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

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Christ founded a visible Church

HT: Dave Armstrong

One impediment to achieving full visible unity among Christians is the rather common notion that full visible unity is neither necessary nor desired by Christ. Some persons have claimed that it is God's will that Christians be divided into various sects and schisms. In January, I replied to that claim (here), arguing there that we should not countenance the idea that Christ would mutilate His own Body and Bride. To accuse Christ of such a thing is to call evil good, and to blame God for the sins of men. How could we expect Christian husbands to love and respect their wives if we believed that Christ Himself mutilated and dismembered His own Bride? Yesterday I encountered a rather similar claim here; see my comments in the combox there.

What chiefly lies behind the apathy regarding the pursuit of full visible unity is a certain type of conception of the Church. According to this conception of the Church, the visibility of the Church is merely the visibility of her embodied members. I have explained and critiqued here and here the notion among various Protestants that the visibility of the Church is merely the visibility of her embodied members. Here I want to add a bit more to what I said there.

If you were to look at me, you would see my body, not just the members (i.e. parts) of my body. Only some sort of reductionist would claim that there is no body here, that there are only parts or members of a body. But that reductionistic perspective is a distorted, myopic (abstractive) way of looking at a body. It sets aside one's perceptual recognition of the body per se, and thereby allows oneself to see only the parts of that body. In that abstractive, reductionist perspective, the viewer allows himself to see only a plurality of parts, not an actual unified whole. But in our ordinary perceptual mode (prior to putting on reductionistic blinders), we perceive bodies as actually existing unified wholes, and their members as parts of those wholes. Of course there is another sense of 'see' in which if you were to look at my [living] body, you would also see my soul. You would not see my soul in the same way you would see my body, but you would see my soul *through* my body. That is, my soul would be revealed to you through my bodily acts, not just through my vocalized speech, but even through my bodily gestures, arm gestures, facial expressions, and even my posture.

What does this have to do with the Church? The Church is the Body of Christ. (1 Corinthians 12; Colossians 1:24) Because it is a Body, it is essentially visible (see Satis Cognitum 3). The Church per se is visible, just as my body per se is visible. The notion that the Church is visible only because her embodied members are visible is just as reductionistic and abstractive a point of view of the Church as it is when said of my human body. The notion that the Church is visible only because her embodied members are visible denies [implicitly, but not explicitly] the existence of the Body. According to this notion there are only 'body parts', not an actual Body. This notion is based on the type of anthropological dualism that treats the human person as a spirit making use of what is, given this ontology, merely a collection or aggregate of material elements. According to this notion, the human person per se is an immaterial soul or spirit that presently happens to 'occupy' or make use of what is, given the ontology, nothing more than a plurality of spatially collected material 'parts'. Likewise, according to this same anthropology, the Church per se is invisible and spiritual. Those holding this position *claim* that embodied believers are "members" of the Body of Christ. But the conception of membership in use here is necessarily stipulative, as I shall explain. (That is why I have been putting 'parts' in single quotes.)

Parts can only be parts of a whole. If there is no whole, there can be no parts. But since the notion that the Church is visible only because her embodied members are visible denies [implicitly] the existence of the Body, there is no material whole here. Nor can material elements (being material) be parts of an immaterial whole. Hence according to this ontology, embodied believers cannot be parts or members of the Church in anything more than a stipulative sense. According to this ontology embodied believers are mere elements (not parts), even if they are made use of by the immaterial entity which (according to this view) the Church per se is.

According to the Catholic position, by contrast, the Church per se (not just her embodied members) is both visible and spiritual, just as a human person is both visible and spiritual. A human person is visible because he or she has (and is) a body. My body is not merely something I use; my body is part of me. To touch my body is to touch me. But I also have a spiritual principle, a soul. In the same way, according to the Catholic position, the Church per se (not just her embodied members) is both visible and spiritual. (See CCC 770 and 771.) Her life is the divine life of Christ her Head. (See here.) Her members are incorporated into a visible Body sharing one essence (i.e. one confessed faith), one shared act of sacramental worship (i.e. "one bread"), and hierarchically ordered under one visible head (i.e. the 'papa' of the "household of faith" which is the Church). Similarly, in just the same way that you can see my soul *through* my body, so also in the Catholic view, we can see the Holy Spirit through the Body of Christ, for the Holy Spirit is the soul of the Church. "What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church." (CCC 797)

The dualist anthropology always ultimately collapses into one of two errors, like the vices on both sides of a virtue. Either it reduces the human person to a collection of particles/elements (think of the positions of Daniel Dennett or the Churchlands), or it reduces the human person to an immaterial entity (cf. Descartes' dualism). Both errors eliminate the human body as an essential constituent of the human person. Likewise, this dualist anthropology applied to ecclesiology either reduces the Church to the collection [or set or heap] of individual believers (see here), or it reduces the Church to the Holy Spirit, rather than perceiving the Church as the mystical Body of the incarnate Christ. To understand the nature of the Church, we need to understand the human person (i.e. philosophical anthropology), precisely because the Church is the Body of Christ, and He is its organic Head, not merely its king.

If a person conceives of the Church as only visible because her embodied members are visible, he will have no incentive to seek full visible unity among all Christians. According to the dualistic anthropology, what makes a 'part' belong to this person is an invisible connection to an invisible spirit. The unity of the 'parts' is spiritual; hence visible/bodily/institutional unity is unnecessary. In a Thomistic understanding of the human person, by contrast, a part of a human body belongs to that human person because that part belongs to the person's body. And the part belongs to the person's body not because of some merely invisible relation to the body, but because of an essential, dynamic, and ordered incorporation into and communion with that body. Such a conception of the Body of Christ demands full visible unity.

Protestant ecclesiologies tend to treat the Church per se as invisible, leaving only her embodied members visible. The Church, in Protestant ecclesiologies, is not a visible *institution*. It is not, for example, the PCA, or the OPC, or the LCMS, or the AoG, or the SBC. None of these Protestant institutions claims to be *the* visible Church that Christ founded, nor even claims that Christ founded an "institution". They claim to be (at most) *part* of the visible Church. But they would deny being part of some larger visible institution. Therefore the Church
per se (given their ecclesiology) is not visible; only its embodied members (whether they be individual human beings and/or denominations) are visible. But if the Church per se is not visible, then full visible unity is merely optional, contingent upon political or social expedience and circumstance. If, however, the Church per se is visible, then all Christians should be diligently seeking full visible unity. In this way we can see that our philosophical anthropology plays a very significant role in what we conceive to be the goal of ecumenicism, as well as our perception of the importance of achieving that goal.

1 comment:

Eric Telfer said...

In as much as Protestantism is a rejection of authority outside the individual, each individual is his or her own 'church' because each individual is free to define, follow and make his own religion and so also his own religious group, with its own doctrines, practices, habits, tendencies, etc. Each individual is his own authority, not just with respect to whether to *accept* an object, but to the extent of *making* his own object, which he will then keep more or less to himself or his local peer group, or, more boldly, make a 'church', i.e., religious group, out of, with the hope of creating a following. Do we accept what was given, make our own, or follow another who has made his own? Is the authority that defines the object *in us* or *in the Church* that Christ started through the Apostles? For Protestants, the authority is ultimately individual and so the religion is ultimately defined by the individual. It is not a religion given, but a religion made. To the extent that there is a Church, it is one without authority and so really no Church at all in the biblical sense. The individual, not the Church, is the pillar and bullwark of truth. He tries to get traction by acting like he or his position is the true church, but, in fact, he is his own 'church', which is not a church outside the individual with authorit over and against the individual, but a church that he has created in himself. The term 'church' is kept, but evacuated of substance, which is one of the habits of Protestantism. The last threads of substance are Christ and the Bible. The last strands of unity are Christ and the Bible [faith in both]. But a faith in Christ is shared by many, including Protestants, JWs and Mormons, all of which probably claim a personal relationship with Christ while having radically different ideas about Christ. Further, a faith in the Bible is shared by the same groups, all claiming its authority, while all are free to add, substract, change or interpret it in radically different ways. In the end, the individual is being asked to make his own religion within the context of faith in Christ and faith in the Bible, but the variety and diversity that results from the different interpretative possibilities is mind-boggling, even while they all claim to be following the Bible and Christ, having faith in both. The only thing that is required is that one follows these two, but within those two the differences are enormous, giving rise to a salad bar of different religions, all of which have as their authority a person who *made* his own religion through his own authority within the context of some sort of faith in Christ and the Bible, but outside the context of the authority of the Apostles and subsequent hisotrical apostolic succession. Again, we can make our own, follow someone who has made his or her own, or follow the line of apostolic succession.