Michael Horton on Schism as HeresyOct 6th, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
Michael Horton is the editor-in-chief of Modern Reformation, co-host of the White Horse Inn radio program, and the J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California. Recently on the White Horse Inn blog Michael Horton wrote about the nature of schism.
He wrote a post titled “Have Denominations Had Their Day?,” in which he responded to a post by Christianity Today contributor Ed Stetzer titled “Do Denominations Matter?.” Stetzer thinks that denominations are important for pragmatic reasons, namely, that by working together Christians can accomplish much more than by working alone. Horton agrees that denominations matter, but not merely because working together is more efficient or useful. Horton writes:
Scripture’s focus is on what God is doing rather than on what we are doing. The Triune God is saving sinners through preaching and sacrament. There is “one holy catholic and apostolic church” not because individual believers realized that they could more effectively reach the world and accomplish their goals in tandem. Rather, this church exists because of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel. We are recipients of a kingdom; the Father is the builder, by his Son and Spirit, through the Word.
Therefore, there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it. Same thing with the holiness of the church: holy in Christ, it is nevertheless “simultaneously justified and sinful.”
Horton’s point is that there is only “one holy catholic and apostolic Church” not because Christians thought it would be more useful and effective to work together, but because “of the Father’s eternal election of a people, the Son’s mediation and saving work for them, and the Spirit’s work of uniting them to Christ through the gospel.” However, merely electing, redeeming and [covenantally] uniting persons to Christ does not entail the existence of a Church; it merely entails the existence of persons elected, redeemed and united to Christ. So Hortons’s “Therefore, there really is one church-catholic” does not follow. (See “Why Protestantism has no “visible catholic Church”.”) Christ did something in addition to offering Himself on the cross, and sending His Spirit; He founded a Church, and gave its keys to St. Peter. Cf. Mt. 16:18-19.1 Because Horton’s conclusion does not follow, this makes Horton’s claim irrelevant to the question of denominations. If by “church-catholic” Horton simply means all the elect, this has no implications regarding whether there should be only one denomination, many denominations, or no denominations.
In his statement Horton makes use of the Lutheran/Reformed notion of simul iustus et peccator [simultaneously justified and sinful] to defend his claim that “there really is one church—catholic, spread throughout the world yet united in one Lord, one faith, one baptism—even though its visible shape right now seems to speak against it.” In other words, just as in Reformed soteriology a believer is perfectly justified by extra nos imputation even while that person remains full of wickedness and eternally damnable sins, so in Reformed ecclesiology the “church-catholic” is perfectly united spiritually and invisibly even while visibly divided into thousands of factions.
The problem with the claim of simul iustus et peccator is that it makes God capable of self-deception or schizophrenia, as I have explained elsewhere.2 It also allows us to believe a falsehood, by appealing to the power of God to declare to be true what is simultaneously in fact not true. But that would not be a power on God’s part; that would be a weakness, i.e. an inability to speak only the truth. Moreover, this position devalues and dismisses the physical and material actions of men, and of sects, since the only thing that counts is the invisible and spiritual. What follows from this position is that sin in our heart and body does not matter (i.e. does not affect our salvation in any way), because in no way does it detract from God’s immutable forensic declaration proleptically revealing His declaration concerning us on the Day of Judgment. Of course this theology stipulates that good fruit should follow, just like it stipulates that visible unity should follow. But no length or severity of visible division falsifies the posited invisible union, because according to this ecclesiology visible union is not essential to the invisible [covenantal] union with Christ all believers possess, just as according to this soteriology holiness of life is not essential to the invisible forensic extra nos justification enjoyed by all believers.
For this reason, this position entails that schisms between believers are not in themselves sinful or evil, because they do not detract from the invisible unity between Christ and every believer; they only (sometimes) hurt the Christian cause in the pragmatic ways Stetzer notes. According to this notion, the truth is in the invisible realm of the divine declaration, even when the condition in the material, visible world is exactly the opposite. The same nominalism that leads to a gnostic conception of justification leads likewise to a gnostic ecclesiogy in which the visible and material is unimportant and ultimately irrelevant. Because merely electing, redeeming and [covenantally] uniting persons to Christ does not entail the existence of a Church, what Horton refers to as the “church-catholic” is impervious to any condition on earth, nor does this ecclesiology entail any condition on earth, so long as one or more persons are [covenantally] united to Christ.
But I wanted to understand how Horton conceives the “church-catholic” to be both one and united, and yet visibly divided. His statement reduced the unity of the Church to something purely invisible. So on his blog I asked him the following the question:
You say that the catholic Church is united (in certain respects) even though “its visible shape now seems to speak against it.” It seems to me that one could look at the present situation and see not a problem with the Church’s “visible shape,” (as though the problem is only a problem between branches within the Church) but rather *schisms from* the visible Church, as were the Donatists in the fourth century. 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?
Michael then replied:
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.
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]. For the traditional sense of schism from the Church, see, for example, what the fourth century bishop St. Optatus says about schism in “St. Optatus on Schism and the Bishop of Rome.” Similarly, St. Jerome wrote:
Between heresy and schism there is this difference, that heresy perverts dogma, while schism, by rebellion against the bishop, separates from the Church. Nevertheless there is no schism which does not trump up a heresy to justify its departure from the Church. (In Ep. ad Tit., iii, 10)
St. John Chrysostom similarly wrote:
I say and protest that it is as wrong to divide the Church as to fall into heresy.”3
In St. Augustine’s work titled “Of Faith and the Creed” which he delivered to the bishops assembled at the Council of Hippo-Regius in AD 393, which was the “general assembly of the North African Church,” he wrote the following:
Inasmuch, I repeat, as this is the case, we believe also in The Holy Church, [intending thereby] assuredly the Catholic. For both heretics and schismatics style their congregations churches. But heretics, in holding false opinions regarding God, do injury to the faith itself; while schismatics, on the other hand, in wicked separations break off from brotherly charity, although they may believe just what we believe. Wherefore neither do the heretics belong to the Church catholic, which loves God; nor do the schismatics form a part of the same, inasmuch as it loves the neighbor, and consequently readily forgives the neighbor’s sins, because it prays that forgiveness may be extended to itself by Him who has reconciled us to Himself, doing away with all past things, and calling us to a new life. And until we reach the perfection of this new life, we cannot be without sins. Nevertheless it is a matter of consequence of what sort those sins may be. (Of Faith and the Creed, 10)4
St. Augustine later wrote concerning the Donatists:
How many, believing that it mattered not to which party a Christian might belong, remained in the schism of Donatus only because they had been born in it, and no one was compelling them to forsake it and pass over into the Catholic Church! … Others say: We thought, indeed, that it mattered not in what communion we held the faith of Christ; but thanks to the Lord, who has gathered us in from a state of schism, and has taught us that it is fitting that the one God be worshiped in unity. (Letter 93, para. 17-18)
This notion extends back even to St. Ignatius of Antioch, who wrote:
He, therefore, that does not assemble with the Church, has even by this manifested his pride, and condemned himself. For it is written, God resists the proud. Let us be careful, then, not to set ourselves in opposition to the bishop, in order that we may be subject to God. (Epist. to the Ephesians, 5)
Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.] (Epist. to the Philaldelphians, 3)
To the best of my knowledge, St. Ignatius, 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. Hence the Protestant inability to make a principled distinction between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church.
When terms in the Tradition are redefined in a way that replaces (rather than develops) the essence of their meaning, then not only does this lead to ecumenical difficulties, but it also leads communities who adopt these redefinitions to a different way of seeing, in this case, a way of seeing in which schism from is not even conceptually visible. By redefining schism from the Church as heresy, the community that adopts this redefinition essentially goes blind to schism from the Church and to the very possibility of 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. This concept of schism from the Church is therefore no longer available (and has to be redefined as heresy to cover the semantic hole its absence would leave) in Protestant ecclesiology because the conjunction of (a) the denial of the ministerial priesthood and Holy Orders and (b) the denial of an essentially unified divinely established visible principle of unity entails that the Church is not essentially visible, and therefore that visible unity is not essential to her. But schism from the Church is impossible unless the Church has visible unity. Hence the Protestant move from a visible Church ecclesiology to an invisible Church ecclesiology (even though the language of ‘visible Church’ is retained by Reformed persons) eliminated conceptually the very possibility of schism from the Church, and thus required redefining schism from as just a synonym for heresy.
For this reason, even if Horton wanted to hold to the possibility of schism from the Church by claiming that the visible Church is, say, NAPARC (or some other association of Reformed denominations), he could not do so. That is because if some denominations which held to the same doctrines affirmed by NAPARC denominations were not in communion with NAPARC denominations, nothing would make those denomination the ones in schism from the Church, rather than the other way around. Without a divinely established visible principle of unity that serves as the defining point of reference for the location of the Church, schism from the Church must be redefined as “not holding to [my interpretation of Scripture regarding what is] the gospel and [my interpretation of Scripture regarding what are] the sacraments.” For Catholics, by contrast, that divinely established principle of unity is St. Peter to whom Christ entrusted the keys of the Kingdom, as St. Ambrose said: “Where Peter is, there is the Church.”5
Moreover, to justify redefining schism from as heresy, one must assume that all the early Church Fathers who addressed schism from the Church were deeply mistaken, having departed from the Apostolic faith regarding the nature of schism from the Church. In that sense, to justify departing from the Church Fathers regarding the nature of schism from the Church, one must presuppose some form of ecclesial deism. Otherwise, if in their teaching concerning schism from the Church, the Church Fathers were faithfully preserving and defending the Apostolic faith they had received, those who are now redefining schism from as heresy are departing from the Apostolic faith, and thus ironically (given their own their definition of ‘schism’) in that respect separating themselves from the visible Church.
- See “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- See comment #83 in the “Habitual Sin and the Grace of the Sacraments” post. [↩]
- Hom. xi., in Epist. ad Ephes., n. 5. [↩]
- There St. Augustine implicitly distinguishes between mortal and venial sins. No believer on earth avoids all venial sin, but no one can be at the same time both in mortal sin and in a state of grace. [↩]
- For the role of St. Peter as the Church’s principle of unity see “The Chair of St. Peter.” [↩]