Today is the seventh day of the week of prayer for Christian unity. It is also the feast day of St. Francis de Sales, who brought 72,000 Calvinists back into the Catholic Church. Recently I came across Michael Spencer's post titled "Spiritual Depression and the Search for the One True Church", and it prompted the following reflection.
The greatest challenge to the goal of reconciling Protestants and Catholics in full unity is not coming to an agreement regarding whether charity is merely coexistent with justifying faith (Turretin) or whether charity is that which makes faith to be living faith, and thus to be justifying faith (Trent). (See here.) I suspect that only a very small percentage of contemporary Christians has even thought about that question. Many Protestants, I suppose, if they didn't know the source, probably would be open if not sympathetic to Pope Benedict's recent talk on justification. In my opinion the greatest challenge for reuniting Protestants and Catholics has to do, rather, with reconciling two very different ecclesial paradigms that differ on the question of whether or not Christ founded His Church with a perpetual hierarchy in unbroken succession from the Apostles.
In the ecclesial paradigm of contemporary Evangelicalism, the Church Christ founded is something spiritual, and faith in Christ is a sufficient condition for full membership in Christ's Church. Of course Christians are called not to forsake the assembling of ourselves together (Hebrews 10:25), and so some local organized congregation or regional organization (i.e. denomination) is practically useful if not necessary. But these are all merely man-made organizations. That is why, in the Evangelical mind, it is fine to initiate and form entirely *autonomous* congregations of all different sorts and styles, even in the same town. The Church is the invisible spiritual entity to which true believers are invisibly joined by the Holy Spirit, regardless of any organizational or institutional affiliation. We can see this ecclesial paradigm in the consumeristic way evangelicals determine which congregation or denomination to join, and in the way they decide for themselves which doctrines are essential and which are non-essential.
We can see this paradigm implicit in the common notion that it is more important to join an imperfect denomination than to continue searching for a 'perfect church'. The notion of finding "the Church that Christ founded" is typically not even on the conceptual radar, precisely because the Evangelical ecclesial paradigm does not recognize that Christ established and endowed His Church with a perpetual hierarchy of leadership in succession from the Apostles. But, it was to this perpetual hierarchy that the Holy Spirit, speaking through the inspired author of Hebrews, commanded us to submit and obey (Heb 13:17) -- not to those whom we have accumulated to ourselves who teach according to our own interpretation of Scripture (2 Tim 4:3).
When the Apostle Matthew records Jesus saying to Peter in Matt 16:18, "upon this rock I will build My Church", and then saying, in Matt 18:17, "tell it to the Church", and "listen to the Church", the most natural way of understanding these passages is that the term 'ekklesia' ('Church') is being used in the same way in all three places. And it is clear in the Matthew 18 passages that 'ekklesia' there refers to the visible Church, not a merely spiritual entity. That implies that Matt 16:18 is also referring to the visible Church. This is the one, holy, catholic (i.e universal) and apostolic (i.e. hierarchically organized in succession from the Apostles) Church.
When we look at the transition in the early Church from Apostolic to post-Apostolic leadership in the first century, we find a very different ecclesial paradigm from that of contemporary Evangelicalism. We see apostolicity understood as an apostolic authorization to hold ecclesial authority, to speak and teach in Christ's name, and with His authorization. Ecclesial authority could not come from non-authority; it could come only from those having authority from the Apostles.
This conception of ecclesial authority carries with it a very different ecclesiology, because to be a member in full communion with the Church thus requires being in full communion with this perpetual hierarchy. To be in full communion with Christ's Church, it is not enough simply to believe in Christ and love Christ. I discussed apostolicity in more detail here and here. Only in rediscovering what apostolicity meant in the early Church as taught in the fathers can Evangelicals and Catholics come to share the same ecclesial paradigm by which we can be truly united.
The early Reformers had a more accurate understanding of the visibility of the Church than do contemporary Evangelicals. Consider the following quotation from Keith Mathison (a Protestant):
Unlike modern Evangelicalism, the classical Protestant Reformers held to a high view of the Church. When the Reformers confessed extra ecclesiam nulla salus, which means "there is no salvation outside the Church," they were not referring to the invisible Church of all the elect. Such a statement would be tantamount to saying that outside of salvation there is no salvation. It would be a truism. The Reformers were referring to the visible Church… The Church is the pillar and ground, the interpreter, teacher, and proclaimer of God’s Word… The Church has authority because Christ gave the Church authority. The Christian who rejects the authority of the Church rejects the authority of the One who sent her (Luke 10:16). (Keith A. Mathison, The Shape of Sola Scriptura, pp. 268, 269.)(H/T: David Waltz)
Or consider what Scott Clark (a Protestant professor at Westminster Seminary in California) says about connectionalism in his ecclesiology article. There he writes, "It is often assumed in the American Church that the New Testament Churches were independent of one another and autonomous, that is, subject to no one's authority but their own. In fact this is less a New Covenant picture than an amalgam of the historic Anabaptist view of the Church with traditional American self reliance." Clark's article implies that the visible catholic Church that Christ founded consists of local congregations *networked* together and subordinate to the decisions of general assemblies such as in Acts 15.
It is to that visible catholic Church that the promises of Christ to the Church refer. The gates of hell shall not prevail against the visible catholic Church (Matt 16:18). Christ will be with the visible catholic Church to the end of the age (Matt 28:20). The Holy Spirit will guide the visible catholic Church into all truth (John 16:13). Whatever the visible catholic Church binds on earth will be bound in heaven (Matt 16:19, 18:19). The visible catholic Church is the pillar and ground of truth (1 Tim 3:15). These promises would be superfluous and unhelpful if intended only for the set of all the elect.
So when asked "Which is the visible catholic Church that Christ founded?", we should at least be able to refer to the network of congregations constituting the visible catholic Church. If we're left scratching our heads, then there are only three possibilities: either Christ's promises didn't apply to the visible catholic Church (and the visible catholic Church simply faded out of existence at some point in history), or Christ didn't found a visible catholic Church, or it is *we* who have lost sight of the visible catholic Church. In Evangelicalism, there is no such thing (conceptually) as a visible catholic Church. In confessional Protestantism there is at least a familiarity with the concept of the visible catholic Church, but the question "Which is the visible catholic Church that Christ founded?" nevertheless leads to the scratching of heads. Few are willing to say that it is their own denomination.
The offense that some Protestants took to Responsa ad quaestiones in July of 2007 is due precisely to their unfamiliarity with what it means that Christ founded one, visible catholic Church. The visibility of the Church is entailed by what the Church has believed and taught from the beginning about apostolicity as ecclesial authority derived in succession from the Apostles through the laying on of hands by those having that authority. (Reducing apostolicity to formal agreement with the Apostles' doctrine therefore vitiates the grounds for ecclesial visibility.) It should be no surprise that if we want to reunite all Christians, we have to be united together in Christ's Church. And further it should be no surprise that if we are going to find and be united in Christ's Church, we have to dig deeply into her four marks as repeated in the Creed: Credo in ... unam, sanctam, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam.
St. Francis de Sales, focusing on apostolicity, wrote the following to the Protestants of Geneva:
"First, then, your ministers had not the conditions required for the position which they sought to maintain, and the enterprise which they undertook. ... The office they claimed was that of ambassadors of Jesus Christ our Lord; the affair they undertook was to declare a formal divorce between Our Lord and the ancient Church his Spouse; to arrange and conclude by words of present consent, as lawful procurators, a second and new marriage with this young madam, of better grace, said they, and more seemly than the other. ... To be legates and ambassadors they should have been sent, they should have had letters of credit from him whom they boasted of being sent by. ... Tell me, what business had you to hear them and believe them without having any assurance of their commission and of the approval of Our Lord, whose legates they called themselves? In a word, you have no justification for having quitted that ancient Church in which you were baptized, on the faith of preachers who had no legitimate mission from the Master.
St. Francis de Sales, pray for us, that we would all be one in the visible catholic Church that Christ founded.