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

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).


Anonymous said...

What about narrative, though? I mean, all the parts of my identity as a person cohere via a narrative about my life, just as all the things on your desk come together because of the narrative of your choices and what makes those things valuable to you. I don't see how narrative can be reduced to something conceptual. Narrative is about real things that happen in history that join things together. Rome has organic unity through time via bishops, and Protestantism has a kind of narrative unity through time as well. Stepping back, all baptized Christians have the narrative unity of passing through the waters of the red sea and of being buried with Christ.

Bryan Cross said...


Interesting comment. As you know, the things/events/persons referred to in a story are (ordinarily) distinct from the story itself. (The only exception would be if the story is self-referential, i.e. refers to itself.) A story cannot impose unity upon reality. A true story (well, at least a good one) shows the causal relations between persons and objects and events. A story cannot impose any reality (causal or ontological) upon reality. The story itself is conceptual. The events/persons/objects referred to by the story are actual (assuming that the story is true). The [good] true story shows the causal relations between those events/persons/objects.

When two things are causally related, they are more unified than if they were not causally related. But they are still two, not one. The fact of causal relations between persons/objects/events does not entail those persons/objects/events are an ontological unity. So what I think you mean by "narrative unity" is actually the sort of unity things have by being causally related. But being causally related is not ontological unity. So "narrative unity" is not ontological unity.

All the things on my desk came to be on my desk because of choices I made. That is true. But that does not mean that all the things on my desk compose an ontological unity. It means rather that they all have in common the proximate cause of their being in the general location of my desk.

How does that apply to the Church? When I am talking about the unity of the visible Church, I am talking about ontological unity. I'm not talking about causal relations. Even every Christian heresy is causally related to the Apostles, since every Christian heresy (e.g. Nestorianism or Docetism) derives from Christianity which derives from the Apostles. So these heresies all have what you are calling "narrative unity" with the events of the Apostolic era. That shows that "narrative unity" isn't helpful here, because it does not distinguish heresy from orthodoxy, or schism from non-schism. Every excommunicated person would have "narrative unity" with the Apostles. But we agree that [lawfully] excommunicated persons are not part of the visible Church. Therefore narrative unity is not the sort of unity that can distinguish the visible Church from that which is not the visible Church. Even the devil is part of the "narrative" involving the visible Church. But obviously the devil is not part of the visible Church. Of course I'm pushing the point to absurdity! I'm doing so only to show that "narrative unity" is not the sort of unity that can make the visible Church *one*; nor can "narrative unity" explain the composition of the visible Church (e.g. why the devil is not a member of the visible Church).

Thanks for your comment.

- Bryan

Mark Downham said...

You have to distinguish between the Church which is visible in Heaven and the Church which is visible on Earth.

The way we see the Church on Earth has to come inot alignment with the way the Church is seen in Heaven - that is an Eschatological certainty.

Moves in this direction have already begun in the UK with http://www.hope08.com/ - when virtually ALL the Christian Denominations in the UK will come together for Christian Mission and to drive forward the Re-Evangelisation of the UK.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. I do support the idea of Christians of all denominations working together for social causes and goals. Helping the poor is one of those goals. In this respect I applaud and support the ecumenical movement for its efforts to effect unity in social action.

But in my opinion, that sort of unity falls far short of the unity that Christ prays in John 17 for His followers to have. We are supposed to be one in faith (i.e. in doctrine, see Eph 4:5), one in sacraments ("one baptism", Eph 4:5), and one regarding who are the rightful authorities in the Church (Heb 13:17; Acts 15:24). As long as we are divided over doctrine, worship (i.e. sacraments), and leadership, we are not as unified as Christ prays that we would be.

As for your comment about the eschatological Church, I would put it this way. When God looks at the Church on earth, He is not blind to our present divisions. I think He is more aware of them than most of us are. His will, revealed clearly in John 17, is that we all be one, even as the Father and Son are one. So that supreme unity is what we must pursue, even now. We see in Revelation 19:7 that the bride "makes herself ready" for Christ's return. Surely restoring unity to the Church and healing the wounds of schism are part of making the Church ready for Christ's return. So I believe that the unity of the "eschatological Church" is something we must pursue now.

Thanks again for your comments. I'm glad to share with you the vision and task of uniting all Christians in true unity.

- Bryan