Ecclesial Unity and Outdoing Christ: A Dilemma for the Ecumenism of Non-ReturnNov 6th, 2011 | By Bryan Cross | Category: Blog Posts
In an article titled “Finale: A Unitive Vision of Christendom,” PCA pastor Mike Hsu, the pastor of Grace Chapel in Lincoln, Nebraska, recently claimed that I would treat a call for “united hearts” rather than “united ecclesial structure” as ecclesial deism. In that same article Mike then wrote, “The problem with Cross’ argumentation is that it involves the a priori supposition that rather than working towards its realization, the thing itself must be present now (in this case, the Visible Church with a unified ecclesial structure), if Protestants are to avoid the charge of ecclesial deism.” Mike supports an ecumenism that works toward the realization of a unified ecclesial structure to which all Christians are joined, but does not believe that such an effort is guilty of ecclesial deism when it maintains that the unified ecclesial structure pursued by such ecumenism does not already exist. In short, Mike claims that an ecumenism of non-return does not implicitly presuppose ecclesial deism.
I’m grateful for Mike’s interaction with my article, because I believe that entering into dialogue is a first step toward attaining that unity Christ prayed that His followers would enjoy. At the same time, I would like to clear up a misunderstanding, and explain why a call to seek to establish a “united ecclesial structure” from one that does not already exist is problematic.
I agree that Christians should seek for “united hearts,” if that means to be united in love for Christ, and thereby in love for one another for Christ’s sake. But just as we cannot love what we do not know, so the foundation of charity between believers is unity of faith. St. Peter wrote, “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.” (1 Peter 1:22) And Pope Leo XIII wrote, “But how can hearts be united in perfect Charity where minds do not agree in Faith?”1 Our capacity for loving one another deeply from the heart as fellow servants of Christ depends on together obeying and sharing the truth from Christ and about Christ. The more a fellow Christian believes that I deny some essential of faith, or believes that I affirm something heretical, the less we are capable of having hearts united in agape. So the pursuit of “united hearts” requires the pursuit of the “one faith” (Eph. 4:5) that has been handed down from the Apostles. But pursuing the one faith by which we can be united in heart requires pursuing a unified ecclesial structure, because otherwise there are as many interpretations as there are interpreters. Therefore, without ever sacrificing truth for unity, all Christians should be pursuing not only unity of faith but also a united ecclesial structure. To deny that would be to abandon altogether the concept of schism as an evil.2 Affirming the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds involves affirming the unity and catholicity of the Church, and so recognizing the sinfulness of schism, and thus the necessity of pursuing and preserving structural unity in one body. No denomination limited to a certain geography or certain ethnicity, and not a member of a worldwide organization can claim to be “catholic,” and therefore can claim to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded.3
Denying the obligation to pursue visible unity with other Christians would require giving up the claim to believe in a visible Church, whether universal or local.4 That is because to deny our obligation to pursue a united ecclesial structure with other Christians is likewise to deny our obligation to belong to a local visible church.5 Claiming that we must belong to a local visible church but that visible churches need not belong to a universal ecclesial structure would be ad hoc and therefore self-refuting. The ad hoc nature of man-made denominations ‘disallowing’ do-it-yourself church’ is not lost on the emergent generation.6 All the reasons one could provide for the necessity of the visibility and structure of the local Church equally support the necessity of the visibility and structure of the universal Church. For these reasons I’ll take as a given that we agree that all Christians ought to be pursuing a unified ecclesial structure, each without ever denying what he believes to be true, or in any other way going against his conscience. The point in question, therefore, is whether the unified ecclesial structure all Christians ought to be pursuing must already exist now.
The reason why the visible ecclesial unity toward which Protestant-Catholic reunion is ordered must already be present can be found in “Pentecost, Babel, and the Ecumenical Imperative.” By his own efforts man can effect only a man-made unity ordered to earthly, temporal ends. Unity of this sort is not in itself evil, nor is the pursuit of such unity in itself evil. Natural virtues are not evil, and neither is the man-made peace that results from peace-treaties, human alliances, human compacts, man-made clubs, organizations, corporations, or other such agreements or societies. But the sort of peace and unity achieved in those cases is not a supernatural peace or a supernatural unity. They are each instances of a merely natural peace and natural unity.7
By contrast, the peace of God surpasses all human comprehension (Philippians 4:7). Jesus, speaking to His Apostles, said, “My peace I give to you, not as the world gives do I give to you.” (John 14:27) Christ’s peace is not a natural peace that can be established by men. Because this peace surpasses human comprehension, it cannot be established by mere men, according to the natural power of men. Christ’s peace is a supernatural peace that comes only from Him. St. Paul teaches that we are called into one body to be ruled by this supernatural peace in Christ’s mystical Body, i.e. the Church. (1 Cor 12) He writes, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body.” (Col 3:15) The presence of this peace in His Body is not an accident, because Christ Himself “is our peace,” (Eph. 2:14) and by His Spirit we enter into Christ’s peace through union with Him in His mystical Body.8 The unity of the Spirit (Eph 4:3) is a participation in the peace of Christ, through sharing in His Holy Spirit who animates His Body, the Church.
For this reason, seeking to establish a visible ecclesial structure, while presuming that the visible ecclesial structure Christ established does not exist, entails a dilemma. Either Christ endowed His Church with a unified ecclesial structure that was later lost, and which mere men are seeking to reestablish, or Christ did not endow His Church with a unified ecclesial structure, and ecumenically minded men seeking to establish a visible ecclesial structure are seeking to establish something beyond what Christ intended. Let’s consider each horn separately.
Horn A: On one horn of the dilemma is the claim that Christ endowed His Church with a unified ecclesial structure that was later lost, and which mere men now seek to reestablish. If that unified ecclesial structure was essential to Christ’s Church, then adopting this horn obviously presupposes ecclesial deism, because it requires believing that Christ allowed something essential to His Church to be lost, and this entails that the Church herself was lost. Moreover, because it affirms the responsibility of all Christians to pursue the realization of a unified ecclesial structure, it either attributes to mere men the ability to establish a supernatural unity, or it treats the sort of unity Christ established in His Church as a merely natural unity that men can establish themselves. The former notion entails an ecclesial pelagianism,9 while the latter notion implicitly denies the unique deity of Christ, by treating the Church He founded as a merely natural society on the same level as any other human society formed by mere men, rather than as a supernatural society which is Christ’s Mystical Body of which He is the Head.
On the other hand, the notion that the unified ecclesial structure Christ established was only a kind of extraneous decoration, nice to have but not essential, is deeply problematic. It treats the unity of the Church’s governing and teaching authority as a mere adornment that is not part of the Church’s nature, but as something that can be removed without any injury to the Church’s life. However, the unity of the governing and teaching authority is essential for the very existence of a divinely established governing and teaching authority. If the Church’s governing and teaching authority could be divided into various competing factions, none having more authority than the others, there would cease to be a governing and teaching authority in the Church.10 So for this reason this position reduces to a kind of biblicism (i.e. solo scriptura), in which each individual retains ultimate magisterial authority for himself.11
This notion that the unified ecclesial structure is not essential to the Church reduces the Church to something that is in essence invisible, and accidentally visible only when the Church happens to possess a unified ecclesial structure, perhaps only at the very beginning of her history. As a result, schism would never be intrinsically wrong. Whenever any Christian disagreed with any other Christians, he could legitimately separate from them and form a different sect, so long as he held no bitterness in his heart. And therefore this notion undermines the very prospect of pursuing a unified ecclesial structure, since such a structure would be entirely devoid of authority, and entirely conditional on unanimous consent among all Christians, something that both common sense and Church history indicate does not happen. Without mutual recognition of divinely established magisterial authority, there are almost as many opinions as there are persons.
Not only that, but whatever unified ecclesial structure men would establish would not be a restablishment of the Church Christ founded. Whatever new institution ecumenically minded Christians established would be a numerically different institution from the one Christ founded, i.e. it would be an altogether new institution that had never before existed. It would therefore not be a divine institution (i.e. one founded by Christ) nor would Christ be its Head, nor would the Holy Spirit be its animating principle. It would be merely a man-made institution. The future unified ecclesial structure intended by Protestants seeking visible ecclesial unity can be a divine institution only if it is the very same divine institution that the incarnate Christ Himself founded during His time on earth, and which was born on the day of Pentecost. And that means that ecumenically minded Protestants seeking a supernatural unified ecclesial structure are in fact, even if unaware of this truth, seeking the same unified ecclesial structure Christ founded and which has existed in unbroken continuity to this day.
For all these reasons, the notion that Christ endowed His Church with a unified ecclesial structure that was later lost, and which mere men can reestablish, is deeply problematic.
Horn B: On the other horn of the dilemma is the notion that Christ did not endow His Church with a unified ecclesial structure, but now all Christians ought to strive to establish a unified ecclesial structure. The primary problem with this notion is that in seeking to establish a unified ecclesial structure for the “one holy catholic Church,” ecumenically minded Christians would be seeking to establish something beyond what Christ Himself intended or instituted when He established His Church. In that case, if Christ did not found a body with a unified ecclesial structure, then to seek to bring all Christians into a body with a structural unity is a form of “outdoing Christ,” that is, it seeks to go beyond the unity that Christ Himself saw fit to establish in His Church by imposing on what He founded as a merely invisible entity a visible unity He Himself did not see fit to establish. But seeking to outdo the omniscient, omnipotent God involves no small hubris. Claiming to worship Christ as God, while seeking to outdo Him in the establishment of ecclesial unity, is likewise no small performative contradiction, and undermines the claim to be following Christ as God.12
Someone might claim that Christ secretly instructed His Apostles to pass along a message through the generations, instructing them to wait until the third millennium to establish a visible ecclesial structure. But the notion that Christ established His Church only as an invisible unity while secretly transmitting the instruction that His disciples should someday (in the third millennium) upgrade the unity of the Church to visible structural unity is a kind of gnosticism. It requires believing in some secret tradition that has not been recorded or developed by any Church Father. Such a claim deserves no further consideration.
This horn of the dilemma faces a further undesirable consequence. Any attempt to build a man-made catholic (i.e. universal) ‘Church,’ rather than being reconciled to the Catholic Church Christ founded, would be the religious equivalent of attempting to restart the building of the Tower of Babel. As I explained in “Pentecost, Babel, and the Ecumenical Imperative,” an attempt by man to form a universal Church is not essentially different from the mission of the Antichrist, who seeks to replace the Church Christ founded with a universal Church founded by man, and thus (despite the appearances) ordered ultimately to the worship of man.
Therefore, the notion that Christ did not endow His Church with a unified ecclesial structure but that we all ought now to establish a unified ecclesial structure, is also problematic.
So both horns of the dilemma are untenable. The only remaining possibility is that Christ endowed His Church with a unified ecclesial structure that has never been lost, and therefore that the full visible reunion of Christians now separated by schism involves a return to that same continuing Catholic Church.13 And that entails that the goal of ecumenical reunion is an ecumenism of return. As St. Jerome said, “We must abide in that Church, which was founded by the Apostles, and endures to this day.”14 Pope Pius XI similarly writes:
[T]he union of Christians can only be promoted by promoting the return to the one true Church of Christ of those who are separated from it, for in the past they have unhappily left it. …
Furthermore, in this one Church of Christ no man can be or remain who does not accept, recognize and obey the authority and supremacy of Peter and his legitimate successors. Did not the ancestors of those who are now entangled in the errors of Photius and the [Protestant] Reformers, obey the Bishop of Rome, the chief shepherd of souls? Alas their children left the home of their fathers, but it did not fall to the ground and perish for ever, for it was supported by God. Let them therefore return to their common Father, who, forgetting the insults previously heaped on the Apostolic See, will receive them in the most loving fashion. For if, as they continually state, they long to be united with Us and ours, why do they not hasten to enter the Church, “the Mother and mistress of all Christ’s faithful”? Let them hear Lactantius (c. 250 – c. 325) crying out: “The Catholic Church is alone in keeping the true worship. This is the fount of truth, this the house of Faith, this the temple of God: if any man enter not here, or if any man go forth from it, he is a stranger to the hope of life and salvation. Let none delude himself with obstinate wrangling. For life and salvation are here concerned, which will be lost and entirely destroyed, unless their interests are carefully and assiduously kept in mind.”15
Let, therefore, the separated children draw nigh to the Apostolic See, set up in the City which Peter and Paul, the Princes of the Apostles, consecrated by their blood; to that See, We repeat, which is “the root and womb whence the Church of God springs,” not with the intention and the hope that “the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” will cast aside the integrity of the faith and tolerate their errors, but, on the contrary, that they themselves submit to its teaching and government. Would that it were Our happy lot to do that which so many of Our predecessors could not, to embrace with fatherly affection those children, whose unhappy separation from Us We now bewail. Would that God our Savior, “Who will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth,” would hear us when We humbly beg that He would deign to recall all who stray to the unity of the Church!”16
To the ears of many Protestants, such words are sectarian and arrogant. Yet if ‘sectarianism’ is simply defined as the claim that the body to which one belongs is the Church Christ founded, then assuming that ‘sectarianism’ [so defined] is always wrong presupposes either that Christ never founded a visible Church or that, having done so, at some point He allowed it to fall out of existence. Either way, such an assumption is not theologically neutral; it assumes precisely what is in question between Protestants and Catholics, namely, either that Christ did not found a visible Church,17 or that if He did, some kind of ecclesial deism is true. The person making this assumption has placed himself in an epistemic position in which he cannot come to discover whether Christ did in fact found a visible Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail. In his mind he has already ruled out the very possibility, by assuming that such a thing would be sectarian, and that sectarianism is always wrong.
Nor is it arrogant to claim to be what one actually is. Hence the notion that claiming to be the Church Christ founded is ipso facto arrogant likewise presupposes that there is no body which is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, just as the notion that claiming to be the Son of God is ipso facto arrogant presupposes that there is no Son of God. So the charge that claiming to be the Church Christ founded is arrogant is a question-begging charge, i.e. it assumes precisely what is in question.
I certainly welcome the call among ecumenically minded Protestants for “united hearts” and a “united ecclesial structure.” What I have done here is show why the pursuit of a “united ecclesial structure” in an ecumenism of non-return faces an intractable dilemma. The solution to that dilemma is an ecumenism of return.18
May the peace of Christ rule in our hearts, and unite our hearts in the one body to which we have been called in Christ.
- Praeclara Gratulationis Publicae. [↩]
- See “Michael Horton on Schism as Heresy.” [↩]
- On ‘catholicity’ as a mark of the Church see comment #21 in the “Collapsing Ecclesiology” thread. [↩]
- cf. Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter XXV.2. [↩]
- See Baptist pastor Mark Dever’s comments on the importance of being part of a local church. [↩]
- See A Reflection on PCA Pastor Terry Johnson’s “Our Collapsing Ecclesiology,”. [↩]
- For a helpful explanation of the natural/supernatural distinction, see “Nature, Grace, and Man’s Supernatural End: Feingold, Kline, and Clark” or see Lawrence Feingold’s The Natural Desire to See God According to St. Thomas and His Interpreters. [↩]
- See Mystici Corporis Christi. [↩]
- Pelagianism is the notion that without grace man can attain the supernatural end which is heaven. Ecclesial pelagianism is the notion that mere men can establish a supernatural society. [↩]
- See “Philosophy and the Papacy.” [↩]
- Cf. “Solo Scripture, Sola Scriptura, and the Question of Interpretive Authority.” [↩]
- I first wrote about this horn of the dilemma in 2007, as I explained in “Institutional Unity and Outdoing Christ.” [↩]
- This is why Protestantism by its origins is oriented not to the future establishment of a new Catholic Church, but to a return to the Catholic Church; see “Reformation Sunday 2011: How Would Protestants Know When to Return?” [↩]
- Quoted in the Catholic Encyclopedia article titled “Apostolicity.” [↩]
- Divine Institutes IV.30. [↩]
- Mortalium Animos, 10-12. [↩]
- “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” [↩]
- See, for example, “Reformation Sunday 2011: How Would Protestants Know When to Return?.” [↩]