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

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ

The Tower of Babel (1563)
Pieter Bruegel the elder

In June of last year, I had a conversation with Alastair Roberts on his blog adversaria, in the comboxes of four of his posts on "Denominations and Church Union and Reunion" (cf. here, here, here, and here). These posts were prompted, at least in part, by the passing of the FV/NPP report at the 2007 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in America. Alastair was arguing for, among other things, the "desideratum of visible and even institutional unity" among all Christians. In our ecumenical efforts we [Christians] should be striving, in his opinion, for institutional unity, i.e. that we all be joined together in one institution. I agreed with Alastair on that particular point, but Alastair seemed to suggest that this future institution (in which all Christians of all denominations would be united) would not be any of the presently existing institutions; it would come into being as a result of the unification of all the various denominations.

To understand my concern about this claim, it may be helpful to read something I wrote last year titled "On the Imminent and Final Conflict Between the City of God and the City of Man." In my view, the Tower of Babel represents that religious unity established and advanced by [mere] men. It has its origin in [mere] men; it is established from the bottom up. It is, in its essence, the social embodiment of the act of Cain, who sought to make his own way to God, by his own labor. It is the institutionalized form of Pelagianism; it is the antithesis of grace. It is also, in my opinion, a type of the man-made religious unity (i.e. the Antichurch) that is to arise in the last days, and which the Antichrist will head. The Church, by contrast, is not like the Tower of Babel in that the Church has its origin from the top down, that is, from God, to man. In that way the Church is grace from beginning to end. Christ is the Head of the Church. For that reason, the Church existed before any [mere] men were members of it. To be received into the Church is to be received into that which the incarnate Christ Himself (i.e. God Himself) established, He Himself being the Head. Whatever [mere] man establishes, is not the Church; only what the incarnate Christ established is the Church.

With that in mind, my argument in response to Alastair was roughly this:

If Christ did not found an institution, then to seek to bring all Christians into institutional unity is a form of "outdoing Christ", that is, it goes beyond the degree of unity that Christ Himself saw fit to place in His Church. In that case, in our ecumenical efforts we should merely settle for moral and basic doctrinal agreement and collaboration in aid to the poor and needy. But if Christ did found an institution, then logically either that institution no longer exists or it continues to exist to this day. If that institution no longer exists, then it cannot come back into existence (by the impossibility of intermittent existence), and any institution we [mere] men might make in attempting to reestablish it is a different institution, not the institution founded by the God-man Christ Jesus. But if the institution founded by Christ still exists, then all our ecumenical efforts should be directed toward getting all believers into that institution. So, either we should not be seeking institutional unity, or we should be seeking out that existing institution that Christ Himself founded and seeking to bring all men into it.

I have copied and pasted below some of the relevant parts of the dialogue between Alastair and myself.

June 20, 2007


When you say, "the denominations will cease to be necessary", it looks as though you are saying that the future unity of the Church (prior to the Second Coming, but after the reunion of all denominations) will be non-institutional. In other words, it seems as though in your opinion, the visible Church in the future will not be one institution, but simply non-institutional. Am I understanding you correctly?

You said in your combox comments to "The Denominational Church" that you think "Christ founded the Church to enjoy institutional unity", implying in my mind that you think that the Church (in its future state of reunion) will be institutionally one. So do you think that the Church in its future state of reunion will be institutionally one or simply non-institutional?

If you think that the future visible Church will be one institution, then I don't understand why you are trying to do something to the Church (make her institutionally one) that [you think] Christ Himself did not see fit to do while on earth.

But if you think that the Church in her state of future reunion will be non-institutional, then I don't see how that is anything other than ecclesial anarchy, the necessary fruit of individualism and ecclesial egalitarianism.

- Bryan


I don't know what the future Church will be like. However, I expect that it will enjoy some form of institutional unity.

June 21, 2007


I too seek institutional unity. I do so believing that I'm not outdoing Christ, because I believe that Christ founded an institution. I'm not sure if you agree that Christ founded an institution, because I do not know what it means for something to have "institutional dimensions". But let's say, for the sake of argument, that you agree that Christ founded an institution.

The way we work for institutional unity will depend on whether we believe that one of the presently existing institutions is the original one. If none of the existing institutions is the original one, then all the existing ones can be done away with, and a single new one created. But if one of the existing institutions is the original, then institutional unity should involve all the other institutions being incorporated into the original.

You seem to think that if there was an original institution, it was schism-sensitive, such that it [though not the Church-as-mere-aggregate-of-believers] ceased to exist in the event of some schism. That is because, apparently, you think the institution of the Church does not have an ultimate "principium unitatis" (principle of unity) fixing the locus of institutional continuity in the event of schism. In that way you seem to have something more like a "mereological essentialist" view of the original institution — all the parts (or at least all the major parts) are equally central to the being of the organism as such. The organic notion of unity, by contrast, allows that an organism can lose certain parts and still continue to exist as an organism. In more complex organisms some parts are more central than others to the continued existence of the organism. This is why, for example, if you lose your toe you neither cease to exist nor do you continue on as a toe.

But I think there is good reason from the Scripture and the fathers (see especially the quotations of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Optatus) to believe that the successor of Peter has the role of principium unitatis. This is why, in my opinion, the original institution did not cease to exist when schisms occurred. Those remaining in full communion with the successor of Peter ipso facto remained in the original institution. And those separating from the successor of Peter ipso facto separated from the original institution. That does not mean (necessarily) that those departing from full communion with the successor of Peter depart from the aggregate of all believers.

The point I am making is that if your reunification plan involves starting a new institution (and abolishing all the present ones), then your plan assumes that the Catholic Church is not the original institution Christ founded, and that the successor of Peter does not have the role of principium unitatis. But Catholics cannot accept those assumptions. Therefore, while Catholics share your desire for institutional unity, we cannot support the manner in which you [apparently] wish to see it brought about. ...

- Bryan



Let's say that the institution of the Church that Christ founded had the pope as one of its principles of unity. Suppose that Christ did intend that one dimension of the unity of His Church was to be the unity found in the one Bishop of Rome, the first among equals. This does not mean that, after the split between the West and the East and the split at the Reformation the Roman Catholic church is the one true institution that Christ founded.

It either means that, or it means that the institution that Christ founded ceased to exist. The institution, so long as it exists, cannot fail to have its locus in its principium unitatis. The idea that the institution continued as something other than the Catholic Church but not as any particular institution, would reduce the institution to the aggregate of believers. In other words, it would conceptually eliminate the institution altogether by conceptually making the institution equivalent to the aggregate of believers.

And the notion that the institution continued on as some other particular institution would have to posit a different principium unitatis, someone other than the successor of Peter.

You might accept the idea that the institution ceased to exist. One problem for that position is that the future institution you envision would then not be the same one that Christ founded. It would not be a divine institution (i.e. one founded by Christ), but a man-made institution. The only way to have a divine institution in the future is for it to be the divine institution that Christ founded. And that means that the original institution cannot go out of existence.

But as I just showed, if the original institution did not go out of existence, then it would have had to continue as one of the concrete institutions, in 1054 as either the Catholic Church or one of the EOCs, and in the 16th century as either the Catholic Church or as one of the Protestant denominations. And, as I have tried to argue, the role of Peter as principium unitatis is good reason to believe that in any split, where goes Peter, there goes the institution that Christ founded.

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