Friday, August 9, 2013

So Where's the Catholic Church?

The dominance of semi-congregationalist thinking in Reformed circles today is not only a betrayal of biblical, Reformed theology on the presbyterian nature of the church, but it is providing an opportunity for Romanists to latch onto it in order to draw Reformed Protestants to Rome.  This is illustrated in a couple of articles I came across yesterday on the "Called to Communion" website, a Romanist site dedicated to trying to persuade Reformed Protestants to convert to Romanism.


One of the articles is entitled "Why Protestantism Has No 'Visible Catholic Church'." Throughout the article, the basic assumption is made that Reformed Protestants' conception of the organizational, visible church only extends to individual congregations or groups of believers and not to the worldwide church as a whole.  This assumption is not so much argued for (though it is supposed to be supported by a quotation from the Westminster Confession) as it is assumed as a starting point.  The article then goes on to draw the conclusion that there really is no concept of the "visible Catholic Church" in the Reformed faith, and that therefore Reformed Protestantism is at odds with the historic catholic affirmation of such a body and should drop the terminology from its usage.

But, as I show below, Protestantism itself has no visible catholic Church. It has only denominations, congregations, believers and their children. Within Protestantism there is not some one additional entity to which the term “visible catholic Church” refers, consisting of these denominations, congregations, believers and their children.

What allowed the authors of the Westminster Confession to believe sincerely that there was a “visible catholic Church” other than the Catholic Church headed by the Pope, was a philosophical error. This was the error of assuming that unity of type is sufficient for unity of composition. In actuality, things of the same type do not by that very fact compose a unified whole. For example, all the crosses that presently exist all have something in common; they are each the same type of thing, i.e. a cross. But they do not form a unified whole composed of each individual cross around the world. . . .

We can apply this same test to the term “visible catholic Church” in the Westminster Confession to see whether it refers to an actual entity or only to a mere plurality. The “visible catholic Church” is defined by the Confession as consisting of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, and of their children. If there were no actual visible catholic Church, but only the term ‘visible catholic Church,’ the Protestant denominations, the Protestant congregations, and the individual Protestant believers and their children, nothing in Protestantism would be any different. All the denominations, congregations,  individual believers and their children would be exactly as they are, if there were not, in addition, this entity referred to by the term “the visible catholic Church.” This shows that the term ‘visible catholic Church’ does not refer to an actual unified entity (i.e. the visible catholic Church), but is merely a name used to refer to what is in actuality a plurality of things having something in common, just as “Panapple” could be used to refer to all apples, even though in actuality there is not one thing consisting of all apples.

When we apply this test to the Catholic Church, by contrast, we find that in order to remove the whole and leave the parts, we have to change the world. This is because the Catholic Church’s hierarchical unity changes and orders the activity of her members.2 And this is also true of a society, on account of its singular government.3 But what allows the removal of the “visible catholic Church” from Protestant ecclesiology, without changing anything else, is that Protestantism mistakenly denies the necessity of hierarchical unity for visible unity at the universal (i.e. catholic) level. Reformed Protestantism recognizes that local churches, in order to be visible, must be hierarchical. No one would say that the fact of there being believers in a city ipso facto constitutes a local visible church. But, this fact is arbitrarily set aside in Reformed ecclesiology’s conception of the visible catholic Church, through its denial that the “visible catholic Church” need be hierarchical. If the local church must be hierarchical in order to be visible, then Reformed Protestants must either form a worldwide hierarchy if they wish to affirm a “visible catholic Church,” or drop the claim that there is a “visible catholic Church” to which they belong.

What are the implications of Protestantism having no visible catholic Church? If Protestantism has no visible catholic Catholic, then given Protestantism, the catholic Church is only invisible. This entails that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church is the set of all the elect. . . . And it is clear in the Matthew 18 passages that ‘ekklesia’ there refers to the visible Church, not a merely spiritual entity. Matters of discipline cannot be brought before the set of all the elect. This shows us that the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of which Christ speaks in Matthew 16 is not a mere set; Jesus was not meaning “upon this Rock I will build my set.”

Since, as I have shown above, Protestant ecclesiology has no visible catholic Church, and yet since from Scripture we see that the one catholic Church that Christ founded is visible, Protestantism must either give up the word ‘catholic’ in the Creed (as some Lutherans have done, replacing it with the word ‘Christian’), or seek reconciliation with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, the Catholic Church from which Protestants separated in the sixteenth century.

The author's argument here is absolutely valid and correct.  In the view he is critiquing, there really is no entity to which the phrase "visible catholic church" corresponds, at least on a formal, de jure level.  On a de facto, informal level, we can say there is one worldwide church, because the Christians of the world informally hang out with each other and work together to some degree, even joining into voluntary (but non-binding) confederations such as NAPARC and ICRC.  But there is no formal, organizational unity, no common council that binds all the churches together into one worldwide, universal (catholic) church.  As the author points out, the view he is critiquing here is biblically defective on this point, as the Bible clearly points out one worldwide church unified in a single worldwide organization.  There is no room in the biblical view for multiple, independent de jure denominations.

The problem with the article is that the author thinks he is critiquing classic Reformed theology, but he is really only critiquing the perverted, semi-congregationalist form of Reformed theology that is so dominant in Reformed circles today.  Historic Reformed theology affirms not a semi-congregationalist but a presbyterian view of the nature of the church and of church government.  In the presbyterian view, there is indeed one worldwide church.  Local congregations are bound together by participating in larger regional assemblies (often called presbyteries).  Presbyteries are bound together by participating in yet larger assemblies, such as national assemblies.  And all the national assemblies are bound together by participating together in a single, worldwide ecumenical or general assembly that represents and has binding authority over the whole church.

1. All governing assemblies have the same kinds of rights and powers. These are to be used to maintain truth and righteousness and to oppose erroneous opinions and sinful practices that threaten the purity, peace, or progress of the church. All assemblies have the right to resolve questions of doctrine and discipline reasonably proposed and the power to obtain evidence and inflict censures. A person charged with an offense may be required to appear only before the assembly having jurisdiction over him, but any member of the church may be called by any assembly to give testimony.

2. Each governing assembly exercises exclusive original jurisdiction over all matters belonging to it. The session exercises jurisdiction over the local church; the presbytery over what is common to the ministers, sessions, and the church within a prescribed region; and the general assembly over such matters as concern the whole church. Disputed matters of doctrine and discipline may be referred to a higher governing assembly. The lower assemblies are subject to the review and control of higher assemblies, in regular graduation. These assemblies are not separate and independent, but they have a mutual relation and every act of jurisdiction is the act of the whole church performed by it through the appropriate body.  (OPC Book of Church Order - Chapter XII, "Governing Assemblies")

Assemblies are of four sorts. For, either are they of particular kirks and congregations, one or more, or of a province, or of a whole nation, or of all and diverse nations professing one Jesus Christ.  (The Second Book of Discipline of the Church of Scotland)

In the presbyterian view, there is no room for multiple, independent, legitimate denominations.  There is only one worldwide church.  Unlike in semi-congregationalism, in presbyterianism there is indeed a real entity which corresponds to the idea of "one visible de jure catholic church."

But we can only partly blame the author for his blunder here in thinking the Reformed faith is semi-congregationalist.  Unfortunately, such a non-Reformed view has greatly saturated the modern Reformed world.  If we want to stop giving a foothold to Roman apologists on this point, we need to reaffirm clearly a fully consistent presbyterian view of the church.


The other article I read yesterday is entitled "Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy."  As the title suggests, the author of this article (who is the same person as the author of the previous article) takes Michael Horton, a popular modern Reformed theologian, to task for failing to distinguish the concept of schism from the concept of heresy.

The author recounts a conversation he had with Michael Horton in which he asked him this question:

So, what is it, exactly, in your opinion, that distinguishes a *branch within* the catholic Church, from a *schism from* the catholic Church? That is, how does one rightly determine whether a particular denomination is a *branch within* the Church, or a *schism from* the Church?

This question makes sense from both a Romanist and a Reformed presbyterian point of view.  If the author had asked me this question, I would have responded with something like this:  "A  branch within the church is a part of the church that is in full communion with the rest of the worldwide de jure catholic church, while a schism from the church is a church which, however orthodox it might be in other ways, is divided from full communion with the catholic church."

But here is how Horton answered the question:

With our confessions, I’d say that this is determined by proclamation of the true gospel and the administration of the sacraments according to Christ’s institution. While no church exhibits these marks with complete purity, bodies that reject the gospel or anything essential to it and substitute their own dogmas, duties, and discipline for Christ’s institution have separated themselves from the visible Church.

Do you spot the problem with Horton's answer?  The author certainly did:

I appreciate his reply, but I think it reveals a fundamental flaw in Reformed [and Protestant] ecclesiology. Horton’s reply defines schism from the Church as synonymous with heresy, and in this way eliminates the very possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from as treated in the Church Fathers].

The author goes on to point out that the church fathers regularly distinguished between schism and heresy.  They are not the same thing.  And he draws some significant conclusions from this.

To the best of my knowledge, St. Optatus, St. Jerome, St. Augustine and all the Church Fathers who wrote about schism wrote about schism from as something conceptually distinct from heresy. Yes, any schism from the Church would invariably fall into some heresy, at least in order to justify its schism from the Church. But, nevertheless, schism from the Church referred to a particular Church’s (or smaller group’s) visible break in communion with the Catholic Church (even where that particular Church or group had not embraced any heresy), whereas ‘heresy’ always referred to a departure from the Apostolic faith, even if communion had not yet been visibly broken.

So, it seems to me that Michael has departed from the Church Fathers in this respect, by defining schism from the Church as heresy, and thus eliminating from his ecclesiology the possibility of schism from the Church [in the traditional sense of schism from]. And when schism from the Church is defined out of existence, one loses the possibility of recognizing whether one (or anyone else) is in schism from the Church; it becomes a meaningless question, a question that evokes a blank face, or an attempt to translate the question into the only definition of ‘schism’ one knows, namely, a question about heresy, which is then answered with an assurance that one is holding on to the biblical gospel and sacraments, and therefore that one is surely not in schism from the Church. . . .

What has happened, when a fundamental patristic concept is no longer even accessible or intelligible? This concept of schism from the Church dropped out of Protestant theology because the justification of the Protestant departure from the Catholic Church required an underlying radical change in ecclesiology, from an essentially visible catholic Church to an essentially invisible catholic Church with local visible expressions.

Once again, our author is clearly right.  Michael Horton answered his question not as a presbyterian should but as a semi-congregationalist must.  Semi-congregationalism has no concept of a worldwide organization of which all more particular manifestations of the church are a part, and so there is nothing for a church to be in schism from.  Therefore, the historic concept of schism simply drops out of existence and the word becomes simply a synonym for heresy.

However, once again, while the author's critique of Horton in this respect is right on, Horton is not representing historic Reformed presbyterian thought in this area.  In historic Reformed thought, there is one worldwide catholic church and all de jure churches are united together under common binding councils.  Therefore, it is quite possible to be basically orthodox but still to be in schism from the catholic church by failing to remain in full communion with her.  Matthew Vogan, a ruling elder in the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland, brings this out well in his excellent booklet, Undoing the Reformation: Schism:

Presbyterianism has drifted very far from the true concern of the Westminster Divines and the Second Reformation (represented by James Durham, Samuel Rutherford and George Gillespie) for the unity of the Visible Church. Merely exchanging greetings amongst competing denominations would not have satisfied these men because it is a practice that avoids any confrontation with the fact of schism and never seems to work towards genuine unity. The Westminster Divines were of an entirely different view. As James Walker records, the Congregationalists at the Westminster Assembly proposed a friendly co-existence and occasional communion with the Presbyterians which, while separate in government, would they claimed be “no plain and total separation, we shall be working substantially towards the same end.” This was resolutely declined with the explanation: “So, might the Donatists and Novatians have pled, and indeed almost all the separatists who have figured in the Church's history. Such separation was unknown in the apostles' time, unless it were used by false teachers: all who professed Christianity then held communion together as one Church. If you can join with us occasionally in acts of worship, you ought to act with us in joint communion, not in separated congregations. God's way of revealing truth to such as are otherwise minded, is not by setting men at a distance from each other. That you should be a distinct Christian organization, taking members from our Churches who may have scruples of conscience, is schism undoubted in the body of Christ.” Congregationalism was regarded as a schismatic principle (pp. 7-9).

Following the early Church emphasis on One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church (apostolic relates to the doctrine taught), the Presbyterians of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries maintained that the Universal Visible Church should be seen as one and that this oneness should be visible with National Churches forming provinces of one large empire across the world. This was particularly confessed in Scotland and at the Westminster Assembly. The historian James Walker summarises the position well: “True Churches of Christ, side by side with one another, forming separate organizations, with separate governments, seemed to them utterly inadmissible” (pp. 6-7)

Presbyterianism has no room for multiple, independent de jure denominations.  Under a presbyterian system, just as under a Roman episcopal system, when two denominations are divided from each other, both sides are rejecting the others' de jure legitimacy (though not necessary their de facto existence) as churches and at least implicitly accusing each other of schism.

Denominational walls are erected on a judicial level and the distinct jurisdiction of church courts is the final and fullest expression of separation. The setting up of rival Church courts from Kirk Session through to General Assembly is an express rejection of the jurisdiction of the Church courts of other denominations and is either schismatic itself or necessarily charges other bodies with the sin of schism. Persisting in such separation is either schismatic or else there is an implicit charge of schism against all those from whom separation is maintained ("'Reformed Scottish Presbyterianism: Reunion in the 21st Century?' - A Response," p. 6).

Reformed thought allows the possibility that trouble might come upon the church to such an extent that it might make impossible the formal unity of the church on a worldwide level.  For example, persecution could arise to such an extent that churches become incapable of being in contact with each other beyond a very local level.  Or a worldwide disaster could occur to such an extent that non-local communication could be cut off.  However, Reformed thought does not allow that churches able to recognize each other as de jure churches can ever remain independent from each other.  It is the intrinsic right and duty of all de jure churches to be united to each other in formal unity (see here, here, and here for more extensive argumentation on this point).

So the author's objection against the Reformed faith in this area fails, but it fails no thanks to many modern Reformed thinkers.  Interestingly, the day before I read this article, I had just written a blog article myself, entitled "'Schism' Is Not Just a Romanist Concept," in which I made much the same point that our author is making, writing in opposition to semi-congregationalist trends in the modern Reformed world.

I should briefly make one more point before I close.  If the Presbyterian view is that all de jure churches, by nature, are united to each other under binding councils, forming one worldwide organization, which denomination today represents the de jure catholic church?  My claim, held with high probability, is that it is the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  See here for some of my reasoning underlying this position.

In conclusion, again, aside from simply the motive of fulfilling our duty to remain faithful to biblical teaching regarding the nature of the church, we modern Reformed Protestants should be greatly concerned to recover the historic presbyterian vision of the nature and unity of the church in order to prevent Romanists from gaining a foothold on this point against the Reformed church and its members.  If we do not correct the error of semi-congregationalism, the Romanists will be only too happy to do so.

For more on these ideas, see here and in general here.

UPDATE 5/26/14:  Samuel Hudson, in his book entitled A Vindication of the Essence and Unity of the Church-Catholick Visible (1658), cites approvingly the London Ministers who authored Jus Divinum Regiminis Ecclesiastici (The Divine Right of Church Government), a famous work defending presbyterian church government, on the difference between presbyterianism and independency (p. 125):

[T]hey [the London Ministers] only set down the difference between the Presbyterians and Independents there [in the preface to Jus Divinum] to be in this, that the Presbyterians hold that there is one generall Church of Christ on earth, and that all particular Churches and single Congregations are but as similar parts of the whole; and the Independents (say they) hold that there is no other visible Church of Christ, but only a single Congregation, meeting in one place to partake of all Ordinances.

The distinguishing characteristic of presbyterianism (at least in contrast to independency or congregationalism) is that presbyterians hold that there is a single visible catholic church on the earth, whereas independents hold that there is not one visible church on the earth (at least in a formal sense) but that there are only particular visible churches formally independent from each other.  Our modern semi-congregationalists allow for individual congregations to clump together in denominations, but, as the denominations exist independently from each other, we still have a form of independency rather than pure presbyterianism.

I highly recommend Hudson's book in general as a great defense of the presbyterian view of the universal visible church.

UPDATE 6/4/14:  In an introduction to Samuel Hudson's original treatise on the church, Essence and Unity of the Church Catholic Visible, found in the Anthology of Presbyterian and Reformed Literature, vol. 5, ed. by Chris Coldwell (Dallas, TX: Naphtali Press, 1992), the writer of the introduction compares episcopalianism, independency, and presbyterianism (pp. 4-5):

      Samuel Hudson (d. 1683) wrote his treatise The Essence and Unity of the Church Catholic Visible in the midst of the "grand debate" in the Westminster Assembly over the government of Christ's church.  The Assembly was divided into three factions, as was the nation as a whole.
      The first faction, that which might be called the episcopalian, took the view of church government that the bishops had served the church well in the past and could possibly do so again in the future.  Some, though certainly not all, maintained that episcopacy is the form of government taught in Scripture.  The majority of this faction, however, admitted that the best argument for episcopal church government was its long-standing use in the church.
      The second faction, that of congregationalism or independency, took the view that each particular church contains everything needed for the church within itself.  While relations with other churches are possible and at times even preferable, there is nothing in Scripture which demands a connection with other churches, according to this view.
      The third faction, that which carried the day at the Westminster Assembly and to which Samuel Hudson belonged, is that of presbytery.  By the time Samuel Hudson wrote, presbyterians had developed a view of jus divinum or "divine right" of church government.  By this, they meant that not only is connectionalism allowed and even preferred, it is commanded by implication in Scripture.  In their view, the congregationalists had virtually denied the catholicity of the visible church.

Presbyterianism holds that the entire catholic church visible is to function as one universal visible body, while congregationalism holds that it need not do so, but it is permissible for there to be multiple, independent, legitimate factions within the Christian world.  The presbyterians accuse congregationalism of in essence denying the existence of the catholic church visible because of this.  Since the semi-congregationalists deny the requirement for the whole church to be united in one body, this puts them in principle in the camp of the independents rather than the presbyterians, even though they hold that it is good (and maybe even required) for individual congregations to unite in more-or-less larger "clumps" of churches called "denominations."

UPDATE 6/9/14:  Here is a well-articulated comment from church historian James Walker:

The visible church, in the idea of the Scottish theologians, is catholic. You have not an indefinite number of Parochial, or Congregational, or National churches, constituting, as it were, so many ecclesiastical individualities, but one great spiritual republic, of which these various organizations form a part. The visible church is not a genus, so to speak, with so many species under it. It is thus you may think of the State, but the visible church is a totum integrale, it is an empire. The churches of the various nationalities constitute the provinces of this empire; and though they are so far independent of each other, yet they are so one, that membership in one is membership in all, and separation from one is separation from all . . . This conception of the church, of which, in at least some aspects, we have practically so much lost sight, had a firm hold of the Scottish theologians of the seventeenth century.' (James Walker, The Theology and Theologians of Scotland. Edinburgh: Knox Press, [1888] 1982. Lecture iv. pp.95-6.)

UPDATE 3/10/15:  In the description of the recent Romanist apologetics book against Protestantism by Devin Rose entitled The Protestant's Dilemma, we read this description of Protestantism:

What if Protestantism were true? What if the Reformers really were heroes, the Bible the sole rule of faith, and Christ s [sic] Church just an invisible collection of loosely united believers?

Obviously, this shows once again the Romanist confusion over the what the Protestant doctrine of the church really is, a confusion made somewhat understandable by internal lack of clarity on the doctrine of the universality of the visible church within Reformed circles themselves these days, despite the clear testimony of the Reformed doctrinal standards that there is indeed one catholic visible church.

In the introductory statement from the editor in the most recent (March 2015) edition of Ordained Servant, a periodical for church officers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the editor makes this comment (this edition of Ordained Servant is devoted to the doctrine of church membership):

The modern world privileges informality with the mistaken idea that the informal is more authentic. So the written rolls of church membership and the vows to affirm the commitment of membership are seen as being unspiritual. This is a nineteenth-century Romantic ideal, not a biblical one, but cultural pressures persist, and the less people pay attention to their Bibles the easier world-conformity becomes.

And yet the denominationalist attitude within many Reformed circles today commits this very error--it denies any formal visible catholic church, and leaves us with only a bunch of visible particular churches or groups of churches (denominations) which have no formal governmental expression of their unity.

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