reformed conception, unity is an invisible mark of the invisible Church. According to this conception, it would be good if we visibly manifested that invisible unity we all already have in Christ, but visible unity is not an essential mark of the Church. I have said much about this recently here, here, here, and here.

Sanctum:
The Catholic understanding of the holiness of the Church is that the Church is actually holy. This does not mean that her members on earth have perfect holiness, or that they all have the same degree of holiness, or even that the majority are exceptionally holy; in fact we are all still sinners. Nor does it mean that
in their good deeds pagans and heretics can never outshine Catholics. But it does mean that the Church stands apart from the world in her godly practice and sanctification; she testifies by the manner of her life and witness to the righteousness of God, the dignity of human life, the goodness of creation, the future judgment and the life of the world to come. Her members on earth have a "real though imperfect" holiness (CCC 825), especially insofar as they receive the life of Christ through the means of grace in the sacraments. Moreover, the canonized saints are examples to us of the sanctifying transformative power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church. Through the continuous use of the sacraments and prayer, we are truly and actually transformed into virtuous people.

The common Reformed conception of holiness by contrast, is formalized and de-materialized. According to this conception, our holiness is essentially something imputed to us, a legal declaration in which Christ's righteousness is credited to our account, covering us from God's wrath, but not transforming us into persons to whom God could honestly say, "Well done good and faithful servant." All our deeds are as filthy rags. So the Church and the believer are treated by God *as if* holy, as if as holy as Christ, but not transformed so as to be actually holy. (I have explained all this in more detail here. To qualify, I'm speaking of the common contemporary Reformed conception of the gospel, not Calvin's own position.)

Catholicam:
The term means "universal", and as a mark of the Church it means "what is according to the totality", or "in keeping with the whole". (CCC 830) The Catholic conception of the term "Catholicam" is organic and narrative. The Church extends to wherever Christ is, wherever Christ offers Himself in preaching and sacrament, to every nation in the world. But this extends back in time, as an organic narrative, to the very birth of the Church on Pentecost. In that way, the Church is catholic insofar as she encompasses all that has been believed and practiced by the whole Church from the beginning of her history, through her organic development, to the present.

The Reformed conception of "catholic" is de-materialized in two ways. First, it tends to lay aside the time period from the fifth century to the 16th century as a great apostasy. I have called this notion "ecclesial deism", and explained it in more detail here. Second, Reformed denominations are provincial and regional by their very nature. They take names like "Presbyterian Church United States of America", or "Reformed Church of America" or "Presbyterian Church in America". How can anything with the name USA in it be the "catholic" Church? When PCUSA missionaries go to other countries in Africa and Asia, their converts become members of the PCUSA. There is no universal Presbyterian or Reformed Church whose members gather from all over the world for general assembly. The upcoming merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches shows an awareness of the need for catholicity. But I have argued here that to attempt to achieve catholicity by forming a new institution is to try to do the impossible, i.e. to re-found the Church. The only way to achieve true catholicity is to return to the one institution that Christ Himself founded on the Apostles.


As for the objection that the "Roman Catholic Church" has the word 'Roman' in it, and is therefore provincial, the word 'Roman' is not in the name of the Catholic Church -- see the title of the Catechism at right. The name "Roman Catholic Church" was a term coined by Protestants.

Apostolicam:
The Catholic conception of apostolicity as a mark of the Church is sacramental in nature. The Church is apostolic in that it was built on the foundation of the Apostles, often literally on their bones. (See here.) That Church is apostolic whose ministers were formally authorized and sent by those who were authorized and sent [in a line of unbroken succession] by the Apostles, preserving full communion with the episcopal successor of the Apostle Peter. Those whom the Apostles authorized and sent preserve the Apostles 'teaching and doctrine.

The Reformed conception of apostolicity, by contrast, is de-materialized in that it does not include sacramental succession from the Apostles, i.e. a succession of authorizations by the laying on of hands, extending all the way to the present day from the Apostles themselves. Rather, the Reformed conception of apostolicity is entirely formal (in the form and matter sense of 'form'), for it is defined as the Apostles' doctrine. This is why the Reformed communities posited two (or three) marks of the Church: (1) the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and (3) ecclesiastical discipline. But this only begs the question: Who has the authoritative determination of what is "right preaching of the Word" and "proper administration of the sacraments"? The common Reformed answer is: "The Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures." But if we ask, "And who has the authoritative determination of what the Holy Spirit is speaking through the Scriptures?", we get some answer like "the people of God". And if we ask, "And who are the 'people of God'?", we generally get some answer like, those who have right preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments. At that point we have simply moved around in a circle. That is why removing the matter from the conception of apostolicity entails both individualism and its necessary byproduct, ecclesial fragmentation, as I argued here and here. For more on apostolicity see my response to Sean Lucas here, my comments on apostolicity and Montanistic Gnosticism here, and my comments on the implications for apostolicity from Acts 15 and Romans 10 here.)

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.)

Diagram 1

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)


Diagram 2

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)

Diagram 3

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)

Diagram 4

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.

The Stone Caster


"Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery"
Rembrandt, 1644

In my opinion, the Donatistic conception of ecclesial authority is one of the primary factors hindering ecclesial unity. According to this conception, ecclesial authority is contingent upon one's own determination of the moral or theological qualifications of the individual holding some ecclesial office; and if one determines that the particular ecclesial authority does not meet those qualifications, one may justifiably 'rebel'. (I discuss Donatism, along with Montanism and Novatianism in "The Gnostic Roots of Heresy".) This Donatistic conception fails to recognize the sacramental nature of ordination, instead treating ecclesial authority as if this authority is derived democratically, from the bottom-up.

Last month I mentioned in passing the way David treated Saul, and what Jesus says about the "seat of Moses". Recently I read Jonathan Deane's post titled "The Stone Caster". He brings out very well the implications of Christ's words about the Pharisees in the "seat of Moses" for a Donatistic conception of ecclesial authority. Here's the link.

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Denominational Renewal": Part 2



The title of Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology was "On Being 'Truly 'Reformed': An Examination of the Reformed Catholic Tradition". He divided his talk into four sections: Apostolic, Catholic, Holy, and One, treating in reverse the four marks of the Church stated in that line in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". I'm passing over Matt's section on holiness because I agreed with everything he said in that section. I'll put my summaries of various parts of Matt's talk in black, and my comments in blue.

In his section on apostolicity, Matt pointed out that none of the Reformed confessions describes the Church as 'Apostolic'. He explained that the reason for this was that at the time of the Reformation, the term was generally used in a way that had to do with a line of succession extending back to the Apostles, and the Reformers were trying to focus on being Apostolic in a doctrinal sense. But he claimed that to be 'Apostolic' not only means to teach the Apostles' doctrine; it also means to be sent.

Because the Reformed tradition excluded the conception of 'Apostolic' from the Reformed confessions, as a result, claimed Matt, there tends to be a loss of a sense of mission in the Reformed tradition. Those in the Reformed tradition thus tend to have two destructive habits: "ecclesial nostalgia" and "ecclesial nihilism". By way of "ecclesial nostalgia" Reformed Christians act as though there was some golden age of the Church, and are always trying to get back to it, or hold on to it. And this tends to lead to something like a denominational police state. By way of "ecclesial nihilism" Reformed Christians conceive of denominational divisions as a fact of life, and then embrace these divisions, which then leads to further nihilism. Matt pointed out that there are 21 Reformed denominations in Switzerland. There are 14 Reformed denominations in the UK. And there are 44 Reformed denominations in the US.
Matt said:

"God promises to give His Church all the gifts that are necessary for communicating the Gospel to the world ... but He never made this promise to any particular denomination." .... "To leave one denomination for another is to sacrifice one set of gifts for another. "Jesus didn't promise that His Spirit would guide every denomination into all truth; He would guide the entire Church."

Catholics agree with these last three statements only because Catholics do not refer (and never have referred) to the Catholic Church as a "denomination". That is a relatively recent term. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church by means of her legitimate leaders. Presumably Matt would agree that the Spirit is not guiding the Church through the leaders of schismatic and heretical sects. So we would need to distinguish "the entire Church" from schismatic and heretical sects, otherwise it wouldn't do us any good to know that the Spirit is guiding the entire Church if we cannot distinguish who are the rightful leaders of the Church from those who are not the rightful leaders of the Church.

Implicit in Matt's statements, as with Jeremy's, is a conception of the Church as something per se invisible and non-institutional; this conception implicitly assumes that Christ did not found a visible, institutional Church. For a discussion of the problem with that position, see Part 1.)
The claim that "No institution is the one Christ founded" is not itself in Scripture, and therefore on Matt and Jeremy's own terms, shouldn't be raised to the level of dogma.

Matt's apparent proposed solution to denominationalism (or at least a first step within that proposed solution) is to work with others outside one's own denomination. He went on to say:


"Because we live in a divided Church, we cannot produce new creeds. We can't produce universal creeds." .... "We must refuse the urge to just jump ship [from our denomination].... We must not continue to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups that cut us off from what the Holy Spirit is doing even in other denominations."


This would imply that we should be seeking institutional unity. If it is wrong to divide further, then this implies that the present divisions are wrong. And if the present divisions are wrong, then we need to be institutionally one. But if Matt proposes that all Christians form one *new* 'institution', then see my post titled "Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ". The only remaining option then, is to find and be incorporated into the original institution founded by Christ.


In his section on catholicity, Matt talked about contextualization. To be "catholic", in his view, is to recognize that the Gospel is universal; it must go to all places and peoples. And so it must be contextualized to those places and peoples. Because of catholicity and contextualization, "therefore our theological formulations must change over time", according to the changing context. In Matt's opinion, the Nicene Creed is a contextual document. So is the Westminster Confession of Faith. They differ from each other because they are responding to different needs, at different times. He said that the Westminster divines would probably find it "weird" that Reformed Christians are still using the WCF. He went on to say:


"Part and parcel of the Reformed tradition is that we are always reforming; we are semper reformanda."

Recently, in a different post I wrote:


Bound up with the [Protestant] notion of sola scriptura is a denial of the infallibility of any Church council or papal decree. Sola scriptura thus entails that any line of any creed or conciliar or papal decree could be false.

This creates a serious problem for semper reformanda, of the sort that accompanies the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus was the pre-Socratic philosopher who said that everything is changing. But, if everything is changing then we know nothing; knowledge requires that there be something staying the same. If everything were changing, we could not even know that we know nothing, so the everything-is-changing position is self-refuting in that respect. Similarly, if nothing creedal is infallibly true, then what distinguishes development of doctrine from change in doctrine? (See, for example my comment here, and the follow-up comments.) When every doctrine is possibly false, then there is no way to distinguish development from change. Whether he knows it or not, what Matt is looking for as the antidote to "ecclesial nostalgia" on the one hand and "ecclesial nihilism" on the other hand, is the Catholic notion of development of doctrine. (cf. Newman's An Essay on the Development of Catholic Doctrine)

Organic development is the tertium quid between absolute stasis and unqualified change. But development is possible only in an ecclesial context in which truths can be established infallibly, and Protestantism denies that there is such an ecclesial context; only the writing of Scripture meets that criterion, according to Protestantism. Therefore, Protestantism does not have the ecclesial context for development of doctrine. There can be within it only combinations of change and stasis. That is not to say that Protestant theologians cannot deepen our understanding of Scripture. But Protestant ecclesiology cannot provide a context for development, for because all theological claims are fallible, at any moment they may be called into question. And therefore they are not a sure foundation upon which further doctrine may develop.

In his section on unity, Matt said the following:

"After the divisions of the Reformation, a lot of Protestants were tempted to say [that] the oneness of the Church, the unity of the Church, was only something invisible. And the Westminster Confession of Faith was the first confession in the history of the Church to ever describe the Church as invisible."

"When the bishops in Constantinople and when Paul [in Ephesians 4] were talking about the oneness of the Church, they were not only describing a theological understanding, they were describing a physical reality that had existed since the day of Pentecost. Paul is talking about a physical and visible unity. And this is not just his hope. He doesn't say 'let there be one body' he says 'there is one body'."


"And Jesus also talks about the visible unity, John 17, He says, I pray ..... When Jesus talks about their unity He is talking about a visible unity."


"We've got to begin by cultivating sorrow in our hearts for the divided state of the Church."


"Every new denomination further divides the Church of Jesus Christ."


"Jesus says that we cannot possibly be missional as long as we are divided."


"The Church was united. It will again be united. And it should be a present reality even now toward which we are striving."

In this conception of the Church, the Church was [visibly] united, but is now [visibly] divided, though still [invisibly] united. But if unity is a mark of the Church, then does Matt think the Church lost this mark? Has Christ been divided? If his answer is "no", then that can be only because the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ) is (in his view) invisible. But that goes against precisely what Matt is (rightfully) pointing out, i.e. that the Church per se is visible. Unity as a mark of an invisible Church is worthless. So if the Church per se is visible, and if unity is a mark of the Church, then the Church must have retained visible unity, even in the event of schism. The question for Matt is this: where is that visible unity that remains as a mark of the Church?

In the Catholic paradigm, that visible unity remains, in the institutional unity of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic paradigm there can be schism from the Church, without that schism destroying the visible unity of the institution which is the Catholic Church, while it is truly the case that Christians are thereby (through that schism) divided from each other. Matt's paradigm either makes visible unity a merely contingent mark of a no-longer existing visible Church, or an essential (but worthless) mark of an invisible Church. If he replies, "No, I think the visible Church still exists, only in a divided state", the difficulty for his position is that it is indistinguishable from the notion that the Church per se is invisible, though having some embodied 'members' who are visible.


In sum, Catholics agree that Apostolicity has both formal and material aspects (i.e. doctrine and sacramental succession). Catholics agree that the Church is Catholic, but for Catholics, the term 'catholic' does not include what heretics and schismatics taught (insofar as it differed from orthodoxy). So we need a means of clearly distinguishing between orthodoxy and heresy in order to determine whose beliefs/practices count as belonging to the extension of the term 'catholic'. If we are going exclude the Council of Trent from the extension of 'catholic', for example, then why include Nicea? Otherwise the term 'catholic' just becomes a catch-all, containing everything, and thus containing nothing, or containing only what 'our' particular tradition thinks it should contain. And then we would have many different versions of 'catholic', making the term worthless. Catholics also agree that the Church is One. We believe that the visible Church is one, even while Christians of various traditions are separated from her in various respects. If the visible Church were not one, there would be no visible Church; there would only be visible [particular] Churches (see Pope Benedict's comment here about the Catholic Church not being a "federation of Churches"). But Christ founded only one Church (Matt. 16:18), because Christ has only one Bride. So the visible Church must be one. Matt's position thus faces the challenge of distinguishing itself from the notion that the Church per se is invisible, but having some embodied 'members' who are visible.

I hope my comments here may stimulate some discussion for the sake of bringing reconciliation and unity between Presbyterians and Catholics, after almost 500 years of being divided. May the Lord Jesus make us one. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.