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

Thursday, May 22, 2008

What Is the True Church? Part 1

Francis A. Schaeffer
In the Fall of 1997, the Francis Schaeffer Institute at Covenant Theological Seminary sponsored a lecture series titled "What Is the True Church?". The Anglican position was presented by J.I. Packer. The Reformed view was presented by Douglas Kelly. The Orthodox position was presented by Nicholas Triantafilou. The Lutheran position was presented by Roger Pitellko. And the Catholic position was presented by Richard John Neuhaus. The audio of these talks can be downloaded for free here (requires sign in, which is free).

I was present at these talks; I was in my fourth year of seminary at the time. I remember coming away from this lecture series wondering what was the most fundamental reason that these men disagreed with each other. At that time, I did not understand what the *fundamental* underlying reason for the disagreement was, though I think I have a better understanding of it now, and I have been trying to write about it here on Principium Unitatis over the past year. In particular, I remember listening to Fr. Neuhaus' talk and thinking the following: Here is a man who obviously loves Christ, a man learned in Scripture, theology and Church history. How could he possibly not understand that Scripture teaches what we [Presbyterians] believe? He is not the sort of person (in his character) to distort Scripture deliberately. Nor is he an anti-intellectual who is unaware of all that our great Reformed scholars have written in defense of Reformed theology. Why did he become Catholic, instead of becoming Presbyterian? How could he possibly know all that he knows, and be a genuine truth-loving person, and still leave Protestantism, for the Catholic Church, of all things!? Why couldn't the highly-skilled exegetes on our faculty at Covenant (and at Concordia) simply take him aside and show him from the Hebrew and Greek that his interpretations of Scripture were clearly wrong?

It was only later that I read Fr. Neuhaus' article "How I Became the Catholic I Was". But at that time (i.e. 1997), I could not see or even conceive of the Catholic paradigm, about which I wrote last year (see here). I did not even know there was such a thing. I could see theology only from a Protestant point of view, and from that point of view, Fr. Neuhaus' Catholic position was obviously and seriously flawed. For that reason, Fr. Neuhaus' move to Catholicism was a mystery to me; I simply couldn't make sense of it. So I did what I did with all those other things that didn't make sense to me theologically -- I put it in a mental closet and closed the door. But the door wouldn't stay closed, and the closet kept accumulating more and more "does-not-compute"s.

What I did not understand then, but understand much better now, is that what divides Christians are meta-level disagreements. (See my recent comment on meta-level questions here.) So often, when we try to resolve that which divides us, we fail to recognize and address the meta-level points of disagreement.
But given Tertullian's admonition, it does not seem appropriate to enter into a debate about first-order questions without first considering the meta-level questions. When a person is operating within a paradigm, and trying to resolve a disagreement with another person who is operating within a different paradigm, the discussion will make no headway toward agreement until they first recognize that they are each operating in a distinct paradigm, and then learn each other's paradigms, and then compare each other's paradigms on the basis of common ground, not question-begging claims.

Here I want to compare the Reformed answer to "What is the True Church?" with the Catholic answer to that question, and then point out the meta-level differences, that is, the underlying differences that account for the differences between the Reformed and Catholic answers to this question. I will do this in two parts. Part 1 will focus on the difference between the Reformed and Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church. Part 2 will focus on the meta-level differences that lie behind these conceptual differences.

I was taking notes on Douglas Kelly's comments on the four marks of the Church as given in the Creed: Unam, Sanctum, Catholicam, et Apostolicam Ecclesiam, i.e. the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. As I was doing so, I noticed that Kelly's conceptions of "one" and "apostolic" were formalized, that is, de-materialized. When I say "de-materialized" I am referring to matter in the sense of "form and matter". A de-materialized conception of the gospel, for example, reduces it to a message (see here). A de-materialized conception of the Church is a kind of gnosticism, as I argued here. When I noticed that Kelly's conceptions of "one" and "apostolic" were de-materialized, I wondered if the same was true of his conceptions of "holy" and "catholic". Those turned out to be de-materialized as well. Then I looked at paragraph 881 in the Catholic Catechism, which reads:

"This is the sole Church of Christ, which in the Creed we profess to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic." These four characteristics, inseparably linked with each other, indicate essential features of the Church and her mission. The Church does not possess them of herself; it is Christ who, through the Holy Spirit, makes his Church one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, and it is he who calls her to realize each of these qualities." (my emphasis)

If these four marks are "inseparably linked to each other", then it is no coincidence that all four of Kelly's conceptions of the marks of the Church are de-materialized in comparison to the Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church. To de-materialize one of the marks is necessarily, it seems, to de-materialize them all. And de-materializing our conceptions of the marks of the Church means that we lose sight of the Church as a "visible sacrament" of the unity that come to mankind through Christ. (Lumen Gentium 9)

The Catholic understanding of the unity of the Church is that the Church is visibly one, because the Church is the *Body* of Christ. Notice that this is not merely a formal (i.e. doctrinal unity), or an abstract unity, or an immaterial unity. The Church is one hierarchically organized body, one institution. It is not a mere collection or plurality of individuals or groups. That would still be, in actuality, a plurality only treated conceptually as if it were a unity. Nor is the Church merely one in belief and practice. The Church is one in being; it is one visible body or institution.

The Reformed conception of the unity of the Church, on the other hand, is de-materialized in that the Church's unity is thought to be fundamentally spiritual, immaterial, and invisible. In the Reformed conception, unity is an invisible mark of the invisible Church. According to this conception, it would be good if we visibly manifested that invisible unity we all already have in Christ, but visible unity is not an essential mark of the Church. I have said much about this recently here, here, here, and here.

The Catholic understanding of the holiness of the Church is that the Church is actually holy. This does not mean that her members on earth have perfect holiness, or that they all have the same degree of holiness, or even that the majority are exceptionally holy; in fact we are all still sinners. Nor does it mean that
in their good deeds pagans and heretics can never outshine Catholics. But it does mean that the Church stands apart from the world in her godly practice and sanctification; she testifies by the manner of her life and witness to the righteousness of God, the dignity of human life, the goodness of creation, the future judgment and the life of the world to come. Her members on earth have a "real though imperfect" holiness (CCC 825), especially insofar as they receive the life of Christ through the means of grace in the sacraments. Moreover, the canonized saints are examples to us of the sanctifying transformative power of the Holy Spirit working in and through the Church. Through the continuous use of the sacraments and prayer, we are truly and actually transformed into virtuous people.

The common Reformed conception of holiness by contrast, is formalized and de-materialized. According to this conception, our holiness is essentially something imputed to us, a legal declaration in which Christ's righteousness is credited to our account, covering us from God's wrath, but not transforming us into persons to whom God could honestly say, "Well done good and faithful servant." All our deeds are as filthy rags. So the Church and the believer are treated by God *as if* holy, as if as holy as Christ, but not transformed so as to be actually holy. (I have explained all this in more detail here. To qualify, I'm speaking of the common contemporary Reformed conception of the gospel, not Calvin's own position.)

The term means "universal", and as a mark of the Church it means "what is according to the totality", or "in keeping with the whole". (CCC 830) The Catholic conception of the term "Catholicam" is organic and narrative. The Church extends to wherever Christ is, wherever Christ offers Himself in preaching and sacrament, to every nation in the world. But this extends back in time, as an organic narrative, to the very birth of the Church on Pentecost. In that way, the Church is catholic insofar as she encompasses all that has been believed and practiced by the whole Church from the beginning of her history, through her organic development, to the present.

The Reformed conception of "catholic" is de-materialized in two ways. First, it tends to lay aside the time period from the fifth century to the 16th century as a great apostasy. I have called this notion "ecclesial deism", and explained it in more detail here. Second, Reformed denominations are provincial and regional by their very nature. They take names like "Presbyterian Church United States of America", or "Reformed Church of America" or "Presbyterian Church in America". How can anything with the name USA in it be the "catholic" Church? When PCUSA missionaries go to other countries in Africa and Asia, their converts become members of the PCUSA. There is no universal Presbyterian or Reformed Church whose members gather from all over the world for general assembly. The upcoming merger of the World Alliance of Reformed Churches with the Reformed Ecumenical Council to form the World Communion of Reformed Churches shows an awareness of the need for catholicity. But I have argued here that to attempt to achieve catholicity by forming a new institution is to try to do the impossible, i.e. to re-found the Church. The only way to achieve true catholicity is to return to the one institution that Christ Himself founded on the Apostles.

As for the objection that the "Roman Catholic Church" has the word 'Roman' in it, and is therefore provincial, the word 'Roman' is not in the name of the Catholic Church -- see the title of the Catechism at right. The name "Roman Catholic Church" was a term coined by Protestants.

The Catholic conception of apostolicity as a mark of the Church is sacramental in nature. The Church is apostolic in that it was built on the foundation of the Apostles, often literally on their bones. (See here.) That Church is apostolic whose ministers were formally authorized and sent by those who were authorized and sent [in a line of unbroken succession] by the Apostles, preserving full communion with the episcopal successor of the Apostle Peter. Those whom the Apostles authorized and sent preserve the Apostles 'teaching and doctrine.

The Reformed conception of apostolicity, by contrast, is de-materialized in that it does not include sacramental succession from the Apostles, i.e. a succession of authorizations by the laying on of hands, extending all the way to the present day from the Apostles themselves. Rather, the Reformed conception of apostolicity is entirely formal (in the form and matter sense of 'form'), for it is defined as the Apostles' doctrine. This is why the Reformed communities posited two (or three) marks of the Church: (1) the right preaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, and (3) ecclesiastical discipline. But this only begs the question: Who has the authoritative determination of what is "right preaching of the Word" and "proper administration of the sacraments"? The common Reformed answer is: "The Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures." But if we ask, "And who has the authoritative determination of what the Holy Spirit is speaking through the Scriptures?", we get some answer like "the people of God". And if we ask, "And who are the 'people of God'?", we generally get some answer like, those who have right preaching of the Word and proper administration of the sacraments. At that point we have simply moved around in a circle. That is why removing the matter from the conception of apostolicity entails both individualism and its necessary byproduct, ecclesial fragmentation, as I argued here and here. For more on apostolicity see my response to Sean Lucas here, my comments on apostolicity and Montanistic Gnosticism here, and my comments on the implications for apostolicity from Acts 15 and Romans 10 here.)

1 comment:

R. E. Aguirre. said...

Excellent excellent post Cross (thanks for the link to the audio series).

The point that you make concerning the foundational starting platforms that people utilize when debating an issue is right on the mark. I always find it interesting how many times even well trained scholars fall into this pit when evaluating a theory (i.e, just about everyone who reviews Barth for the first time).

The analysis you give regarding the marks of the Church between the Catholic and Reformed is a penetrating one.

Just want to add that the charge of Gnosticism has also been leveled against the Protestants under the Sanctum rubric. The Eclessia Catholica has viewed the physical world (and elements contained therein) as proper vehicles of grace (not on their own account but by the power of the Triune God). Protestants look askance at such definitions of the channels of Grace (and thus are charged with the Gnostic duality of corrupt physical matter and the superiority of the good spiritual things).

I remember once attending a Reformed service and in their book of confessions they had the word "catholic" with a line running through it (in the Nicene Creed). I asked one of the elders what this meant and his response was that since the Catholic Church was basically lost for 1500 years before Luther they did not want to ally themselves with that apostate body (in contrast to this line of thought St. Augustine warned us of the schismatics who could only be found in small particular geographic locations).

Apostolicam: The fragmenation and theological degradation that is attacking our Protestant brethren (such as in the Anglican churches) is a sad commentary on the consequence of rejecting the monolithic voices of our fathers.

R.E. Aguirre