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

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Corpus Christi and Ecclesial Docetism

"The Institution of the Eucharist"
Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665)

Today we celebrate the feast of Corpus Christi, to commemorate the institution of the Holy Eucharist. Pope Benedict's comments on unity with respect to this feast can be found here.

In his Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD) says the following of certain heretics:

They abstain from the Eucharist and from prayer because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again. Those, therefore, who speak against this gift of God, incur death in the midst of their disputes. But it were better for them to treat it with respect, that they also might rise again.

To which heretics is St. Ignatius referring? Docetists. We can see that from what he says only a few paragraphs before.

"But if these things were done by our Lord only in appearance, then am I also only in appearance bound. And why have I also surrendered myself to death, to fire, to the sword, to the wildbeasts? ... For what does any one profit me, if he commends me, but blasphemes my Lord, not confessing that He was [truly] possessed of a body?" (my emphases)

In discussions with various Evangelicals, I quite commonly encounter the following sort of claim: "The Church is already fully one; our task is to take what is already true of the invisible Church, and make it visible." I have seen that notion lately here, here, here, here, and in Geoffrey W. Bromiley's book The Unity and Disunity of the Church (Eerdmans, 1958). Bromiley attempts to avoid both "invisible unity" and "institutional unity", but his proposed alternative, i.e. "unity in Christ", is indistinguishable from "invisible unity". One of the implications arising from the notion that the unity of the Church is invisible, is that there is no reason to pursue visible unity. To pursue visible unity is to fail to realize that we are already entirely one in the invisible realm. Hence for those holding this "invisible unity" notion, calls to pursue visible unity have to be supported by pragmatic, stipulative or voluntaristic reasons.

In January of this year, I argued in "The Incarnation and Church Unity" that this notion [i.e. that the unity of the Church is invisible] is a form of ecclesial docetism. It treats the Body of Christ as fundamentally immaterial, spiritual, and invisible, having only a visible appearance in the world, but not actually being a visible Body. Why do I say that it treats the Body of Christ as though it is not actually a visible Body? Because visible unity is essential and intrinsic to a body; if a body ceases to be visibly one, it ceases to be. So if visible unity is only accidental to something, that something is not a living body; it is, at most, only the appearance of a body. Hence those who claim that the Body of Christ is invisibly one and visibly divided, are treating the Body of Christ as though it were merely an *apparent* Body, not an actual Body. And therefore it should be clear why this position is rightly described as ecclesial docetism.

In response to my argument, Jonathan Bonomo suggested that Catholic ecclesiology is Eutychian. He wrote:

[I]f we're going to compare our ecclesiologies to Christological heresies, I don't see how yours would escape the charge of Eutychianism: mixing the inner/outer until they become prone to confusion. I'm not myself making the charge, mind you. But I don't see why making a distinction between the inner and outer while ardently holding to their essential union should be charged with docetism, while essentially identifying them should be exempt from other corresponding charges.

Must one choose between Docetic and Eutychian ecclesiologies? Is the Catholic ecclesiology Eutychian? No and No. Docetism denies that Christ ever took on a human nature. According to Docetism, Christ only appeared to be human, but did not actually have a human body. Eutychianism, which is also called Monophysitism (meaning "one nature") was condemned at the Fourth General Council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD. According to the Monophysites, Jesus' humanity was absorbed into His divine nature such that He no longer has a human nature, having only His divine nature (hence "Monophysitism").

Docetism and Eutychianism both deny that Christ has a human nature. For that reason, both Docetic and Eutychian notions of the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ) treat the Church as in itself invisible, spiritual, and immaterial, only visible in the sense that it makes use of embodied human believers in much the same way that the Logos (i.e. the Second Person of the Trinity), according to a Docetic conception, might make use of material elements in order to appear as though having a body, but would not actually be made up of those material elements, nor would they be parts of Him. Chalcedonian Christology, with its affirmation of two distinct natures united without mixture in one hypostatic union, entails that the Church as the Body of Christ is in itself visible and hierarchically organized as one corporate entity. (cf. Mystici Corporis Christi, 16) The real distinction between Christ's divine nature and His human nature does not imply that the Body of Christ is not necessarily visibly one. Rather, it is His having a real human nature that entails that the Body of Christ is necessarily visibly one.

Jonathan apparently thinks that the Catholic claim [that the visible Body of Christ is essentially one] mistakenly attributes to the visible aspect of the Church what is only true of the invisible aspect of the Church, and in that way falsely attributes what is only true of the divine nature to the human nature, as Eutychianism does. But Jonathan's claim is based on the implicit assumption that a living human body is not essentially visibly one. And yet a living human body is essentially visibly one. If it ceases to be visibly one, it ceases to be. Hence, its visible unity is essential to its being. Therefore, the Catholic claim that the [visible] Body of Christ is essentially visibly one is not Eutychian. Rather, the charge that Catholic ecclesiology is Eutychian is based on the mistaken notion that visible unity is not intrinsically essential to a living human body.

One possible objection is that the Eucharistic Body of Christ is not essentially visibly one, since there are many consecrated hosts. And so therefore the Mystical Body of Christ is not necessarily essentially visibly one. But the Eucharistic Body of Christ differs from the Mystical Body of Christ in an important and relevant way. It is not the case that a consecrated host is a *part* or *member* of the Eucharistic Body of Christ.

Christ is present whole and entire in each of the species and whole and entire in each of their parts, in such a way that the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ. (CCC 1377)

But Christ is the Head of His Mystical Body. Every member of the Mystical Body of Christ is joined to Christ, but only He is the Head. That means that Christ is not present "whole and entire in" the members of the Mystical Body of Christ in the way He is in each of the parts of the Eucharistic species. The members of the Mystical Body of Christ must remain united to the Head of that Body, in order to remain in that Body, but no part of a consecrated Host must remain visibly united to the other parts of that Host, in order to remain wholly and entirely Christ.

Christ and his Church thus together make up the "whole Christ" (Christus totus). (CCC 795)

For that reason, the Mystical Body is
essentially visibly one, even though "the breaking of the bread does not divide Christ".

To see video clips of our Corpus Christi procession and benedictions from last year, see here, here, here, here, and here. Thanks to Mark Abeln of Rome of the West for these videos.


Iohannes said...

Thanks for the thoughtful interaction with Bromiley's ideas. To frame a fit response I would need to finish Bromiley and then reexamine your remarks. But if one comment after the first reading is not out of order, it is on this sentence that I would focus:

"One of the implications arising from the notion that the unity of the Church is invisible, is that there is no reason to pursue visible unity."

That does not seem to be Bromiley's conclusion. When he opposes attempts to locate the Church's unity in visible institutions, he is not saying that visible unity is unimportant, or that ecumenical efforts are optional or extraneous or wrongheaded. He censures much of evangelicalism for adopting such a position (whether avowedly or implicitly), for, in his judgment, it manifests an antinomian impulse.

In this respect Bromiley's thesis has parallels in both Christology and soteriology (which, after all, cannot be finally separated). The former already have been highlighted, but the latter are also vital. Michael Horton has made the same arguments more recently. The idea finds expression in the Protestant conception of the Christian as being in this life simul iustus et peccator.

By virtue of union with Christ the believer even on this side of glory shares in the Savior's righteousness, and so is accounted just by God. He is translated into the kingdom of Christ--the kingdom that was triumphantly ushered in at the Cross and the Resurrection, and which has defeated and is putting down the powers of darkness in the world. At the same, although Christ reigns over the cosmos, sin, even while passing away, yet remains in the world; and although Christ reigns in his people, they are yet imperfectly conformed to the image of the Lord. Sin remains in us, but not as part of our true nature, which has been sanctified in Christ. It is become a foreign element which we must strive against in our lives. A life of faithful obedience and good works therefore cannot be dispensed with. These exertions are not the ground of salvation; that is to be found only in the person and work of Christ. But such a life is so bound up with salvation that if it is not present, then our salvation is doubtful, since faith without works is dead.

In short, the believer is to live a life of holiness because, being regenerated, his true nature is now holy. That nature does not find complete expression in any among the Church militant, but it is a part of our fundamental identity, which we must endeavor to realize throughout our Christian walk.

The analogy with the Church follows similarly. The body of Christ is united to Christ the head, to whom it must be conformed. All things are being gathered together into one in Christ, and unity and concord are therefore fundamental to the identity of his Church. But just as holiness is basic to the identity of Christians and yet is imperfectly realized in this life, so are unity and concord to the Church. The Church militant in this aspect is as it were simul una ac divisa. Division, strife, and disintegration are part of the old realm that is done away by Christ but which has not yet been altogether banished from experience. These things, however, do not belong to and do not touch the true nature and identity of the Church. It is the duty of the Church to battle against them, and by Christ’s promise it is impossible for the Church to be overcome by them, though they may (at some times more so than at others) mar her visage, just as sin in this life may strike and bruise the elect Christian but will fail to slay him. If we do not expect the Christian to be perfectly sanctified in this life, it seems plausible to entertain the like expectation about the Church. The Church should no more be complacent before the scandal of visible disunity than the Christian should exhibit apathy in the face of his sins. The Christian cannot ignore his situation and deny that he sins, and the Church cannot look away from her current circumstances and disregard her failure to achieve full unity and concord. Yet the Christian is holy and must labor better to achieve holiness, and the Church is one and must labor better to achieve unity.

These reasons are why I believe Frank was correct to call attention to that the fact that, as he said, "Christianity is eschatologically oriented by nature." There is a tension in our experience between the victory Christ has won and the victory he is in the process of winning. We are not yet glorified, and yet we are justified and sanctified; we have confidence in Christ and his promises, and yet we are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. It is tempting to try to escape this tension, to fly to one extreme or the other; hence Bromiley's warning about two mistaken paths to reflection on Church unity. The one path fails to see the extent of Christ's redemption, how it reaches beyond infrequently attained spiritual heights and into the world we inhabit, and thus makes too little effort toward overcoming the real problem of division. The other is over-realized eschatologically, and has us look in this life for what will not come to pass till the consummation of all things. If the one route leads to "antinomianism which refuses its proper task, an escapism which flees reality, or a repressed but irrepressible activism which finally revolts against the reality of an invisible or ideal unity," the other brings "a fanatical exclusivism which ignores the facts, a liberalizing relativization which seeks a compromise, or a weary disillusionment which either abandons the whole enterprise or seeks a very different and equally unsatisfactory solution." That, at least, is Bromiley's view.

Thanks again for the analysis in your post. I hope this comment furnishes something useful, even if it is not without its weak points.

God bless.


Principium Unitatis said...


I agree that Bromiley doesn't reach that conclusion. But Bromiley's not reaching that conclusion does not refute my argument. My argument is that that conclusion [i.e. that there is no reason to pursue visible unity] follows from the premise that the unity of the Church is invisible. Of course, as I pointed, one can come up with pragmatic, stipulative or voluntaristic reasons to pursue visible unity. But as long as the unity of the Church is conceived as as per se invisible, there is no intrinsic reason to pursue unity; the Church is already perfectly and completely unified, since no visible division diminishes the invisible unity.

Trying to back up gnostic ecclesiology with gnostic soteriology only begs the question. I have addressed this gnostic notion of salvation here.

Christianity being "eschatologically oriented" does not entail that the Church is invisible, or that her unity is invisible. You seem to think that if we will be one in the life to come, then our unity here and now must be invisible. But that conclusion does not follow. So the eschatological aspect of Christianity does not determine one way or the other whether the unity of the Church is presently visible or invisible.

If we do not expect the Christian to be perfectly sanctified in this life, it seems plausible to entertain the like expectation about the Church.

The antecedent of the conditional is the problem:

"Be ye perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect." (Matthew 5:48)

If we think that God does not expect us to be perfect, then we will justify all sorts of imperfections as acceptable, instead of repenting for them.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...


Thanks for your reply. I read your paper on the Gnostic conception of salvation, and agree that it raises valid objections to the lopsided understanding of salvation found in some contemporary statements of evangelical theology. That it refutes Calvin or the earlier tradition of the magisterial reformers is not clear to me; and whether it applies to Michael Horton is also unclear. Isn’t Putting Amazing Back into Grace one of Horton’s earliest books? I myself have not read it, and so cannot speak to the balance of its merits and demerits. I have, however, read his book on the Apostles Creed, which is unfortunately out of print. In it Horton warns against an “intellectualist” understanding of faith, belief “in propositions rather than in a person,” which leaves the person with “little personal interest in God or Christian faith and practice.” More to the point, later in the book he, much as you do, warns that the importance of the visible church “has almost been lost in evangelical reflection in favor of the notion of the church as invisible,” and then links this phenomenon to a “contemporary spirituality” that is “heavily influenced by themes that are very similar to those of ancient Gnosticism.” Also significant are his words about the sacraments in the next chapter: “Not only does [God] announce forgiveness to our ears, he gives us his Gospel in the form of something we can see, taste, feel, and smell.” That hardly sounds Gnostic. Maybe the criticism should be readjusted to the more historically common assertion that the Reformed have a Nestorian tendency. I certainly would not want to be thought a Nestorian, but at least it’s better than being considered a Gnostic or a Docetist.

This sentence is from the conclusion of the paper: “The gospel of our Lord Jesus is something to be obeyed, not merely something to be believed.”

That’s a paraphrase of canon 21 of Trent on justification, right? “If anyone says that Christ Jesus was given by God to men as a redeemer in whom to trust, and not also as a legislator whom to obey, let him be anathema.”

Calvin’s answer to the canon (from his “Antidote”) was that “No one says so.” Maybe he was too sanguine on this point, since radicals then as now have made such claims. But these sentiments are foreign to the traditional form of Reformed doctrine. It is notable that, when reviewing canon 19 (“If anyone says that nothing besides faith is commanded in the Gospel, that other things are indifferent, neither commanded nor forbidden, but free; or that the ten commandments in no way pertain to Christians, let him be anathema.”), Calvin’s only response was to declare “AMEN.”

The conclusion to the paper draws this contrast:

“In Lutheran and [contemporary] Reformed theology we are simul justus et peccator, not actually righteous but because of Christ we are treated by God as if we are righteous. In Catholic doctrine, by contrast, we are, after the sacrament of baptism and after the sacrament of reconciliation, actually and truly righteous.”

Although habitually skeptical of the ‘Calvin versus the Calvinists’ topos, I appreciate the parenthetical ‘contemporary’. For the contrast does not hold up when one turns to Reformed orthodoxy. A good demonstration of why is given in Lane Tipton’s recent essay on “Union with Christ and Justification.”

Tipton, as many theologians of all affiliations are doing today, stresses that the center of soteriology is union with Christ. He appeals to Geerhardus Vos, who in discussing the Reformed view of salvation wrote:

“One is first united to Christ, the Mediator of the covenant, by a mystical union, which finds its conscious recognition in faith. By this union with Christ all that is in Christ is simultaneously given. Faith embraces all this too; it not only grasps the instantaneous justification, but lays hold of Christ as Prophet, Priest, and King, as his rich and full Messiah.”

Justification is therefore only one aspect of salvation--to be sure, an important and indispensable one, but not the whole of redemption.

Vos's focus on union with Christ is in line with historic Reformed teaching. Consider Owen, who says that justification is founded on the fact that “the Lord Christ and believers do actually coalesce into one mystical person. This is by the Holy Spirit inhabiting in him as the head of the church in all fulness, and in all believers according to their measure, whereby they become members of his mystical body. That there is such a union between Christ and believers is the faith of the catholic church, and has been so in all ages.”

Tipton quotes Calvin to the same effect:

“Therefore, to that union of the head and members, the residence of Christ in our hearts, in fine, the mystical union, we assign the highest rank, Christ when he becomes ours making us partners with him in the gifts with which he was endued. Hence we do not view him as at a distance and without us, but as we have put him on, and been ingrafted into his body, he deigns to make us one with himself, and, therefore, we glory in having a fellowship of righteousness with him.”

I do not mean to belabor the point, but in citing these passages the purpose is to show that salvation in the Reformed understanding is a comprehensive reality founded not on forensic justification (which is nonetheless a consequence) but on incorporation into Christ and his body. To be in Christ means infinitely more than to know a password to heaven. It means to know Christ, and to have fellowship with him among his saints in his ordinances; it is to love him, to receive his blessings with thankfulness, and to obey him with all gratitude and submission as the Lord and Savior of his people. If this love and devotion are missing, mere “faith” or sterile knowledge will not suffice to save a man from condemnation.

Calvin spoke eloquently of the relationship between forensic justification and the interior transformation begun at regeneration:

“It is not to be denied, however, that the two things, Justification and Sanctification, are constantly conjoined and cohere; but from this it is erroneously inferred that they are one and the same. For example:--The light of the sun, though never unaccompanied with heat, is not to be considered heat. Where is the man so undiscerning as not to distinguish the one from the other? We acknowledge, then, that as soon as any one is justified, renewal also necessarily follows: and there is no dispute as to whether or not Christ sanctifies all whom he justifies. It were to rend the gospel, and divide Christ himself, to attempt to separate the righteousness which we obtain by faith from repentance.”

At regeneration, that great transformation effected secretly by the Spirit but then sacramentally re-presented and sealed in baptism, the principle of the new life takes root in the soul. This is the beginning of the interior renovation that, despite being a benefit distinct from justification, necessarily accompanies it in classical Reformed theology. Although the Reformed are not accustomed to speak much of inherent righteousness, they do not deny the reality of the infused righteousness that is so prominent in Roman Catholic theology, but differ only on the crucial point of how to interpret it and relate it to justification. The believer in the Reformed system is not only reckoned holy by imputation as in justification; he really is holy, with grace inhering in his soul. The beginning of grace signified in baptism must be nurtured and cultivated over the course of one’s life, for though sin has been defeated, it is not yet fully driven from the believer, who must constantly endeavor its extermination. For this purpose, and to sustain his people as they grow in grace and bring forth fruit, God has appointed his ordinances, most notably the word, the sacraments, and prayer, which are enjoyed in the company of the saints and ministered primarily through the Church, the divinely established mother of all the faithful.

If this is not what contemporary Reformed or evangelical teaching looks like, then that teaching has become a caricature of itself. It is in the sense above that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator. He is accounted perfectly righteous and holy in justification because of imputation. He is also actually made righteous through the work of interior renovation. Holiness is inherent in the believer, and grows as the believer matures, being more and more conformed to Christ. At the same time sin still remains as a fugitive presence in the believer, conquered but needing to be expelled. Out of love and obedience to Christ the believer must work to banish sin, and though he never reach perfection in this life, perfection must be his ambition. In other words, the believer does not count himself as having already attained the goal, or being already perfect, but presses forward to the prize of the high calling of God in Jesus Christ.

In view of this, the meaning of the Gospel is not to give us a shortcut to heaven that skirts the duty of obedience to God. Rather, as Calvin himself wrote, “Let us then mark, that the end of the gospel is, to render us eventually conformable to God, and, if we may so speak, to deify us.” It is true that on the Reformed understanding our works do not enter into our justification. Part of the reason is that, though we must aim at absolute obedience, our obedience falls short of the perfection that only Christ attained. But we are adopted sons of God, who looks on us with loving mercy, and spares us for Christ’s sake. Our obedience, though it cannot stand trial by God’s strict justice, is graciously accepted by God, who at our repentant pleading for forgiveness pardons us for Christ’s sake.

This doctrine is what invites the charge of antinomianism: if God accepts us in spite of our sins, why should obedience matter? It is the same question that Paul raises in the sixth chapter of Romans: “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound? God forbid. How shall we, that are dead to sin, live any longer therein?” We cannot ignore the duty of obedience because in doing so we are to deny our new nature as dead to sin but alive in Christ. To the extent we sin, we deviate from our calling and contradict our identity. Consequences remain for sin, and God as a father chastens his sons, sometimes severely, even if he does not give his elect over finally again to death. Yet these consequences are not the real motive for faithfulness. That motive is the highest conceivable--true gratitude and love for God as our Creator and Redeemer, combined with awe before him as the Lord whom we were made to glorify, and in glorifying to enjoy. If we have saving faith, we must love God; and if we care not for obedience, then we are devoid of love for God, and whatever faith we have is not the faith that avails to salvation. It is true that God graciously promises a reward to our obedience, and it is by no means wrong to look to the recompense promised in the Gospel, as Moses did when he deemed “the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt.” In looking at the prize we do not look away from Christ our Lord, whom we love and whose coming we hope for.

Since the reason for discussing soteriology in this context is to shed light on ecclesiology, it is right to return to the question of the unity of the Church. As suggested previously, we might think of the problem of disunity on analogy with the problem of sin, with the Church militant being simul una ac divisa. If the analogy holds, then it is not the case that the unity of the Church is or can be only invisible. There is an invisible unity, formed by the mystical union of Christ and his people that is the foundation of salvation. From this aspect, when God looks at us, he sees us as entirely one with Christ. The Church in this respect is reckoned perfectly pure and holy, being even as Christ is. But the Church’s unity cannot be merely invisible any more than the believer’s faith can be isolated from obedience. Holiness is not just imputed to the believer; it is simultaneously implanted in him. The believer really is holy, even if not yet perfectly sanctified. In similar fashion, the Church on earth really is one, even if not yet perfectly unified.

Division in the life of the Church on earth is as sin is in the life of the saint on his pilgrimage. Our sins are real; we are to repent of them; we must endeavor their extirpation. Likewise division is real; the Church must repent of it; and we must work at reconciliation. But sin, though it may hinder the elect Christian in progress toward sanctification, cannot extinguish the work God has begun in him. Division, too, cannot defeat the Church or annihilate her unity. Sin may scar the Christian and division may tear at the Church. Holiness and unity may be beaten back to some extent but will not be utterly broken.

Even in the midst of disunity, the visible Church remains united. The disunity is not an illusion any more than the believer’s sin is. The problems are real and, if we love God and recognize his Lordship, must be grappled with. Yet just as the principle of the new life, the holiness implanted at regeneration, remains with the Christian even at the darkest stages of his pilgrimage, so unity remains with the Church militant even in the face of apparent disunity and disarray, which at their strongest cannot eradicate the new creation of God.

This ecclesiastical unity can be located in various places, and the traditional Reformed categories of word, sacrament, and discipline are helpful in this regard. Although divided, the Church on earth retains the preaching of the Gospel, and while this preaching is not with the same purity everywhere, the essential truths have not been silenced despite the unfortunate splits. The Nicene Creed remains the confession of the Church universal, and when the Gospel is preached, the hearers are confronted with the same Christ, regardless of whether the pastor is Orthodox or Catholic or Lutheran. The sacraments, too, remain. It is telling how few have tried to go the route of the early Quakers by repudiating water baptism. All churches celebrate the Eucharist, and whatever their divisions and disagreements, true believers everywhere gather around the same Christ to be refreshed through feeding on him and receiving his benefits. Discipline also continues, albeit not always exercised rightly. The offices Christ established are still occupied everywhere, and though the governmental mechanisms of the Church are in disrepair, Christ’s rule has not been destroyed. The ministry remains; the succession has been irregular in some areas, but it is usually present in one form or another.

This may look like a pittance in comparison with the unity of Roman Catholic ecclesiology. That the Church is in an undesirable condition is not to be denied. The ecumenical task is a large one. In order to make progress, a right view of the situation is needed. We ought neither to see things better or worse than they are. The fact is that division has a long history in the Church. It predates by far the Reformation and the East-West split. Are not the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Orthodox still with us today? Division is a denial of the Church’s identity, just as sin is a denial of the Christian’s identity. It is deplorable and we must strive against it, but, like the believer’s setbacks on his pilgrimage, it is not an entirely unexpected occurrence. We should be grateful to God that he has preserved the Church in spite of all the opposition of sin and of the world. We should repent of our divisions, ask God’s loving assistance, and with his help work to repair the breaches. Neither despair nor triumphalism is ever appropriate.

Division, like all sin, often makes a mess of neat formulations and applications of doctrine. For all her professed unity, the Roman Catholic Church must jump through quite a few hurdles to reconcile her ecclesiology with her experience. The degrees of imperfect communion her doctrine hypothesizes with regard to “separated brethren” are a good example. This system, while it may satisfy Roman Catholic thinkers, looks flimsy from without, much as Protestant appeals to purely invisible unity do. It has the appearance of an ad hoc attempt to bring together two deeply conflicting attitudes toward those out of communion with the Papacy.

As Jonathan acknowledged, the Papal doctrine is not without its appeal. But like him, I am not persuaded of it. I see no seat of central authority equivalent to what Roman Catholics see in the Pope. Christ is truly king of his Church, and he has established a government for it on earth. The closest analogue to the Papacy from my perspective as a Reformed Protestant would be a genuine ecumenical council. It has been a long time since such a council has assembled. Whether one will be gathered in the future is a speculative matter, though, as an optimist, I would not be surprised if it happens, and if the visible unity of the Church is in other respects restored, even before the return of Christ.

In the absence of an office like the Papacy, which to the Protestant seems to be arbitrarily singled out in Roman Catholic theology as the focal point of unity, the visible unity of the Church must be sought elsewhere. Above I have suggested places to look. The details are not as important as the fact that there is a visible aspect to unity, which corresponds to the invisible. And again, just the Christian is holy and must labor better to achieve holiness, so the Church is one and must labor better to achieve unity. This is a manifestation of the tension of our age. We are situated between Christ’s first and second comings, between the victory that has been won and the victory that will be won.

I am doubtful about how persuasive this comment will be. I would be the first to admit the limits to my knowledge and abilities in reasoning. For the errors in it I ask God’s forgiveness. I hope some portion of it may be profitable, and apologize for the length.

God bless.


Iohannes said...

PS Craig R. Higgins' reformed contribution to the Touchstone forum on "Plausible Ecumenism" might fill out helpfully some of the assumptions and ideas in my previous comment:


Principium Unitatis said...


I wrote a reply to your longer comments, but then my hard drive went out on my computer, and so I'll have to rewrite it.

As for the Higgins article, you can read my reply to that here.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...

Sorry to hear about the problem with your computer. There's no need to hurry in responding.

Thanks for the link to your reply to the Higgins article.

I hope the Lord's Day is restful and refreshing for you.


Principium Unitatis said...


When Horton talks about the "visible church", it seems that by 'visible church' he can only be referring to the *plurality* of all presently embodied [self-described] Christians and their children. But he refers to this plurality with a singular term: "visible church". And strictly speaking, that would be inaccurate, for the unity of this plurality is only conceptual, not ontological. As I have pointed out before here, the ecclesiological position Horton is supporting is, for that reason, equivalent to claiming that the Church per se is invisible, only visible in that she has some members who are embodied and therefore visible.

The sentence, " The gospel of our Lord Jesus is something to be obeyed, not merely something to be believed" wasn't taken from canon 21 of Trent, but rather from:

"He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus." (2 Thess 1:8)


" For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? (1 Peter 4:17)

Since the reason for discussing soteriology in this context is to shed light on ecclesiology, it is right to return to the question of the unity of the Church.

Appealing to Reformed soteriology to shed light on "ecclesiology" begs the question viz-a-viz the Catholic, for it assumes (1) that Reformed soteriology is orthodox, even where it differs from Catholic soteriology, and (2) that ecclesiology is determined more by analogy from [Reformed] soteriology than by the Magisterium. In order to resolve our disagreement, we would have to step back and determine whether magisterial authority is doctrinally grounded (i.e. these persons have authority because they teach [what I have determined from Scripture to be] orthodox doctrine, or sacramentally grounded (i.e. these doctrines are authoritative because they are taught by those having sacramental succession from the Apostles. (I have discussed that here.

Even in the midst of disunity, the visible Church remains united.

But by "the visible Church" you mean the *plurality* of embodied [self-described] believers and their children, right? If not, then to what entity are you referring when you use the term "visible Church"? If by "visible Church" you mean the plurality of embodied [self-described] believers and their children, then in what sense does it "remain united"? If it were not remaining united, but were divided, how would it look any different? And if it would not look any different if it were divided, then how is it even a meaningful statement to say that the "visible Church remains united"?

Christ is truly king of his Church, and he has established a government for it on earth.

Where? Where is that government, in your opinion?

The closest analogue to the Papacy from my perspective as a Reformed Protestant would be a genuine ecumenical council.

Do you accept the authority of the first seven Ecumenical Councils? If not, why not? How do you decide which ones to accept and which ones to reject?

Thanks for the dialogue. I hope someday that we can share the Eucharist together. That will be true visible unity, in my opinion. May our Lord Jesus bring us into full visible unity, in truth and charity.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...


I was glad to see your reply. I hope your computer is fixed. Past troubles with my laptop have taught me how frustrating hard drive problems can be.

Thanks for the Scripture quotations about the necessity of obeying the Gospel. As Calvin's words show, there is no disagreement between the Tridentine and Reformed doctrines in this matter. If you see no reason to discuss soteriology, then we can drop the topic. I would be happy to resume it at another time.

The extent of your corpus of papers and blog postings on church unity is impressive. I have looked over the linked pieces but will not claim to have digested them in full. Please let me know if there are any sections in the writings on which you would like me to focus.

On the visibility of the Church, James Moffatt's comments in The Presbyterian Churches are instructive. The most important paragraph is reproduced below; if you are interested, I would be glad to e-mail you a PDF containing his chapters on “The Doctrine of the Church” and “The Ministry and the Sacraments” (the work appears to be out of copyright).

“Instead of saying that there is an invisible Church and a visible Church, we say that the Church is both visible and invisible. This is the Augustinian doctrine which was reproduced in Calvin's view. The Church is invisible in this sense that we do not see it; we cannot absolutely identify the empirical organization with the real community of those who are truly united to the Body of Christ. In the latter aspect the Church is an object of faith, just as the Holy Spirit is. 'I believe in the Holy Ghost, the Holy Catholic Church.' We believe in it by an act of faith, not because we see its credentials on paper, nor because it appears before us as an external phenomenon of history and social organization. But inasmuch as the faithful gather around the Word and the sacraments, which are visible, and make a more or less creditable and visible profession of faith, the Church is also visible. From the first, the Church has lived and moved in history, as a coetus fidelium, which becomes an institution as it develops the aims and objects of its fellowship.”

That is not a perfect explanation, since the institutional features of the Christian Church are more or less coeval with its creation as the body of the faithful. The language “cannot absolutely identify” is also a little slippery. What is most important is the idea of the visible and invisible church not as two bodies, but the same body seen from different perspectives.

The visible Church is the visible presence of God's kingdom on earth. It is possible to view a kingdom in different ways. One way is to identify the men who inhabit the kingdom. In that regard there is legitimate plurality in the Church. All the many individuals are united visibly and sacramentally into one body through a common baptism. From this aspect, all the baptized who have not renounced the baptismal profession belong to the Church. They are all, at least in the judgment of charity, God's chosen people, the heirs of salvation. To be unbaptized is to be outside the body, to disobey the Gospel, and so, presumptively, to be an alien to the promises. Hence there is no ordinary possibility of salvation outside of the (visible) Church.

It is also possible to view a kingdom from an institutional or organizational aspect. A well ordered kingdom has a functioning government with officials formally designated to implement the king's rule. Christ established the ministry to execute his will in administering his kingdom on earth. He himself calls and appoints his stewards. Through them he diffuses the Gospel, summons men to repentance, pronounces forgiveness for the penitent, washes and places his name on them in baptism, nourishes them in the Supper, and protects them through discipline. He also perpetuates the ministry through the work of his stewards in ordaining successors.

These two aspects should be in harmony. The government of the kingdom should pervade the body of men inhabiting the kingdom. In our experience, however, sin remains to assail the kingdom and create friction in its administration.

A problem arises when tension causes the government of the kingdom to deteriorate. History shows how civil strife can foster various degrees of political disorder within kingdoms. In a large empire it is not uncommon for there to be periods in which the government at the top breaks down, with different groups claiming the right to govern the whole. Throughout these periods the government often continues to function at the local and regional levels, perhaps more successfully or more regularly in some districts than in others. Also, during these times of internal turmoil the frontiers of a kingdom are sometimes neglected, with the result that chaos is greatest on the borders, and it can be hard to tell precisely where the borders are.

A measure of disorder in a kingdom's government does not necessarily entail the dissolution of the kingdom. The crisis of the third century did not annihilate the Roman Empire. A kingdom in disrepair is still a kingdom. When there is disorder, it is often hard to determine with certainty which governing party is legitimate. Often it is a usurper who boasts loudest of his rights to the dominion. In any event, absent complete conquest by one party, the best solution for the disorder is frequently a congress that brings together all who have some claim to the administration. The government can then be settled, and order and harmony restored. The congress does not create a new kingdom, but reorders and stabilizes the existing kingdom.

Although there are limits to the accuracy of analogies, the above should help to show my perspective as a Reformed Protestant. It should not be difficult to critique, nor should it be overly difficult to modify to make fit a Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Hopefully it will be useful for progress in discussion.

With regard to ecumenical councils, rather than speak simply of “accepting” them, it may be helpful to make a distinction between power and authority (or between legal and moral authority). The power of a council depends on the constitution of the Church, and the constitution has both iure divino elements and elements prescribed by custom or prudence or other human right. Since the constitution of the Church is at present unsettled, I admit to being unsure of the juridical powers of an ecumenical council. Ideally, a such a council would function as a final court of appeal, much as the Supreme Court does. Supreme Court decisions are final, in that there is no higher magistracy to which they can be appealed. The Court, however, can revise its decisions, and is not always free from error.

As to the authority of the ecumenical councils, Protestants from the magisterial traditions normally see the highest authority in the first four, which were the work of a largely undivided Church. American Presbyterians have historically professed to receive all the doctrinal deliverances of the first six ecumenical councils. I have not yet studied the history of the councils as well as I would like, and will not speak rashly either way about the seventh council, which looks to have been ecumenical but was not as universally received in the West as in the East (it is likely, for example, that Thomas Aquinas was unaware of Second Nicaea).

Protestants, of course, do not consider the councils or the pope infallible. Since your writings make constant reference to the problem of ascertaining where authority lies in religious matters, we could shift to discussing solely that question, or a variant of it, if you would like.

Preliminary to any such discussion I will attempt to sketch an alternative to the idea of “sacramental magisterial authority” explored in your papers. A passage from Calvin's commentaries provides a good point of departure:

“But here a difficult question arises: If every one has the right and the liberty to judge, nothing can be settled as certain, but on the contrary the whole of religion will be uncertain. To this I answer, that there is a twofold trial of doctrine, private and public. The private trial is that by which every one settles his own faith, when he wholly acquiesces in that doctrine which he knows has come from God; for consciences will never find a safe and tranquil port otherwise than in God. Public trial refers to the common consent and polity of the Church; for as there is danger lest fanatics should rise up, who may presumptuously boast that they are endued with the Spirit of God, it is a necessary remedy, that the faithful meet together and seek a way by which they may agree in a holy and godly manner. But as the old proverb is too true, 'So many heads, so many opinions,' it is doubtless a singular work of God, when he subdues our perverseness and makes us to think the same thing, and to agree in a holy unity of faith.”

This stance, when combined with the indefectibility of the Church, makes some parts of Christian tradition as it were de facto infallible. For some fundamental teachings have received such universal acceptance and approbation throughout the ages that for them to be in error would entail the defection of the Church, which by Christ's promise is impossible. Thus, although no pronouncement by a bishop or council is automatically or de jure infallible, some teachings are so rooted in tradition as to be in practice beyond the possibility of error. Belief in the Trinity is an example. More concretely, the Nicene Creed and the canon of Scripture may approach this status (though the debate on the filioque and the apocryphal/deuterocanonical books may remain).

The outworking of this position becomes complicated, and obviously it is not as tidy as the Roman Catholic doctrine. It takes no great skill to spot the potential vulnerabilities, e.g. how do we know that the mainstream of Trinitarian Christianity is not a defection from the true faith, which may have been preserved by an obscure group somewhere in the Middle East? As the beginnings of an answer I would suggest that tenor of the Gospel proclamation and the promises of Christ appear manifestly to contradict the idea that the Church would be a presence which, after two thousand years, could not be readily identified from the historical record. A visible Church cannot be invisible to the world of experience; it is something that can be spotted by friend and foe alike. It is true that the historical record can be challenged, but in practice some basic confidence in it is necessary (and if we will nitpick, the record poses difficulties for Rome, too--for example, the vast majority of episcopal lineages cannot be traced beyond Scipione Rebiba in 1541).

I would like to understand your views better, and so would ask a couple of questions:

Was the monepiscopate part of the original form of government that the Apostles implemented when they established local churches, or was it a development, albeit a very early one?

Was the papacy a development, or has it featured in the Church's government from the beginning? e.g. was St. Clement the Pope (not something like “senior pastor” at Rome or primus inter pares in a college of presbyter-bishops, but did he hold and consciously exercise the office of Pope)?

The issue in these questions isn't the legitimacy of development; rather, it is whether these particular institutions were present at the origin of the Church.

I share the desire for the full visible unity of the Church. So did Calvin, Zanchius, and other Reformers. “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.”

Principium Unitatis said...


Thanks for your comments. I'll try to focus in on the most important and fundamental points.

You wrote:
All the many individuals are united visibly and sacramentally into one body through a common baptism.

But there is such a thing as being in schism from the Church, as were the Donatists.

Although there are limits to the accuracy of analogies, the above should help to show my perspective as a Reformed Protestant.

The Church that Christ founded is not refuted by an argument from analogy. Otherwise, the Marcionites, Montanists, Novatians, Arians, Donatists, Nestorians, Eutychians, Monothelites, etc., etc. could have refuted the Church by using the same sort of argument. An argument from analogy is, as you know, very weak. And this particular argument from analogy assumes that the Church, which is a divine society because it was founded by the God-man Jesus Christ, is like any man-made kingdom with respect to defectibility.

The power of a council depends on the constitution of the Church, and the constitution has both iure divino elements and elements prescribed by custom or prudence or other human right.

Says who? Where are you getting this claim? It looks like you are simply stipulating how the Church must be.

I don't understand how you are deciding (other than simply following what "American Presbyterians have historically professed") which councils are authoritative in their pronouncements on faith and morals. If they are only 'authoritative' (to you) insofar as they agree with your interpretation of Scripture, then it seems to me that you don't actually consider them authoritative at all. But if you consider some of them binding, and others not, then what is the principled distinction between those that are binding and those that are not? And if you think that none of them are binding, then where are you getting this notion? The Church always believed, even from Nicaea I, that the decisions of ecumenical councils (on faith and morals) are binding on all the faithful.

As for the question about bishops, all bishops are also presbyters, but a presbyter is not necessarily a bishop. With respect to polity, what divides present-day Presbyterians from the Catholic Church is not how many bishops any particular see had at one time, or whether one of the bishops had judicial authority over the others within a see. There are, for example, two bishops here in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. One, Bishop Hermann, is the *auxiliary* bishop. Rather, the question is whether bishops (in the first century) had an authority (i.e. the authority to ordain) that mere presbyters did not have. It is possible that the Apostles ordained only bishops (who were also presbyters, remember) and deacons; in other words, it is possible that the Apostles themselves didn't ordain any mere-presbyters. But in St. Ignatius (who is writing as an elderly man in 107 AD, remember) we see that bishops could ordain persons into three offices: bishop, mere-presbyter, or deacon. Both the mere-presbyter and the deacon assisted the bishop, and acted only in his name and by his authority. But mere-presbyters and deacons have different authorities. Deacons can baptize, but not confirm (think of Philip, who baptized in Samaria, but the Apostles had to come to confirm with the Holy Spirit.) Nor do deacons have the authority to celebrate the Eucharist. But mere-presbyters are extensions of the bishops, under his authority, sacramentally they can do all that a bishop can do, except ordain. And judicially they are under the authority of the bishop. We can clearly see this three-fold hierarchy in the epistles of St. Ignatius. And St. Clement of Rome explicitly mentions that the Apostles ordained bishops and deacons, and then describes the three-fold role of high-priest, priest, and Levite under the old covenant. So, one of the reasons we don't see (at least not clearly) the "mere-presbyter" in the NT may be because that office did not begin to be filled until the next generation of the Church, when the bishops start needing them, particularly as the Church within a particular city grew so large it had to meet in multiple locations. As long as the Church in a city could meet in one location, there would be no need for mere-presbyters; a few bishops (one having the judicial authority), and any number of deacons, would be all that [particular] Church would need.

With regard to polity, contemporary Presbyterianism has its origins in the notion that all presbyters are ipso facto also bishops, and that therefore presbyters can ordain. (This notion is made possible by a sola scriptura methodology that uses contemporary Scripture interpretation to critique the first century fathers, rather than letting the first century fathers show us how to interpret Scripture.) But, even if the first generation of presbyters were all bishops (having been ordained by the Apostles), it does not follow that all presbyters therefore are ipso facto also bishops, for it is possible for there to be mere-presbyters, and not only bishop-presbyters. That is one of the ways in which Presbyterians did not maintain apostolic succession, which is why the Catholic Church and the Orthodox particular Churches do not recognize Presbyterian ordinations as valid, and why therefore the Catholic Church denies that Presbyterian communities are "Churches", for without valid orders, the is no valid Eucharist, and without a valid Eucharist, there is not a [particular] Church.

Consider what you said:

Thus, although no pronouncement by a bishop or council is automatically or de jure infallible, some teachings are so rooted in tradition as to be in practice beyond the possibility of error.

If monepsicopacy is not "so rooted in tradition as to be in practice beyond the possibility of error", then nothing is, and your claim is then meaningless. That's because the bishops who decided the Creed and the Trinity were all monepiscopate bishops, and monepiscpacy remained universally practiced for 1500 years.

Monepiscopacy is a practice not a dogma, although it can be seen explicitly even in the first century. Timothy, for example, was made bishop of Ephesus, and Titus of Crete. It is so deeply rooted as to be practically irrevocable. But the sacramental distinction between bishop and mere-presbyter is dogma, not mere practice. That distinction wasn't seriously challenged until the Reformation, which is why it wasn't formally dogmatized until Trent.

Was the papacy a development, or has it featured in the Church's government from the beginning? e.g. was St. Clement the Pope (not something like “senior pastor” at Rome or primus inter pares in a college of presbyter-bishops, but did he hold and consciously exercise the office of Pope)?

Both. I'm not sure exactly how you are using the term 'development'. The Catholic Church understands development in an organic sense, in the way a plant grows. (See Newman's An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine.) The papal office was there from the beginning, in the primacy of authority given to the Apostle Peter in the "keys of the kingdom". The stewardship of these keys wasn't lost when St. Peter died, but was handed on to his successor (i.e. St. Linus, and then St. Cletus, and then St. Clement -- see the list here). We can see this notion (of the unique authority of episcopal successor of St. Peter in the early bishops of Rome who recognized their authority and responsibility and charism viz-a-viz the other sees. And yet it is also true, on the Catholic view, that the understanding of this papal office grew over time. A very good book on this subject is Stephen Ray's Upon This Rock. It is a must read, in my opinion.

I'm very glad you share the desire for full visible unity. And, I also very much appreciate your gracious and charitable attitude here toward me. I pray too that as we talk about these things, the Holy Spirit will show us the way to true peace, reconciliation, and full visible unity.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Iohannes said...


Thank you for the reply. I likewise appreciate your patience and the hospitable spirit you have shown this visitor to your blog.

It seems my questions may have obscured my views. To avoid confusion, it should be said at the outset that I do not reject episcopacy. It is a venerable form of government, approved by the practice and testimony of the ancient church, and may play a critical role in the eventual reunion of God's people. As a presbyterian I do not view it as an essential part of the Church's polity by divine right, but neither do I deny that it can operate by human right. This distinction was challenged as mere stipulation. I believe it is a conceptual difference employed by writers on ecclesiology of all persuasions, Protestant and Roman Catholic alike. Where there is disagreement, it centers not on the distinction in itself, but on how to apply it.

The kingdom analogy failed to persuade. That is not surprising; arguments from analogy have force in proportion to the correspondence between the entities being compared. In this case a Protestant will find a greater correspondence than a Roman Catholic will. The Church can indeed be denominated a divine society, but, as was observed at the start of the discussion, she is both divine and human. How those natures relate is one side of the disagreement.

Schism of a group from the Church is possible, much as the total excommunication of an individual is possible. At the same time, limbs can become disjointed without being severed; and even when severed, he who healed the detached ear of an adversary can restore a member fallen from his own body. Not all sin warrants total excommunication, and not all division is tantamount to final separation from the Church. To the Church it belongs to pronounce censures and judgments, not to individuals, and it is customary to reserve the most extreme judgment for the most extreme cases. If it is true that the constitution of the Church is presently unsettled, then one result is that even valid ecclesiastical judgments have a provisional quality that would be diminished were appeal to a higher body more frequently possible. Thus, as there has been no superior council to judge the controversy between the Reformed Churches and the Church of Rome, that question, from the perspective of the former, remains an open one. The latter body may adjudge the Reformed to have separated from the Church, but the credibility of a verdict is usually suspect when the judge is a party to the case, and the witness of one who bears testimony to himself is not especially persuasive. Moreover, even the determinations of the final court of appeal remain provisional, not so much from a legal standpoint, but in that there is an appeal to providence and the judgment of posterity. God through his providence has vindicated the determination that factions like the Arians separated themselves from the Church. For the Church is still here, while those groups have long since withered away.

Connected with this matter is that of the ecumenical councils. My previous comments about this contained an ambiguity that needs clarification. By American Presbyterians was meant not individual persons but the Presbyterian churches. As an instance for illustration, in the nineteenth century the general assemblies of the two main Presbyterian bodies sent a joint letter to the Pope which, among other things, declared “all the doctrinal decisions of the first six ecumenical councils to be consistent with the Word of God,” and consequently professed to “receive them as expressing our faith.” At the same time it should be noted that the Presbyterian standards teach that councils are to be received “not only for their agreement with the Word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God, appointed thereunto in his Word.” Further, the drift of Reformed political thought is that a validly issued judgment is to be received even if one believes it mistaken, provided that it is possible to submit to the judgment without violence to one's duty to obey God.

Still there is the question of why the Presbyterian churches would receive these six councils in particular. Most Presbyterian bodies in this country have their origins in the Church of Scotland. The Church of Scotland, like the Church of England, is a particular Western Church, and more specifically one that rejects the papal system. Apart from the councils received only by the Papal church, which non-papal churches naturally do not accept, there are up to seven councils received as ecumenical in the Western tradition. The tradition in favor of the first six councils is strong. The tradition in favor of the seventh council is weaker. If one does not recognize the Papacy, a decent case can be made that Second Nicaea was not accepted as an ecumenical council in the West. In the absence of a larger synod that can resolve the question, it falls to the particular churches to form their own judgment. This judgment nonetheless can be revised later, and may be, should there be greater progress toward unity.

The experience of the churches is an experience rooted in tradition. To repudiate tradition is to deny or depreciate God's work among his people in history, to flee to a phantom ahistorical realm. By implication this is to challenge the incarnation, or at any rate to ignore Christ's promises regarding his Church. If a particular church is not persuaded that its tradition is causing it to fail in its obligations to Christ, then there is no reason for it to reject that tradition. Again, God is Lord of history, and if an error goes uncorrected in the present, we can hope it will yet be corrected in the future.

It was asked how far the decisions of councils are binding. Here one may mark a distinction between doctrine (both on faith and morals) and discipline. Doctrine by nature is stable over time. Discipline must be adapted to circumstances. I claim no expertise and may be mistaken, but it seems that if, for the vital good of the church, a disciplinary measure of a superior council must be modified, and if there is no reasonable and timely prospect of another similar council to which appeal may be made, the particular church may make the modification, and seek ratification whenever the next competent court should meet. Whether one accepts this proposition or not, it is a fact that churches have not upheld disciplinary measures with the same consistency as doctrinal deliverances. Take, for example, the twentieth Nicene canon, which enjoins that prayer be made standing on Sundays, not kneeling. The East has retained this practice, while most of the West, for whatever reason, has not.

It was charged that presbyterians err on polity because, out of commitment to sola scriptura, they sit in judgment of the early fathers, when they should let the fathers show how to interpret Scripture. It is no doubt true that some presbyterians have an inadequate understanding of how scripture and tradition relate, an understanding some have called “solo scriptura”. I realize that the proponent of “sacramental magisterial authority” will believe that “sola scriptura” collapses into “solo scriptura,” but it should at least be acknowledged that the classical Reformed doctrine does (coherently or not) profess an allegiance to tradition in the interpretation of Scripture. For my part, I believe that the tradition of the early fathers largely justifies the polity claims of the Reformed Churches against the Roman Catholic Church.

Regarding Stephen K. Ray's Upon This Rock, I have not read the work but have heard of it before. The main reason I have not pursued it is that it looks more like a manual of popular apologetics than an oeuvre of serious scholarship. The modern popular apologetics movement, both Roman Catholic and Protestant, does not impress me much any more. I am open to correction about Mr. Ray. If his credentials are better than they appear, then I will gladly reconsider reading his book. But after looking into the book this past weekend, and also checking with a friend, my opinion hasn't changed.

Lest I should seem to be avoiding challenges to my beliefs, I should mention that recently I was enrolled in a survey of early church history taught by a great patristics scholar, who is himself a convert from Protestantism to the Roman Catholic Church. I have immense respect for him; he is not only a true scholar but also an exemplary Christian gentleman. The conclusion from his lectures vis-a-vis the office of Pope, if I remember correctly, was that on the one hand there was no “papacy” in the earliest period of Church history, but on the other there were intimations of what would become the papacy. These included: the ability of the Roman church to show a direct connection to the apostles Peter and Paul, which was important in debunking Gnostic claims to a secret tradition; the prestige of the church in Rome owing to the prominence of the imperial city (cf. canon 28 of Chalcedon); the role of the church's leaders in taking the correct, or at least the prevailing, side in early controversies, e.g. the date of Easter and whether to rebaptize; and the status of Rome as the mother church for the West, which first involved her in judicial appeals of local decisions, and then led Rome gradually to assume the relation of teacher to other churches.

These factors all contributed to the early recognition of Roman primacy. Depending on how that primacy is understood, Protestants (and Orthodox?), as Higgins suggested, may not necessarily be opposed to recognizing a primacy in a reunited Church. But there is a difference between primacy in honor or dignity or authority, and primacy or supremacy in power. Non-papal churches contend that the Roman bishop has unjustly arrogated to himself the latter kind of primacy--a primacy that is harder to substantiate from the writings of the fathers. Just as the real debate is not so much over whether Peter had a primacy among the twelve but over the Roman Catholic interpretation of that primacy; so it is not very controversial that Rome and her bishop had a primacy in the early church, but the debate concerns what that primacy entailed. To my knowledge the primacy Rome claims for her bishop simply cannot be established by a test like the Vincentian canon. Therefore, if it will be maintained, it must be through a theory of development. And while almost no one denies development, the current Roman Catholic view of development seems to differ widely from the general view of development entertained by non-papal Christians (Protestants and Orthodox may not disagree much on this point).

On the relation of presbyter and bishop there are two main theories. One is the view you have put forward, viz. that the office of “mere-presbyter” was created out of the office of “presbyter-bishop.” When my professor mentioned this idea, I think he referred to Thomas Aquinas's argument that only a bishop should confer confirmation (because the sacrament is one of fullness or completion, and only the bishop has the fullness of the office). The evidence from the early church, however, seems to me strongly to point to the other theory, viz. that the bishop was originally the chief among the presbyters, and that the episcopal polity developed out of a presbyterial polity. This development was not mandated by the Apostles, otherwise it would not have happened unevenly, at different rates in different places. Yet it may well have had the endorsement of the last surviving apostles, John in particular, hence its early appearance in Asia Minor. J.B. Lightfoot, bishop of Durham, argued at length for this view in his famous dissertation on The Christian Ministry (see http://tinyurl.com/4z3t7n). Although dated, it remains a formidable piece of scholarship; few would gainsay Lightfoot's mastery of early Christian writings. You wrote that “the question is whether bishops (in the first century) had an authority (i.e. the authority to ordain) that mere presbyters did not have.” This is a very helpful epitome of the matter. If Bishop Lightfoot's reading of the fathers is accurate in the main, then the presbyterian Reformed churches should reconsider the merits of episcopacy, but they cannot easily be unchurched for preserving the ministry through the presbyterate.

Thanks again for taking the time to interact with my ramblings. May God bless you and yours.

CMWoodall said...

Post reads "Must one choose between Docetic and Eutychian ecclesiologies? Is the Catholic ecclesiology Eutychian? No and No. Docetism denies that Christ ever took on a human nature. According to Donatism, Christ only appeared to be human"

Don't you mean, "According to Docetism"? rather than Donatism.

Wonderful reading, Bryan.

Principium Unitatis said...

Fixed it! Thanks Chris!

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan