Thursday, February 12, 2004
The following are some thoughts on the relationship between ecclesiology and pnuematology, particularly inspired by authors like Zizioulas. I hope to challenge the low ecclesiology of much of evangelicalism in some of these comments and also to clarify how I believe we ought to relate to such churches as the Roman Catholic Church.
The Individual and the ChurchLeading us into all Truth It is concerning to witness the arrogance of many modern evangelicals who, under the pretence of a high view of Scripture, reject the authority of the Church. They often claim the support of the Reformers for their position, maintaining that the position they advocate is nothing less than the doctrine of sola scriptura that the Reformers proclaimed. It is a great shame that they do not devote more effort to reading the Reformers themselves. These people are arrogant because they believe that merely by prayer and personal Bible reading they have all that is necessary to understand the meaning of the Bible. They deny the necessity of the Church as their teacher and act as if the Holy Spirit came to them alone. They seek to argue that the Holy Spirit works directly upon the minds of believers to lead them into the truth and that we should be distrustful of outside helps. Reacting against the unbiblical authority claimed by the Pope, each man becomes his own pope. However, the Spirit’s guiding of us into all truth should always be understood in the light of the fact that Christ gave ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…’ The Bible is to be interpreted in and by the Church. The Spirit’s guidance of us into all truth is accomplished primarily through the ministry of the Word and the sacraments rather than through some mystical inner light. Those who despise these ‘outward’ means would do well to reflect on the words of John Calvin—
We see how God, who could in a moment perfect his own, nevertheless desires them to grow up into manhood solely under the education of the church. We see the way set for it: the preaching of the heavenly doctrine has been enjoined upon the pastors. We see that all are brought under the same regulation, that with a gentle and teachable spirit they may allow themselves to be governed by teachers appointed to this function. … From this it follows that all those who spurn the spiritual food, divinely extended to them through the hand of the church, deserve to perish in famine and hunger. [Institutes IV.i.5]I do not believe that a high view of the authority of Scripture will lead us to a low view of the Church. The more I have studied the Scriptures, the more ‘high’ my ecclesiology has become. The Church is not some mere functional construct of man designed to help us all in our individual Christian walks. It is so much more — the Church is the saved community established by Jesus Christ. The Church is our ‘Mother’. Calvin again—
But because it is now our intention to discuss the visible church, let us learn even from the simple title “mother” how useful, indeed how necessary, it is that we should know her. For there is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly, unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels [Matthew 22:30]. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore, away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation. … God’s fatherly favor and the especial witness of spiritual life are limited to his flock, so that it is always disastrous to leave the church. [Institutes IV.i.4]Many evangelicals today are like children who despise the word of their mother, maintaining that they are motivated by nothing other than ‘respect’ for the word of their father. They rob themselves of the great gifts that Christ has bestowed upon the Church for the benefit of all of its members. There are far too many people today who have atomized the work of the Holy Spirit. Whilst the Holy Spirit has certainly been given to individuals to lead them into the truth (Calvin defends this in IV.viii.11), no one individual possesses the same measure of the riches of the Spirit that have been given to the Church as a Body. Indeed it is the ministry of the Spirit that constitutes the Church as the Church. Apart from the ministry of the Spirit the Church cannot exist. We are led into the truth as the Spirit ministers to each member of the Church and through each member of the Church. To view the work of the Spirit in the individual soul as somehow isolated from the work of the Spirit in the Church is to fall into serious error. The Salvation of the Individual and the Church It is through the ministry of the Spirit within the Church that the Christian is first brought to faith and then perfected in it as the Church as a whole is perfected in faith. We should always beware of separating the ‘internal’ work of the Spirit from the work of the Spirit within the Church. I fear that this is often done in our understanding of the doctrine of regeneration. Our concept of regeneration tends to be almost wholly ‘internal’. This arises from a view of the nature of man that does not take seriously enough the fact that man’s relationships are constitutive of his being. It is the sinfulness of man that turns him in on himself; salvation must take man out of himself and bring him into relationship. Regeneration primarily occurs in the Church, not in the isolated human heart. Being ‘in Christ’ should never be separated from being a member of His Body, the Church. In Baptism into Christ one is baptized into the Church. As John Zizioulas observes, Pnuematology is constitutive both of Christology and ecclesiology. It is the Spirit that constitutes Christ both as the eschatological Man and as a ‘corporate personality’ — not just ‘one’ but ‘many’. Being made a partaker of the Spirit by being brought into union with Christ is to become part of the ministry of the Spirit in the Church. We cannot draw a sharp distinction between these two things as if one could be raised to new life by the Spirit and yet not be a faithful minister within the temple which He indwells. The new life of salvation is the new life of ministry as a priest in the Temple of the Church. By individualizing the work of the Spirit, evangelicals have often sought to justify the separatism that they so often practice. By seeing the work of the Spirit as little more than a work that takes place immediately in the individual human heart they have tended to relegate the Church to the level of a mere human society. Against this we must stress that the Holy Spirit ministers to individuals through the means established within the Church. Consequently to separate oneself from the Church is to separate oneself from the means by which the Spirit ministers to His people. To practice separatism within the Church is to deny the unity of the Holy Spirit and is to counteract His ministry.
The True ChurchThe Being of the Church The being of the Church is derived from the future. By the ministry of the Spirit (most especially in the Eucharist) we are made members of the Eschatological Man, Jesus Christ. The communion of the Holy Spirit is essential to the being of the Church. A number of implications follow. Firstly we must acknowledge with Zizioulas that, if the being of the Church is derived from the future, no ecclesial institution can justify its own existence by reference to history alone. The Church is constantly dependant upon the Holy Spirit for its continued existence. The concept of the ‘institution’ of the Church is radically qualified. Zizioulas writes:—
The ecclesial institutions by being eschatologically conditioned become sacramental in the sense of being placed in the dialectic between history and eschatology, between the already and the not yet. They lose therefore their self-sufficiency, their individualistic ontology, and exist epicletically, i.e. they depend for their efficacy constantly on prayer, the prayer of the community. It is not in history that the ecclesial institutions find their certainty (their validity) but in constant dependence on the Holy Spirit. This is what makes them “sacramental,” which in the language of Orthodox theology may be called “iconic.”As the Church has no being of itself a Church can cease to exist when it abandons its dependence on the Spirit and seeks to rely upon itself. The continuing ministry of the Spirit is essential for the Church to remain the Church. If the Spirit departs there is no Church. Secondly we must recognize that we need not choose between a Pnuematological / eschatological or a Christological basis for the being of the Church. The Church as the Body of Christ finds its being in the eschatological or pnuematological Man. Pnuematology conditions Christology from the outset. We should not deny the reality of the fact that the foundation of the being of the Church is found in the Person of Christ (although it is probably best to understand this in terms of the Resurrection rather than the Incarnation). There is always a danger that we might overreact against the Roman Catholic errors regarding the Church’s relationship to the Incarnation. Other writers like John Williamson Nevin err in this respect, in my judgment. Nevin seems to see the Church as the realization of Christ’s life in history, relating this primarily to the Incarnation. Nevin rightly criticizes the Roman Catholic Church for identifying the ideal Church (which is Christ) with the empirical and historical Church, seeing the Church as perfected from the beginning and granting the Church the same authority and infallibility as Christ Himself. However, as in many places in Nevin’s writing I am disappointed that the Resurrection and Pentecost do not play a greater role. By focusing so much of his attention upon the Incarnation by itself I fear that Nevin fails to do justice to the eschatological nature of Christ’s Person. What he seeks to express with the categories of ‘ideal’ and ‘actual’ Church might be far better understood with a greater emphasis on the eschatological nature of Christ’s Person. I also feel that some of the recent challenges upon the visible / invisible Church distinction (here I am thinking particularly of Douglas Wilson) could be more carefully nuanced. Replacing the visible / invisible distinction with the historical / eschatological distinction is most certainly a step in the right direction, but more stress could be placed upon the fact that the historical Church derives its being from the eschatological. Many inattentive readers of writers like Wilson, wrongly in my opinion, believe that the issue of the purity of the Church is ignored. Whilst I do not believe that this is the case, is there not still some danger that we might place too much weight upon the institutional nature of Church and not give full voice to the truth that the Church is constituted by the Spirit? Where the Spirit is absent there is no Church, institution or otherwise. More on this later. Thirdly we must appreciate that unity and Catholicity are not merely of the bene esse of the Church; they are of its very esse. A sectarian church is an oxymoron. The true Church is one Body with one Spirit as it finds its existence in Christ, the true and indivisible Spiritual Man. Authors like Klaas Schilder are right to attack any definition of the Church that ignores the essential nature of the Church’s unity. Ecumenism is non-negotiable if we are to be the true Church. As we are made true members of the Church we will be brought together with all other members of the Church. The Church is constituted by the ministry of the one Spirit and if we are to grow to fullness we must be open to the ministry of the Spirit wherever it exists. Any church that exists in conscious and deliberate isolation cannot be considered a true church. Any individual that lives in separation from all believers cannot be considered a true Christian. Churches that do not actively seek communion with other churches and are not Catholic (not the same thing as ‘Roman’ Catholic) in their sentiments have but a tenuous claim to be true churches. This is one of the deepest problems of much of independency. I certainly believe that it is true that the local Church is equally ultimate with the Universal Church. However, catholicity has to be a mark of the true Church. Where the local Church is marked by divisions, alienation or separation, whether within the Church or with other local Churches throughout the world, one should question its right to be called a Church. Of course, few churches can be spared this critique. Many Presbyterians, for example, although rightly criticizing independency, are not very Catholic in their sentiments when it comes to Churches outside of Reformed circles, whether ‘Reformed’ is widely or narrowly construed. False Churches Many people ask how we ought to relate to such bodies as the Roman Catholic Church. Is the Roman Catholic Church a true Church? I am under no illusions that the Roman Catholic Church is a true Church in the sense of being a faithful Church. I was brought up in the Republic of Ireland, which was over 90% Roman Catholic at the time. I attended a Roman Catholic school. I do not need to be informed of the hypocrisy and nominalism of many Roman Catholics. Nevertheless, I believe that Roman Catholic Baptism should be accepted as valid. I also believe that Roman Catholics should be treated as Christians by the token of that Baptism. I believe that it is helpful to observe the manner in which Calvin treated the Roman Catholic Church. On the meaning of the words in the temple of God in II Thessalonians 2:4 Calvin writes—
By this one term there is a sufficient refutation of the error, nay more, the stupidity of those who reckon the Pope to be Vicar of Christ, on the ground that he has his seat in the Church, in whatever manner he may conduct himself; for Paul places Antichrist nowhere else than in the very sanctuary of God. For this is not a foreign, but a domestic enemy, who opposes Christ under the very name of Christ. But it is asked, how the Church is represented as the den of so many superstitions, while it was destined to be the pillar of the truth? (1 Timothy 3:15.) I answer, that it is thus represented, not on the ground of its retaining all the qualities of the Church, but because it has something of it remaining. I accordingly acknowledge, that that is the temple of God in which the Pope bears rule, but at the same time profaned by innumerable sacrileges.The Roman Catholic Church does not cease to be the Church because amidst all of its corruptions something of the true Church remains. However, this fact never holds Calvin back from attacking the Papacy in the strongest of terms. So what in Calvin’s mind remained of the true Church in the Roman Catholic Church of Calvin’s day? Calvin writes—
Of old, certain peculiar prerogatives of the church remained among the Jews. In like manner, today we do not deprive the papists of those traces of the church which the Lord willed should among them survive the destruction. God had once for all made his covenant with the Jews, but it was not they who preserved the covenant; rather, leaning upon its own strength, it kept itself alive by struggling against their impiety. Therefore—such was the certainty and constancy of God’s goodness—the Lord’s covenant abode there. Their treachery could not obliterate his faithfulness, and circumcision could not be so profaned by their unclean hands as to cease to be the true sign and sacrament of his covenant. Whence the Lord called the children born to them his children [Ezekiel 16:20-21], when these belonged to him only by a special blessing. So it was in France, Italy, Germany, Spain, and England after the Lord established his covenant there. When those countries were oppressed by the tyranny of Antichrist, the Lord used two means to keep his covenant inviolable. First, he maintained baptism there, a witness to this covenant; consecrated by his own mouth, it retains its force despite the impiety of men. Secondly, by his own providence he caused other vestiges to remain, that the church might not utterly die. And just as often happens when buildings are pulled down the foundations and ruins remain, so he did not allow his church either to be destroyed to the very foundations by Antichrist or to be leveled to the ground, even though to punish the ungratefulness of men who had despised his word he let it undergo frightful shaking and shattering, but even after this very destruction willed that a half-demolished building remain.Later on he goes on to write—
However, when we categorically deny to the papists the title of the church, we do not for this reason impugn the existence of churches among them. Rather, we are only contending about the true and lawful constitution of the church, required in the communion not only of the sacraments (which are the signs of profession) but also especially of doctrine. Daniel [Daniel 9:27] and Paul [2 Thessalonians 2:4] foretold that Antichrist would sit in the Temple of God. With us, it is the Roman pontiff we make the leader and standard bearer of that wicked and abominable kingdom. The fact that his seat is placed in the Temple of God signifies that his reign was not to be such as to wipe out either the name of Christ or of the church. From this it therefore is evident that we by no means deny that the churches under his tyranny remain churches…. In them Christ lies hidden, half buried, the gospel overthrown, piety scattered, the worship of God nearly wiped out…. To sum up, I call them churches to the extent that the Lord wonderfully preserves in them a remnant of his people, however woefully dispersed and scattered, and to the extent that some marks of the church remain—especially those marks whose effectiveness neither the devil’s wiles nor human depravity can destroy. But on the other hand, because in them those marks have been erased to which we should pay particular regard in this discourse, I say that every one of their congregations and their whole body lack the lawful form of the church.The Roman Catholics may have sought to justify their claim to be the one true Church. However, no justification for such a claim can be obtained by reference to history and tradition alone. It is the ministry of the Spirit that makes the Church the Church. When the Spirit departs the Church ceases to exist. The fact that the Church derives its being from the future relativizes any claim to be the one true Church the Roman Catholics might put forward. No ecclesiastical institution can justify its existence apart from its partaking in the Holy Spirit. Roman Catholics are the separatists. To depart from the Word of God is to attack the unity of the Spirit. The unity of the Spirit is found where the truth of Christ is proclaimed. The true being of the Church is found in communion. By its sins the Roman Catholic Church has threatened the unity of the Spirit as it exists in the historical Church. Roman Catholic Baptism was valid in Calvin’s estimation. For Calvin, Baptism’s validity could not be destroyed by the impiety of men.
So it is with Baptism; it is sacred and immutable testimony of the grace of God, though it were administered by the devil, though all who may partake of it were ungodly and polluted as to their own persons. Baptism ever retains its own character, and is never contaminated by the vices of men.Nevertheless the validity of Roman Catholic Baptism apart from the other things that constitute the true Church cannot ultimately benefit them that receive it. They have become partakers of God’s grace but they have radically rejected it. The Holy Spirit ministered to them at their Baptisms and made them ministers within the Church. However, despising their vocation they turned to defiling the Temple. The fact that the ministry of the Holy Spirit was not wholly extinguished among the Roman Catholic Church was enough to ensure that God preserved a remnant among them. By the ministry of the Spirit through Baptism Roman Catholics had been made priests in the New Covenant Church, something that they had almost universally apostatized from. I believe that the New Covenant can be defined as the ministry of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 3:8). Individuals who ultimately apostatize can be made partakers of this ministry (Hebrews 6:4-6). By itself a valid Baptism cannot make a true Church. It can make a real Church, but never a true Church. If it is not accompanied by the faithful preaching of the gospel, faithful practice of the Lord’s Supper and other such things even the most valid of Baptisms will still be prostituted. Whilst a valid Baptism was preserved within the Roman Catholic Church, in all but a few cases, this Baptism never found fulfillment. The manner in which Calvin viewed the Roman Catholic Church of his day can be compared to the manner in which we might view a denomination in our own day that has gone exceedingly liberal. There are elements of the Church that remain even in the midst of the general corruption and destruction, e.g. some degree of biblical preaching, valid sacraments, etc. There might well even be a remnant of true believers who partake of the valid sacraments that are still preserved. I believe that Francis Turretin is right to argue that the Roman Catholics did not destroy the foundation of Christianity. It ‘still retained and set forth’ the ‘principal heads of Christianity’. The true Gospel was not extinguished among them. The Papacy did not set out to openly oppose and reject the Christian religion, but mixed it with errors. By the aid of the Holy Spirit the faithful were enabled to separate the truth from the error and could be saved. The doctrine of justification is in Turretin’s understanding (and I believe rightly) to be treated as ‘negative and excluding’ rather than ‘positive and affirming’. Charles Hodge also writes:—
That Romanists as a society profess the true religion, meaning thereby the essential doctrines of the gospel, those doctrines which if truly believed will save the soul, is, as we think, plain. 1. Because they believe the Scriptures to be the word of God. 2. They direct that the Scriptures should be understood and received as they were understood by the Christian Fathers. 3. They receive the three general creeds of the church, the Apostle's, the Nicene, and the Athanasian, or as these are summed up in the creed of Pius V. 4. They believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible. In one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made. Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. And was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate, suffered and was buried. And the third day rose again with glory to judge both the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end. And they believe in one catholic apostolic church. They acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins, and look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.This truth, though attended with numerous grave errors and corruptions, is sufficient to save. How Should we Relate to the Roman Catholic Church today? I believe that the Roman Catholic Church has not ceased to be a real Church. However, the Roman Catholic Church is still not a true Church. Many serious errors exist within her; indeed, in some respects the Roman Catholic Church might be seen to have fallen even further since Calvin’s day (e.g. the doctrines of Papal Infallibility and the Immaculate Conception). Nevertheless, I believe that there are reasons to hold out hope for progress in the future. I would not write off the significance of Vatican II and other such movements. Those who us who recognize that there remains a Church even amidst the errors of the Papacy will rejoice at any signs of new life. It cannot be denied that the Roman Catholic Church has moved a long way since the Reformation. The degree to which many modern Catholics have moved towards more Protestant views of such doctrines as the atonement and justification (see, for example, Hans Küng’s Justification: The Doctrine of Karl Barth and a Catholic Reflection) should serve to encourage us, I feel. I am not about to turn a blind eye to their errors, but I do pray that God would reestablish the Roman Catholic Church in the truth. I believe that all Protestants should do likewise. As Protestants we should be Catholics (albeit not Roman Catholics). We should actively seek the increase of the Church wherever it is found. We should pray for brothers in the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox churches, Anabaptist churches, Methodist churches, etc. We may be troubled by certain of the practices that exist in some of these churches, but this should not hold us back from our concern for the increase of God’s Church throughout the world. We should pray that, where people have been found unfaithful to their Baptismal vocation, they might repent and return to God. Where we are unable in good conscience to fellowship with other real Churches we should seek the removal of anything that stands in the way.