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

Saturday, May 24, 2008

What Is The True Church? Part 2

"Disputation of the Holy Sacrament"
Raphael (1483-1520)

Ecumenically minded folks tend to talk a lot about common ground. I, on the other hand, though no less intent on effecting ecclesial unity and reconciliation, tend to focus mostly on what still divides us. That is because I believe that we cannot be truly one simply by plastering over our differences or sweeping them under the rug. That is false ecumenicism, in my view. Of course recognizing and declaring our common ground has been an important necessary step in even getting us to the ecumenical dialogue table during the past century. But a genuine ecumenical spirit is one that not only affirms our common ground both in truth and charity, but at the same time tenaciously and in tandem seeks out the most fundamental root causes and reasons for our disagreements and divisions.

It is easy to talk 'above' the root causes. For example, if you listen to Douglas Kelly's talk (now requires sign-in, which is free), notice how many times he quotes John Calvin. But the relevant meta-level questions behind the practice of quoting Calvin are these: What authority has Calvin? Who sent him, commissioned him, ordained him, or otherwise authorized him to speak on behalf of the Church? Or, why should we believe and receive the teaching of someone whom the Church has not authorized to teach or preach? (To understand better the Catholic paradigm about those questions, see St. Francis de Sales' The Catholic Controversy.)
Unless and until we recognize and answer these meta-level questions, ecumenical dialogue will be an exercise in talking past each other. Genuine ecumenical dialogue cannot be only a presentation of our own particular tradition; it must zero-in on the meta-level questions, and seek out ways to reach agreement about the answers to those questions.

Last year I asked a Protestant the following question: "If Protestantism were a schism from the Catholic Church, and not the continuation of the Church, how would we know?" He replied, "Protestantism would be teaching a different gospel than the one it teaches." The problem with that reply is that any heretic from any heresy throughout history could have said the same thing about his own heretical sect. In short, that reply is obviously question-begging. In order to come to an agreement about "What is the true Church?", we have to find a non-question-begging way of distinguishing the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" from heresies and schisms. And that means that we have to look at the metal-level differences between the various paradigms.

So what are the meta-level differences that divide Protestants and Catholics? When we examine the differences between the Protestant and Catholic conceptions of the marks of the Church, as I did in Part 1, we find a methodological difference between Catholics and Protestants in the respective ways in which they seek out the natures of the marks of the Church. Protestants approach questions of theology and ecclesiology as though Scripture alone is the only authoritative determination of orthodoxy and heresy. Catholics, on the other hand, approach such questions under the inseparable authorities of Scripture, Tradition and the living Magisterium.

The "Scripture alone" way of thinking could also be characterized as "No living Magisterium". It is manifested in its essence at the birth of Protestantism, in Martin Luther's statement at the Diet of Worms:

"Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason -- I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other -- my conscience is captive to the Word of God."

Luther had made his conscience ultimately subject to his own interpretation of Scripture, not ultimately subject to the Church's decisions. This "No living Magisterium" way of approaching Scripture entails a practice wherein each person believes and does what is right in his own eyes, according to his own interpretation of Scripture. And the result is a manifold plurality of beliefs and practices.

Protestants and Catholics cannot ultimately resolve their disagreements by simply appealing to Scripture as if there is no Tradition and Magisterium, or by appealing to the Catholic Tradition and Magisterium. That would beg the question either way. Their disagreements all seem to depend on this more fundamental difference of Protestants not having, and Catholics having, Catholic Tradition and a living Magisterium. So that should be the point of focus for ecumenical dialogue. But this is tricky, because both sides can be tempted at this point to beg the question by seeking to resolve the difference according to their own paradigm: Catholics by appealing to Scripture as interpreted and understood within the Tradition and under the living Magisterium, and Protestants by appealing to Scripture apart from that Tradition and Magisterium.

Let me suggest that we step back and look at the origin of both positions from both paradigms. How was it, that the Catholic Church came to believe in, and Protestants came to deny, the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? According to the Catholic Church, the Gospel was handed on in two ways by the Apostles: orally, and in writing. (CCC 76, 78) In the writings of the early Church fathers we (from the viewpoint of the third millennium) find witness to this Tradition. Likewise, according to the Catholic Church, the living Magisterium has been with the Church since the day of Pentecost, first in the Apostles themselves, and then subsequently in the bishops whom they appointed. (CCC 77) So according to the Catholic Church, the Tradition and the living Magisterium have their origin in the Apostles.

How then did Protestants come to deny the authority of Tradition and a living Magisterium? That is a more complicated story, but the short of it is that Luther and other early Reformers saw certain abuses and corruption (e.g. the selling of indulgences) in the Church, and appeared to discover a different gospel in the New Testament Scriptures than the one taught by the Catholic Church. This led them to call into question both the Tradition and the living Magisterium, and call for a return to Scripture as the norm for faith and practice. From the Protestant point of view, the Catholic Church had fallen into apostasy, and the Protestants were the true Christians, the continuing Church, the ones carrying on the Apostles' doctrine.
The Protestant justification for departing in various respects from the doctrines, practices, and communion of the Catholic Church of the early 16th century was that Protestantism was recovering things that had been lost in the first century, and abandoning things that had been unjustifiably added since the first century. From the Catholic point of view, the [early] Protestants were both heretics and schismatics, having departed from the Catholic Church and from the apostolic doctrine which she had guarded and preserved for one and half millennia.

How do we determine whether (1) the Catholic Church was apostate and the Protestants were the true Christians carrying on the Apostolic doctrine, or (2) the Catholic Church was not apostate and the Protestants were heretics and schismatics? How do we even begin to answer that question? One possible way to answer it is by searching the Scriptures. But, as I have pointed out above, this approach simply begs the question against Catholics, just as appealing to Pope Leo X's papal bull excommunicating Luther would beg the question against Protestants. It implicitly assumes the truth of the Protestant paradigm, that there is no Magisterium under which Scripture should be interpreted.

Another way of looking at this disagreement is to examine together the history of the Church from its infancy to the 16th century, and see if that helps us determine whether the Protestants were the continuation of the Catholic Church or a schism from the Catholic Church. Obviously such an historical survey is beyond the scope of a blog post! But perhaps we can note a few things. There is no real dispute, I think, concerning whether the Apostles appointed bishops, and whether these bishops appointed successors, etc., and whether this was essential to the Nicene understanding of apostolicity. Nor is there any real dispute, in my opinion, concerning whether the Apostles spoke and practiced no more than what was written in the New Testament. So there is no real dispute, in my view, about the *origin* of the Magisterium and Tradition. The dispute between Protestants and Catholics had to do with the manner in which these changed over the next 1500 years. The Catholic Church viewed itself as preserving the apostolic deposit, developing it, and not corrupting it. The Protestants viewed that 'development' more suspiciously as, in various respects, a corruption of and departure from the original Apostolic deposit. This is how Protestants justified proposing novelties such as sola scriptura and sola fide, as a way of countering what they saw as unjustified additions to and corruptions of the gospel. (To see that these two Protestant principles were novel, see Dave Armstrong's excellent work here and here. He quotes Protestant theologian Alister McGrath as pointing out that sola fide was unknown from the time of St. Paul to the Reformation.)

Catholics believe that the Catholic Church is indefectible; she can neither perish from the world nor depart from "her teaching, her constitution and her liturgy". (Ott, p. 296) See, for example, what St. Irenaeus says at the end of the second century about the Church's indefectibility here. Likewise, St. Augustine says, "The Church will totter when her foundation totters. But how shall Christ totter? ... as long as Christ does not totter, neither shall the Church totter in eternity." (Enarr. in Ps. 103, 2, 5) Elsewhere, writing about Psalm 48:9 (which is Psalm 48:8 in Protestant Bibles) St. Augustine says:

Let not heretics insult, divided into parties, let them not exalt themselves who say, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there." (Matt 24:23) Whoso says, "Lo, here is Christ, or lo, there," invites to parties. Unity God promised. The kings are gathered together in one, not dissipated through schisms. But haply that city which has held the world, shall sometime be overthrown? Far be the thought! "God has founded it forever." If then God has founded it forever, why fearest thou lest the firmament should fall?"

And in his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed (1:6), St. Augustine writes:

The same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can; be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they all went out of it, like unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity.

In contrast to the Catholic notion of indefectibility, Protestants affirm ecclesial indefectibility by applying it to an "invisible Church" or some hidden remnant perduring invisibly through the middle ages of the Church. But the notion of an "invisible Church" is itself a 16th century novelty, as Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof points out. Either way, there seems to be no practical or visible difference between an "invisible Church" being indefectible and the [visible] Church being defectible.

Ultimately then, it seems to me, the fundamental underlying difference between Protestants and Catholics is not doctrinal or even methodological; the doctrinal and methological differences are results of a more fundamental difference. The fundamental difference, I think, is dispositional. We might more properly call it an attitude or stance of the will toward Christ's relation to His Church. Catholics trust that Christ is providentially guiding and protecting His Church through all time, until He returns, even when we see sinfulness and error in her leaders. In that trusting, open stance, the development of the Church, particularly with respect to doctrine and practice, is viewed as an organic and Spirit-guided blossoming of the deposit of faith entrusted to the Church by Christ through the Apostles. The does not mean that the Church never needs reforming. But under this stance or disposition, reforming the Church never involves a rejection of what has been laid down as dogma, and never involves leaving the Church or forming a schism.

The opposing attitude or disposition is one of suspicion and distrust; I have called it "ecclesial deism". It can be seen in the Montanists, the Novatians, the Donatists, Joachim of Fiore, the Cathars, the Reformers, the Jansenists, and the Mormons. Conceiving of the Church in a gnostic, de-materialized way as something invisible is, I think, a result of an underlying ecclesial deism. Such a person adopts a gnostic de-materialized notion of the Church in opposition to what the Church believes and teaches about herself, because of some kind of ecclesial deism that is at least implicitly held.

Is there any relation between faith in Christ, and believing the Church? Traditionally, these were seen as inseparable. In the faith itself, spelled out in the Creed, is the line: "Credo ... et unam, sanctum, catholicam et apostolicam Ecclesiam". "I believe ... one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church". We believe "in God the Father", and "in Jesus Christ His only Son", and "in the Holy Spirit". But we don't merely believe in the Church -- we believe the Church. Clearly it does not make sense to believe an invisible Church. St. Augustine treated recognition and acceptance of the authority of the Church as the ground on which to believe the Gospel. Hence he could say:

"For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."

Trusting Christ was inseparably bound up with trusting the Church, for one had to trust that Christ was guiding and protecting His Church and operating through her, in order to know anything about Christ through the testimony of the Church. (See my post "Church and Jesus are Inseparable".)

When we take up a hermeneutic of suspicion toward the Church, there is virtually no possibility of growing in our faith in Christ. We become cynical and disengaged. We are left with no option but trying to find and grow closer to Jesus on long walks in the forest or in the mountains or under the stars. We are reduced to the individualist/gnostic that we know can't be right, and even despise. (If it sounds like I've been there, that's because I have.)

If the Church cannot be trusted, then of what use is a verse like the following:

They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us. (1 John 2:19)

If the Church cannot be trusted then we would not be able to distinguish those who "went out" from those who "remained with us". (The corollary of this verse is that those who return to us were really "of us", in some sense.) Douglas Kelly says that Calvin makes it clear that he and the other Reformers "didn't purposely leave the organized Church in schismatic fashion, but they felt they had been forced out." (That is at 1:02:00 in the audio recording of his talk.) I have heard that same kind of claim many times, i.e. that the Reformers did not intend to form a schism or start a new Church, but were forced out by the Catholic Church. What is relevant is not the words 'intend' or 'force', but rather the word 'out'. I have never heard or read any Catholic say that Catholics were forced out of the Church by Protestants excommunicating them. Protestants justify their claim that they (and not the Catholics) are the continuation of the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church" by treating the Church as essentially invisible.

When I was a Protestant, I thought that Protestants had only been forced out of a mere institution (an institution made only by mere men), not the "one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church", which in my mind was essentially invisible. But couldn't any heretical sect of the previous 1500 years have claimed the same thing about itself? How does redefining the Church as essentially invisible not entirely nullify the penalty of excommunication? (Matt 18:17-18) These are challenging and even painful questions, I understand, but I see no other way of reconciling Protestants and the Catholic Church than by facing head-on what exactly happened in this 16th century separation. If we do not have a principled distinction between the sort of division that occurred between Protestants and the Catholic Church, and the sort of division that occurred between all the heresies and schisms of the first 1500 years and the Catholic Church, then how can we non-arbitrarily affirm the former and reject the latter? They too were following Scripture, according to their own interpretations (see here and here).

Let us continue to focus on the *fundamental* points of disagreement, the ones that stand under and behind all the others, the ones that ultimately distinguish the Protestant and Catholic paradigms.

Lord Jesus, we pray for the reunion of all Christians in full visible unity, that the world may know that the Father sent You and loves us. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


Eric Telfer said...


This idea that the early church was 'A-OK'- even to be followed with respect to its ecumenical councils, as the recent 'An Evangelical Manifesto' seems to imply- and that the schism was justified over doctrine that developed *later* in church history is fascinating.

I wonder: What was different, aside from the doctrinal developments which gave rise to disputes, about the early church and the church that pronounced these supposedly new doctrines, as Protestants might have it put?

Did the church have authority early on and then lose it? Did the doctrine of the early church become contradicted by the doctrine of the later church? Is there some reason to think that Christ was guiding the early Church but then stopped at some time in history? What would it be? How can we tell that Christ was guiding the early Church and then not guiding the later Church or the Church after such and such date? How can we tell that the Holy Spirit is working through the Church at one time in history, but then ceased doing so later? Does the Holy Spirit pop in and out of the Church, working at this point in history but not at another?

Also, when Protestants want to return to the early church, do they wish to return to the authority of that church too? Do they think it ever had authority? If not, then on what authority do the early conclusions by the Church rest? How do we know the early church was right about Christ and so many other things pertaining to Scripture? After all, the first 700 years after Christ saw Arianism and Islam already on the scene, both disagreeing with the early Church. The Protestant needs to explain how the Church lost authority if it originally had it. And when. And why he or she thinks so. And how he knows. If the Protestant does not think the early church had authority, then another set of problems shall be discussed, as alluded to above.


Eric Telfer said...


A Protestant might, of course, say that he lost his faith in the Catholic Church as the Church of Christ. Sure, he might think Christ founded it. He might even think the Holy Spirit was with it for a very long time, i.e., long enough for this or that council to affirm and deny this or that, long enough to canonize the Bible, etc. But at some point he lost faith in the Catholic Church, in the notion that Christ and the Holy Spirit was still working. This may have been due to a new development in doctrine. It may have been due to corruption. It may have been due to frustration with the Church. And, in fact, the history just prior to the Reformation was a difficult time within the Church, i.e., Borgia Popes, the Black Plague, the apparent Schism of the Papacy with confusion over who the real Pope was, the relocation of the Papacy for a time, corruption within the priesthood, etc. This was a dark time for the Church. The Church had become a very large, wealthy, complex entity. It had become closely tied to governmental affairs. There had always, throughout history, been an innate hatred of the church by some, but frustrations were growing ever more over corruption and dissatisfaction in general. There was a desire for simplicity. One can see where the problem might have arisen. One can see where the faith in the Church might have been questioned. One can see where a man of the times might wonder if the Catholic Church was still the true church or whether Christ had abandoned it. Are we on our own now, to do the best we can without the visible church? How bad can the visible church be before we conclude that Christ is no longer with it? Does it still have authority, despite all of this darkness and corruption? What are we to make of these recent doctrinal developments in light of all of the corruption, in light of all of the confusion over one supreme authority on such matters? The human side has gotten so bad that one wonders whether the divine hand is still at work at all.

And so it seems that some may have split off from the church because they lost faith in the church and they may have lost faith in the Church because of (1) doctrinal developments that they disagreed with, (2) corruption and confusion over the Church and it's authority, and (3) some combination of (1) and (2).

Some may have 'missed' the part about Christ always being with the Church and the gates of hell not ever defeating the Church, though they 'got' the part about Christ founding the Church. Most charitably presented, they lost their faith in the Church even while they still had faith in Christ as Messiah. They wanted something simpler and more pure. They no longer trusted the Church's authority because they either lost it or know longer believed it was still present on account of all of the negative human things going on.

Of course it was not even this simple for each and every individual for some had individual motives to rebel that were more personal yet, i.e., individualism, not wanting to be under authority, wanting to do this or that that the church disapproved of, etc. This gives us aanother category, i.e., (4) personal motives having to do with living preferences and individualistic tendencies.

In conclusion, if one recognized the Church to have authority at one point in history by having been founded by Christ and by having been guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the years, can one legitimately later say, based on an appeal to (1)-(4), or some combination of them, that the Church no longer has that same authority? Or, more strangely, can one say that the Church still has the authority, but reject it, legitimately?

(There are other options, of course. One might argue that the church never had authority to begin with and that one just realized it after experiencing how dark the church can get. Such a church never could have had the authority it claimed, one might argue.)


Bryan Cross said...


if one recognized the Church to have authority at one point in history by having been founded by Christ and by having been guided by the Holy Spirit throughout the years, can one legitimately later say, based on an appeal to (1)-(4), or some combination of them, that the Church no longer has that same authority? Or, more strangely, can one say that the Church still has the authority, but reject it, legitimately?

I can't answer these two questions until I know what you mean by your two uses of the term 'legitimately'. This term has its etymological roots in law. So, to what law would such a person be appealing?

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Eric Telfer said...


Yes. The term 'legitimately' is a stickler there. One might have use other terms like 'validly' or 'in good conscience' or 'rightly' or 'in good faith' or 'fairly' or an entire assortment of other possibilities. One could even attempt to leave out all such qualifiers and say: Can a person say the Church had authority and then later say it does not? Of course a person can, but what we are after is whether or not he ought to conclude thusly, when all things are considered, i.e., whether it is good reasoning to do so, whether it is consistent to do so, whether or not he is violating some principle of reason in doing so, whether he is being consistent, whether his doing so creates more problems than it relieves, whether he violates some principle of reason or morality, etc. Whether he ought to say such and such will be determined by what is true. And so we need to know whether the authority is still present or not, in spite of (1)-(4). We need to know what reason there is to think it (the authority) is not when some think it is and when the Catholic Church itself claims it is. In other words, are (1)-(4), taken in isolation or in some combination, good reasons for thinking the authority left the Catholic Church, and so good reasons to reject the Catholic Church's claim to authority? If the Protestants had 'good reasons' or 'good enough reasons', then perhaps they could have 'legitimately' left the Catholic Church. If not, then there was some failing to appreciate the truth.

But then the issue hinges on what will count as 'good reasons' or 'good enough reasons', with each side differing perhaps as to what a good reason or a good enough reason might be to justify denying the Catholic Church's claim to authority when in fact the same person previously granted that same authority to the Catholic Church.

I found myself in a position of granting the early Church authority but thinking of the early church as existing, at least until the time the Bible was canonized. I thought the early Church canonized the Bible, that is. But it is clear from history that the early Church that canonized the Bible was one and the same with the Catholic Church, which canonized the Bible. I then had to decide what I was saying. On the one hand, I was saying that the Catholic Church at such and such time in history had authority-even on the scale of canonizing the Bible- but then potentially denying that same authority to the Catholic Church today. Whether a person, even given (1)-(4) could ever be right in doing this is the issue, I think, for certain Protestants, i.e., for those who once accepted the authority, but now reject it.


Anonymous said...


I do believe that, with respect to ecumenical engagement, it is good to be "aware of" this meta-level differences, but am not convinced that this is the thing to "focus" on, at least, not in such a way that we cease to appeal to Scripture as a substantial piece of common ground on the basis of which we can reason together.

As you are no doubt aware, classical apologetics (e.g., Thomism) is not confined to transcendental arguments (which is the kind of thing I think you are getting at). We can examine the data available to "common sense" (by analogy, for our purposes here, this would be the text of Scripture) and, through discursive reasoning, we attempt to reduce such data to first principles (clearly, Catholic theology does not, and should not, rely upon this methodology alone in the formulation of her dogmatic principles).

This type of apologetics is more tedious than cut-to-the-chase transcendental type of argument, but it is not, in my experience, unfruitful, nor, according to my understanding, inconsistent in principle with Catholic belief.

You are right: we cannot "ultimately resolve" our differences by simply appealing to Scripture. But we can begin to resolve those differences by so doing. This would not exclude, but rather complement, your (as I am reading it) more transcendental approach.

Bryan Cross said...


Thanks for your comments. I'm not advocating that we not appeal to Scripture in our ecumenical dialogue. Nor am I saying that appealing to Scripture is not ecumenically effective. In many cases it is.

However, data doesn't come to us in a vacuum. We all interpret Scripture according to some kind of broader paradigm. And effective ecumenical dialogue does not ignore these paradigmatic differences, but addresses them.

I remember asking one Protestant professor what we should do when someone disagrees with our interpretation of Scripture. He replied, "You just show them the text." In my experience, that sort of response is not effective. The result is: "You have your interpretation, and I have mine; let us go our separate ways." But I'm talking about what lies behind this ecumenical stalemate, about the underlying paradigmatic differences that make pointing to Scripture ineffective in bringing us to agreement and unity.

The Catholic paradigm for interpreting and understanding Scripture is one deeply informed by the Church fathers. So I'm trying to address (what I have found to be) a common mentality among Protestants that distrusts the Fathers.

So I think you and I agree. I'm talking about a situation in which the interpretative paradigms are different, and must themselves be addressed.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan