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

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Branches and Schisms: 3

"There is nothing more grievous than the sacrilege of schism....there can be no just necessity for destroying the unity of the Church." - St. Augustine

("Branches and Schisms: 1" is
here. "Branches and Schisms: 2" is here.) This third post on "Branches and Schisms" is a dialogue in which I look for a principled distinction between a branch and a schism. I consider two proposed candidates for the principled distinction between a branch and a schism: (1) schisms are within a congregation, while branches are between denominations, and (2) schisms become branches after a certain amount of time. I argue that both candidates do not provide a *principled* distinction between a branch and a schism.

One way that reality is hidden from us is by the use of misleading language. We know, for example, that those who support the legality of abortion typically call an unborn child a 'fetus', not a 'child' or 'baby'. And those who support euthanasia tend to call persons in a certain type of state 'vegetables'. Using such language changes our conceptions of what things are, and thereby changes our conceptions of how they should be treated. So likewise, if we are calling
'branches' what are in fact schisms, we are making use of a euphemism that takes something evil, and semantically presents it to ourselves as something either good or neutral, thereby removing in our minds the imperative to eliminate the schism, by being reconciled. Hence if we cannot find a principled distinction between branches and schisms, then we should stop calling schisms 'branches', and just call them what they are, i.e. schisms.

The dialogue takes place in the comments of Steve Wedgeworth's recent article titled "A Post-Protestant Model".

In the comments I wrote:

It seems like in order to understand ecclesial unity, we need to understand schism. But I don’t see any [conceptual] place for schism in your theory. What does it mean for a Christian to be in schism from the Church?

Steve replied:

I would say that schism occurs within congregations.

I replied:

Regarding schism, if the two conflicting parties within a congregation simply go their separate ways, then it ceases to be a ’schism’ and turns into two ‘branches’? I don’t see any principled distinction between divisions between denominations (which Reformed Christians tend to conceive of as branches), and divisions within a congregation. If divisions within a congregation are schisms (which are a sin), then it seems bizarre that the way to remove its sinfulness is to further the schism and start a new denomination, and then just call them branches. A fortiori, it seems the divisions between denominations would be even worse schisms than intra-congregational divisions.

Joel Garver replied:

Isn’t there a difference between causing or participating in an ecclesiastical breach (schism) and being born into or the heir of an already existing division? To view prior instances of schism as resulting in entities that are now considered merely branches seems to me to be a step in the right direction.

I replied:

I agree that there is a difference between causing or participating in a schism, and being born into an already existing division. The difference, in my opinion, has to do with the moral culpability of the persons involved. But if a schism is wrong, then I don’t see how just waiting for a certain length of time makes the division itself (not merely the act of dividing) no longer wrong. If it were merely the act (of dividing) itself that is wrong, then as soon as the division had occurred, there would be no obligation to reconcile and reunite the divided parties. It seems that it is not only the act of dividing that is wrong, but also the state of being divided that is wrong. And if the state of being divided is wrong, then it seems arbitrary to pick a certain amount of time and stipulate that the division is no longer wrong. When I think of “branches”, I think of branches on a tree. And none of us thinks the branches on a tree ought to grow back together into the trunk, to form a branch-less tree. A schism or division, we know, should be healed and the divided parties reconciled in unity. So how we are justified in calling schisms ‘branches’ (and thereby conceptually removing the obligation to reconcile), just because they have been around for a while?


George Weis said...


Always an interesting read here. With your thinking in mind, we will all be Catholic sooner or later :D

I don't know what to think anymore as I simply can't come to grips with certain key issues, which we need not rehash as you have thoroughly touched on many of them in other posts.

I like everyone (or hopefully everyone) who claims the Historical Biblical Christ desire unity within Christianity. However, Issues stand with strong points from both sides. I am left scratching my head, as I don't know the original languages, and dislike second hand info.

In one moment, the thought occurs "What if that Brian Cross is right"..."gulp"... then in another moment "No... couldn't be!"... then again "Yeah, I can see how that could definitely solve this ugly puzzle"..."gulp". It is never ending for me. I rest in the fact that Christ Himself is my desire, and that if wisdom is lacking, all I have to do is ask and it will be granted.

But what of developments? I could swallow the ways of antiquity, but how can I accept things that have little biblical and or historical evidence to believe?

I'm burnt, and need a vacation! Sorry for the rant Brian!

Blessings to you and every reader that follows!


Bryan Cross said...

Hello George,

Thanks very much for your comments. I'm glad that you are trusting in Christ to give you wisdom, because that is the most important first step. As we pursue Christ and the truth about His Church, we can know with full assurance that He will help us, if we ask. So it puts a confident hope in our hearts, that we will not always remain in confusion, because Christ will lead us to the truth, as we seek it.

But what of developments? I could swallow the ways of antiquity, but how can I accept things that have little biblical and or historical evidence to believe?

If you can swallow the ways of antiquity, then I would think you are already much closer to Catholicism (or Orthodoxy) than to Protestantism, as could be seen just by reading St. Ignatius of Antioch, and St. Irenaeus.

There is a certain irony in what you say here, because the notion that one must have "biblical" and "historical" evidence in order to believe justifiably what the Church teaches, is itself neither biblical nor historical. We trust the Church, just as we would have trusted the Apostles, had we lived in the first century.

There are two ways to try to go about becoming Catholic. One is to try to prove to oneself all that the Church teaches, and then say, "Ok, I have proved to myself all Catholic doctrine to be true; I'm ready to become Catholic." The other way is to determine where is the Church, then believe Catholic doctrine on the ground of the Church's authority, while seeking out the basis of the truth of those doctrines. The second way is "faith seeking understanding". The first way is rationalism, and such a person is still [mentally] a Protestant, for he believes a doctrine only if he can prove for himself to himself that it is true.

Jesus prays for those who "believe in Me through their word" (John 17:20). That wasn't just the word of the Apostles, but the word of those bishops whom the Apostles ordained to succeed them, and the bishops whom those bishops ordained to succeed them, and so on, down to the present day. After Pentecost, in order to enter the Church one had to believe the Apostles. And after the Apostles died, in order to enter the Church, one had to believe the bishops. There was no such thing as the New Testament yet. So in each generation, faith in Christ required faith in the Church, because the Church bore witness to the deposit of faith entrusted to her by the Apostles. Lots of heretics were claiming all sorts of things. But the true Church was distinguished by being Apostolic, that is, its leaders were appointed by the Apostles (or by bishops who themselves had been appointed by the Apostles). (If you are interested in studying this, click on the "Apostolicity" label.)

For someone who is in the process of trying to determine where is the Church that Christ founded, merely trusting the Church is not an option, because such a person does not yet know where is the Church that Christ founded. A helpful exercise here is to start at 33 AD, and then work your way forward through time, through every schism, until you get to the present day. At every schism, ask yourself: Which party is the continuation of the Church that Christ founded? Don't just skip ahead to 1054, because this exercise (of determining at every schism from the beginning of the Church which party is the continuation of the Church that Christ founded) teaches you as you go the principled basis for determining which party is the continuation of the Church that Christ founded.

And once you have traced the Church that Christ founded to the present day, then realize that these present bishops are the successors of the Apostles, having their authority, the authority that St. Augustine speaks of when he says: "For my part, I should not believe the Gospel except as moved by the authority of the Catholic Church."

May our Lord Jesus Christ continue to bring us to true and perfect unity, in the faith handed down once and for all to the Apostles, and the love demonstrated to us by the Bridegroom of the Church.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Grifman said...

I disagree with this statement that you made:

"There is a certain irony in what you say here, because the notion that one must have "biblical" and "historical" evidence in order to believe justifiably what the Church teaches, is itself neither biblical nor historical. We trust the Church, just as we would have trusted the Apostles, had we lived in the first century."

That doesn't seem to be the NT pattern at all. Peter's first sermon is Jerusalem is full of historical and scriptural arguments for Christ. Philip explains the scripture to the Ethiopian eunuch on the highway about Christ. Stephen makes an extended appeal to scripture in front of his persecutors. The NT in Acts tells us that Paul argues from the scriptures to convince people any number of times, from Thessalonica to Antioch. Indeed, it seemed that his pattern upon entering a new center was to go to the local synagogue and argue for Christ from the scriptures.

Peter and Paul just didn't stand in front of a crowd and say, "We represent the Church, just have faith and believe us." No, they argued and reasoned with their audiences, made their case for belief in Christ as the Messiah. And Paul's letters are full of argumentation and reasoning with his audience. He often uses OT scipture as a part of his argument. Perhaps Peter and Paul were Protestants after all? :)

Bryan Cross said...


Of course the Apostles appealed to Scripture to confirm and support their teaching. No one disagrees with that point. The claim in question is this: "that one must have "biblical" and "historical" evidence in order to believe justifiably what the Church teaches". And the fact that the Apostles often appealed to Scripture does not show that claim to be true. At that time there were no Scriptures that said that Jesus, the son of Mary, was the Son of God, risen from the dead. There were no Scriptures recording the words of Jesus during His three years of ministry. If you wanted to know for certain what Jesus taught, you had to trust those whom He had appointed to speak on His behalf. "Biblical" and "historical" evidence was entirely insufficient to come up with the content of the New Testament. In order to find the NT pointed to in the OT, you had to have Christ's teachings, which could be known only on the testimony and authority of the Apostles.

Moreover, the fact that the Apostles often appealed to the OT does not show that their listeners were not justified in believing the Apostles' message about Christ unless the Apostles' used references to the OT in their presentation of the gospel. In Paul's sermon on Mars Hill, for example, he does not appeal to Scripture. And yet some believed his message. And it seems that they believed justifiably. Jesus' statement, "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." (Luke 10:16) applied even to those who examined the OT but were not persuaded by the Apostles' arguments. When Jesus spoke, the obligation to believe and obey Him didn't come from the strength of His arguments from "biblical" and "historical" evidence. Likewise, the obligation to believe and obey the Apostles did not come from the strength of their arguments, but from the authority that Christ had given them, the authority that the Father had given to Him. (Matt 28:18) That was a sufficient condition for justifiably believing their message.

In the peace of Christ,

- Bryan

Grifman said...

Sorry, Brian, but I do not agree with you. Obviously there were no OT scriptures that specifically said "Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead". Yet if the apostles authority was enough, then why did they argue from the scriptures? Why did they seek to apply OT prophecies to him and convince others that their testimony was true? It's quite obvious that merely saying, "We're his apostles, believe us!" wasn't enough. They knew that their mere word was not enough, they needed to show that what they claimed fit into Jewish scripture and history, that Jesus was the messiah that the people had long waited for.

As for historical evidence interestingly enough, Paul points the Corinthians to all those that saw the resurrected Jesus, not just the testimony of the apostles. He tells the Corinthians that more than 500 witnesses, many of whom were still alive at the time. The clear implication is that these witnesses could still be asked of of the truthfulness of the claims of the apostles.

Yes, if you wanted to know what Jesus taught, you had to trust the apostles. But we have to have reasons to trust their testimony. After all, by any normal standard what they claim is impossible. And that is what they attempted to do by reference to witnesses and pointing to the OT scriptures - buttress their own personal witness. And today what evidence do we have of what Jesus taught - the gospels, written by these very same apostles or those close to them. Biblical evidence, if you please.

Interestingly, Luke himself says that: "Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught." The whole purpose of his gospel was that Theopilus would know the truth of what he had been taught. Thats why Luke says he talked to eyewitnesses, so he could provide a proper account.

As for Mars Hill, sure Paul didn't use scripture - he was talking to Greeks. Using the OT to convince them when they didn't believe in it would be foolish. Instead he quoted Greek philosophers and appealed to their own religiosity in an attempt to show that what he was saying was not unreasonable, and indeed true. And yes, some believed, but not because Paul claimed to be an apostle but because hie arguments convinced them. Whether Paul used scripture here in the end is irrelevant because the fact remains that many times he did make an appeal to scripture, sometime you claim is unnecessary - or at least that it was it seems to me you are claiming. Please correct me if I am wrong.

Sure Jesus had authority as the Christ. But do you really expect that God expects us to believe without evidence, on mere "authority". Jesus apparently didn't think so. How may many times does scripture say that he performed a miracle, not just to amaze the people with his power, but to show that his words were true and that he did have the authority he claimed? And indeed the greatest evidence for his claims was a historical event - the resurrection - it was that event, seeing the risen Lord that convinced the apostles of the truth of who Jesus was.

Anonymous said...

Bryan, excellent post as usual.

Grifman, with all due respect you have missed the point of what Bryan said.

"the notion that one must have "biblical" and "historical" evidence in order to believe justifiably what the Church teaches, is itself neither biblical nor historical."

This doesn't mean that the Scriptures are unneeded, unhelpful or that the apostles didn't quote from them. So, as Bryan pointed out, you showing that the apostles quoted from Scripture proves absolutely nothing and it's not even related.

You said:

Yet if the apostles authority was enough, then why did they argue from the scriptures?

Now I don't recall Bryan using the word "enough" or talking about that. In fact a quick ctrl+f check shows that you are the only one here who has used that word and, dare I say, concept. You seem to be reading Bryan's argument to be "the apostles didn't need Scripture they just came out and said 'listen to us' and that was enough" but that's not even close to what he said or implied so I'm not sure where you're getting that.

In context, George remarks that he doesn't find certain Catholic doctrines or practices explicitly taught in the Bible and therefore has trouble receiving them. Ok no big surprise there. Some are rather difficult to prove using a Protestant model of things. No biggy. Bryan, a former Protestant himself, recognizes this and doesn't disagree. He points out though, that George is using a Protestant model of interpreting divine revelation (and not even a good Protestant model); that is, that we must find every doctrine or practice explicitly in Scripture to be able to accept it.

He points out that the model itself isn't biblical. The apostles quoted from Scripture yes but this is an unrelated topic entirely.

But if, in your estimation, the model is biblical, then all you need to do is make a strong biblical case for the opposite of what Bryan is saying. That is, just show a teaching in Scripture that everything must be explicitly taught in the 66 books as accepted by Protestants (or I'll even be generous and just say "Scripture" in general allowing that the Protestants may have gotten the canon right).

If you can do this, you will prove Bryan wrong. If you cannot do this, you will not prove Bryan wrong. It's really that simple.

Showing that the apostles quoted from Scripture or even that they often did so, again, proves nothing. If it did prove anything, Catholicism would refute itself as the Church constantly quotes Scripture.

You may be interested in R.E. Aguirre's commentary on Protestant scholar Theodore Zahn here where he quotes him saying:

The ante-Nicene church never considered as the Rule of Faith the Bible or any part of it.

Now, we've discussed things before. I do not expect you to respond to my arguments. I expect you to latch on to a few choice words like "Scripture" and maybe "apostle" or something like that and start talking about something else as I've seen you do here with Bryan's argument and with mine elsewhere. But if you prove me wrong (and charitably so) I will be happy to respond. In other words, if you side step the thrust again, I will ignore your response.

In other words you must respond in one of two ways or I won't waste any more of my time:

1. Attempt to show that there is an explicit biblical principal that everything must explicitly found in the Bible in order for us to believe it or

2. Admit that you're wrong about this.

And if I have misunderstood Bryan's argument, I trust that he will let me know promptly and I will quickly retract my words if so.

Tom B. said...


"Yet if the apostles authority was enough, then why did they argue from the scriptures? Why did they seek to apply OT prophecies to him and convince others that their testimony was true? It's quite obvious that merely saying, "We're his apostles, believe us!" wasn't enough."

I imagine you would agree that Christ's authority was "enough". But, in order to convince an unbelieving generation, he too used the scriptures and performed many miracles. I think in this sense there is very little difference between Christ's ministry and the Apostles' -- they all interpreted the scriptures in an authoritative way and performed miraculous acts to validate their authority, and the legitimacy of their sending-out.

Therefore, the expository teaching was not just for its own sake any more than the miraculous healings were for the sake of making those who were (physically) lame walk. The teaching was for the sake of validating their authority (e.g., "The people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught them as one who had authority, not as the teachers of the law. (Mark 1:22)" The healing was too (e.g., "So he replied to the messengers, "Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor. (Luke 7:22)"

Anyway, I guess my point is only that it "wasn't enough" for Christ to simply say "I'm Jesus; believe me" either. And yet we need his authoritative revelation of the gospel of Grace, which we (God's people) had not perceived in the text of the (Old Covenant) scriptures before he taught us (with authority).

Peace in Christ,

Tom B. said...


"Yet if the apostles authority was enough, then why did they argue from the scriptures? Why did they seek to apply OT prophecies to him and convince others that their testimony was true? It's quite obvious that merely saying, "We're his apostles, believe us!" wasn't enough."

A further thought came to mind as I was preparing for teaching children's sunday school this morning. Moses was sent by God, with God's authority (which was enough). Yet, he doubted that the people of God would believe him and the validity of his authority. God gave him three signs: staff to snake, water to blood, and the leprosy hand. These were to validate his authority. When he continued to resist, claiming he was an unable speaker, God appointed Aaron to speak, but only with the words that Moses gave. God had chosen Moses to be his prophetic authority.

So counter to your hypothesis that Peter and Paul were "protestant after all" for their use of and reasoning over the scripture, I could hypothesize that God elects who he sends out imbued with His authority, and will make use of them whether they act reasonably (obediently) with His revealed message or not. Jonah also comes to mind as an example here. Apostles were "sent out"; they were not people who decided to "go out" and share the word with others. They were chosen, called, and then carried into the fulfillment of their ministry by the Holy Spirit.

I think, perhaps, you and I largely agree; I don't want to be presumptuous that there is disagreement. I would appreciate any elucidation you are able to give to help me better grasp your position.

Peace in Christ,