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

Friday, May 16, 2008

"Denominational Renewal": Part 2

The title of Matt Brown's talk on ecclesiology was "On Being 'Truly 'Reformed': An Examination of the Reformed Catholic Tradition". He divided his talk into four sections: Apostolic, Catholic, Holy, and One, treating in reverse the four marks of the Church stated in that line in the Nicene Creed: "We believe in one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". I'm passing over Matt's section on holiness because I agreed with everything he said in that section. I'll put my summaries of various parts of Matt's talk in black, and my comments in blue.

In his section on apostolicity, Matt pointed out that none of the Reformed confessions describes the Church as 'Apostolic'. He explained that the reason for this was that at the time of the Reformation, the term was generally used in a way that had to do with a line of succession extending back to the Apostles, and the Reformers were trying to focus on being Apostolic in a doctrinal sense. But he claimed that to be 'Apostolic' not only means to teach the Apostles' doctrine; it also means to be sent.

Because the Reformed tradition excluded the conception of 'Apostolic' from the Reformed confessions, as a result, claimed Matt, there tends to be a loss of a sense of mission in the Reformed tradition. Those in the Reformed tradition thus tend to have two destructive habits: "ecclesial nostalgia" and "ecclesial nihilism". By way of "ecclesial nostalgia" Reformed Christians act as though there was some golden age of the Church, and are always trying to get back to it, or hold on to it. And this tends to lead to something like a denominational police state. By way of "ecclesial nihilism" Reformed Christians conceive of denominational divisions as a fact of life, and then embrace these divisions, which then leads to further nihilism. Matt pointed out that there are 21 Reformed denominations in Switzerland. There are 14 Reformed denominations in the UK. And there are 44 Reformed denominations in the US.
Matt said:

"God promises to give His Church all the gifts that are necessary for communicating the Gospel to the world ... but He never made this promise to any particular denomination." .... "To leave one denomination for another is to sacrifice one set of gifts for another. "Jesus didn't promise that His Spirit would guide every denomination into all truth; He would guide the entire Church."

Catholics agree with these last three statements only because Catholics do not refer (and never have referred) to the Catholic Church as a "denomination". That is a relatively recent term. Catholics believe that the Holy Spirit guides the Church by means of her legitimate leaders. Presumably Matt would agree that the Spirit is not guiding the Church through the leaders of schismatic and heretical sects. So we would need to distinguish "the entire Church" from schismatic and heretical sects, otherwise it wouldn't do us any good to know that the Spirit is guiding the entire Church if we cannot distinguish who are the rightful leaders of the Church from those who are not the rightful leaders of the Church.

Implicit in Matt's statements, as with Jeremy's, is a conception of the Church as something per se invisible and non-institutional; this conception implicitly assumes that Christ did not found a visible, institutional Church. For a discussion of the problem with that position, see Part 1.)
The claim that "No institution is the one Christ founded" is not itself in Scripture, and therefore on Matt and Jeremy's own terms, shouldn't be raised to the level of dogma.

Matt's apparent proposed solution to denominationalism (or at least a first step within that proposed solution) is to work with others outside one's own denomination. He went on to say:

"Because we live in a divided Church, we cannot produce new creeds. We can't produce universal creeds." .... "We must refuse the urge to just jump ship [from our denomination].... We must not continue to divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups that cut us off from what the Holy Spirit is doing even in other denominations."

This would imply that we should be seeking institutional unity. If it is wrong to divide further, then this implies that the present divisions are wrong. And if the present divisions are wrong, then we need to be institutionally one. But if Matt proposes that all Christians form one *new* 'institution', then see my post titled "Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ". The only remaining option then, is to find and be incorporated into the original institution founded by Christ.

In his section on catholicity, Matt talked about contextualization. To be "catholic", in his view, is to recognize that the Gospel is universal; it must go to all places and peoples. And so it must be contextualized to those places and peoples. Because of catholicity and contextualization, "therefore our theological formulations must change over time", according to the changing context. In Matt's opinion, the Nicene Creed is a contextual document. So is the Westminster Confession of Faith. They differ from each other because they are responding to different needs, at different times. He said that the Westminster divines would probably find it "weird" that Reformed Christians are still using the WCF. He went on to say:

"Part and parcel of the Reformed tradition is that we are always reforming; we are semper reformanda."

Recently, in a different post I wrote:

Bound up with the [Protestant] notion of sola scriptura is a denial of the infallibility of any Church council or papal decree. Sola scriptura thus entails that any line of any creed or conciliar or papal decree could be false.

This creates a serious problem for semper reformanda, of the sort that accompanies the philosophy of Heraclitus. Heraclitus was the pre-Socratic philosopher who said that everything is changing. But, if everything is changing then we know nothing; knowledge requires that there be something staying the same. If everything were changing, we could not even know that we know nothing, so the everything-is-changing position is self-refuting in that respect. Similarly, if nothing creedal is infallibly true, then what distinguishes development of doctrine from change in doctrine? (See, for example my comment here, and the follow-up comments.) When every doctrine is possibly false, then there is no way to distinguish development from change. Whether he knows it or not, what Matt is looking for as the antidote to "ecclesial nostalgia" on the one hand and "ecclesial nihilism" on the other hand, is the Catholic notion of development of doctrine. (cf. Newman's An Essay on the Development of Catholic Doctrine)

Organic development is the tertium quid between absolute stasis and unqualified change. But development is possible only in an ecclesial context in which truths can be established infallibly, and Protestantism denies that there is such an ecclesial context; only the writing of Scripture meets that criterion, according to Protestantism. Therefore, Protestantism does not have the ecclesial context for development of doctrine. There can be within it only combinations of change and stasis. That is not to say that Protestant theologians cannot deepen our understanding of Scripture. But Protestant ecclesiology cannot provide a context for development, for because all theological claims are fallible, at any moment they may be called into question. And therefore they are not a sure foundation upon which further doctrine may develop.

In his section on unity, Matt said the following:

"After the divisions of the Reformation, a lot of Protestants were tempted to say [that] the oneness of the Church, the unity of the Church, was only something invisible. And the Westminster Confession of Faith was the first confession in the history of the Church to ever describe the Church as invisible."

"When the bishops in Constantinople and when Paul [in Ephesians 4] were talking about the oneness of the Church, they were not only describing a theological understanding, they were describing a physical reality that had existed since the day of Pentecost. Paul is talking about a physical and visible unity. And this is not just his hope. He doesn't say 'let there be one body' he says 'there is one body'."

"And Jesus also talks about the visible unity, John 17, He says, I pray ..... When Jesus talks about their unity He is talking about a visible unity."

"We've got to begin by cultivating sorrow in our hearts for the divided state of the Church."

"Every new denomination further divides the Church of Jesus Christ."

"Jesus says that we cannot possibly be missional as long as we are divided."

"The Church was united. It will again be united. And it should be a present reality even now toward which we are striving."

In this conception of the Church, the Church was [visibly] united, but is now [visibly] divided, though still [invisibly] united. But if unity is a mark of the Church, then does Matt think the Church lost this mark? Has Christ been divided? If his answer is "no", then that can be only because the Church (i.e. the Body of Christ) is (in his view) invisible. But that goes against precisely what Matt is (rightfully) pointing out, i.e. that the Church per se is visible. Unity as a mark of an invisible Church is worthless. So if the Church per se is visible, and if unity is a mark of the Church, then the Church must have retained visible unity, even in the event of schism. The question for Matt is this: where is that visible unity that remains as a mark of the Church?

In the Catholic paradigm, that visible unity remains, in the institutional unity of the Catholic Church. In the Catholic paradigm there can be schism from the Church, without that schism destroying the visible unity of the institution which is the Catholic Church, while it is truly the case that Christians are thereby (through that schism) divided from each other. Matt's paradigm either makes visible unity a merely contingent mark of a no-longer existing visible Church, or an essential (but worthless) mark of an invisible Church. If he replies, "No, I think the visible Church still exists, only in a divided state", the difficulty for his position is that it is indistinguishable from the notion that the Church per se is invisible, though having some embodied 'members' who are visible.

In sum, Catholics agree that Apostolicity has both formal and material aspects (i.e. doctrine and sacramental succession). Catholics agree that the Church is Catholic, but for Catholics, the term 'catholic' does not include what heretics and schismatics taught (insofar as it differed from orthodoxy). So we need a means of clearly distinguishing between orthodoxy and heresy in order to determine whose beliefs/practices count as belonging to the extension of the term 'catholic'. If we are going exclude the Council of Trent from the extension of 'catholic', for example, then why include Nicea? Otherwise the term 'catholic' just becomes a catch-all, containing everything, and thus containing nothing, or containing only what 'our' particular tradition thinks it should contain. And then we would have many different versions of 'catholic', making the term worthless. Catholics also agree that the Church is One. We believe that the visible Church is one, even while Christians of various traditions are separated from her in various respects. If the visible Church were not one, there would be no visible Church; there would only be visible [particular] Churches (see Pope Benedict's comment here about the Catholic Church not being a "federation of Churches"). But Christ founded only one Church (Matt. 16:18), because Christ has only one Bride. So the visible Church must be one. Matt's position thus faces the challenge of distinguishing itself from the notion that the Church per se is invisible, but having some embodied 'members' who are visible.

I hope my comments here may stimulate some discussion for the sake of bringing reconciliation and unity between Presbyterians and Catholics, after almost 500 years of being divided. May the Lord Jesus make us one. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

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