Ecclesial DeismJul 6th, 2009 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Featured Articles
St. Irenaeus and St. Clement of Alexandria, who both lived during the second century, tell us that after the Apostle John returned from exile on Patmos, he remained at Ephesus “till Trajan’s time.” Trajan became emperor in AD 98. According to the tradition, St. John was the last of the twelve Apostles to die. When the angels carried his soul into Heaven, was the Church then left to fall into heresy and apostasy?
Assumption of St. John the Evangelist
Taddeo Gaddi (1348-1353)
Collezione Vittorio Cini, Venice
A few weeks after I graduated from seminary, some Mormon missionaries came to our door. My wife invited them in, and we started talking. But we were just getting into the important questions when we ran out of time. So we agreed to meet with them the following week. They ended up coming weekly for the rest of the summer. Since I had just completed four years of training in biblical theology, Greek and Hebrew, I was quite confident that I could persuade these teenage missionaries by exegetical arguments from Scripture, that Mormonism is false and that the Gospel, as we understood it then, is true.
Over the course of our discussions with these Mormon missionaries, when I argued that their teachings were contrary to Scripture, they would counter by appealing to the Book of Mormon, and I would respond by saying that the Book of Mormon is contrary to Scripture. But they viewed Scripture through the Book of Mormon, that is, in light of the Book of Mormon. They claimed that very shortly after the death of the Apostles (or maybe even before the death of the last Apostle) the Church fell into utter apostasy, and that the true Gospel had been preserved in North America where Jesus had come to preach to certain peoples living here at that time. For that reason, according to the Mormons, the Bible had to be interpreted and understood in light of this additional revelation that Joseph Smith had recovered, and not according to the teachings and practices of the early Church fathers. That was because in their view the early Church Fathers had corrupted Christ’s teaching by incorporating into it both Greek philosophy and pagan rites in syncretistic fashion. So our conversation at some point reached fundamental questions such as: “Why should we believe the Book of Mormon over the early Church fathers?”, and “How do you know that the Church fathers corrupted Christ’s teaching?”
I realized at the time that I too, as a Protestant, could not appeal to the early Church Fathers or the councils in a principled way to support my position against that of the Mormons. Of course, at that time I agreed with Nicene Trinitarianism and Chalcedonian Christology, but like the Mormons I too believed that shortly after the death of the Apostles the Church had begun to fall into various errors, minor at first but progressively more serious. So in my mind, everything any Church Father said had to be tested against [my own interpretation of] Scripture.
Where did I think the early Church had gone wrong? I agreed with the Mormons that the early Church had been influenced by Greek philosophy. The Church had made use of Greek philosophy with terms such as homoousious, hypostasis, and physis to explain and defend the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation. Of course, I believed those doctrines to be true, but the use of such Greek notions worried me because it suggested an implicit syncretism. Protestants I respected had told me that they questioned or rejected parts of the Nicene Creed (e.g., saying that Christ was “eternally begotten”) as being both extra-biblical and based on Greek philosophy. I knew that Greek philosophy had been quite influential in Alexandria, and I believed that this is where the allegorical method of interpretation was introduced. This was a method, in my mind, that was responsible for the Church’s departure from the Gospel, and the subsequent need for the Reformation. From my sola scriptura point of view, there was no difference between bishop and elder, no basis for the papacy or even Roman primacy, not even a real distinction between clergy and laymen. So the whole hierarchical organization of the early Catholic Church seemed to me to be a corruption, a departure from what was taught in the New Testament.
Similarly, I believed that the Catholic liturgy, holy days, almost everything in the liturgical calendar, vestments for clergy, veneration of saints and their relics and icons, prayers for the dead, and prayers to departed saints were all accretions from pagan holidays and practices. Even the idea that some Christians are saints in some greater way (with a capital ‘S’) than that in which all Christians are saints was, in my opinion, a corruption, since I thought egalitarianism followed from our being saved by grace. This was epitomized, in my view, by the Catholic Church’s veneration of Mary, treating her as “Mother of God,” and claiming that she remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus, as though marriage and sexual intercourse were evil.
From my point of view at that time, the early Church had somehow been led astray from the finished work of Christ and come to believe in what I thought was a magical conception of the sacraments, presumably also imported from paganism. This magical way of conceiving of the sacraments explained why the Bishops who wrote the Creeds treated baptism as forgiving sins, why at some point they came to believe that the bread and wine really became the Body and Blood of Christ, and why they transformed the agape love-feast into the “Eucharistic sacrifice.”1 That, along with their failure to adhere to sola scriptura, explained why they treated things like confirmation, marriage, penance, and ordination as sacraments. From the sola scriptura point of view, all these ‘additions,’ like purgatory, the exaltation of celibacy, mysticism, monasticism, and asceticism, had to have come from paganism, and were therefore a corruption of the purity of the Church and the Gospel, just as Israel of the Old Testament had played the harlot with the gods of the other nations. As I saw it, the Church had started to deviate from orthodoxy by the second century, and the pace of that deviation only accelerated when Constantine made Christianity the official state religion. Christ had said that His Kingdom was not of this world, but in my mind the Catholic Church had tried to turn it into an earthly kingdom, with bishops and popes assuming monarchical prerogatives.
So when the Mormons claimed that a great apostasy had overcome the Church by the time of the death of the last Apostle, I had no ground to stand on by which to refute that claim. The Mormons believed that the true gospel was recovered in the early nineteenth century by Joseph Smith. I believed, as a Reformed Protestant, that the true gospel was recovered in the early sixteenth century by Martin Luther. But we both agreed (to my frustration) that the early Church fathers and the councils were suspect and not authoritative in their own right. Over the course of our meetings with the Mormon missionaries that summer I realized that, with respect to our treatment of the early Church fathers and ecumenical councils, there was no principled difference between myself and the two young Mormon missionaries sitting in my living room.2
This same problem can be seen clearly in a debate hosted by Beliefnet.com in 2007 between Orson Scott Card, who is a Mormon, and Albert Mohler, who is a Reformed Baptist and also the President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. The debate centered on the question, “Are Mormons Christian?” Mohler rightly claims that Mormonism is incompatible with “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” He writes:
According to Mormon teaching, the church was corrupted after the death of the apostles and became the “Church of the Devil.” Mormonism then claims that the true church was restored through the Prophet Joseph Smith in the 1820s. This restored church was, Mormon theology claims, given the keys to the kingdom and the authority of the only true priesthood.
[W]e do have an objective standard by which to judge what is and is not Christianity, and that is the very “traditional Christian orthodoxy” that Mr. Card and Mormonism reject.3
According to Mohler:
Christianity is rightly defined in terms of “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” Thus, we have an objective standard by which to define what is and is not Christianity. . . . Once that is made clear, the answer is inevitable. Furthermore, the answer is made easy, not only by the structure of Christian orthodoxy (a structure Mormonism denies) but by the central argument of Mormonism itself – that the true faith was restored through Joseph Smith in the nineteenth century in America and that the entire structure of Christian orthodoxy as affirmed by the post-apostolic church is corrupt and false. In other words, Mormonism rejects traditional Christian orthodoxy at the onset – this rejection is the very logic of Mormonism’s existence. A contemporary observer of Mormon public relations is not going to hear this logic presented directly, but it is the very logic and message of the Book of Mormon and the structure of Mormon thought. Mormonism rejects Christian orthodoxy as the very argument for its own existence, and it clearly identifies historic Christianity as a false faith.4
Mohler claims that we have an “objective standard” by which to define what is and what is not Christianity. That objective standard is “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” But this subtly pushes back the question: What is the objective standard for what counts as “traditional Christian orthodoxy”? Mohler appeals to the early creeds, and the first four ecumenical councils. He seems to think that the end of the fifth century is roughly the cutoff for “traditional Christian orthodoxy.” But picking the fifth century as the cutoff for “traditional Christian orthodoxy” is no less ad hoc than picking the first century. If one thinks that the Church fell into heresy or apostasy, there is no more principled reason to think the ‘apostasy of the Church’ did not begin for five hundred years than there is to think it began in the first century.
Moreover, the first five centuries of Christian tradition are replete with beliefs and practices that Mohler rejects. I described some of them above, in laying out those points concerning which I, as a Protestant, believed that the Church had been corrupted. The bishops who wrote the Nicene Creed, which Mohler treats as part of the orthodox tradition, were the bishops at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicea in AD 325 and at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople in AD 381. But Baptists such as Mohler reject both the doctrine of apostolic succession and the episcopal form of Church polity which all those bishops believed and practiced.5
Baptists reject what all those bishops believed and taught as being essential to the Christian faith regarding baptismal regeneration: “one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”6 Many of the canons of the Council of Nicea (AD 325) do not even make sense from a Baptist point of view. Mohler is critical of the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (AD 431) in its declaration of Mary as the ‘Theotokos,’ claiming that doing so “brought ill effects upon the Catholic Church.”7 He accepts the Christology taught by the Fourth Ecumenical Council (Chalcedon, AD 451), but rejects the teaching of the Fifth Ecumenical Council (Constantinople, 553 AD) which affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary,8 claiming that it “moved Roman Catholic theology and devotion increasingly away from the Holy Scriptures and toward human innovation.”9 And he rejects the Seventh Ecumenical Council (Nicea, AD 787) in its condemnation of iconoclasm.
The problem here is that Mohler’s position faces a very serious dilemma regarding the tradition to which he is appealing as the basis for “Christian orthodoxy.” On the one hand, Mohler cannot reject the tradition of the early Church, because that would make his own position fail to count as “traditional Christian orthodoxy,” and thus fail to count as “Christian,” by the very same argument he uses to claim that Mormonism is not Christian. On the other hand, Mohler cannot embrace the tradition of the early Church, because, as shown above, in many important ways that tradition is incompatible with his own Baptist theology.
How does Mohler deal with this dilemma? He adopts a pick-and-choose approach. This approach attempts to avoid the dilemma raised above by methodologically, though not explicitly, counting as ‘traditional’ [as in "traditional Christian orthodoxy"] only whatever the Church said and did that agrees with or is at least compatible with one’s own interpretation of Scripture. ‘Tradition’ becomes whatever one agrees with in the history of the Church, such as the Nicene Creed or Chalcedonian Christology.
This pick-and-choose approach to the tradition shows that it is not the fact that an Ecumenical Council declared something definitively that makes it ‘authoritative’ for Mohler. What makes it ‘authoritative’ for Mohler is that it agrees with his interpretation of Scripture. If he encounters something in the tradition that seems extra-biblical or opposed to Scripture he rejects it. For that reason, tradition does not authoritatively guide his interpretation. His interpretation picks out what counts as tradition, and then this tradition informs his interpretation.
The problem with the pick-and-choose approach is that it is entirely ad hoc insofar as one picks and chooses from among Church Fathers and councils only those statements one agrees with, to be ‘authoritative.’ In this way Mohler is engaging in special pleading: he criticizes Mormonism for selectively rejecting the Christian tradition, while he himself selectively rejects the Christian tradition. So in order to serve as the standard for “Christian orthodoxy,” the distinction between what counts as tradition, and what does not, must be principled. Yet Mohler’s theology has no conceptual space for a principled basis for this distinction. The result is that Mohler identifies tradition in the same way that an archer might paint a target around an arrow he has already shot into a wall.
So the dilemma is this: either he makes an ad hoc appeal to tradition, and thus commits the fallacy of special pleading, or he gives up his appeal to tradition, and thereby loses that by which he tries to draw a principled distinction between the methodologies whereby Baptists and Mormons determine whether particular traditions are in line with Scripture or are ungodly accretions.
A further and particularly significant implication of this ad hoc approach to the tradition is that it undermines the basis for believing the canon of the Bible to be correct. If the Church erred in so many doctrines and practices, then we have no basis for believing that the Church got the canon right. It would be ad hoc to trust that the Church got the canon right while believing that the Church got so many other things wrong during that same period of time.10
In that case we cannot justifiably use our interpretation of Scripture to determine which traditions agree with our interpretation and which traditions do not, because we do not know which books are Scripture. Nor, for the same reason, can we use our interpretation of Scripture to determine which books of the Bible belong there, because that would be to assume at the outset precisely what we do not know, i.e., the canon. As a result, those who claim that the Church deviated from orthodoxy at an early point in history, and use Scripture to show this, undermine the very basis for their assurance that the book they hold in their hand is canonically inerrant. They must either turn to critical scholarship, or resort to some internal voice that they perceive to be from the Holy Spirit, in order to verify the canon, before they can use the canon to evaluate the tradition of the early Church.
My point in considering Mohler’s example is not to pick on Mohler or Baptists. This particular dilemma is not unique to Baptists; it follows from the very nature of Protestantism, because Protestantism, like Mormonism, presupposes ecclesial deism. Deism refers to a belief that God made the world, and then left it to run on its own. It is sometimes compared to “a clockmaker” winding up a clock and then “letting it run.” Deism is distinct from theism in that theism affirms not only that God created the world, but also that God continually sustains and governs all of creation. Ecclesial deism is the notion that Christ founded His Church, but then withdrew, not protecting His Church’s Magisterium (i.e., the Apostles and/or their successors) from falling into heresy or apostasy. Ecclesial deism is not the belief that individual members of the Magisterium could fall into heresy or apostasy. It is the belief that the Magisterium of the Church could lose or corrupt some essential of the deposit of faith, or add something to the deposit of faith.
Why is ecclesial deism intrinsic to Protestantism and Mormonism? Because any person who chooses to leave the Catholic Church or remain separated from her, while intending to remain a Christian, has to claim that the Catholic Church has fallen into heresy or apostasy, so that separating from her is justified. We can find this idea throughout the history of the Catholic Church. The Gnostics of the second century justified being separated from the Catholic Church by claiming that even the Apostles had perverted Christ’s teachings. St. Irenaeus (d. AD 200) writes:
But, again, when we refer [the heretics] to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth. For [they maintain] that the apostles intermingled the things of the law with the words of the Saviour; . . . It comes to this, therefore, that these men do now consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition.11
Of course ecclesial deists typically do not describe their own position as a form of deism, nor do they see it as such. One very significant factor preventing ecclesial deists from seeing their own ecclesial deism as such is an implicit Gnosticism (anti-sacramentalism) regarding the nature of the Church. The Church, according to this conception, is not a unified body with a visible hierarchy, but something in itself purely spiritual in nature, visible only in the sense that one can see and touch embodied Christians (and their children) who are, by their faith alone, presently joined to it.12 Conceiving of the Church as in itself spiritual and invisible allows a person to believe that Christ has always faithfully preserved His [invisible] Church, even while allowing the leaders of the Catholic Church to fall into heresy, apostasy, or perversion of the Gospel.13
This conception of the Church makes it conceptually impossible for the gates of Hades to prevail over the Church, no matter what happens to the visible hierarchy of the Church. According to this notion, even if at some point in history there were no [embodied] believers, this would not entail that the gates of Hades had prevailed over the Church, because the Church is a spiritual entity existing in the spiritual realm. Yet most people holding this conception of the Church as invisible believe that there has always been at least some remnant of Christians who believed the true faith, the true faith that was rediscovered by some later figure such as Martin Luther 1,500 years later or Joseph Smith 1,800 years later.
Given the Gnostic (anti-sacramental) conception of the Church, none of the biblical promises concerning the Church apply to the Catholic Church. These include not only Christ’s aforementioned promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church,14 but also that He will be with her even to the end of the age,15 that the Holy Spirit will guide her into all truth,16 and that the Church is built upon a rock and cannot be washed away.17. In the Old Testament the prophets looked forward to the Church age. From their writings we see that the Church enjoys an everlasting covenant that cannot be revoked,18 that the Church is everlasting and indestructible,19 and that David’s throne will exist for all time.20 For all these reasons, the Apostle Paul teaches that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”21 But given the gnostic conception of the Church, these promises do not apply to the Church in relation to her visible unified hierarchy; they apply instead to some invisible entity to which all Christians are spiritually joined through faith.
Furthermore, given this conception of the Church as something in itself invisible, being excommunicated from the Catholic Church is no more reason to believe that you have been separated from the Church Christ founded than it is to believe that you are the continuation of the Church Christ founded, and that the Catholic Church is the apostate ‘schism from’ the Church Christ founded. This is why heresies and schisms must either maintain that the Church Christ founded is invisible, or, if they acknowledge that the Church is essentially a visibly unified hierarchical body, they must claim to have more ecclesial authority than does the episcopal successor of St. Peter.
Ecclesial deism tends to see the changes over the first fifteen hundred years of Church history as corruptions, not developments. That is why it seeks to jettison all these ‘accretions’ and return to the “purity of the Scriptures.” In combination with a sola scriptura approach, it is inclined to view anything in the Christian tradition that is not explicitly stated in Scripture or does not necessarily follow from it as a corruption or paganization of the Church. In that respect it is fundamentally pessimistic, skeptical of the possibility of a providentially-guided deepening of the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith, until some later restoration is initiated. We find this notion of ecclesial deism quite clearly in the Restorationist movement that arose in nineteenth century North America. This includes the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Latter Day Saints.22 The Restorationists are unequivocal about what they believe to have been an early apostasy and a long spiritual ‘dark age’ followed by a restoration to the true and primitive Christian faith in their own group in the nineteenth century. That idea epitomizes ecclesial deism.
But it is not only self-described Restorationists who hold this position. Contemporary Presbyterian theologian Robert Reymond, for example, writes, “[T]he church in many areas of the then known world rather quickly departed from the pure gospel and teaching of the apostles and began to espouse defective views of the Trinity and the person and work of Christ, and to advocate Pelagian and sacerdotalistic version of salvation.”23 Calvinist theologian Louis Berkhof writes, “Some of [Gnosticism's] peculiarities were absorbed by the Church and in course of time came to fruition in the Roman Catholic Church with its peculiar conception of the sacraments, its philosophy of a hidden God, who should be approached through intermediaries (saints, angels, Mary), its divisions of men into higher and lower orders, and its emphasis on asceticism.”24
Some Protestants try to distance themselves from the foundational assumption of the Restorationists.25 These Protestants seek to avoid claiming that the Church fell into apostasy, while also claiming that the Gospel was recovered by the Reformers in the sixteenth century. For example, Charles Hodge, the principle of Princeton Theological Seminary in the middle of the nineteenth century, wrote:
We do not hold to an entire apostasy of even the outward Church before the Reformation. It is an historical fact that (excepting the Arian heresy), the inspiration of the Scriptures, the doctrine of the Trinity, the true divinity and humanity of the Savior, the fall of man, redemption by the blood of Christ, and regeneration and sanctification by his Spirit were held by the Church universal. These are not the doctrines of Romanism as distinguished from Protestantism. These are not the points against which the Reformers protested, and as to which they proclaimed Rome apostate and anti-Christian.26
Notice that Hodge is making two distinctions here. One is between “the outward Church” and [presumably] the “inward Church,” which for him is the invisible Church. The “outward Church” can suffer at least ‘partial apostasy’ while the ‘inward Church’ cannot suffer any apostasy. This division of the Church into an outward Church and an inward Church is an ecclesial Nestorianism which necessarily collapses into ecclesial Docetism for the following reason. The error of Nestorianism was treating Christ’s human nature as a complete or whole created being that was united to a divine Person. The notion that Christ’s human nature (which is a rational nature) was a complete created being entails that there was a created person. And so the ontological result of this error is two persons, one created and one uncreated, united by an extrinsic union. The human being is not divine, but closely united to the divine. That is why Nestorius refused to acknowledge that Mary is the Mother of God, preferring instead to designate her the mother of Jesus. But since it had already been established at Nicea in AD 325 and Constantinople in AD 381 that God is a Trinity of Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then if Jesus is a human being closely connected to God, but not God, what follows is some form of Docetism — the Son only seemed to be Jesus. That is why the Council of Ephesus (AD 431) had to condemn Nestorianism.
Likewise, and for the same reason, 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, 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.27 The real Church, for Hodge, 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.
The second distinction Hodges tries to make here is between partial apostasy and “entire apostasy.” Entire apostasy would be the loss of all true doctrines of the deposit of the faith, while partial apostasy [apparently] would be the loss of only some part of the deposit of faith, and/or the wrongful addition of something to the deposit of faith.28 Given that definition of “entire apostasy,” any Restorationists who shared even one common point of doctrine with the Catholic Church would agree with Hodge. But then with respect to the “apostasy gap” assumed by Restorationists, there is no principled difference between Restorationist Protestants and Protestants who distance themselves from Restorationists. The difference is only a matter of degree with regard to what percentage of the deposit of faith was lost, and the rate at which that loss occurred.
If the Catholic Church did not apostatize, then Protestants would not be justified in separating from her. So in order to justify separating from the Catholic Church, Protestants must hold that the Catholic Church apostatized, either earlier in her history, or later. Hodge seeks to distinguish his position from the Restorationists by delaying and diminishing the degree of apostasy. But he faces the following dilemma. The first horn of the dilemma is this: if he claims that the Church apostatized early on, then his position is equivalent to that of the Restorationists. The second horn of the dilemma is this: if he claims that the Church faithfully maintained orthodoxy for 1,500 years, then there is a much greater likelihood that (a) the Church has continued to preserve orthodoxy and he is mistaken than (b) that he is correct and that the Church, after a millennium and a half, has finally fallen into apostasy. The second horn of the dilemma is not open to Hodge, because his theology would be unchanged if he claimed that the Church fell into utter apostasy by AD 500. That is because his theology is for the most part not formed and shaped by the rulings of the ecumenical councils between AD 500 through AD 1,500. So that leaves him on the first horn, with no principled difference between his position and that of the Restorationists.
Because there is no principled difference between Hodge’s position and that of the Restorationists’ with respect to the apostasy of the Church, Hodge faces the very same dilemma described above regarding Mohler. He can only appeal to tradition in an ad hoc manner, picking and choosing what he thinks is orthodox, and passing over what he thinks is not, according to his own interpretation of Scripture. And like Mohler, that completely undermines his ability to appeal to “traditional Christian orthodoxy” when responding to Mormons and other self-described Restorationists.
How did I come to recognize my ecclesial deism for what it was? I first began to see it when taking a graduate seminar on St. Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas continually appeals to the tradition of the Church, and to the Fathers. I found myself frustrated by his theological method. I wanted him to be doing exegesis from Scripture when making theological arguments, not appealing to the Church Fathers. The professor teaching the seminar responded to my objections by explaining that Aquinas believed that divine providence guided the Church Fathers and the development of the Church. This professor pointed out that Aquinas was not a deist about the Church. That short answer provoked me to do a great deal of reflecting, because I realized then that I did not share Aquinas’s non-deistic way of conceiving of the development of the Church.
Of course I firmly believed in divine providence, but I distrusted all the Fathers to which Aquinas appealed. That is why, in my mind, appeals to the Fathers did not establish anything at all, because if the Church were being corrupted and falling away from the purity of the Gospel, then appealing to the Fathers was like appealing to heretics. But for Aquinas, if the Church Fathers taught something, especially if they were Doctors of the Church or if the claim in question was held and taught widely by the Fathers, that showed it to be authoritative for us as a kind of patrimony, precisely because the Holy Spirit was unfailingly guiding the development of the Church into all truth. On this point I discovered a very deep difference between myself and Aquinas. The more I studied his writings, the more the difference was noticeable to me. Aquinas believed that faith in Christ necessarily involves trusting the Church, because Christ cannot fail to guide and protect the development of His Church.
I came to see that I did not fully trust Christ, not because I thought Him untrustworthy, but because I had not understood that Christ founded a visible hierarchically organized Body of which He is the Head, and which He has promised to protect and preserve until He returns. I had not apprehended the ecclesial organ Christ established through which the members of His Body are to trust Him. I came to see that faith in Christ is not something to be exercised invisibly, from my heart directly to Christ’s throne, as though Christ had not appointed an enduring line of shepherds. Inward faith was to be exercised outwardly, by trusting Christ through those shepherds Christ sent and established. Jesus had said, “The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.”29 This is the sacramental conception of faith, not simply belief that, but belief through. This is the sacramental conception of the Church, the basis for the priest speaking in persona Christi.
As I began to grasp that, I began to grasp that my Church-less faith was too small. Apart from the Church, I had conceived of faith in Christ as something entirely inward. But upon coming to understand that Christ founded a visible hierarchically organized Body of which He is the Head and which He promised to preserve, I came to see that the way to trust Christ is to trust His Church of which He is the Head, just as the early Christians trusted Christ precisely by trusting the teaching of the Apostles. Trusting the Apostles did not subtract from (or compete with) their trust in Christ. On the contrary, when Jesus tells the Apostle Thomas, “Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed,”30 He implies that greater faith is required and shown in those who trust in Christ not by seeing Him, but by believing the testimony of the Apostles. Jesus refers to this way of believing when He prays, “I do not ask in behalf of these alone, but for those also who believe in Me through their word.”31
The difference between these two ways of understanding faith can be seen in this quotation from the late Fr. Richard Neuhaus:
[T]here are two kinds of Christians: those whom I would call ecclesiological Christians, and those for whom being a Christian is primarily, if not exclusively, a matter of individual decision. There are those for whom the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church is one act of faith. And those for whom the act of faith in Christ is the act of faith, and the act of faith in the Church, if there is one, is secondary, or tertiary, or somewhere down the line.32
The distinction between these two kinds of faith follows from the distinction between the Gnostic conception of the Church and the biblical conception of the Church as a living and hierarchically unified Body. When we come to see “the act of faith in Christ and the act of faith in the Church [as] one act of faith,” then we have to let go of ecclesial deism. In that respect ecclesial deism is a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion,’ a form of unbelief, a stance of doubt, and hence a defect in faith. But that does not mean that everyone holding some form of ecclesial deism is doing so because he or she consciously or culpably distrusts Christ. It may simply be because this person does not recognize or grasp what it is that Christ founded when He founded His Church. In the history of the Church, we can find this stance of doubt in the early heresies, including the Montanists, Novatians, and Donatists. Their distrust expressed itself as distrusting the legitimate shepherds whom Christ had appointed to feed and govern His flock. But the Catholic exercises faith in Christ by trusting and serving those shepherds whom Christ has appointed and authorized to govern in His name. In doing so, the Catholic is not replacing faith in Christ with faith in the Church, but trusting in Christ precisely by and through trusting Christ’s Church.
Does this mean that we do not need to have a relationship with Christ Himself? Not at all. There are two possible errors here, like two vices in relation to a virtue. These two errors are possible with any sacrament, because every sacrament has both a material and formal principle, and either one can become the focus to the exclusion of the other. One error is the one discussed above, the Gnostic or Montanist error of disregarding the Church, as though Christ did not establish the Church precisely to be that through which we come to Him and receive grace from Him in the sacraments. The other error is the rationalistic or ritualistic error of disregarding who it is that is the Head of the Church, and whose Life is given to us through the sacraments, and whose fellowship and comfort we enjoy in prayerful communion with Him. In both errors, the eyes of faith are lost, but in a different way: one by losing sight of the matter through which we receive the Life of Christ, and the other by losing sight of the Life of Christ offered to us in this matter.
What is the alternative to ecclesial deism? How would the integrity of the Gospel be preserved while it was taken to all the world over hundreds and now thousands of years? God graciously arranged that the things He had once revealed for the salvation of all peoples should remain in their entirety, throughout the ages, and be transmitted to all generations.33 He did this by entrusting them to the Church, and providing the Church with a gift or charism by which she would be protected from losing or corrupting any part of the deposit of faith. St. Irenaeus speaks of this charism when he writes:
They [the bishops] have received the certain charism of the truth [i.e., gift of truth] according to the pleasure of the Father, with the succession in the office of bishop.34
The Church has this charism because the Church is the Body of Christ, and He, the Truth, is the Head of the Body. That ontological reality underlies Christ’s promise that the gates of Hades will never prevail against His Church,35 that His Holy Spirit will guide her into all truth,36 and that He will be with her to the end of the age,37. It underlies the Apostle Paul’s statement that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth.38
The indefectibility of the Church is a gift from Christ to the Church by which she is preserved to the end of the age as the “institution of salvation.” She can neither perish from the world nor depart from “her teaching, her constitution and her liturgy.”39 The gift of indefectibility does not imply that the members of the Church, even members of the Magisterium, cannot sin or err. But it does entail that the Magisterium of the Church can never lose or corrupt any part of the revelation of Christ, which includes both matters theological and moral. This gift of indefectibility is essential to Christ’s purpose in establishing His Church as the means of continuing His saving work to all the nations and peoples of the world until the end of the age. Regarding this purpose, Pope Leo XIII wrote, “What did Christ the Lord achieve by the foundation of the Church; what did He wish? This: He wished to delegate to the Church the same office and the same mandate which He had Himself received from the Father in order to continue them.”40
The commission Christ gave to the Apostles in Matthew 28:19 did not end with the death of the last Apostle, because this commission was given not only to the Apostles, but to their successors and the whole Church. The task of taking the Gospel to all nations and the ends of the earth goes beyond what the Apostles could accomplish in their own lifetime. In the same way, the promises of Christ do not extend only to the Apostles, but to their successors and all in union with them. This understanding of Christ’s promise to the Church provided a basis of assurance for the Fathers that Christ would preserve and guide the Church through apostolic succession. The pattern revealed through Christ’s relation to the Father is the pattern that is to endure until Christ returns.
St. Clement of Rome (d. circa AD 100) wrote:
The apostles have been dispatched to us by the Lord Jesus Christ like the bearers of good-tidings. Jesus Christ was sent by God. Christ, therefore, comes from God, and the apostles from Christ; these two acts result fittingly from God’s will.41
St. Ignatius (d. 107 AD) wrote:
As therefore the Lord did nothing without the Father, being united to Him, neither by Himself nor by the apostles, so neither do ye anything without the bishop and presbyters. Neither endeavor that anything appear reasonable and proper to yourselves apart; but being come together into the same place, let there be one prayer, one supplication, one mind, one hope, in love and in joy undefiled.42
Not only is succession the rule for appointing leaders in the Church, it is also the rule and pattern for accepting Church leaders. The second century Church faced this very challenge from Gnostics who claimed to have the true knowledge of the gospel. But the Church responded to this challenge by appealing to apostolic succession. St. Irenaeus refers to the Apostolic Tradition which is preserved by apostolic succession.43 These heretics, says St. Irenaeus, consent neither to Scripture nor to tradition. St. Irenaeus explains how the Apostolic Tradition was to be found, to whom it was entrusted, and how it was preserved:
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about. For if the apostles had known hidden mysteries, which they were in the habit of imparting to “the perfect” apart and privily from the rest, they would have delivered them especially to those to whom they were also committing the Churches themselves. For they were desirous that these men should be very perfect and blameless in all things, whom also they were leaving behind as their successors, delivering up their own place of government to these men; which men, if they discharged their functions honestly, would be a great boon [to the Church], but if they should fall away, the direst calamity.
Since, however, it would be very tedious, in such a volume as this, to reckon up the successions of all the Churches, we do put to confusion all those who, in whatever manner, whether by an evil self-pleasing, by vainglory, or by blindness and perverse opinion, assemble in unauthorized meetings; [we do this, I say,] by indicating that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul; as also [by pointing out] the faith preached to men, which comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.44
According to St. Irenaeus, the faith of the Church is preserved by trusting the Apostles and those whom they ordained to succeed them. The particular Church having the preeminent authority is the Church at Rome, because its successors have their authority from the Apostles Peter and Paul. This appeal to apostolic succession would make no sense as a standard for orthodoxy unless it carried with it the implicit belief that Christ would surely protect the successors from corrupting or losing the deposit of faith. The greatest authority regarding the faith is located where there is the greatest divine assurance of preserving the faith, namely, with the episcopal successor of St. Peter.
The Catechism expounds on this when, drawing from Dei Verbum, it writes:
In order that the full and living Gospel might always be preserved in the Church the apostles left bishops as their successors. They gave them their own position of teaching authority.” Indeed, “the apostolic preaching, which is expressed in a special way in the inspired books, was to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time.”45
The indefectibility of the Church follows from the nature of the union of Christ with the Church, His Body. Because of this union of Christ with the Church, the Church is indefectible. St. Augustine shows this when he says:
The Church will totter when her foundation totters. But how shall Christ totter? . . . . [A]s long as Christ does not totter, neither shall the Church totter in eternity.46
And in his Sermon to Catechumens on the Creed, St. Augustine writes:
The same is the holy Church, the one Church, the true Church, the catholic Church, fighting against all heresies: fight, it can; be fought down, it cannot. As for heresies, they all went out of it, like unprofitable branches pruned from the vine: but itself abides in its root, in its Vine, in its charity.47
And elsewhere he writes:
There are many other things that most justly keep me in her [i.e. the Catholic Church's] bosom. . . . The succession of priests keeps me, beginning from the very seat of the Apostle Peter, to whom the Lord, after His resurrection, gave it in charge to feed His sheep, down to the present episcopate. And so, lastly, does the name itself of Catholic, which, not without reason, amid so many heresies, the Church has thus retained; so that, though all heretics wish to be called Catholics, yet when a stranger asks where the Catholic Church meets, no heretic will venture to point to his own chapel or house.48
In these quotations we see the indefectibility of the Church grounded in the Church’s ontological union with Christ as His Mystical Body. Because the life of Christ is indefectible, and because the life of the Church is the life of Christ, therefore the Church is indefectible. Those who deny the indefectibility of the Church are denying that this union of Christ with His Church is anything more than extrinsic. They imply that Christ’s Mystical Body can become corrupted such that He may abandon His Body and take on a different body. By their denial of the indefectibility of the Church they imply that Christ can abandon the Bride with which He is “one flesh,”49 and find a different bride. But such claims are contrary to the intimate and ontological union of Christ with His Body, which is also His Bride. In virtue of this union She can be neither defeated nor corrupted nor destroyed, since the risen Christ Himself can neither be defeated nor corrupted nor destroyed, and since His Spirit lives within her as her Soul.50.
One possible objection to my argument against ecclesial deism is that God in His providence might allow the Church to fall into heresy or apostasy in order to bring about a greater good. According to this objection, by letting the Church fall into heresy or apostasy God could be teaching the Church a lesson. This is a good objection, but it does not undermine the fundamental reason why ecclesial deism must be false. It presupposes some form of ecclesial Docetism, as though the Church is a merely human institution to which Christ is related extrinsically. The Church is not a merely human institution; it is the Body of Christ, who is divine. He is the greatest good, the good than which there can be none greater. So God could never separate Christ from the Church in order to lead the Church to something greater than Christ. The promises of Christ to the Church are not accidentally tacked on to the Church; they flow from the very identity of the Church as the Body of Christ. The Church cannot fall into heresy because she is the Body of Christ, and Christ cannot fall into heresy or apostasy. The Holy Spirit, who is the very Soul of the Church, cannot be led into heresy or apostasy. The essential holiness (i.e. purity of doctrine) and unity of the visible hierarchy of the Church51 entail that God will never allow the Church to fall into heresy or apostasy. The four marks of the Church are not accidents that can be variously gained or lost; they are intrinsic to the very nature of the Church.
When I began to recognize my ecclesial deism for what it was, I found myself taking a much greater interest in the early Church Fathers. If they were not corrupting the faith, but being guided by the Holy Spirit to preserve and expound it, then I wanted both to know what they said and to understand Scripture through their eyes. The beliefs and practices of the early Church that had seemed to me to be accretions or corruptions I came to see in a whole different light, as the blossoming of the deposit of faith guided by the all-powerful Holy Spirit who is the Soul of the Mystical Body.52 As I studied the Fathers, I did not find evidence of apostasy; I found evidence of a faith and devotion committed to preserve the faith once for all handed over to the saints.53 Over time, by a process of tracing that visible Body through history up to the present, I came to the conclusion that the Catholic Church today is the same Body as the Catholic Church of the first five centuries. As a result, I was received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2006.
The more deeply we understand the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, the more clearly we see that God comes to us human beings as human, through our own humanity, even through the very matter of which we are composed. That is why the grace of Christ comes to us through the matter of sacraments. But the Son of God did not become a human being; rather, the Son of God took on a human nature. Yet human nature is not merely the nature of human individuals as individuals; human nature is fully manifested only in society, because man is a social animal. Thus in entering our human society as human, Christ not only became a human individual, He became the Head and Life of a truly human society. For this reason, in His incarnation He took on not only a physical body, but also a Mystical Body, i.e., a truly human society which is the Church. This truly human society is not something essentially invisible or spiritual; it is the family of the New Covenant, the Kingdom of God on earth here and now in its present stage. Christ is not only the second Adam, He is also the Second Moses, who leads the New Covenant people through the desert of this age into the promised land. But the Second Moses is not just leading His people; He is one with them. They are incorporated into His Body and share in His divine Life, which He feeds them through the sacraments. Because this is a human society, it is a visible body with a unified visible hierarchy and a visible head.54
The Church Christ founded can never be defeated, because the unconquerable Christ is Her Cornerstone; He is the Head of this Body. Members of His Mystical Body may commit grave sins or fall away into heresy or even apostasy. But the Church Christ founded can never apostatize or fall into heresy, because the Truth Himself is the Life in which the Church lives. The whole history of the Church is God’s providential preparation of a Bride for His Son, formed from the water and blood that flowed from His side while ‘asleep’ on the cross. Through His Mystical Body Christ remains here with us, as He promised. Just as men looked upon Christ’s physical body and doubted that this physical body was truly God, so throughout the history of the Church men have looked upon the Catholic Church and doubted that this is truly the Mystical Body of Christ. And then, having construed Her as a mere human society, their lack of faith begot further doubt, and they succumbed to ecclesial deism, and the confusion and blindness that is the result of not recognizing the Church.
While the angels came to carry the soul of St. John the Evangelist to Heaven around AD 98, the Church all over the world carried on with the same faith, the same gifts, the same life and the same promises it possessed under the Apostles. The bishops who succeeded the Apostles understood that Christ’s divine promise to be “with you always, even to the end of the age”55 makes sense only if the promise extends to the successors of the Apostles. Pope Pius XI shows just how much trust we can put in this divine promise:
Christ our Lord instituted His Church as a perfect society, external of its nature and perceptible to the senses, which should carry on in the future the work of the salvation of the human race, under the leadership of one head, with an authority teaching by word of mouth, and by the ministry of the sacraments, the founts of heavenly grace; for which reason He attested by comparison the similarity of the Church to a kingdom, to a house, to a sheepfold, and to a flock. This Church, after being so wonderfully instituted, could not, on the removal by death of its Founder and of the Apostles who were the pioneers in propagating it, be entirely extinguished and cease to be, for to it was given the commandment to lead all men, without distinction of time or place, to eternal salvation: ‘Going therefore, teach ye all nations.’ In the continual carrying out of this task, will any element of strength and efficiency be wanting to the Church, when Christ Himself is perpetually present to it, according to His solemn promise: ‘Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world?’ It follows then that the Church of Christ not only exists to-day and always, but is also exactly the same as it was in the time of the Apostles, unless we were to say, which God forbid, either that Christ our Lord could not effect His purpose, or that He erred when He asserted that the gates of hell should never prevail against it.56
Christ our Light has come into the world to bring Light to the whole world57, for He is not a God of confusion.58 For this purpose He established His universal Church on a man He named ‘Rock,’59 and promised that the gates of Hades would never prevail against it. This Catholic Church is the household of faith, the family of God, the pillar and bulwark of truth. He did not abandon it or let it see decay, as ecclesial deism suggests.60 Rather, His sure and unbreakable promise finds its fulfillment in His Church to whom He says “I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.”61
- Cf. Didache 14; 1 Clement 44; St. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho, 41; St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies IV.17; St. Cyprian, On the Lapsed, 26; St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures V.18. [↩]
- Of course there are very important theological differences between Protestantism and Mormonism. And for this reason Protestantism is much closer to Catholicism than is Mormonism, and has much more common ground with regard to our shared understanding of Scripture, common doctrines and common baptism. The doctrinal differences between Mormonism and Protestantism are significant enough that the Catholic Church does not recognize Mormon baptisms as valid baptisms, though it does recognize Protestant baptisms as valid. See Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “Reponse to a ‘Dubium’ on the validity of baptism conferred by The Church of Jesus Christ of latter-day Saints, called Mormons,” June 5, 2001. [↩]
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., The “Church of the Devil”?, beliefnet (July 5, 2007), available here. [↩]
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Mormonism Is Not Christianity, beliefnet (June 28, 2007), available here. [↩]
- One might object that Catholics too are not bound by what was not explicitly contained in the conciliar decrees, and thus that Mohler’s position is in this respect no different from that of Catholics. But Catholics are not only bound by the formal definitions of popes and ecumenical councils. Catholics are also bound by what is called the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Pope John Paul II stated that the ordinary and universal Magisterium is the “normal expression of the infallibility of the Church.” Discourse to the Bishops of the 2nd Ecclesiastical Region of the United States, in L’Osservatore Romano, p. 18 (54) (Jan. 22, 1989). The teaching of the Church was infallible prior to the First Ecumenical Council in Nicea in AD 325 by way of the ordinary and universal Magisterium. Lumen Gentium speaks of the ordinary and universal Magisterium as follows:
They [the bishops] nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly whenever, even though dispersed through the world, but still maintaining the bond of communion among themselves and with the successor of Peter, and authentically teaching matters of faith and morals, they are in agreement on one position as definitively to be held. ( Lumen Gentium, 25. )
Doctrines such as apostolic succession and episcopal government were not merely held by all the bishops. Those doctrines were universally taught by the bishops as definitively to be held by all the faithful. And therefore the doctrines of apostolic succession and episcopal government fall under the ordinary and universal Magisterium, and are therefore both infallible and binding on all Catholics. And thus Mohler’s selective approach to the doctrines held by the bishops of the council of Nicea is not equivalent to that of Catholics. [↩]
- Nicene Creed. [↩]
- R. Albert Mohler, Jr., Blessed Art Thou Among Women: The New Debate Over Mary, www.AlbertMohler.com, available here. [↩]
- Cf. capitula 2. [↩]
- Mohler, supra note 6. [↩]
- One would be left trying to establish the inerrancy of the canon by way of critical scholarship. That seems quite impossible, because it would require establishing both a clear and objective standard for canonicity and discovering clear objective criteria within each canonical book for its own canonicity. For principled reasons both of those seem impossible to attain for every book of the Protestant canon, and would seemingly lead to a smaller canon than the Protestant canon. [↩]
- Adv. haer. III.2.2. [↩]
- For an explanation of the distinction between the Catholic understanding of the Church as something visible per se, and the Protestant conception of the Church as something invisible per se, see our previous article titled “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- The Gnostic conception of the Church treats the “holy catholic Church” of the Apostles Creed and the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” of the Nicene Creed as something in itself invisible and spiritual, and not as referring to the actual Catholic Church whose visible head is the episcopal successor of St. Peter in the Apostolic See. [↩]
- Matthew 16:18 [↩]
- Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43, 47-50; 28:20 [↩]
- John 16:13 [↩]
- Matthew 7:24-25 [↩]
- Isaiah 55:3; 61:8; Jer. 32:40 [↩]
- Isaiah 9:7; Dan 2:44; 7:14 [↩]
- Psalm 88:37 [which is Psalm 89:37 in Protestant Bibles] [↩]
- 1 Timothy 3:15 [↩]
- See Wikipedia, “Restorationism,” available here. [↩]
- A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, p.838 (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2nd ed., 1998). [↩]
- The History of Christian Doctrines, p.49 (Banner of Truth, 1937). This quotation raises a question about how Berkhof distinguishes “the Church” from “the Roman Catholic Church.” Exploring that question is beyond the scope of this present paper. [↩]
- See Neal Judisch’s recent argument here, regarding the implication of a “disappearing Church” for Martin Luther and R.C. Sproul on account of their positions on the doctrine of justification. [↩]
- “Dr. Schaff’s Apostolic Church,” 26 Princeton Review p.191 (1854). [↩]
- Ecclesial Docetism is equivalent to the ecclesial Gnosticism I discussed above. [↩]
- The deposit of faith is such that no part can be subtracted from it without the loss of the whole, because each part is essential. Hence if the Catholic Church were to deny even one part of the deposit of faith, she would by that very act have apostatized from the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints. (Jude 1:3.) So the very concept of ‘partial apostasy’ is a misnomer. [↩]
- Luke 10:16. [↩]
- John 20:29. [↩]
- John 17:20. [↩]
- “That They May Be One,” Touchstone (July/Aug. 2003), available here. [↩]
- Dei Verbum 7. [↩]
- Adv. haer. IV 26.2. [↩]
- Matthew 16:18 [↩]
- John 16:13 [↩]
- Matthew 28:20 [↩]
- 1 Tim 3:15 [↩]
- Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 296 (TAN, 1955) [↩]
- Satis cognitum 4. [↩]
- Epist. I ad Cor. 42.1-2. [↩]
- Epist. ad Magn. 7. [↩]
- It would not make sense to appeal to apostolic succession as preserving the Apostolic Tradition if ‘apostolic succession’ simply meant ‘agreement with the Apostles.’ [↩]
- Adv. haer. III.3. [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church 77, drawn from Dei Verbum, 8. [↩]
- Enarr. in Ps. 103 , 2, 5. [↩]
- Sermons to Catechumens on the Creed, 1.6. [↩]
- Against the Epistle of Manichaeus Called Fundamental, 4. [↩]
- Eph 5:31-32; Mt 19:6 [↩]
- Catechism of the Catholic Church, 797, 809. [↩]
- see Bryan Cross & Thomas Brown, Christ Founded a Visible Church, Called to Communion (June 7, 2009), available here. [↩]
- “What the soul is to the human body, the Holy Spirit is to the Body of Christ, which is the Church.” Catechism of the Catholic Church 797. [↩]
- Patrick Madrid provides a helpful article on this subject titled In Search of ‘The Great Apostasy.’ [↩]
- Bryan Cross and Thomas Brown, Christ Founded a Visible Church, Called to Communion (June 7, 2009), available here. [↩]
- Matthew 28:20 [↩]
- Mortalium Animos 6. [↩]
- John 12:46 [↩]
- 1 Corinthians 14:33 [↩]
- Matthew 16:18 [↩]
- Ecclesial deism comes not from faith but fear. [↩]
- Hebrews 13:5 [↩]