Branches or Schisms?Jul 9th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
What is the difference between a branch and a schism? Many Christians speak of the present plurality of denominations as ‘branches.’ That term makes the present state of disunity among Christians seem quite acceptable. The Scripture prohibits schisms.1 But if there is no principled difference between branches and schisms, then calling schisms ‘branches’ is false and deceptive, because it makes something that is actually evil seem acceptable.
In my “Ecclesial Deism” article I referred to the common Protestant ecclesiology in which the Church Christ founded is itself invisible, though certain members of the Church are visible, namely, embodied believers and their children, as well as local congregations and denominations. In Protestant ecclesiology, there is no universal visible Church; there are local and regional churches which are visible members of the universal invisible Church. I pointed out in that article that conceiving of the Body of Christ as something that is in itself invisible, having no essentially unified visible hierarchy, is both an ecclesial Gnosticism that denies the material principle of the Church as sacrament, and an ecclesial Docetism that implicitly denies Christ’s incarnation.2 This conception of the Church eliminates unity as one of the four essential marks of the Church specified in the Nicene Creed, either by treating unity as only a ‘contingent mark of the Church,’ or by treating unity as a ‘necessary but invisible mark of an invisible Church.’3
Last year I came across a diagram that is based on this conception of the Church as invisible. I found the diagram on the web site request.org, which describes itself as “A free website for teaching about Christianity in Religious Education.” The diagram can be found on request.org’s page explaining denominations, and it portrays the various Christian traditions as branches of a tree. I have copied the diagram below and labeled it “Diagram 1.”
Notice two things about Diagram 1. First, notice that the ‘trunk’ of this ‘tree’ takes an unexplained bend to the right, in the lower-middle part of the diagram. The person who made the diagram determined that there must be no ‘branch’ that is the continuation of the ‘trunk.’ He or she thus assumed that the Church has no principium unitatis (i.e. principle of unity) such that the Church necessarily retains her unity through every possible schism. The assumption that the Church has no principium unitatis is itself based on the more fundamental assumption that the Church itself is not a visible hierarchically unified Body, and therefore that the Church’s essential unity is only at an invisible, spiritual level, not at the visible level.
The person who made Diagram 1 assumed that the Church’s visible unity is not essential to her being. No one would claim that the integrity of a living body is not essential to its being, as though a living body’s being disintegrated by a bomb, for example, does not detract from the existence of that body. So treating the Church as something for which visible unity is optional presupposes a dematerialized (i.e. Gnostic) conception of the Church. Only if the Church is itself invisible (i.e. spiritual, immaterial) could the Church continue to exist after the disintegration of her visible unity. Hence Diagram 1 carries with it the implicit assumption that the Body of Christ is invisible, not a visible hierarchically ordered Body. But for that reason Diagram 1 is in conflict with the doctrine of the incarnation of Christ and with St. Paul’s description of the Church as a Body.4
The second thing to notice about Diagram 1 is that it shows there to be a single ‘trunk’ at least up to AD 1054 — I say “at least” because it is drawn such that the ‘trunk’ appears to continue into the sixteenth century. But Diagram 1 does not show what the ‘tree’ looks like through the first millennium. And that hides the challenge to the Gnostic assumption that went into the making of Diagram 1. During the first millennium, the ‘tree’ looks something like this:
This raises serious questions about the veracity of Diagram 1. If all those sects of the first millennium were not branches but separations from the Church (and Diagram 1 clearly assumes that to be the case, since it shows the Church to be visibly one just prior to AD 1054), then why should we think that at some point, either following AD 1054 or during the sixteenth century, there is no continuing ‘trunk,’ and that therefore these divisions in the second half of the second millennium are all equally authentic ‘branchings within‘ the Church? What is it that makes separations of the first millennium schisms and heresies, but makes separations of the second millennium mere branchings within the Church? Whose determination about whether something is a mere “branch of the Church” or a “schism from the Church” is authoritative? Is it for each person to decide for himself? If so, then if the Ebionites were to construct a diagram of the Church, they could begin the branching in AD 63, and call themselves an authentic branch of the Church.
It seems as though the person who made Diagram 1 simply decided that all the divisions of the first millennium were “separations from the Church,” while the divisions of the second millennium were “separations within the Church.” But on what basis did he or she make this decision? On the basis of some shared ‘mere Christianity’ of the second millennium? Why then couldn’t the extension of ‘mere Christianity’ include all these sects of the first millennium? Who gets to determine or set the extension of ‘mere Christianity’? How is it not arbitrary that, for example, the Baptists, are thought to be included within ‘mere Christianity’ while the monophysites are not? The Pentecostals are, but the Montanists are not? And so on. The answer cannot be “Well the Baptists and Pentecostals share my general interpretation of Scripture,” because any monophysite could say the same thing about fellow monophysites. It is naïve to assume that heretics and schismatics do not appeal to Scripture to justify their positions.5
What counts as mere Christianity therefore cannot be based on what people defend using Scripture. Unless the Protestant wishes to allow mere Christianity to extend to all these divisions of the first millennium, he will need some non-arbitrary, non-stipulative way of limiting the extension of mere Christianity to what Protestants have in common with Catholics and Orthodox. But that is precisely what he does not have.
Both Catholics and Orthodox agree that the trunk of this ‘tree’ did not end in AD 1054. The Catholic Church claims it continues with her; the Orthodox claim it continues with them. So the Protestant must either claim:
(1) That the separation of the Catholics and the Orthodox was the first ‘branching within‘ the Church, OR
(2) In the Orthodox-Catholic schism, the Church continued with the Orthodox, the Pope being in schism from the Church, OR
(3) In the Orthodox-Catholic schism, the Church continued with the Pope, the Orthodox being in schism from the Church.
If the Protestant claims that (1) is true, then he must explain why the Catholic-Orthodox schism is a mere “branching within” (i.e.does not involve a schism from the Church) when every other schism in the prior history of the Church involved a ‘schism from‘ the Church and the preservation of the unity of the Church. He will need to show the principled difference between a ‘branching within‘ and a ‘schism from,’ and the basis for determining, in any division, whether it is a ‘branching within‘ or a ‘schism from,’ and, if it is a ‘schism from,’ which of the separating groups is the continuation of the Church Christ founded, and why. Keep in mind that both Orthodox and Catholics reject (1) — accepting (1) is a modern Protestant notion. But the Protestant cannot (while remaining Protestant) accept (2), because (2) implies that Protestantism is no better than a “branching within a schism from” the Church, and therefore that Protestants should become Orthodox in order to be reconciled to the Church. But if the Protestant accepts (3), then if the diagram does not include the Protestant Reformation it looks something like this:
But if the Protestant accepts Diagram 3, he is going to have a very difficult time justifying Diagram 1 over something like Diagram 4:
Nor will he likely wish to claim that some particular Protestant denomination is ‘the trunk,’ i.e. the institution Christ founded and from which all other denominations have separated, because there is no principled reason to pick one Protestant denomination over another in this respect.6 So there seem to be three choices for the Protestant: (1) an ecclesiology that treats the Church itself as invisible, and thus allows all the divisions of the first two millennia (or any arbitrary subset of them) to be “branches within” the Church, even to the degree that any individual could be his or her own branch, always without any ‘trunk,’ or (2) Orthodoxy, or (3) Catholicism. Why are these the only options? Because there is no middle position between apostolic succession and “private judgment.”
So when is a branch not a schism? A branch is not a schism only when the three bonds of unity are preserved: unity of faith, unity of sacraments, and unity of government.7 In the Catechism schism is defined as “the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”8 Schism always reduces to ‘schism from,’ because with a principium unitatis, ‘schism within’ can only continue as ‘schism from.’
- See section II.B of “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- See also Christ founded a visible Church.” [↩]
- There are two different ecclesial positions in which schism does not detract from unity: (1) an ecclesial position in which there is a visible princium unitatis so that every schism is a schism from, not a schism within, and (2) an invisible Church ecclesiology, such that no matter how many ‘schisms within‘ there are at the visible level, the unity of the Church remains entirely intact, because this essential unity is on a spiritual, invisible level. [↩]
- See “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- St. Vincent of Lerins (AD 434) writes:
And if one should ask one of the heretics who gives this advice, How do you prove [your assertion]? What ground have you, for saying, that I ought to cast away the universal and ancient faith of the Catholic Church? he has the answer ready, “For it is written;” and forthwith he produces a thousand testimonies, a thousand examples, a thousand authorities from the Law, from the Psalms, from the apostles, from the Prophets, by means of which, interpreted on a new and wrong principle, the unhappy soul may be precipitated from the height of Catholic truth to the lowest abyss of heresy…. Do heretics also appeal to Scripture? They do indeed, and with a vengeance; for you may see them scamper through every single book of Holy Scripture…. Whether among their own people, or among strangers, in private or in public, in speaking or in writing, at convivial meetings, or in the streets, hardly ever do they bring forward anything of their own which they do not endeavour to shelter under words of Scripture. Read the works of Paul of Samosata, of Priscillian, of Eunomius, of Jovinian, and the rest of those pests, and you will see an infinite heap of instances, hardly a single page, which does not bristle with plausible quotations from the New Testament or the Old. (Commonitory, 25)
- See, for example, this diagram of the Presbyterian denominations in the US. [↩]
- CCC, 815 [↩]
- CCC, 2089 [↩]