Monday, January 11, 2010

More Thoughts on Rome and Constantinople

3. I do not view the Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox positions on apostolic succession and their concomitant views on the Church's infallible teaching authority to be absurdities that can be summarily swept aside by all sensible, clear thinking people, as most Protestants seem to think. Indeed, in light of the fractiousness that has always characterized Sola Scriptura Protestantism, these points of view might just be valid correctives to the subjectivism and individualism that have run amok throughout Protestant history. Perhaps, in this regard, John Henry Newman was right to muse that to study history is to cease to be Protestant.

4. The above being said, I must put forward a few keenly-felt objections to apostolic succession and Orthodox and Catholic views of the authority of the Church:

1) my autonomous Protestant spirit rankles at the thought of all Christian people being obligated to submit their reason to the teaching authority of a Church hierarchy that claims infallibility for itself and really means it.

2) Likewise, my democratic and egalitarian American soul finds it terribly constraining and inconvenient to limit the Body of Christ as it is expressed in its full-flower to communities led by a particular class of men who have been handing on an ecclesiastical baton for 2000 years.

3) Finally, the vestiges of my rationalized, pietistic, common-sense spirituality find very quaint and superstitious the notion that Christ's spiritual Kingdom can be tied so closely to the historical continuity of a flesh and blood community, or, God forbid, an institution.

Well, I can resolve, at least to some degree, the three objections above by highlighting the cultural context in which they occur. I won't reduce them entirely to cultural accident, but I have a feeling non-Western Protestants might object to Orthodox and Catholic views of Church authority on grounds different from the rather WASP-ish ones I just put forward.

On 1), I have a feeling that that autonomous Protestant spirit would rankle under just about any kind of dogmatic authority by any ecclesiastical body. I can't hack the idea of the Church being infallible in its teaching capacity, but we can't expect anything other than absolute doctrinal chaos if each individual Christian's conscience is a law unto itself, standing entirely apart from and unaccountable to the witness of communities of faith to what they believe the Scriptures to teach. That being said, historically, Protestant confessionalism has only seemed to raise the bar of "solo Scriptura" from an "every man for himself" type of anarchy to a scarcely more civilized species of tribalism.

On 2), Americans value nothing more than their sense of equality and their convenience. I don't know if these values of liberal democracy have the greatest relevance to issues of ecclesiastical validity, though. I believe Kingdom authority has definitely spilled over the bounds of the episcopate (otherwise, I should be compelled to become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox), but I do not think that this is the case simply so that those of us in churches outside of apostolic succession may have our Christianity on our own terms. The Reformers valued legitimately constituted and exercised authority in the Church. I still think their reasons for schism were proper and weighty. Are ours?

On 3), what I referred to as "common-sense spirituality" is actually a denial of the significance of the Incarnation. Matter matters. The Church of Jesus Christ has been a continuously-existing, concrete, flesh and blood reality in the world since 33 A.D. Or has it?

If we evaluate the Church according to the criteria of doctrinaire Protestantism, we are left without a true, "New Testament" Church in the world for the vast majority of history because, for most of the Christian era, the only visible, established church has been distinctively Catholic. This is obviously a problem, if 1) Catholicism and Orthodoxy are apostate forms of Christianity, and 2) we take seriously Christ's promise in Matthew 16:18 that the gates of hell will not prevail against His Church. The standard solution to this problem has been to shift our gaze from the church of history to a more immaterial conception of the Church.

In order to find the persevering Church of Christ's promise somewhere else than directly in the at times rather suspect church of history, most Protestants predicate this perseverance on the mystical "invisible Church," which consists of the whole number of the saved but is spiritual in character and is thus ultimately known only to God. In Matthew 16:18, though, Jesus is clearly referring to the organized, tangible, worldwide assembly of believers that he knew would go on to meet in divers places every Lord's Day for at least the next 2000 years. What good would the promise of Matthew 16:18 be to us if its fulfillment was lodged in a kind of church whose perseverance could not be empirically verified? Resorting to the invisible Church on this account would be an equivocation. If there has been any point in history since the founding of the Church that there has not remained on earth a true Church, we would just have to man up and admit that Jesus was mistaken.

5. The burden is on Catholic and Orthodox apologists to "prove" their particular brands of Church infallibility. I don't think their arguments work, but, when it comes to the way Protestants understand Christ to operate in and through His Church, we must come up with something better than what essentially amounts to "ecclesial deism." Ecclesial deism is basically the implicit idea that God has dealt with the post-apostolic Church in much the same way Deists understand God to have dealt with the world, i.e., created it as if it were a watch, wound it up, and then withdrew from it to let it operate on its own. In ecclesial deism, therefore, Christ founded the Church and then withdrew from it, leaving it to its own devices.

I learned this concept from a thought-provoking, sharply reasoned essay on the subject by Catholic apologist and friend of a friend, Bryan Cross. You can read the essay and engage with it at this link. What follows is just a bit of my own preliminary engagement with said essay.

Ecclesial deism is the necessary inference that issues from the standard Protestant account of Church history. At some point in the first 1500 years of the Christian movement, the pure Church of the apostles degenerated into the apostate Church of the Middle Ages that required the Reformation in order to be restored. In order for the Church to have gotten into this condition, Christ must have chosen not to preserve the Church in her fidelity to the deposit of faith she had received from Himself and the apostles, allowing her to fall into heresy and apostasy. The degree to which she compromised the central doctrines of the faith or the rate at which this compromise occurred may vary depending on who you talk to, but the general consensus among Protestants is that at least by the time leading up to the Reformation, the (by that point distinctively) Roman Catholic Church had so distorted the Christian faith that a break with her was necessary in order to restore the Church on earth.

As I've noted above, and as I agree with Mr. Cross, this is a problematic account of history because, if we buy it, it means we have to either: a) resort to the invisible Church gobbledygook that doesn't work, b) admit that Christ was wrong about the perseverance of His Church, c) hold to a weak and defective ecclesiology in which we have no assurance that Christ is present and working effectively through His earthly Body, or, d) all of the above.

6. This particular point is probably going to tumble out like a train wreck, but it seems like Protestant-Catholic back and forth about Christ's work in and through the Church is painted in entirely too much of a black-and-white kind of discourse. Either we have a Church that speaks infallibly because Christ has promised to lead His Church into all truth, or we have a Church in which Christ is scarcely thought to be present and working effectively because of a fundamental Protestant mistrust of material and social realities and of authority.

Maybe we’re speaking past each other. Maybe not. What I do know is that either-or categories are too simplistic for this discussion but that thinking in shades of gray won't get it done either. Dialectical or analogical thinking might be better suited to the task.

7. Bryan Cross is wise to utilize Christological categories in discussing the nature of the Church. After all, the Church is Christ's Body, "flesh of His flesh and bone of His bones." Cross exposes the weakness of Protestant ecclesiology by defining the oft-used distinction between the "outward" and "inward Church," or, "visible" and "invisible Church," as an "ecclesial Nestorianism." Nestorianism is the ancient heresy that Christ's human nature is a complete created being united extrinsically to the Divine second Person of the Trinity and, thus, that Jesus Christ is not one person but two persons, a human person closely united to a Divine person. For this reason, Nestorius refused to refer to Mary as Mother of God because, in his view, she did not give birth to the Divine person her Son was united to. In critiquing Protestant ecclesiology, then, Mr. Cross likens the outward Church to the human person and the inward Church to the Divine person in the Nestorian Christ.

Cross is right. The doctrine of the "-ible Church" is an ecclesial Nestorianism, and worse yet, implies an "ecclesial Docetism." Let's let Mr. Cross explain:
Ecclesial Nestorianism necessarily collapses into ecclesial Docetism. Here is why: given that Christ is the Head of the Mystical Body, then treating the Mystical Body as something distinct from, even if extrinsically united to, the Catholic Church [he's talking about the earthly Church], reduces the Catholic Church to a merely human institution, just as Nestorianism reduces Jesus to a mere human being. The real Church (i.e., the one that Christ founded), given ecclesial Nestorianism, is the invisible Church that may or may not be in some way related to the Catholic Church. That is ecclesial Docetism. The real Church . . . is the inward or invisible Church; there is no “visible Church” per se, nor do the promises of Christ apply to it. There are many visible churches, but no universal visible Church.
In other words, the visible Church only appears to be the Church Jesus founded. The invisible Church is the real Church. This basically makes Protestant ecclesiology a peripheral theological issue. Protestants have to arrive at something better to describe the reality of Christ present and powerful in the society of the Church that we actually do have access to as flesh and blood human beings or go to Rome or Constantinople where real, tangible, and consequential ecclesiology exists.

I would infer from Cross's application of Christological categories to the "-ible Church" that proper thinking about the nature of the Church should correspond with the orthodox, Chalcedonian Christology of the hypostatic union, in which Christ is defined as one person of two perfect and complete natures joined to one another in hypostatic union, without confusion or mixture. This means that Christ's human and Divine natures may be distinguished but they cannot be separated from one another without destroying the Incarnation, hence why the Church of antiquity rightly insisted on referring to Mary as Mother of God rather than simply as mother of Jesus. Basically, Christ's actions or attributes cannot be attributed this to His human nature and that to His Divine nature but both actions and attributes proper to His humanity and proper to His Divinity to the one God-Man.

The distinction between a human visible Church and a Divine invisible Church dissolved, would then the proper view of the Church in Catholic thought be to analogize from the hypostatic union of Divine and human natures in Christ to the relationship between Divine and human agency in the Church? After all, Augustine thought of the Catholic Church as totus Christus—the total Christ of Head and Mystical Body united. Does Cross mean to imply that human and Divine agency in the Church, at least at some level, may not be abstracted one from another on the basis that the Church is the Body of Christ—"the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way" (Ephesians 1:23)?

This is simultaneously profound and dangerous to my yet deeply Protestant sensibilities. What the Catholic Church and the apostolic churches of Orthodoxy want us to see is that through the humanity of the Church, sinful and broken yet as it is, Christ has promised that He will be present and working, speaking faithfully to His people through the ages in the Holy Spirit-guided episcopal successors of the apostles. On the one hand, this is profound because it reflects the covenantal pattern of God coming to dwell among and guide His people that appears throughout Scripture and culminates in God's Incarnation as Jesus Christ. On the other hand, this is dangerous because the temptation exists that in the recognition of God's agency through human figures, God may become displaced, with bare human authority rising to the level of Divine authority and man-made traditions supplanting the original, pure deposit of faith.

My Protestant cautions noted, I think the use of the hypostatic union of the two natures in Christ is a good point from which to analogize about human and Divine agency in the Church, provided that the understanding is that it is analogical—at least until we arrive at ecclesiastical maturity when the Kingdom arrives in full force—and that we reason forth from it even-handedly. I affirm together with my Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters that Christ is, in a profoundly Incarnational way, present to us through the Holy Spirit in the earthly assembly of the Catholic Church, and that, in spite of sin and human failing within the Church, the Church—in toto—is truly one flesh with Jesus Christ and, as such, will be preserved in faithfulness to Him through the ages. I am skeptical, however, about describing this faithfulness in terms of infallibility.

When it comes to the question, though, of a sphere in which the infallibility of the Divine Person is predicated of His human ministers, it would seem to re-raise the specter of ecclesial Nestorianism to abstract the teaching capacity of the Church from its other functions, ascribing the category of Divine infallibility to the Church in its fundamental teaching capacity, while admitting of human fallibility for the Church in its other capacities. Remember, the hypostatic union does not allow us to divide Christ.

Perhaps, though, I have not fully understood what Catholics and Orthodox affirm respectively about Church infallibility. If Christ's infallibility were predicated of the Church only when she speaks or acts as one (which would be the rare instance, indeed), logical consistency with the hypostatic union would be preserved, but would this still be taking the Incarnational nature of the Church too far?

I certainly share the faith that Jesus Christ has led thus far and will continue to lead His Church into all truth and preserve her in faithfulness to Himself through the ministry of his servants, but my Protestant skepticism remains strong whether "infallible" can be applied to any singular function of Christ's Church or even to Christ's Church in those limited occasions when it speaks or acts as one before the Kingdom comes in full force.

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