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

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Catholic evaluation of "An Evangelical Manifesto"

On May 7, a group of leading Evangelicals released a document they titled "An Evangelical Manifesto". There is much in this document with which Catholics can and do agree. I want to mention this common ground because here in this post I am going to focus only on a few points of disagreement, for the sake of those who may be interested to learn where and how and why a Catholic (as a Catholic) would disagree with this Manifesto. My focus on these points of difference, however, should not be taken to imply the absence of much common ground, but rather as helping to clarify that which still divides us, with an aim to reaching agreement and full visible unity.

It seems to me that the primary point of disagreement between [these] Evangelicals and the Catholic Church lies in the area of ecclesiology. Consider this line from the Manifesto:

"... Evangelicals form one of the great traditions that have developed within the Christian Church over the centuries." (p. 3)

What exactly do [these] Evangelicals mean by the term "Christian Church"? Their meaning of this term is clarified a bit later:

"Evangelicals are followers of Jesus in a way that is not limited to certain churches or contained by a definable movement. We are members of many different churches and denominations, mainline as well as independent, and our Evangelical commitment provides a core of unity that holds together a wide range of diversity." (p. 7)

The idea here is that the "Christian Church" per se is not an organized, institutionalized body. Evangelicals follow Jesus, not some organization or institution, because for [these] Evangelicals the "Christian Church" is not limited to or individuated by any organization, institution or movement. The "Christian Church" is therefore visible only in that her embodied members are visible. Thus as I have argued here, the term "Christian Church" can refer only to a mere abstraction, that is, a plurality, heap, set, or collection of persons, not an *actual* visible unity. For a more in-depth explanation and critique, see my post titled "Christ founded a visible Church" and the posts linked to therein.

The Manifesto continues:

"Evangelicals are therefore followers of Jesus Christ, plain ordinary Christians in the classic and historic sense over the last two thousand years." (p. 4)

Here too the document reveals a conceptual separation between Christ and the Church. According to this Evangelical conception, the individual believer follows Jesus, and is thereby (invisibly) made a 'part' of the per se invisible "Christian Church". But such a notion would have been entirely foreign to the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity. For Christians of the first fifteen years of Christianity, "he cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his Mother." (St. Cyprian, De unitate ecclesiae) And for them, the 'Church' was a visible body, a hierarchically organized institution. For the Christians of the first fifteen hundred years of Christianity, to follow Jesus one followed the bishops that had been ordained by the Apostles, or the bishops who had been ordained by such bishops; that is, one followed the Church. To listen to the rightfully appointed leaders of the Church was to listen to those who had sent them (Luke 10:16; John 20:21), just as to listen to Jesus was to listen to the One who had sent Him (John 12:49; 14:24). For this reason the ecclesiology of Evangelicalism is not "classic" or "historic", except in the sense that it is similar to the Montanistic/gnostic conception of spirituality as churchless and non-sacramental. (For a more thorough explanation, see my post titled "Church and Jesus are inseparable".)

On the same page, the Manifesto reads:

"We are simply Christians, or followers of Jesus, or adherents of ―mere Christianity, but the Evangelical principle is at the heart of how we see and live our faith." (p. 4)

The very idea of "mere Christianity" is also a non-existent abstraction, as I explain in my post titled "Unity and Mere Christianity".

On page 7, the Manifesto reads:

"Evangelicals adhere fully to the Christian faith expressed in the historic creeds of the great ecumenical councils of the church ...." (p. 7)

Few Evangelicals affirm the line in the Nicene Creed that reads: "We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins". (See my post titled, "Baptism and Christianity Unity".) And those that affirm the line "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" would conceive of the Church referred to in this line as an invisible reality (i.e. not an organized, institutional body) having visible embodied 'members' (made to be members by subjective faith alone). Such a de-materialized conception of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" is not the traditional historic conception of the Church or that had in mind by the "ecumenical councils" that were made up of bishops in sacramental succession from the Apostles.

The Manifesto continues:

"All too often we have failed to demonstrate the unity and harmony of the body of Christ, and fallen into factions defined by the accidents of history and sharpened by truth without love, rather than express the truth and grace of the Gospel." (p. 12) ... "We call all who follow Jesus to keep his commandment and love one another, to be true to our unity in him that underlies all lesser differences..." (p. 13)

These two statements also reveal that for [these] Evangelicals, 'schisms' are not actually divisions in or divisions from the "Christian Church". Rather, for [these] Evangelicals, schisms are merely failures to "demonstrate" visibly the 'existing [invisible] unity' of the "body of Christ", which for [these] Evangelicals is per se invisible, though they grant that the bodies of individual believers are visible. Catholics agree that the unity of the Church has not been lost and cannot be lost. Unity is one of the four marks of the Church listed in the Creed, and thus for Catholics, the Church can never fail to be one [unam]. So this makes it seem that Catholics and Evangelical agree on this point. But, in fact, the position of Evangelicals on this point differs significantly from that of the Catholic Church.

Evangelicals believe that the unity had by the [invisible] "Christian Church" is an invisible unity that cannot be lost (i.e. a unity had by an invisible, non-institutional 'entity'), whereas the Catholic Church has always believed and taught that the unity that cannot be lost is a visible unity, i.e. the unity of the hierarchically organized institution that Christ Himself founded on the Apostles. The problem with the Evangelical position is that it makes schism impossible. Schisms are reduced to mere 'branchings' (as I have argued
here), and this creates the following dilemma: actual schism is either sinless or impossible. But schism cannot be sinless, and the possibility of schism is a test for orthodox ecclesiology, as I have argued here. Catholic ecclesiology is the only ecclesiology that passes that test while guaranteeing the unity of the Church. In Catholic ecclesiology schism is both possible and sinful, and yet no schism can destroy the *visible* unity of the Church and make "unity" no longer a mark of the Church (see here).

Clearly the reunion of Evangelicals with the Catholic Church will require a dialogue on ecclesiology, for that seems to me to be the fundamental point of division between Evangelicals and the Catholic Church. May our Lord Jesus bring us to that dialogue table, so that we may share together the Bread of Life at the Eucharistic table.


Anonymous said...

I'm not sure dialogue on ecclesiology is possible with the kind of arrogant "historical facts be damned" attitude that this document has. You're spot on with your assessment of 'Mere Christianity' being a useless abstraction but it's also highly arrogant and dismissive of historical truth.

I'm gonna write a follow up on my blog.

Kim said...

Once again you make me think, Bryan. Great post! I linked to it on my blog.

Principium Unitatis said...

Thanks Tim and Kim!

Oso Famoso said...

Good job. I missed this the first time around.

I was struck by the fact that the purpose of the "manifesto" was to define the word "Evangelical." They defined the term early in the paper quite broadly but later narrowed it down quite a bit.