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

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Response to Keister on Church Unity

Lane Keister of Green Baggins recently posted "Church Unity". My comments on Keister's post can be found here.

Update: (08/30/07) Lane replied here, and my subsequent replies are in the combox of that post.

The alternative to painting a magisterial target around our interpretive arrow

Recently in the combox of this post, I referred to the inherent individualism and disunity in the practice I described as painting one's magisterial target around one's interpretive arrow. By "painting one's magisterial target around one's interpretive arrow" I mean the practice of choosing and grounding magisterial [i.e. human ecclesial] authority based on their agreement with one's own interpretation of Scripture.

The common rejoinder to this observation is that there is no alternative. The Protestant typically conceives of the Catholic as someone who, like the Protestant, picked a denomination and a magisterium based (at best) on the Catholic's own interpretation of Scripture. (See my posts: "Two Paradigms" and "Ecclesial Consumerism vs. Ecclesial Unity".)

But there is an alternative. We are not limited to choosing a magisterium based on their agreement with our interpretation of Scripture. There is another possibility. That possibility is that there is such a thing as sacramental magisterial authority. (See my post titled "Sacramentally grounded magisterium vs. individualism".) The authority had by sacramental magisterial authorities is not grounded in their agreement with our own interpretation of Scripture. Rather, our interpretation of Scripture is subject to their authority. Sacramental magisterial authority is discovered by its sacramentality, i.e. by its sacramental succession from the Apostles, not (as such) by its agreement with our interpretation of Scripture. (I have discussed sacramental succession here and here and here.)

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Private judgment and sacramental magisterial authority

A commenter named 'Mark' said the following in the combox of this article:

Once you've allowed that the private judgment has the ability to lead you to the source of all truth, what in principle can be wrong with permitting it to have a perpetual role.

'Private judgment' means specifically that the individual acts as his own ultimate ecclesial/interpretive authority. If a person, apart from any sacramental magisterial authority, discovers that there is a sacramental magisterial authority, then if this person continues to act as though that sacramental magisterial authority is not a sacramental magisterial authority, this person is living in a manner that contradicts what he knows to be true. Private judgment is not the same thing as free choice. A person who submits to an authority can do so freely, while not living by private judgment. So a person who discovers sacramental magisterial authority can and should continue to exercise free choice in his acts of obedience to that authority. But for such a person to continue to operate in the mode of private judgment would be for him to operate as if there is no sacramental magisterial authority.

Therefore, just because there is nothing wrong with coming to discover sacramental magisterial authority apart from the oversight of that sacramental magisterial authority, it does not follow that one may operate thereafter as though there is no sacramental magisterial authority. Private judgment is not incompatible with coming to be aware of sacramental magisterial authority, but continuing to operate according to private judgment is incompatible with an awareness of sacramental magisterial authority.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Solemnity of St. Louis of France

Today, August 25, is the feast day of Saint Louis IX (1214-1270), the principal patron saint of the city of Saint Louis.

His Excellency Archbishop Burke writes:
On Saturday, Aug. 25, the Church universal celebrates the memory of our principal patron in the Archdiocese of St. Louis, St. Louis IX, King of France. The patronal feast, which is a solemnity in the Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis, will be transferred to Sunday, Aug. 26, so that a greater number of the faithful of the archdiocese may participate in the Solemn Pontifical Mass at 5 p.m. If possible, please participate in the Holy Mass on this coming Sunday to ask the intercession of St. Louis, King of France, for the many needs of the Archdiocese of St. Louis.

I also encourage you to familiarize yourselves again with the life of St. Louis. St. Louis is a model for husbands, fathers, heads of state, for those who carry out the work of charity and for all of us. He was truly a man who gave himself completely to Christ in his vocation and life. He became more and more conformed to Christ, giving his last energies of life to leading a crusade to safeguard the holy places of our Lord's redemptive Incarnation.
St. Louis, King of France, please pray for our city. Especially pray that all the Christians of this city would be reunited in full visible unity. In nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti. Amen

Friday, August 24, 2007

Biblicism, sola scriptura, and fideism

In section 55 of the papal encyclical Fides et Ratio (1998), Pope John Paul II writes:
There are also signs of a resurgence of fideism, which fails to recognize the importance of rational knowledge and philosophical discourse for the understanding of faith, indeed for the very possibility of belief in God. One currently widespread symptom of this fideistic tendency is a "biblicism" which tends to make the reading and exegesis of Sacred Scripture the sole criterion of truth. In consequence, the word of God is identified with Sacred Scripture alone, thus eliminating the doctrine of the Church which the Second Vatican Council stressed quite specifically. Having recalled that the word of God is present in both Scripture and Tradition, the Constitution Dei Verbum continues emphatically: "Sacred Tradition and Sacred Scripture comprise a single sacred deposit of the word of God entrusted to the Church. Embracing this deposit and united with their pastors, the People of God remain always faithful to the teaching of the Apostles". Scripture, therefore, is not the Church's sole point of reference. The "supreme rule of her faith" derives from the unity which the Spirit has created between Sacred Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Magisterium of the Church in a reciprocity which means that none of the three can survive without the others.
I'm reminded of the following section from Scott Hahn's description of his coming into the Catholic Church:

One professor whom I greatly respect, an Oxford theologian, said to me, "Scott, you don't expect to find the Bible proving sola Scriptura because it isn't something the Bible demonstrates. It is our assumption; it is our presupposition when we approach the Bible." That struck me as odd; I said, "But professor, that seems strange because what we are saying then is that we should only believe what the Bible teaches, but the Bible doesn't teach us to only believe what the Bible teaches. Our assumption isn't taught by the Bible." I said, "That feels like we're cutting off the branch that we're sitting on." Then he said, "Well what other options do we have?"

What is right about sola scriptura is its recognition that there is no authority higher than that of the word of God. But the first problem with sola scriptura is that it assumes that the word of God is wholly contained in the books of the Bible. It thereby assumes that nothing else that the Apostles said to the early Church, and that was passed down by the Church and later written by the Church fathers, is part of the word of God to the Church. But that assumption cannot itself be found in Scripture or grounded by Scripture. Those teachings of the Apostles that were not included in the books of the New Testament, but were passed down orally (especially in the prayers and liturgical practices of the Church) and in the writings of the Fathers, are what Pope John Paul II refers to in the quotation above as Tradition.
(See Carl Olson's comments here.)

The second problem with sola scriptura is that it implicitly denies [sacramental] magisterial authority. Here's John Frame's definition of sola scriptura, found in his article, "
In Defense of Something Close to Biblicism":

Sola Scriptura is the doctrine that Scripture, and only Scripture, has the final word on everything, all our doctrine, and all our life. Thus it has the final word even on our interpretation of Scripture, even in our theological method.
Implicit in this definition of sola scriptura is the notion that each man is under no higher ecclesial authority than his own determination of Scripture's interpretation of Scripture. In its rejection of the authority of the magisterium to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture, sola scriptura is an endorsement of individualism and the rule of private judgment. (See here for
my response to Keith Mathison on the individualism of sola scriptura.)

By rejecting those two other loci of ecclesial authority, sola scriptura turns into each man doing what is right in his own eyes. As Pope John Paul II said, "[N]one of the three can survive without the others."

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Not My Will But Yours Be Done

This past Sunday at the 10 AM Mass at the Saint Louis Cathedral Basilica, I was struck by a number of thoughts while listening to the homily by Monsignor Joseph Pinns. (That homily is available in mp3 format here; a transcript of the homily is available here.) One of my thoughts was that if, as Peter Leithart claims, "the tendency to obscure the gospel and to displace Christ is inherent in Roman Catholic theology and practice" (see here), would Leithart claim that this homily obscures the gospel and displaces Christ, or would he deny that it is a Catholic homily?

But some of my other thoughts related more directly to the topic of the reunion of all Christians. In Sunday's Gospel reading (St. Luke 12:49-53) we see that Jesus comes to bring division. Monsignor Pinns said,
When Jesus speaks about division, He refers to that inevitable divide that occurs between people who embrace His way, and those who refuse it or oppose it, opposing the cross, that is, Christ Himself.
The division that Christ brings is not a division between His followers one from another, but between His followers and those who refuse to follow Him. Therefore the divisions within Christianity are each a result of a refusal to follow Him in some respect.

Monsignor Pinns went on to contrast the peace of the world with Christ's peace. He pointed out that Jesus Himself contrasted His peace with the peace of the world. Concerning the world's peace, Monsignor Pinns said:

But what is the world's peace based on? Compromise, concessions, bargaining, accommodation with the mores of the secularism around us, but all in an effort to balance power. That's this world's peace.
In this description of the world's peace, I am reminded of the kind of ecumenicism that seeks unity by finding the lowest common denominator between all the divided parties. Such an ecumenicism is doomed to failure, like the fragile unity with which the feet and toes made of iron and clay were unified (Daniel 2). The peace it pursues is the world's peace.

But the peace of Christ is exemplified in Christ's words "Not My will but Yours be done". It is the peace of submission to God. For Christ it was the peace of submission to the Father. For the Apostles it was the peace of submission to Christ. For those bishops appointed by the Apostles it was the peace of submission to the Apostles. And for us it is the peace of submission to those bishops appointed by them through sacramental succession. Monsignor Pinns said,
Jesus's peace is demonstrated perhaps most clearly in all the Gospels in a few sentences in the description of the events in the Garden of Gethsemane at the moment when Jesus was arrested. He agonized. And all His prayer was summed up in: "Not My will but Yours be done." And He rose from that prayer resolute and strong and composed and peaceful, interiorly, though still opposed by those who came to arrest Him. Put that in contrast to the reason that the good is always warred upon. It goes all the way back to another in a garden who didn't pray, and simply announced: Not Your will but mine be done. That's what Adam said. Not Your will but mine be done. Did Adam find peace? No, he introduced all the division and the chaos and the warring on the good that the world has ever experienced since. But it began right there.
Christ's peace involved submission to the will of the Father. By contrast, all the division that came upon mankind was due to Adam's "Not Your will but mine be done."

What does that have to do with the unity of the Church? Everything. The essence of Protestantism is "protest to the point of forming a schism or remaining in schism". It involves the rejection of the legitimate sacramental magisterial authorities who were appointed by the successors of the Apostles, and the replacement of them with the individualism of self-rule by private judgment, and/or
with rule by those selected based on whether they teach in accordance with the individual's own interpretations (cf. 2 Timothy 4:3) -- such teachers have only "doctrinally grounded authority". [See, for example, the discussion in the combox here.] Each man is his own ultimate interpretative and ecclesial authority. If he disagrees with his pastor, he simply moves down the street to the next congregation that teaches in accordance with his own interpretation. And if none of the congregations in his area conforms to his interpretation, he simply starts his own congregation and appoints himself its pastor. To become or remain a Protestant [a "protester to the point of forming a schism or remaining in schism] is to say to the Church: "Not your will but mine be done." And thus (cf. St. Luke 10:16) it is to say to Christ and the Father: "Not Your will but mine be done."

In tempting Eve, Satan did not challenge God's Word per se; he challenged the authorized interpretation that Adam had given to Eve. The debate was about interpretation. Satan provided an alternative [non-authorized] and spiritualized intepretation about dying (i.e. dying to ignorance and blindness), and Eve followed the non-authorized interpretation, as I have discussed here.

The peace that Christ gives, the only kind of peace that can truly reunite all Christians is not found in the ecumenicism that seeks some common ground while clinging to the rejection of sacramental magisterial authority. The peace that Christ gives, the only kind of peace that can truly reunite all Christians is not found in each man being his own self-appointed interpretive authority. The peace that Christ gives, the only kind of peace that can truly reunite all Christians, can be found when we say to Christ (by saying to those whom the Apostles appointed -- cf. St. Luke 10:16): "Not my will but Yours be done." That is how we can stand before the bishop and say (as any person coming into the Church must say): "I believe and profess all that the Holy Catholic Church believes, teaches, and proclaims to be revealed by God."

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Some recent interactions, and a response to Peter Leithart

"Pursue peace with all men" (Hebrews 12:14)

How much more does that imperative apply to our responsibility to our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we are presently not at peace because of differences in doctrine, practice, and magisterial authority? There was a generation of young people that broke down a concrete wall in Berlin in 1989. I remember watching them by television as they joyfully chipped away at it with sledge hammers. I pray to God and plead with my brothers and sisters in Christ to make every effort to break down those walls that still divide us, by reaching through them to dialogue sincerely, charitably and humbly with those on the other side. Far more than that one do these present walls demand tearing down.

I will not be able to post as often, given my other responsibilities. So here I will mention a few discussions I have participated in relatively recently. In early June I had a discussion with Jonathan Barlow in the combox of his post titled "Frame on Confessional Subscription". There we talked about what sort of authority tradition has, and I presented a dilemma regarding sacramental magisterial authority. In mid-June I also participated in a discussion about individualism in the combox of Jon's post "PCA Adopts GA Report on Federal Vision". Around that time I had a brief exchange with Gabe Martini on his post titled Sin and unity; Ephesians 2:14-16. Shortly after that I discussed the doctrine of assurance with Wayne Larson and Joel Garver on Wayne's blog article titled "Peter on Assurance". I also discussed the nature of true ecclesial unity with Alastair Roberts at his post titled "Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2". In late June I discussed that same topic with Jonathan Bonomo and Peter Escalante at Jonathan Bonomo's post "Eight Points of Clarification on who we are and where we are Coming from". In mid-July I discussed imputation with Jonathan Barlow in the combox of his article "Clark on Imputation (Again)". Toward the end of July I had a discussion with Jeff Myers in the combox of his post titled "Trinity & Church X - John 17" where I argued that the unity that Christ refers to in John 17 includes ontological unity, not merely affective or volitional unity. In mid-August I again discussed the Trinity with Jeff in the combox of his post "Covenant & Trinity". There I argued that generation and spiration are necessary to avoid modalism and tritheism. And during the past few days I discussed sacramental magisterial authority with Lane Keister in the combox of his post titled "The Church".

A few weeks ago Jon [Barlow] posted a link on his blog to Peter Leithart's Aug/Sept 1995 article in First Things titled "Why Protestants Still Protest". It is a significant article, and I couldn't find any published response to it. (I confess that I didn't look very hard, so it wouldn't surprise me if there are responses that I missed.) So I wrote a response and uploaded it today. It is available here.

Nobody thought that wall would come down for a long time. We have to believe that we can tear down those walls that now divide the Body of Christ. Protestants and Catholics are ten years away from being separated from each other for five hundred years. Catholics and Orthodox are forty-seven years from being separated from each other for one thousand years. Come, brothers and sisters in Christ, let us tear down these walls, for the glory of Christ, and the sake of His sacred pierced heart that continues to cry out for the peace and full unity of His covenant people. Our lives are short. What are we waiting for? Will it be our generation or some future generation that tears down these walls?

Lord, may it be ours. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

"Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God." (Matthew 5:9)

Friday, August 17, 2007

Two Paradigms

You have probably seen the drawing that can be viewed as a rabbit or a duck. There is another that can be seen as an old woman or a young woman, depending on how one looks at it. The Protestant and Catholic conceptions of Christianity are somewhat like that; they are different paradigms. Typically when Protestants evaluate Catholicism, they do so from within the Protestant paradigm. That is why common Protestant responses to certain Catholic doctrines or practices are, "Where is that in the Bible?" and "That's not how I interpret it." The Protestant is typically operating under the principle of sola scriptura with its corresponding rejection of sacramental magisterial authority, and often cannot conceive or imagine any other way of thinking.

When Protestants talk to each other, across practically all Protestant denominations, they share that same Protestant principle of sola scriptura that puts them in the Protestant paradigm. That common principle is what makes it relatively easy to move from one Protestant denomination to another. The principle itself is never debated within Protestantism. Those debates generally have to do with the interpretation of Scripture. Sola scriptura is the given principle that underlies all the intra-Protestant debates. When Protestants talk with Catholics, Protestants often continue to speak as though sola scriptura is a principle shared by Catholics as well. But the Catholic Church has never believed or taught sola scriptura, nor has she ever rejected sacramental magisterial authority. So Protestant-Catholic dialogues often manifest a strange disconnect, the Protestant treating the Catholic as though the Catholic accepts sola scriptura, and the Catholic treating the Protestant as though the Protestant recognizes sacramental magisterial authority.

How do we avoid this disconnect? We have to talk about that which lies at the foundation of the difference between the two paradigms: sola scriptura and its rejection of sacramental magisterial authority. But this is still not easy. When a Protestant is asked to defend his belief in sola scriptura, he typically assumes the truth of sola scriptura in order to do so. Sola scriptura is virtually an a priori methodological principle for him. But sola scriptura is not an a priori methodological principle for Catholics. If anything, submitting to sacramental magisterial authority is the orthodox Catholic's natural mode of operation.

My point is that it is difficult (if not impossible) to find neutral paradigmatic space in Protestant-Catholic dialogue. That does not mean that constructive Protestant-Catholic dialogue is impossible. Rather, it means that such dialogue requires that we work hard to see things from the point of view of the other paradigm; otherwise we will be talking past each other. But when the principle of sola scriptura is itself the point in question in the dialogue (as it should be), then there is an asymmetry in what is required of the participants with respect to seeing things from the point of view of the other paradigm. That is because sola scriptura is actually a negative principle. It is in essence a denial of sacramental magisterial authority in exchange for what is the default in the absence of sacramental magisterial authority: the individualism of private judgment. [My argument for that dichotomy can be found here. I also showed here that Keith Mathison's position on sola scriptura is not a middle position.] The Catholic is trying to show the Protestant that there is something that the Protestant denies (knowingly or unknowingly) is there: i.e. sacramental magisterial authority.

In this way, the Catholic and Protestant paradigms are unlike the rabbit/duck example. The person who sees the rabbit/duck figure as a rabbit and the person who sees it as a duck are both looking at the very same figure. But the Protestant looks at a smaller 'figure', so to speak, than does the Catholic. The 'figure', for the Protestant, includes only Scripture; the 'figure', for the Catholic, includes both Scripture and a sacramental magisterial [interpretive] authority. It is because of this asymmetry at the 'figure' level, and because it involves a positive for the Catholic [i.e. there is a sacramental magisterial authority] and a negative for the Protestant [i.e. there is no sacramental magisterial authority] that it is intrinsically more difficult for the Protestant to see the Catholic paradigm than it is for the Catholic to see the Protestant paradigm. Most Protestants, even most Protestant pastors, I suspect, have little to no conception of sacramental magisterial authority.

One way of calling an a priori assumption into question is showing that it leads to internal contradictions. Stephen Ray's list of questions is designed to do that. The book titled Not By Scripture Alone, edited by Robert Sungenis, is presently the best critique of sola scriptura of which I am aware. Peter Kreeft, in his book Catholic Christianity, lists six reasons for rejecting the idea of sola scriptura. He writes:

  • a. No Christian before Luther ever taught it, for the first sixteen Christian centuries.
  • b. The first generation of Christians did not even have the New Testament.
  • c. Without the Catholic Church to interpret Scripture authoritatively, Protestantism has divided into more than twenty-thousand different "churches" or denominations.
  • d. If Scripture is infallible, as traditional Protestants believe, then the Church must be infallible too, for a fallible cause cannot produce an infallible effect, and the Church produced the Bible. The Church (apostles and saints) wrote the New Testament, and the Church (subsequent bishops) defined its canon.
  • e. Scripture itself calls the Church "the pillar and bulwark of the truth" (1 Tim 3:15)
  • f. And Scripture itself never teaches sola scriptura. Thus sola scriptura is self-contradictory. If we are to believe only Scripture, we should not believe sola scriptura.

I might add: If there is no sacramental magisterial authority, then we know almost nothing about Christ and Christianity. We don't even know if the canon is correct, and we don't even know if the Nicene Creed is correct. All we have are various opinions. All theological claims are fallible and hence uncertain. I would also add that sacramental magisterial succession is the position we find in the fathers, and unconstested until Luther and Calvin.

But the main reason I am writing this post is to help my Protestant brothers and sisters at least be able to conceive of the Catholic paradigm. In my comment to Lane Keister I wrote, "we need to determine first who has the authority to determine the marks [of the Church]." In his reply Lane wrote, "But how can we determine that apart from the Word? Your position seems to assume some kind of supra-revelatory vantage-point. I don’t think it is possible to have such a thing." Lane's reply seems to indicate that the concept of sacramental magisterial authority is entirely outside of his conceptual framework. And that creates a conceptual disconnect in our discussion, a kind of "How can that possibly be?" on his part. In my reply to Lane I wrote the following:


The Christians who lived during the lifetime of the Apostles were able to determine who had ecclesial and interpretive authority, without consulting the New Testament, which did not yet exist. The Christians in the post-apostolic generation determined who had ecclesial and interpretive authority not by studying the New Testament (which was still not in existence as a canonized whole), but by determining which persons had been ordained by the Apostles. See, for example, the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch, which were all written around the end of the first century, and notice how he teaches the churches to follow the bishop (whose authority was derived by sacramental succession from Apostles); he does not teach that each individual should follow his own interpretation of Scripture, or that each individual should determine which person is bishop by first determining who is teaching in accordance with the individual's own interpretation of Scripture. That would amount to a form of individualism which, as I argued in my article titled "Sacramentally grounded authority vs. individualism", was entirely foreign to the early church.

It was still the same at the end of the second century, when St. Irenaeus and Tertullian both faced challenges from heretics [especially gnostic heretics] trying to defend their [heretical] position by exegeting Scripture. Tertullian, in his On the Prescription Against Heretics writes:

"Our appeal, therefore, must not be made to the Scriptures; nor must controversy be admitted on points in which victory will either be impossible, or uncertain, or not certain enough. For a resort to the Scriptures would but result in placing both parties on equal footing, whereas the natural order of procedure requires one question to be asked first, which is the only one now that should be discussed: "With whom lies that very faith to which the Scriptures belong? From what and through whom, and when, and to whom, has been handed down that rule by which men become Christians?"

And a bit further on he writes:

"Since this is the case, in order that the truth may be adjudged to belong to us, 'as many as walk according to the rule,' which the church has handed down from the apostles, the apostles from Christ, and Christ from God, the reason of our position is clear, when it determines that heretics ought not to be allowed to challenge an appeal to the Scriptures, since we, without the scriptures, prove that they have nothing to do with the Scriptures."

St. Vincent of Lerins (434 AD) makes the same point here about heretics exegeting Scripture that R. Scott Clark does when he writes, "All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it." The fathers answered that "Who gets to interpret it?" question by appealing to sacramental apostolic succession. I discuss this in more detail in my article titled "Apostolicity and montanistic gnosticism", and in my article "Apostolicity in Acts 15".


My hope is that what I am writing here might help some Protestants better understand how to conceive of the Catholic paradigm. I think that is essential in order for our ecumenical dialogue to be fruitful.

[Correction: My post titled "Sacramentally grounded authority vs. individualism" does not show that individualism is foreign to the early church (although individualism is foreign to the early church). I worded my sentence incorrectly. My post shows rather that the only alternative to sacramentally grounded authority is a form of individualism.]

Thursday, August 16, 2007

On the catholic visible Church

Recently Joel Garver posted an article titled "Of the church visible" in which he shows from the history of the Westminster Assembly that the Westminster Confession affirms that there is one catholic visible Church. I have argued here and here that given Protestant ecclesiology, necessarily there can be no such thing as a catholic visible Church. Only if there is a Catholic Church can there be such a thing as a catholic visible Church. In short, either one must affirm that the visible Church is the Catholic Church, or one must give up the notion of a catholic visible Church.

Here I wish to consider another objection to my claim that Protestant ecclesiology cannot support its affirmation of the catholic visible Church. That objection is that the catholic visible Church is an actual unity (and not a mere conceptual unity) because believers are all joined to Christ. Since Christ is one, therefore, goes the objection, all those who are joined to Him are one. Therefore all embodied believers are one, since they are all joined to Christ. And therefore the catholic visible Church is an actual unity, and not a mere conceptual unity.

One problem with this objection is that while it provides a ground for the union of *all* believers (embodied and disembodied) it fails to unify the subset of embodied believers, i.e. the catholic visible Church. The catholic visible Church would then simply be an arbitrary subset of the invisible Church, i.e. the subset consisting of all those believers embodied at time t. In other words, the catholic visible Church per se would still be a mere conceptual unity. The actual catholic Church (since there can be only one catholic Church) would be the invisible Church.

Another problem with this objection is that given the position that the catholic visible Church is an actual unity because each embodied person is joined directly to Christ, "institutional aspects" or "institutional dimensions" in the catholic visible Church would be entirely irrelevant to the unity of the catholic visible Church. Moreover, schisms between individual embodied believers (or between congregations) would in themselves have absolutely no effect on the unity of the catholic visible Church, since [in Protestant ecclesiology] schisms between embodied believers (and between congregations) do not in themselves detach individuals (or congregations) from union with Christ.

One implication of there being no catholic visible Church is that baptism cannot incorporate a person into the catholic visible Church. Either baptism would incorporate a person into the invisible Church, or baptism would simply make a person a member of the mere conceptual unity of the set of baptized embodied persons.

But if the catholic visible Church is the Catholic Church, then it makes sense that those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." (CCC 838)

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Magisterial authority and ecclesial unity

Recently I posted some comments in the combox on Lane Keister's blog Green Baggins. (Lane Keister is a Presbyterian who pastors two congregations in North Dakota.)

In his article titled "The Church", I posted some comments here regarding who gets to determine the marks of the Church.

In his article titled "One God, One Church", I posted some comments here regarding the necessary role of magisterial authority for true ecclesial unity.

Lane also recommends Andrew Webb's article "Who Gets to Decide How the Church Should Worship?". (Andrew is a Presbyterian pastor in North Carolina.) Andrew's answer to that question is: God, as revealed in Scripture. Andrew thinks that 2 Tim 3:16 teaches that Scripture is sufficient for determining how Christians should worship. But Andrew does not explicitly say whose interpretation of Scripture is the one we should follow. Without a magisterial authority to provide an authoritative interpretation, the answer to Andrew's question is "Me".

Unity of worship (i.e. sacraments) is an essential criterion for true ecclesial unity. But we cannot have true ecclesial unity if each person is his own interpretive authority regarding worship and sacraments.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Scott Clark on the need for a sacramental magisterium

Scott Clark, a Presbyterian who teaches at Westminster Seminary in California, writes here:

"All heretics quote Scripture. The question in this controversy is not the normativity of the Bible but who gets to interpret it."

He is quite right; that is the question. What he means by "who gets to interpret it" is: Whose interpretation is authoritative?

His reason for thinking that the interpretation [made by the denominations] that he cites is authoritative is that those denominations agree with his own interpretation. But then, that is no different from FV advocates starting their own denomination and appealing to its interpretative authority. So Clark is treading on very thin ice, ice so thin that he has to leave the problem as a question. If he goes any deeper, he will expose the fact that the ecclesial authorities to which he appeals are merely "doctrinally grounded authorities", and not "sacramentally grounded authorities" (see here). There is no principled difference between the ecclesial authority to which he appeals, and the ecclesial authority of a denomination his interlocutors could set up overnight. That is because anyone can set up a doctrinally-grounded authority. Just put out a shingle.

Apart from sacramentally-grounded authority one person's interpretation is no more authoritative than anyone else's. Apart from sacramentally-grounded authority, the answer to the question: "Whose interpretation is authoritative?" is "Everyone's", which is equivalent to "No one's." Those who reject sacramentally-grounded authority should never appeal to magisterial authority to oppose a position, because those holding the opposing position can simply install an alternate magisterial authority, and then the two sides are 'even'. It is better to call non-sacramentally-grounded ecclesial authority for what it actually is: individualism, and not pretend to have a magisterium. In short, it is better for someone in Clark's position [who rejects sacramentally-grounded authority] not to say what he says in the quotation above, for what he says in the quotation above is the theological equivalent of cutting off the branch on which he himself sits.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Non-Entity?

In my recent article "The Sacrilege of Schism", I argued that the Protestant notion of "the visible Church" is equivalent to the set of all believers, or the set of all congregations of believers. I pointed out that sets per se are not actual, but merely conceptual., and thus that the Protestant notion of the visible Church is such that it [per se] cannot be affected by schism. My argument is important because it cuts away the illusion of a middle position between institutional unity and the notion that the Church (per se) is entirely invisible. If my argument is a good argument, it entails that we must choose between finding out which institution is the institution that Christ founded, and giving up the notion that there is such an actual entity as the "visible Church".

One possible objection to my argument is that I am setting up a false dilemma between the conception of the visible Church as a mere plurality of believers (or mere plurality of congregations) and the conception of the visible Church as an actual unity of the institutional sort. According to the objection, the existence of the various congregations and their agreement on basic essentials of the faith creates a kind of quasi-institution, or something with 'institutional dimensions', or 'institutional structure', a thing with a kind of unity between that of a mere plurality and that of a concrete institution such as the Catholic Church.

I think that this objection fails, and I want to use an illustration to explain why. Imagine a plurality of twelve wooden children's blocks, scattered around the living room floor. We ask the question: Is there one thing composed of these twelve blocks? The answer is "No". Now I pull four of the blocks together and stack them into a tower. Then I pull four more together and stack them into a different tower. And then I pull the remaining four together and stack them into a third tower. So now there are three separate towers on the living room floor, each composed of four blocks. Now we ask the same question again: Is there one thing composed of these twelve blocks? The correct answer is still "No". That is because unifying subsets of the members of a plurality into subset unities does not unify all the members of the plurality into one unity. Such an action does not turn the mere plurality into a unity. The mere plurality remains a mere plurality, even if the members of the mere plurality become subset unities.

That is why whether the visible Church is the "plurality of believers" or is the "plurality of congregations", it is still a mere plurality, and thus only a conceptual unity. Unifying subsets of believers into congregations does not unify all believers into one actual unity. And we should not treat what is a merely conceptual unity as if it is an actual unity.

But doesn't the fact that all believers hold to certain basic essentials of the faith make them one actual unity, i.e. the visible Church? No. Imagine that each of the twelve blocks in our three towers had the letter 'A' on it. That would not make the twelve blocks into one thing composed of these twelve blocks. Formal unity is not ontological unity. Otherwise photocopy machines would only keep spitting out the very same piece of paper that you were trying to photocopy.

If my argument is correct, does that mean that schism is impossible, given a Protestant conception of the visible Church? No. It means that the Protestant has to define (or redefine) schism as something that does nothing to the visible Church. If there is no actual visible Church, then whatever schism does, it doesn't do anything to the visible Church. Putting it a different way, if there is no actual visible Church, then schism cannot possibly reduce the unity of the visible Church, because what is not actual cannot lose unity. But a Protestant could easily redefine the term 'schism' as something that can occur between individual believers, between individual congregations and between individual denominations.

The Catholic position does not have the problem of treating a merely conceptual unity as an actual unity because the Catholic Church teaches that through baptism, each person is incorporated in some respect into the institution of the Catholic Church. Those "who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church." (CCC 838 ) So when the Catholic Church talks about the "visible Church", it is talking about an actual unity, not a mere conceptual unity. But the Protestant conception of the visible Church is such that the visible Church is a mere plurality, i.e only a conceptual unity, not an actual unity. The Protestant talk of an actual "visible Church" depends [though Protestants do not realize this] upon there being an actual institution into which all believers are, in some way, incorporated. In other words, it depends upon there being something like the Catholic Church. But what other institution is claiming that all believers are in some way incorporated into itself? I am not aware of any.

The objection that because the visible Church has 'institutional dimensions' or an 'institutional structure' therefore there is a middle position between the two horns of my dilemma, is an attempt [through the use of such metaphors] to point out the institutional unities at the subset level and the formal unity (i.e. unity of doctrine on certain basic essentials) across the entire set of believers. And in reply I'm pointing out that (1) unity at the subset level does not make unity at the set level, and that (2) formal unity at the set level is not sufficient for ontological unity. So I am pointing out that those two types of unities do not do the sort of unitive work that is needed in order for the visible Church to be an actual entity and not a mere plurality (i.e. conceptual unity).

Friday, August 3, 2007

Eucharist: We are one Body, because we partake of one Bread

ὅτι εἷς ἄρτος, ἓν σῶμα οἱ πολλοί ἐσμεν, οἱ γὰρ πάντες ἐκ τοῦ ἑνὸς ἄρτου μετέχομεν. (1 Cor 10:17)

"Since there is one Bread, we who are many are one Body; for we all partake of the one Bread." (1 Cor 10:17)

In my recent article "The Sacrilege of Schism" I discussed the three bonds of unity. One of those bonds is "common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments" (CCC 815). In order to achieve the full and visible unity of all Christ's followers, we must share the same sacraments. This is not only because we need to "agree" and "be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment". (1 Cor 1:10) Sacramental unity is not reducible to formal or doctrinal unity. Agreement in doctrine is one way we are made one, but merely agreeing on doctrine is not sufficient to make us one. The sacraments themselves actually operate to make us one Body. That is why I discussed here the way in which the sacrament of baptism makes us one, and then more recently I discussed here the way the sacrament of confirmation makes us one. The third sacrament among the sacraments of initiation is the sacrament of the Eucharist. How does the Eucharist make us one?

As St. Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 10:17, it is because we all partake of the one Bread that we are all one Body. This is the Bread that came down from heaven, of which the manna that the Hebrews ate was but a type. This Bread is greater than the manna. Those who ate the manna died. But those who eat this Bread live forever. (John 6)

This is what we need to understand about the Eucharist and unity. When we eat regular bread, we digest it and it ceases to exist as bread, and becomes incorporated into our body. But when we eat the Body of Christ and drink His Blood, it works the other way around; we actually become a part of Him. That is because when two things become one, the entity with the greater unity incorporates the entity with the lesser unity into itself. This is why when the Logos became man, human nature was elevated to divinity. If you were to touch the skin of baby Jesus in the lap of Mary, you were literally touching God. That is why the Third Ecumenical Council (Ephesus 431) used the term "Theotokos" as a test of orthodoxy against the Nestorians. The term "Theotokos" wasn't so much about Mary, per se, as about the deity of the baby that came from her womb. The baby that came from her womb was God. Since she was the mother of the baby that came from her womb, she was the mother of God, or the God-bearer (Theotokos). The point here is that in the hypostatic union, the human nature of Christ, without ceasing to be human, became divine, was taken up into and became one with the Logos. That is why when we eat the Body and Blood of Christ, who is perfect unity, we are taken up into and become one with Him. If we understand that a greater unity incorporates a lesser unity into itself, and that Christ has greater unity than do we, then we can better understand how partaking of His Body makes us all one. We are one Body, because we all partake of one Bread. Those who do not partake of the one Bread, [ordinarily] cannot be fully united with the one Body.

What do the fathers think about the Eucharist? I collected some quotations from the fathers regarding the Eucharist here.

Neil Babcox was a Presbyterian pastor for many years, and recently became a Catholic. One of the main reasons he became a Catholic had to do with the Eucharist. He describes in this video the role the Eucharist played in bringing him into the Catholic Church. A further description of Neil's reception into full communion with the Catholic Church is described here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Ecclesial Consumerism vs. Ecclesial Unity

"For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires; and will turn away their ears from the truth, and will turn aside to myths." (2 Timothy 4:3-4)

Every Saturday in the religion section of the Saint Louis Post Dispatch there is a section titled, "St. Louis Worship Community". In that section the various religious organizations in the St. Louis area advertise themselves. The advertisements are arranged in alphabetical order by denomination, such that "American Baptist" comes first, and "Unity" comes last. Here's just a sampling from this past week's paper:

One 'church' advertised their "Rock 'n Roll Youth Group". Another said, "The people are real. The messages are for today. You'll relate to the music. The dress is casual. We love to laugh. Have kids? So do we." Another says, "Contemporary music, causal dress". Another says, "Friendly, causal atmosphere, creative children's ministries, great music/live band, relevant biblical messages!" Another says, "relevant and engaging teaching, real and inviting community, contemporary and energetic music, fresh and free bagels and coffee, kids ministries through 5th grade, comes as you are – we do". Another says, "Authentic ... Relevant ... Casual; free coffee and bagels. Dress is casual. People are friendly. Music is Modern. Bagels are free." Another says, "Incredible Music / Live Band; Creative Children's Ministries; Positive, Practical Messages." Another said that it "seeks to glorify the triune God by embracing the Gospel, building our community, making disciples and transforming societies." It boasts a "Trio Jazz Worship Service". Another says, "Worship for both your head & heart; Outstanding & diverse Music Program; Creative Sunday School during Worship; Dress is casual & cookies are included!; Youth, Young Adult & Family Fellowship; An Open and Affirming Congregation; Wheelchair Accessible." Another boasts of a "permanent outdoor labyrinth open to the public". You can choose between "Traditional worship", "Blended worship", "Contemporary worship", "Casual worship", and "Classic worship".

One thing that clearly stands out is that these religious organizations are trying to fill niches in demand. Through a kind of free market process, they are reflections of what people want. Just as we can get a personalized custom-made teddy bear at the local mall, we can get a religious experience on Sunday morning that is custom-made to fit our particular religious appetites, preferences, interpretations, expectations, beliefs, etc. We can worship in an organization that is made in our own image, and in that way we can worship a god of our own making.

How can one determine whether one is in the state of those described in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? Let us call such persons "ecclesial consumerists". In March of 2007 I wrote Consumerism and Ecclesial Relativism. Here I want to expound upon that a bit. Do ecclesial consumerists think that they are heretics or schismatics? No. Do ecclesial consumerists think that what they are being taught is false? No. Do ecclesial consumerists recognize that they are the persons being described in 2 Timothy 4:3-4? No.

So how can a person determine if he is an ecclesial consumerist? How can a person determine of he is one of those described in 2 Timothy 4:3-4?

One is an ecclesial consumerist if one's decision regarding which 'church' to attend is based on anything other than this question: Which institution is the one founded by the incarnate Christ?

Many people do not realize that Christ founded an institution. They are ecclesial consumerists by default. At best they worship where the Scripture is taught in accordance with their own interpretation of Scripture. But as I have shown here, choosing or setting up a person as one's religious authority based on that person's agreement with one's own interpretation of Scripture is a form of individualism that ultimately makes oneself the authority. There is no principled difference between choosing where to worship based on its conformity to one's own interpretation of Scripture, and choosing where to worship based on its conformity to one's own musical preferences, whether the dress is formal or informal, etc. Wherever each individual is acting as his own authority, there cannot be true ecclesial unity. Wherever persons are choosing a religious institution based on whether it suits their style, their interpretation, their tastes, their preferences, etc., there cannot be true ecclesial unity. There can be true ecclesial unity only when we are all determining where to worship by finding out which institution is the one founded by the incarnate Christ.