We believe, that we ought diligently and circumspectly to discern from the Word of God which is the true Church, since all sects which are in the world assume to themselves the name of the Church.
-Belgic Confession 1561
Hauerwas’ work epitomises the core failure of theological postmodernism: the failure to use the word ‘church’ with sufficient care. Contemporary theology ought to reflect far more critically on the use of this word. For this word is intellectually dangerous. Rather like a beautiful woman (apologies for the gendered analogy), it has the power to make intelligent men forget their critical duties; to enchant them. It is crucial that we interrogate every use of this word; that we ask whether it refers to an actual institution or an ideal. Instead, ambiguity on this question is universally tolerated, as if ‘church’ is meant to be used with pious vagueness, as if this is part of its grammar.
-Theo Hobson, Against Hauerwas
Introduction: Some Definition of Terms
One of the most common attempts by high church advocates to distinguish their doctrine of the Church against Protestantism is to insist upon the “visibility” and “unchangeability” of their Church. However in this post I would argue that high church ecclesiology, when sufficiently interrogated in the light of admissions of historical “developments”, is hardly “visible” for it often turns out to be an “invisible” ideal transcending the particular empirically discernible writings and actions of ecclesiastical figures or institutions. The result however causes the concept of “the Church” to become a highly artificial academic construct of individual theologians or historians, creating several problems for them in their attempt to distinguish their position from Protestantism.
First some definitions. I will use the word “high church” to refer primarily to denominations and sub-denominations, like Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, which attributes great theological significance to the “visible Church”. I will use the term “Magisterial Protestantism” to refer to the original Protestantism at the start of the Reformation, the Protestantism of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Cranmer, etc, generally Protestantism before the 17th century. This definition I believe is important because even the concept of the “invisible Church” itself has several shades of meaning and while I would argue that the high church concept converges to that of the Protestant, yet it is not quite the same concept.
The Magisterial Protestant Doctrine of the Visible and Invisible Church
A draft confession written by Archbishop Cranmer, but later abandoned, contains the most succinct explanation of the doctrine of the invisible Church in contrast to the visible Church.
In the Scripture, the word “Church” has two main meanings, apart from others; one of which means the congregation of all the saints and true believers, who really believe in Christ the Head and are sanctified by his Spirit. This is the living and truly holy mystical body of Christ, but known only to God, who alone understands the hearts of men. The second meaning is that of the congregation of all who are baptised in Christ, who have not openly denied him nor been lawfully and by his Word excommunicated. This meaning of “Church” corresponds to its status in this life in that in it the good are mixed with the evil.
The invisible Church is first and foremost the “communion of saints” of the Apostles’ Creed. It is the fellowship of the true believers who really believe in Christ the Head and his Word from the heart and exercise true Spirit wrought charity towards one another. The reason why this fellowship is invisible is because of the fact that it is a fellowship of the true believers from the heart and only God alone can discern the heart. What we on this side of heaven can see are only the outward words and actions but we cannot pry into the heart or, in the words of Queen Elizabeth I, make windows into man’s souls. It is important to keep this reason in mind in order to distinguish it from other concepts of the invisible Church.
The invisible Church is distinguished from the visible Church in that the visible Church consists of outward actions and words, actions such as baptism, profession of faith, empirically discernible works of charity, etc. One must note very carefully that the Protestant doctrine of the visible Church is not identified with any institution or system of canon law or whatever. The visible Church is simply the outward fellowship of the baptised and professing Christians who have not done anything (outwardly at least) inconsistent with the Word of God. The visible Church has often been described as an “outward sign” of the invisible Church in that it is a good indicator, but by no means an infallible one, of the true communion of the saints.
The Protestant doctrine of the visible Church is, ironically, not very visible. You cannot point to a single institution or office or corporation and say, there is the visible Church, nor does it provide a simple formula which can mechanically pick them out. The visible Church simply refers to those who outwardly profess Christ, are baptised, and behave consistently with the Bible. But who they are and how to determine what “behave consistently with the Bible” means requires engagement with the particulars. There is no simple mechanical formula which can immediately identify who they are.
The doctrine of the invisible Church in Protestantism would go through some evolution in Britain as the Reformation developed there. Later on, especially in the Westminster Presbyterian system and all their heirs, the invisible Church would become identified with the sum of the elect. We however will discuss alternative notions of the invisible Church at greater length when we discuss high church conceptions.
Grappling with the Fact of Change and the Fact of Plurality
One of the most common apologetic point urged by high church Christians against Protestantism is that Protestants have changed the faith or deviated from tradition. Implicit in this charge of course is the premise that their churches and their traditions are unchanging and have remained the same today as it has been since the time of the Apostles.
In the post-Reformation age Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627-1704) was quite strident on this point and represented the French traditionalist position. As the Anglican theologian William Witt helpfully summarises:
Against Protestantism, which, Bossuet argued in his History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches was nothing but a history of incompatible variations, Bossuet insisted that any variation in religious belief is an indication of error. The Tridentine position was that the faith had been delivered to the Church by Christ complete and entire. The Church had preserved the faith without change. Any admission of change was heresy… For Bossuet, the doctrine of the two natures had to have been revealed by Christ and believed by the Catholic Church from the time of the apostles.
The problem was that as early as the 15th century the Roman Catholics realised that the Donation of Constantine, which played a huge role in establishing papal supremacy, was a forgery. Then in the 19th century modern historical methods have more or less discredited the idea that the beliefs of contemporary Roman Catholics or the Eastern Orthodox could be so simply identified with the beliefs of the Apostles or the Apostolic church. There arose the enormous difficulty of trying to demonstrate how distinctive high church beliefs like the Marian dogmas or Transubstantiation or papal supremacy or ecumenical conciliar infallibility existed right from the start.
The 19th century British Roman Archbishop, Cardinal Henry Edward Manning, was quite brutally honest about this difficulty. He writes in The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost:
The other objection I shall touch but briefly. It is often said that Catholics are arbitrary and positive even to provocation in perpetually affirming the indivisible unity and infallibility of the Church, the primacy of the Holy See, and the like, without regard to the difficulties of history, the facts of antiquity, and the divisions of Christendom. It is implied by this that these truths are not borne out by history and fact: that they are even irreconcilable with it: that they are no more than theories, pious opinions, assumptions, and therefore visionary and false.
We very frankly accept the issue. No Catholic would first take what our objectors call history, fact, antiquity and the like, and from them deduce his faith…
(bold and underline mine)
The point is that in the end nobody, at least nobody with a proper command of church history, believes that their church today, in visible outward terms, is the same as the apostolic church in terms of both belief or practice. The Eastern Orthodox theologian Georges Florovsky condemns what he calls “a harmful primitivism” in the Vincentian Canon to believe only what has “always” been believed.
What does this discussion on the fact of change have to do with the visibility of the Church? It boils down to the incompatibility of two claims:
(1) My Church does not Change.
(2) My Church is Substantially Visible
However, if one accepts that in historical and empirical terms there is a difference between one’s church’s past and one’s church’s present, then the two claims are incompatible. One can maintain that one’s Church does not change, but must sacrifice the visibility of the Church and not identify the Church with every visible act or writing of the Church. The alternative is to maintain that the Church is substantially visible but deny that there has been any visible change. This alternative however is basically untenable in the light of what we know now about the writings of the early church and in the light of the historical facts and empirical differences.
Roman Catholicism has in fact always implicitly accepted the fact that the Church is not as visible as they would like it to be by the way they have attempted to account for their present day doctrines and practices. Following the tradition of Bossuet, who insisted that any admission of change was anathema, his tradition basically posited some “unwritten oral tradition” going back to the apostle’s time whereby all the present day unchanging Roman Catholic distinctives are transmitted. The “unwritten oral tradition” theory however, by virtue of being unwritten, saves the continuity of the Church at the expense of its visibility. Nobody obviously can discover or read these “unwritten oral tradition” simply because they are unwritten. The “unwritten oral tradition” theory has today virtually no supporters amongst Roman Catholics for it is as crazy as the “primitive baptist” theory that their denomination has always existed from the start and has survived under the radar of history, invisible to historical records after the Constantinian corruption, only to emerge into public view after the Reformation.
Two Theories of Doctrinal Development
Now every side agrees that the beliefs and the practices of the Church today cannot simply be identified with the beliefs and practices of the Church in the Apostle’s time. The Church at the Apostle’s time is not visibly the same as the Church at the time of Constantine, nor is it the same as the Church at the Middle Ages nor at the Reformation nor at the 19th century nor today. The history of the Church consists of thousands upon thousands upon thousands of ecclesiastical acts, decrees, institutions, canons, writings, whether by institutional corporations or by individual “canonical” theologians, and often in contradiction with one another. In order to maintain the claim that the Church does not change, some visibility must be sacrificed. Some empirically discernible ecclesiastical acts or writings must be denied to immediately belong to the essence of the visible Church, others cannot be straightforwardly read off but needs to be “rightly interpreted”, at some theoretical level, to cohere with present beliefs and practices.
So among these masses upon masses of empirical facts and events, only some of them can be legitimately identified with that of the never changing visible Church. The “true” visible Church is but a subset of the totality of church history. The question is, how do you determine which parts of visible church history legitimately belongs to the Visible Church?
It is here where we come to the (in)famous theory of doctrinal development. However it is important to distinguish between two theories of doctrinal development. One we shall call the theory of doctrinal deduction which was espoused by Aquinas, Duns Scotus, the Jesuits after the Reformation, and by the Magisterial Protestants. The other we shall simply call theory of historical development which is basically Cardinal Newman’s development by historical narrative.
Let’s recall the Protestant doctrine of the visible Church. The visible Church is the sum of the baptised, wherever they maybe, who outwardly profess Christ and behave consistently with the Word of God. The determination therefore as to which acts and writings in Church history properly belongs to the visible Church boils down to a simple criteria: It must be consistent with the Word of God.
The fact that what Christians believed at the 4th or the 12th or the 16th or the 21st century are not identical with one another is not a problem on the theory of doctrinal deduction. The theory of doctrinal deduction simply says that we all maintain the same faith, practices, and beliefs, simply because we all accept beliefs and practices which can be deduced logically from the Scriptures. Doctrine “develops” or “grows” as a result of logical deduction from divinely revealed Scriptural premises. As John Duns Scotus argued in his Ordinatio concerning the sufficiency of Scripture:
…many necessary truths are not expressed in Sacred Scripture, even if they are virtually contained there, as conclusions in principles; in [circa] the investigation of which the labor of the doctors and expositors was useful.
It is true that there are many doctrines confessed by the church later which were not explicitly expressed in the Scriptures, but they were brought out later, not by a historical process, but as a result of a logical deduction, “as conclusions in principles”. The results of these deductions were later codifed in ecclesiastical documents and writings of respected theologians. The exact same principle is operative in the Presbyterian Westminster Confession which states:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…
As Archbishop Cranmer has already pointed out, the visible Church however is mixed with the good and the evil. Church institutions, officers, clerics, councils and most of all, Christians themselves, have erred in practice and legislation and espoused false beliefs. However out of this mess of church history, the legitimate visible Church belongs to those particular acts and teachings of particular Christians which are consistent with and logically deducible from the Word of God.
Now before we come to Newman’s theory proper, we must make one thing clear. Newman’s theory is not the theory of doctrinal development by logical deduction. In 1958 a letter by Newman previously unpublished was made known containing the following illuminating passage:
I conceive then that the Depositum is in such sense committed to the Church or to the Pope, that when the Pope sits in St. Peter’s chair, or when a Council of Fathers & doctors is collected round him, it is capable of being presented to their minds with that fullness and exactness, under the operation of supernatural grace, (so far forth and in such proportion of it as the occasion requires,) with which it habitually, not occasionally, resided in the minds of the Apostles;—a vision of it, not logical, and therefore consistent with errors in reasoning & of fact in the enunciation, after the manner of an intuition or an instinct. Nor do those enunciations become logical, because theologians afterwards can reduce them to their relations to other doctrines, or given them a position in the general system of theology. To such theologians they appear as deductions from the creed or formularized deposit, but in truth they are original parts of it, communicated per modum unius to the Apostles’ minds, & brought to light to the minds of the Fathers of the Council, under the temporary illumination of Divine Grace.
– Journal of Theological Studies (9 , 324-335)
(bold and underline mine)
Newman here is quite explicit, the Pope, council fathers and doctors, etc, receive their theological insight into the apostolic faith, not by logically deducing them from apostolically revealed premises, but almost like in some kind of prophetic vision, an instinct, an intuition, as it were, moved by the Holy Ghost. This is why one can teach, for example, that the doctrine of papal supremacy is still a legitimate doctrine despite it having developed out of false deductions from the Donation of Constantine.
Naturally once one has severed doctrinal development from logical deductions, the problem arises as to how exactly do they identify “developments”? Remember, there are masses and masses of writings, arguments and claims, only some of which are legitimate “developments” and others are deviations or “corruptions” from the faith. We need a method or a criteria for distinguishing the two. The theory of doctrinal deduction proposes logical deduction from Scripturally revealed premises as one such criteria.
Several options are ruled out at once, they cannot claim that something is a development by virtue of “tradition” because we already accept ex hypothesi that there are doctrinal developments/changes which are not handed down or passed down in tradition in its present form.
They also cannot claim that we simply “look at history”. History, in the modern scientific sense, first and foremost attempts to discern the shape of primary facts and events through record and relic, e.g. finding out what happened and who did what and said what by determining reliability of witnesses, sifting through biases, finding collaborating evidence, etc. That does not by itself tell give you a criteria for evaluating the “legitimate” church events from “illegitimate” church events which would require a higher level of evaluation. A historian can of course frame a narrative and pass evaluative judgements on ecclesiastical acts and events, but there is nothing theologically special or significant about the historian’s own opinion. He is not divinely inspired and nobody believes that a historian possesses any normative theological authority which gives him the right to pass substantive theological judgements on which events or acts or writings constitutes the legitimate visible Church and which does not. What we need is a theological principle to determine which historical events are properly developments and which are not.
Problems with the Theory of Historical Development
How then can we find the gem of the “true” visible Church from the masses of masses of particular ecclesiastical acts and writings? Ultimately the high church believer frames a coherent narrative or “story” of the visible Church. The story weaves various carefully selected elements of church history from the beginning to present arrangements. A complicated theory or explanation often accompanies their narrative to justify their selection of particular events or acts as well as their interpretation of various writings.
The first problem should be quite obvious. The account is circular. The narrative is framed precisely to lead to their denomination’s present beliefs and practices. Both Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholics can, and have, framed historical narratives leading to the development of their denomination. They cannot very well use a narrative which presupposes the end point to justify the end point. More seriously for our present discussion, they cannot exclude Protestants from also framing a historical narrative leading to the development of their denominational distinctives. The apologetic rhetoric against Protestantism for “changing” the faith would be seriously damaged if high church denominations cannot find a more concrete and non-arbitrary way of deciding between changes which they would want to call “developments” and changes which they want to condemn as “deviations”.
Or perhaps there is some intrinsic quality to narratives which allows people to adjudicate which is the “better” narrative? Here we must not be mislead by the language of “growth” and “development”. We can determine the quality of development of, say, trees and animals, because we have seen many examples, from start to finish, of the development and growth of their species. Thus we can tell what a healthy plant looks like as opposed to a diseased plant, or a stunted plant, or a plant which has died prematurely, because we have seen many examples of the same plant from start to full maturity.
Unfortunately in our present case we have only one unique history of the Church and one singular Holy Catholic Church, which history has not even ended yet. It is not like we have examples of many churches from start to finish and thus am able to determine the quality of growth and development of Church to see which ones are “legitimate” developments and which ones are not. And of course if we take the end point my present denominational arrangement that would once more collapse back into circularity.
The Invisible Ideal Church of the Academic’s Invention
The legitimacy of every Church is derivative of its apostolic credentials. There has to be a non-arbitrary and objective criteria for determining such apostolic legitimacy. The theory of doctrinal deduction from apostolically revealed premises, as recorded in the Scriptures, provides such a criteria. The Apostolic tradition as infallibly witnessed by the Scriptures remains the foundation of the Church, and the growth and development of the visible Church occurs in concert with our reason which draws out the logical implications of the divinely inspired apostolic premises infallibly witnessed by Scripture.
The “Church” of the high church advocate unfortunately simply “floats” in platonic space as it were. The historical narrative, which identifies the “true” Church, amidst the masses and masses of empirical facts, is essentially circular and self-justifying. It is tethered to no actual concrete foundation or standard of evaluation. Its plausibility is not derivative of any concrete fact but based on some vague “aesthetic sense” of which narrative “tells a better story”.
The problems of doing ecclesiology by narrative is manifest. It is even more invisible than Protestantism’s visible Church. Protestantism has a visibly discernible criteria for evaluating the legitimate visible church acts and writings among the masses of ecclesiastical phenomena, just search the Scriptures. The high church Christian has no such concrete visible criteria, the church literally exists only in tale. They cannot say, just listen to the Pope because popes has said many things and sometimes in contradiction of one another, they cannot say listen to the councils because there are many many many different councils also in contradiction of one another. They cannot say just listen to your priest because your priest might be of dubious “orthodoxy” even if he is canonically ordained. The criteria whereby they evaluate the legitimacy of various ecclesiastical phenomena is the narrative. But the boundaries of this narrative itself is nebulous, vague, and essentially open-ended.
To be sure this ideal platonic church of tale touches empirical ecclesiastical realities at certain points. However there is no visible foundation or criteria for determining when and where it so touches. It seems to merely float in and out of visible reality at random, otherwise it remains essentially invisible. The only way to “catch” the church is through the sheer existential human act of special narration for the narrative alone can identify the “true” visible Church. Without this narrative, no one would know where is the true visible Church. This is virtually gnosticism about the Church, known only to those with the special aesthetic nose to sniff it out in platonic space.
Perhaps the great irony is that the the Roman Catholics used to charge the Lutheran Reformers for precisely postulating such a platonic church. As Philip Melanchthon objects in his Defence of the Augsburg Confession:
Neither, indeed, are we dreaming of a Platonic state, as some wickedly charge, but we say that this Church exists, namely, the truly believing and righteous men scattered throughout the whole world. We are speaking not of an imaginary Church, which is to be found nowhere; but we say and know certainly that this Church, wherein saints live, is and abides truly upon earth; namely, that some of God’s children are here and there in all the world, in various kingdoms, islands, lands, and cities, from the rising of the sun to its setting, who have truly learned to know Christ and His Gospel.
The only way in which the high church apologist manages to get away with many claims about the “Church” is simply due to a lack of interrogation of the term. But the minute you ask, “But what is the Church? How do you determine its boundaries? By what criteria do you decide who are the “Fathers”? What is Holy Tradition and how is it determined?” the entire rhetoric collapses. The “Church” rapidly vanishes into idealised platonic space. More relevantly to their apologetic, there is no qualitative distinction between their position and the Protestants. Both high church denominations and Protestantism admits to the fact of visible change in the history of the church, both have their own ways of accounting for it via historical narrative.
Conclusion: The Protestant Confidence in Reason
We have seen how the high church apologetic claims, that their Church is both visible and unchanging, are incompatible. We have also seen how a sufficiently nuanced high church ecclesiology by historical development causes the Church to vanish into platonic invisibility, discernible only to those with the right aesthetic nose to identify the correct ecclesiastical narrative.
This is not to deny the initial plausibility of the charge of Protestant denominational or doctrinal “chaos”. However, our doctrine of the invisible Church already gives us some comfort here. The Protestant doctrine of the invisible Church is not the high church platonic invisible Church. The invisible Church is the fellowship of saints who truly believe in Christ according to God’s word from the heart. We may not have access to the hearts of others, but we have immediate, though not perfect, access to our own. Everyone who believes in Christ as proclaimed in the Scriptures directly lays hold of Christ. In laying hold of Christ, we are already incorporated in the spiritual fellowship of the saints. From this foundation of faith in Christ, we exercise charity towards our neighbours and fellow Christians in this world, growing in communion with one another. This communion is not visibly perfect nor will it be complete in this life, however it is constantly being renewed and nourished by faith in Christ as witnessed by the Scriptures. If the communion of saints consists of faith in Christ and concrete exercises of charity according to God’s word, then the fact of institutional or denominational differences means nothing to us. What is important is God’s Word and our faith in Christ as revealed there and our exercises of charity in according to it. Institutional apparatus are merely after the fact prudential arrangement which constitutes no part of the essence of the invisible Church, or even the visible Church!
Ultimately the Protestant believes that everyone can, and ought to, employ their own reason to search the Scriptures for themselves and form their own judgement to the satisfaction of their own conscience. Let us not forget what Luther actually said that the Diet of Worms: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason…” We have a high view and confidence in our reason’s ability to discern and search out the truth in the Bible. To be sure it is not infallible, but we deny that it is utterly blind or useless and we affirm that it is sufficiently reliable to attain unto those truths of Scripture necessary for salvation. We object to any epistemology which rejects the common world of objective truth, including Scripture, as not accessible to our natural reason and would have us simply make leaps of existential decisions of faith unto idealised narratives dwelling in platonic heavens.
We are also not worried about our doctrinal differences for we affirm that ultimately faith is faith in a person, Jesus Christ, not a set of propositions. The Scriptures are witnesses to a concrete historical reality and person, not just a reporter of propositions. Through the Scriptures we can directly lay hold of a person and worship Him. We employ our reason after the fact to explain our belief and make sense of him in discursive propositional form. To be sure some propositions would have greater effect upon our practical piety than others, however ultimately we hold that in this life we are simul iustus et peccator, at the same time justified and sinner.
We are justified through faith alone in Christ, a person. Yet we are still sinners, and not only in deed but also in our imperfect understanding, thoughts and occasional erroneous beliefs. While we bring to bear the best of our abilities to live the Christian life and discern the Scripture’s meaning, the satisfaction of our conscience is the end point of our best endeavours. At the utmost limits of our efforts we can only plead, our best works are but filthy rags, have mercy upon me a sinner!
[Edit: I would like to thank Andrew Fulford for the title, do go read his stuff at The Calvinist International, then again, not just his stuff but all the other articles too.]
I found this passage by the German Lutheran theologian, Hermann Sasse, to be particularly relevant to our discussion.
Where was the papal church before there was a papacy? Whether any church has its origin in the church of the New Testament or not is simply a matter of faith. The Baptists and the Disciples of Christ make the claim that their church was the church at the time of the New Testament. Our Lutheran fathers never had the idea that they were… founding a new church. They were of the conviction that Christ’s one church was being renewed with the pure apostolic doctrine in contrast with Rome, which had fallen away from the Gospel.
These are matters of faith, and one should not try to settle them by appeals to historical proofs. How this goes may be seen in the polemics between the Anglicans and English Roman Catholics. Both attempt to prove that they are the legitimate continuation of the medieval church in England. We Lutherans have no part to play in that sort of dispute, although it has often been suggested that we should.
To provide the proof for the identity of any historical construction is always enormously problematical. One may, for example, speak of an English nation and of a German nation that continue through the centuries. But if one looks more closely, one notices how great are also the differences. In what sense are the English people of Henry VIII’s time identical with the 10 times as many English people today? In what sense are today’s German people identical with the people of Luther’s time? Was it anything more than a fiction when it was thought that the Holy Roman Empire of Byzantium was living on in the empire of Charlemagne and the German empire of Otto the Great until it expired in 1806? Is there more of an identity between the Roman Church of today and the church of Peter’s day than there is between the Roman Empire of the first century and the Holy Roman Empire around 1800? It has been observed that the difference between the church before Constantine and after Constantine is greater than the difference in the Western Church before and after the Reformation. Here the historical proofs of identity simply fail.
-Apostolic Succession (Letters to Lutheran Pastors No.14 April 1956)