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

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Two Stumbling Blocks to Unity

There are many stumbling blocks to unity. Here I will mention two. One is a deep distrust of the early church fathers. I have discussed it before under the description "ecclesial deism". I encountered this distrust of the fathers again recently in this comment, and in the comments in this thread. This distrust is a kind of negative or skeptical stance or attitude toward the fathers. Instead of reading and interpreting Scripture through the eyes of the fathers (i.e. through the perspective that they provide us -- see Pontificator's third law), a person who takes this distrusting attitude toward the fathers does something quite different; he subjects the teachings of the fathers to his own twenty-first century interpretation of Scripture, believing his own interpretation of Scripture to be neutral and objective. This distrustful attitude leads one who holds it to treat teachings of the fathers that he does not find in Scripture to be either corruptions of the gospel or additions to the gospel. He does not view them as developments of the gospel. That they are corruptions, and not developments, is assumed, not argued for. That is the paradigm in which he operates.

Implicit in this distrustful attitude toward the fathers are theological assumptions such as that Christ did not promise to protect the Church from doctrinal error, or did not keep this promise, or that if Christ did keep this promise, it applied to some unknown group (scattered or hidden) of Christians of which history has kept no record. All this too, comes out of a distrustful, skeptical attitude. In that attitude is an implicit theological separation between Christ and the Church, treating distrust of the Church as entirely distinct from distrust of Christ Himself. (I recently discussed
here the error of theologically separating Christ and His Church.) It is for this reason that this distrusting stance is not fundamentally a doctrinal disagreement, although it has that as an implication. It is fundamentally a deficiency of faith. The heretics faced by the Church fathers attacked the Church in the very same way, by calling into question the reliability of the Church in preserving the deposit of faith entrusted once and for all to the Apostles. These heretics drew followers to themselves by planting doubt in the minds of others regarding the trustworthiness of the rightful successors of the Apostles. In actuality, the Church grows organically, like a tree. As I wrote here:

"When we think about the way a plant or animal grows, every movement is an unfolding of what was implicit in the previous stage. The organism cannot reject or throw out the fundamental moves it made in its earlier stages; it builds on them. It takes as a given what was laid down in all the previous stages, and continues the process of unfolding the full telos of the organism. That is the nature of organic development."

Because the Church is the Body of Christ, it develops as an organism. The organic conception of development provides an entirely different paradigm for viewing the fathers. In this (the Catholic paradigm) we understand our earliest stages through our intermediate stages. We do not try to reflect on our earliest stages from an abstract view from nowhere, or as if the intermediate stages were not organic developments of the earliest stages. We do not try to wipe the slate clean and start from scratch. Implicit in that is the ecclesial deism resulting from a deficiency in faith. Each successive stage helps us better understand what was implicit in the previous stages. Development further unveils the organism and unfurls the blossom, and allows us retrospectively then to see it more clearly and accurately in its earlier stages when its fullness is still in potentia. This is an implication of the head of the household bringing out of his treasure "things new and old". (Matthew 13:52). They are new, in that they are now explicit; they are old, in that they have been there implicitly from the beginning.

A difficulty for the distrusting stance toward the fathers is that even the New Testament canon is then subject to skepticism, for if the Church was corrupted at such an early period, then there is no ground for trusting that the NT canon is reliable. Some persons taking this distrustful stance attempt to get around this problem either by stipulating the canon or by claiming that the canon is self-attesting or by claiming that the canon is attested by the inward work of the Holy Spirit. All three options, however, are intrinsically individualistic; they make the contemporary individual the authority, not the Church fathers. When a person rejects the notion that Christ promised to protect the Church, guide her into all truth, not to let the gates of hell prevail against her, and to be with her until the end of the age, i.e. when a person rejects the notion that the Church grows organically like a tree,
then anything goes. Ironically, even absolute novelties then become acceptable, as with James Jordan's notion that apostolic succession is reduced to baptism. The fathers clearly taught that apostolic succession concerns ordination, as I have showed here. The fathers do not teach anywhere that baptism gives us the charism that is given in ordination. By approaching the fathers as our fathers in the faith, to whom we owe filial piety and respect (a moral principle so fundamental that it is explicit in the Ten Commandments), we are able to see the Church as an organic development through time. And the notion of the organic development of the Church allows us to distinguish development from novelty. (One criterion for heresy is novelty: "a heretic is one who either devises or follows false and new opinions" -- St. Augustine.)

A second stumbling block for unity is the Marian doctrines. I recently discussed Mary as the "Queen of Peace" with respect to Church unity. I'm coming to believe more and more that
typically underlying the stumbling block of the Marian doctrines is Christological confusion if not Christological error. It is not an accident that Mary's title as Theotokos was authoritatively defined in a General Council (Ephesus 431) that focused on Christology, and particularly on the heresy of Nestorianism. Mary's uniqueness rests on an orthodox understanding of the incarnation, as I discussed recently here. The more we understand why Nestorianism is false, the greater will be our capacity to recognize the truth of the Marian doctrines. This requires that our dispositional stance toward the Councils is one of openness, humility, and receptivity. It is generally those who distrust the Councils and the fathers (or who are unaware of them) who stumble over the Marian doctrines, and that is no accident. The attitude of faith is rewarded: "For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened." (Matthew 7:8) "For whoever has, to him more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him." (Matthew 13:12; 25:29) Those who approach the fathers and the Councils with distrust and skepticism, even what they have shall be taken away, for "As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. (John 15:4) We need the stem and the roots of this vine which is the Body of Christ, and which extends through time to the incarnate Christ Himself. We have to come to Christ (and to the Church) like a child, with a childlike faith. If we come to the Church with a list of demands, or with a critical, skeptical, distrustful stance, we lack faith.
"Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven." (Matthew 18:3-4)

Lord Jesus, please remove those stumbling blocks that stand in the way of the reunion of all Christians in full visible unity. Please give to us a childlike faith that is humble and receptive to You and your Church. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Unknown said...

When thinking about these claims, I always think about what arguments my father might make.

He is a pastor and elder in a non-denominational Bible Church with Plymouth Brethren leanings. He is generally non-sacramental and non-liturgical. He could probably care less about having "valid succession" whether through ordination or baptism, but I think if pressed, he would claim that the primary way of passing on the faith is through one-on-one discipleship.

The common practice would be an elder meeting with a younger person in the faith to pray and go through some basic doctrine (He uses a series from The Navigators).

Where we Catholics see apostolic succession through Bishops in the scriptures, he sees meeting with guys at McDonald's to study the Bible and form personal relationships.

If we can just attach succession to any Christian practice we like, I don't see why his ideas are any less valid or reliable.

Bryan Cross said...


That's a good point. I'm going to see if I can find a copy of Leithart's Priesthood of the Plebs, and see how he tries to argue for apostolic succession by baptism.

Thanks for your comments.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan