A Catholic Reflection on John Armstrong’s Your Church is Too SmallMar 5th, 2012 | By Guest Author | Category: Featured Articles
On Monday, March 26, ACT 3 and Wheaton College will be hosting “A Conversation on Unity in Christ’s Mission,” involving a dialogue in Edman Chapel between John Armstrong and Cardinal George, Archbishop of Chicago. The event will be streamed live from the Wheaton.edu website. In light of that forthcoming event, we invited Devin Rose to review Armstrong’s most recent book. Devin is well known to CTC readers. In July of 2010 he wrote a guest post for us titled “Faith and Reason in the Context of Conversion,” in which he recounted his conversion twelve years ago from atheism to faith in Christ. Devin is also the author of the recently published book If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome (2011). He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard. We’re grateful to Devin for his thoughtful review of Armstrong’s book. – Eds.
John Armstrong is a Protestant professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, a former Baptist pastor for twenty-one years, and founder of ACT 3, an apostolate for helping Christians work toward unity. He has written articles for Modern Reformation, was the editor of Reformation and Revival Journal, and has previously authored, contributed to, and edited many books, including The Catholic Mystery: Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Modern Catholicism (1999), Roman Catholicism: Evangelical Protestants Analyze What Divides and Unites Us (1998), The Coming Evangelical Crisis (1997), and A View of Rome: A Guide to Understanding the Beliefs and Practices of Roman Catholics (1995).
His most recent book is titled Your Church is Too Small (Zondervan, 2010). In this book Armstrong shares how his own understanding of unity and the Christian Church changed over the years, and lays out how he believes we can achieve the unity that Christ prayed for in John 17.
The book is divided into three sections: past, present, and future. In the first section he explains how he abandoned the narrow sectarian conception of Protestant fundamentalism according to which his own denomination was the best, and others, even other conservative Protestant denominations, were seriously flawed. He came to embrace a broader conception of Christ’s Church, one that included so-called liberal Protestant communities as well as the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He then discusses how the desire for unity grew within him and took shape as a “missional-ecumenism” (more on this below).
Armstrong draws a brief sketch of the Church during the time of the New Testament and how its unity was later “split” both by the Eastern Orthodox schism and the Protestant Reformation. This first section reaches its climax with his chapter discussing John 17, Jesus’ high priestly prayer for unity, which Armstrong interprets as a call to relational and co-operational unity between Christian groups. He concludes with a chapter revealing how he interprets the four marks of the Church included in the Nicene Creed.
The second section focuses on how we can restore unity in Christianity today. He explains the causes of disunity, especially sectarianism — which he defines as the belief that one’s own Church or denomination is the Church of Christ — and explores what the universal Church is and how local congregations and denominations relate to it. Armstrong lays out his idea that a “core orthodoxy” consisting of the Apostles’ Creed and decrees of the first ecumenical councils should be the basic criteria for Christian unity. He then spends a chapter on the meaning of the “Kingdom of God,” including a discourse on how Catholics “discovered” the right understanding of the Kingdom during the Second Vatican Council. He ends this section with an explanation of Tradition and its importance for rightly understanding divine revelation.
The third and final section contains Armstrong’s vision for the future work of unity through the missional-ecumenical movement. He warns against uniformity or trying to find “the ideal Church” and explains how Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox view the Church. The next chapter argues against the tendency to try to figure out who is a “real” Christian and who is not. Armstrong then describes how the Church must become missional, not only sending out missionaries to far off lands, but embodying and being the mission of Christ in every place that Christians live. The Church, he argues, should not focus on influencing politics or changing the culture but should instead be about living the Kingdom of God in the midst of society. Churches and ecclesial communities should join together in this mission, united by the core orthodoxy described earlier. He ends the book with a call to all Christians to work toward unity and realize its importance in their life.
What’s Great about the Book
I deeply appreciated this book. Armstrong asks the questions on unity that need to be asked by every Christian, questions I had asked myself as a Protestant and continued asking as a Catholic.
First and foremost, he takes Christ’s prayer for unity seriously, rejecting interpretations of John 17 that seek to diminish the scope of Christ’s mandate. Many Protestant pastors he has listened to claim Jesus was praying for the unity of the invisible collection of all believers. Armstrong disagrees, writing, “to assume that the invisible church is the ‘one holy catholic and apostolic church’ of the Nicene Creed or that it is the answer to this prayer is a serious interpretive mistake.”1 Instead, Christ must mean a visible unity of some sort, a theme explored throughout the book.
While the book’s audience includes Christians from every Church and community, Armstrong writes especially for American Evangelical Protestants, a group that is generally uncomfortable with the notion of Tradition and which in some sections holds what Armstrong would call sectarian views of the Church. He writes: “In fact, I will show how your biblical faith is rooted in the living Christian tradition, a tradition found in all the classical historical expressions of the one faith.”2 He goes on to say:
True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to grips with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian. The result will be new forms of man-made religion that embrace recycled heresies…. Building one’s faith and life on various passages in the Bible understood through private experience results in nothing less than a confusing cacophony of Christian noise…. Scripture alone, without human life and community consensus, is subject to every human whim and fancy.3
Catholics agree that the Bible must be read within the living Tradition of the Church and also that there is always a danger of recycling old heresies. But this kind of language has placed Armstrong on the wrong side of Evangelicals, some of whom have sundered their association with him, fearing that he is embracing error in his desire to cast a broad net for Christian unity.
Armstrong also sees the problem of letting the Bible alone resolve our differences. He writes:
Everyone interprets the Bible. This truth may be abundantly clear to you, but I have found that it is easily forgotten by “Biblecentered” Christians. Quoting the Bible rarely settles disagreements. By themselves, Bible verses fail to promote unity. Consider the fact that many cults will affirm the inerrancy and authority of the Bible, yet they interpret its meaning in ways that suit their own personal preference. In truth, we need to have a way of grasping the answer to a larger question: What is the essential message of the Holy Scriptures?
Answering this question takes us back to the Bible as our foundation of truth, but it also incorporates the faithful witness of the ancient church. We ask such questions as: What did the first Christians believe and why did they believe it? How did they hear the gospel? Before there was a completed Bible, how did the church understand and confess the living message of Christ? (Even when the church had the completed Scriptures, most Christians never had the opportunity to read them, much less study them.) How has the church heard the Scriptures down through the ages? Questions such as these lead us to a study of history, an area of study known as historical theology, covering the church’s understanding of the development of theology and its interpretation of the Scriptures over the past two thousand years. We never stand alone when we read and interpret the Bible. With a grasp of history and tradition, we are able to read the sacred Scriptures in communion with the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.”4
Armstrong’s insights here are key. We hear in them the same realization to which Keith Mathison came, namely, that someone has to interpret the Scriptures, and that the Church (whatever it is) must be intimately involved. Catholics also agree with him that we must study history and learn how the Church has interpreted the Bible throughout her existence.
Armstrong also points out that American congregationalism is foreign to the historic understanding of Christ’s Church. He writes, “During the first eighteen hundred years of Christian history almost no one understood the church as a myriad of independent and unrelated congregations and movements that interpreted the Bible as each saw fit.”5 Yet that is what we have in much of Protestantism, and Armstrong rightly sees the problem with it. It leads to the proliferation of denominational divisions, and makes achieving unity that much more difficult.
He explains that when he reached his forties, he came to doubt the concept of a purely invisible Church, and this spurred him on to engage with other Christians, ones outside his tribe, and to understand them better. He writes:
Today, my passion for the church has led me to monasteries and Methodists, to Anglicans and the Assemblies of God, and to a growing respect for Mennonites and Moravians. It took me, an evangelical and a Reformed Protestant, deeper into the words of Luther and Calvin, who left a profound mark on a large portion of the Christian church. To my great surprise, it propelled me back to the church fathers and the Christian past — a past that is both Roman Catholic and Orthodox. In Catholicism, I discovered a community so vast that it overwhelmed me in its richness, beauty, and diversity. Over time, I came to love this community, a community I had once feared so deeply.6
These are conciliatory words, and they don’t fall on deaf ears. Rare is it to hear such a compliment about the Catholic Church from a Protestant minister. One of the great strengths of Armstrong’s book is his irenic tone and desire to see the good in all Christian Churches and communities.
Armstrong ends the book with vignettes of Christians working together to do good things. This is how the missional-ecumenical paradigm is put into practice via relational and co-operational unity. What can real Christians — who belong to different ecclesial communities and Churches — do to unite together in a practical way? Armstrong gives one example where many Protestant churches collaborated together to put on a vacation Bible school program. Another example he offers is the Taize community and their inter-denominational services. Catholics can agree with Armstrong that we should work together with other Christians: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, standing up for the pro-life cause together, and so on. Our theological differences should not stop us from joining together to serve others in these ways, particularly in the corporal works of mercy.
In his book Armstrong is asking the questions that need to be asked and not shying away from the reality of disunity that exists in Christianity. By calling for a study of history, the inclusion of Tradition, and for an understanding of the Church as visible, Armstrong has taken significant steps toward the Catholic conception of how we must proceed to identify the Church and unify with her. In the next section I will examine where Armstrong stops short of Catholicism and instead takes a different path in the hopes of finding unity.
Where We Differ
John Armstrong is not a Catholic. He is a Protestant Christian and remains within the Protestant paradigm. Specifically, Armstrong resists the notion that there is presently “one, true Church,” or that God protects any one Church or community from error in its teachings. Because of this belief (or lack of belief), he sees Protestant denominations and the Catholic and Orthodox Churches as the three “great Traditions” of Christianity, none teaching the fullness of the truth or the truth without error, but all three holding to the “core orthodoxy” of the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds and the first two ecumenical councils. Let’s examine his thoughts here more closely.
The first question to ask is: has the Church ever been unified? Armstrong seems to answer in the affirmative. He writes:
The New Testament sees unity as a reality to be protected…. [The Apostles] wisely recognized that while Christ should be at the center as Lord of the church, every effort must be made to preserve unity.7
According to Armstrong, unity in the early Church was “a reality to be protected” and something that must be preserved, which means that in his view the early Church was unified. This is an important starting point for dialogue with Catholics, since we also believe that the Church at this time was unified.
Armstrong then describes what he thinks happened to the Church’s unity:
By the medieval period, the visible church was tragically split into two huge and virtually unrelated branches — East and West (1054).8
However, in 1054, this unity was radically and tragically altered by the East/West split. Centuries later, the Protestant Reformation broke the Catholic Church’s unity in Europe.9
According to Armstrong, the unity of the visible Church was “altered,” “split,” and was broken. This is in effect the “branching” theory of Christianity put forth by many Protestants: the trunk of the tree, representing the unity of the Church, split into multiple different branches — Protestantism, Catholicism, and Orthodoxy being the largest — but the trunk itself no longer exists. The unity has been divided, which means it is gone and now the Church is in disunity.10
But this theory raises the question: How does Armstrong make a principled distinction between a branch within the Church and a schism from the Church? Piecing together several different passages from his book, his answer seems to be that a schism occurs when someone or some group rejects “core orthodoxy,” defined by the consensus of the early Church in the writings of the Fathers and especially in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds.
First he associates core orthodoxy with the Apostles’ Creed, writing:
When core orthodoxy, as represented by the Apostles’ Creed, is not of primary importance, the result will always be a small view of the church.11
Then he asserts that the one Church is rooted in core orthodoxy:
I will make a case for how the one church of Jesus Christ, ministering out of its spiritual unity in Christ and rooted in core orthodoxy, can best serve Christ’s mission.12
Finally he cites the Reformers’ recognition that the “common faith,” or core orthodoxy of the Church is found in the “consensus of the early church fathers” and the “earliest ecumenical creeds.” He writes:
Even the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformers, especially magisterial men like Martin Luther and John Calvin, understood that there was an established historical foundation deeply rooted in the Scripture. The creeds and the doctrines taught by a consensus of the early church fathers were continually appealed to by all the great Protestant Reformers. For them, common faith was expressed in the earliest ecumenical creeds. The Reformers never encouraged people to pick through the Bible and concoct a better version of Christianity.13
The Nicene Creed was formulated at the first two ecumenical councils: Nicaea in the year 325 and Constantinople in 381. But taking only the first two councils and these two Creeds as the criteria for orthodoxy raises the following questions: Why do we stop with those? Why not also accept the third and fourth ecumenical councils? As it is, the Nestorians and Monophysites could affirm the first two councils. We would need a principled reason for making the decisions of these first two councils and no others the standard for orthodoxy.
Armstrong does not answer this question in his book, and so his basis for what constitutes core orthodoxy is ad hoc, at least as he has presented it in his book. This is a critical flaw in his thesis, and is the reason why I said above that he stopped short of going all the way down the road to Catholicism. Understandably, he wants to find common ground from which all Christians can work toward unity, realizing that doctrinal chaos can never be true unity. And so he chooses criteria that (rightly) begin with the founding of the Church by Christ and the sending of the Apostles and continue to the first two ecumenical councils and the Creeds. But why it should stop there requires a principled reason. Armstrong does not offer one, and of course an arbitrary stipulation by Armstrong cannot be the basis for a unity to be pursued by all Christians.
Catholics believe that the essential unity of the Church can never be lost. The unity can be (and has been) wounded by the schisms from the Church that have occurred over the centuries (CCC 817), but since the Church is Christ’s Mystical Body, her unity can never be destroyed. Ecumenism seeks to heal these wounds and so answer Christ’s prayer that we become perfectly one.
Armstrong implies that the Church’s unity, enjoyed in the first century of her existence, was definitively broken and lost at least twice: in the Orthodox-Catholic schism in AD 1054 and then again in the Protestant-Catholic schism in the sixteenth century.14 Interestingly, he does see the divisions between Christians, the schisms, as being something bad. But rather than see the solution as healing these schisms — something he implies is a practical impossibility — he thinks instead that we should accept the permanence of these “three traditions” and their equal legitimacy. But accepting them in this way undermines the notion that it was wrong for them to separate in the first place. Armstrong cannot have it both ways: either the separation was wrong, and we must work to heal the schism, or it was no true separation at all, just another valid “branching within” the Church.
A related problem has to do with how we identify the Christian Tradition to which we all should look. Armstrong writes:
With a grasp of history and tradition, we are able to read the sacred Scriptures in communion with the “one holy catholic and apostolic church.” Studying how the historical church understood the Scriptures greatly helped me, but it wasn’t easy. I had to learn to humble myself and truly listen to other voices outside of my cultural and generational context. My teachers included Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christians. If it helps, think about it this way: Are you the first person to ever read the Bible and attempt to understand its message? Of course not. People before you wrestled with these same writings and expressed what they understood in plain language. They confessed a “core orthodoxy.” They celebrated the “Great Tradition” — those elemental truths representing the theological consensus of the first thousand years of Christian history. Wisdom should lead us to listen to these early Christians before we try to work out some of the difficult issues we face today.15
This sounds good, but Armstrong does not provide a principled basis for distinguishing between what does and does not belong to “the theological consensus” during the first thousand years of Christianity. In addition, he has no principled reason for determining who is and is not among those forming this consensus in the first thousand years of the Church. The Armenians and Copts, for example, would take issue with important Catholic doctrines during the first thousand years of Christianity, the ones over which they broke in schism. Further, Apostolic Succession is certainly a part of that “Great Tradition,” but Armstrong and Protestants reject it.16 Baptismal regeneration was also assuredly part of that consensus, yet Protestants reject that doctrine as well. So picking and choosing is still going on, in an ad hoc way. And this ad hoc picking and choosing by Armstrong, in order to determine for all Christians which first millennial doctrines and practices are orthodox, and who does and does not belong to those among whom the consensus is to be found, amounts to an implicit exercise of [presumed] magisterial authority on his part.
The Church’s Oneness
Armstrong spends some time offering his interpretation of the four marks of the Church: one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Most relevant to the subject of unity is the first mark, namely, that the Church is one. He begins well when he says:
I have argued that the early church held an extremely high view of oneness and catholicity. We do not have to search far to understand why: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4:4 – 6)17
The Catholic Church strongly affirms this biblical oneness through the three visible bonds of communion:
1. Profession of one faith received from the Apostles
2. Common celebration of divine worship, especially of the sacraments;
3. Apostolic succession through the sacrament of Holy Orders, maintaining the fraternal concord of God’s family.18
But Armstrong’s vision of unity does not go this far. He affirms that the Church is found where “Word and sacrament” are celebrated.19 By ‘sacrament,’ he seems to mean only baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However in a recent blog comment, he says that he is persuaded that there are more than seven sacraments, and that washing of the feet is one of the additional sacraments. So it is unclear how many sacraments he thinks there are and how we know what the criteria are for determining what is a sacrament.
Regarding unity of faith, Catholics too believe that we profess the “one faith” received from the Apostles. But it is clear to everyone that there are major differences between Protestants and Catholics regarding what that one faith is. Armstrong attempts to solve this problem by appealing to the “core orthodoxy” of the creeds, claiming that “uniformity” of doctrinal belief is undesirable and contrary to legitimate diversity. But the Catholic way lies between the two extremes of absolute uniformity of belief and the absence of a shared faith. The bounds of the Church’s dogmas circumscribe the area of unity within which we can have legitimate diversity of theological beliefs. That’s not absolute uniformity, but neither is it agreement through lowest common denominator Christianity, where we find the minimal subset of beliefs about which we happen to agree, even if it be only the one doctrine that Jesus died to save us.
The problem again, for Armstrong, is that he has no non-arbitrary basis for determining that upon which we all must agree, and that about which we may disagree. Uniformity is not bad when it is uniformity in the one faith; in that case it is a beautiful thing. But there can be diversity in non-essentials and unity in essentials, only when there is a principled way of determining which is which.
Armstrong does not mention these three bonds of unity but instead interprets the “oneness” of the Church as meaning that the Church is a unique institution. He also emphasizes the diversity that should be found in the Church, something with which Catholics can agree, so long as it is within the bounds of the Church’s teachings. The difficulty here for Armstrong lies in reconciling his notion that the Church is “a unique institution” with his notion that the Church is presently divided into Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. If it is divided, it is not a single institution, unless these divisions are branches. But as I have pointed out above, he has no non-arbitrary way of distinguishing between a branch within the Church, and a schism from the Church. That’s why if what he is referring to as “a unique institution” were in fact three (or more) institutions, and not one institution having these three as branches, nothing would be any different than it is right now. Without a principled basis for distinguishing between branches within and schisms from, one can falsely label as ‘one,’ many bodies that are not one institution, but are actually in schism from each other. Armstrong defines ‘schism’ as deviation from “core orthodoxy,”20 but by defining ‘schism’ as heresy (a conflation examined here), he loses the very concept of schism.
Finally, and significantly, Protestants have rejected Apostolic Succession, and even if they believed in it, they do not possess the sacrament of Holy Orders through Apostolic Succession. Hence from a Catholic point of view, Protestantism has completely discarded one of the bonds of visible unity. In this way the “core orthodoxy” with which Armstrong wants Catholics, Protestants and Orthodox to be content as the totality of what is essential to the faith, is, from a Catholic perspective, deficient not only with respect to doctrines that have been subsequently defined by the Church over the centuries of her development in opposition to heresy, but is deficient even as an attempt to capture what was essential to the Church of the fourth century, during which time the Nicene Creed was written. In this way, Armstrong’s ecumenism is a lowest-common denominator ecumenism. Catholics can affirm the common ground we share with Protestants as an ecumenical starting point, but not as an ecumenical ending point.
Enlisting Catholics in His Cause
Throughout the book, Armstrong quotes from the writings of several Catholics to bolster his conception of Church unity. Under the provocatively titled section “Vatican II: Catholics Discover the Kingdom,” Armstrong writes:
Prior to Vatican II, many Catholics saw the parables of Jesus as synonymous with the church. Cardinal Walter Kasper rejects this idea: “The church is only an effective and accomplished sacramental sign, not the reality of the kingdom of God itself.” Some Roman Catholics disagree with Cardinal Kasper and look with suspicion at anything outside the Catholic Church. The Catholic conflation of the church with the kingdom was clearly a reaction to Protestant interpretation. A Catholic archbishop [Rembert Weakland] notes that this view led some to conclude that “the ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom will come when all have converted to Catholicism.” But Vatican II opened a new door of Catholic understanding about the kingdom.”21
Cardinal Kasper’s statement is ambiguous and potentially misleading. Quoting Lumen Gentium from the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism states that:
‘To carry out the will of the Father Christ inaugurated the kingdom of heaven on earth.’ Now the Father’s will is ‘to raise up men to share in his own divine life.’ He does this by gathering men around his Son Jesus Christ. This gathering is the Church, ‘on earth the seed and beginning of that kingdom.’22
And we also read in Lumen Gentium that “The Church, or, in other words, the kingdom of Christ now present in mystery, grows visibly through the power of God in the world.”23 So the Church is the Kingdom in seed form, analogous to the acorn and the full-grown tree. A direct, organic connection exists between them, as between a baby and the adult he grows up to be. And since this Church, founded by Christ, subsists in the Catholic Church, insofar as Cardinal Kasper’s statement implies that the Church is not the present form of Christ’s Kingdom on earth, it is not just that “some Catholics” disagree with his statement, but rather that the Church herself does. Further, as this document from Vatican II demonstrates, the Council did not change Catholic doctrine and declare the Church and the Kingdom to be separate entities.24 Even so, Catholics do affirm that Protestants are our separated brothers and sisters in Christ and that the Holy Spirit dwells in them through baptism.
In addition to quoting Cardinal Kasper, Armstrong also appeals to Archbishop Weakland. Weakland is the disgraced former archbishop of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. His statement that some kinds of Catholics believe that “the ultimate fulfillment of the kingdom will come when all have converted to Catholicism” is unhelpful and a red herring, because the important question is not what some Catholics believe, but what the Catholic Church teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that the fulfillment of the Passover in the Kingdom occurs in her celebration of the Eucharist (CCC 1403) and that the ultimate fulfillment of the Kingdom will occur when Christ returns in glory. So while Catholics certainly work toward the healing of the schisms and the full reunion of all Christians with the Catholic Church, this does not mean we think that the Kingdom’s “ultimate fulfillment” will be accomplished before Christ’s second coming.
Armstrong also quotes heavily from the writings of Catholic scholar and laicized priest Luke Timothy Johnson. The excerpts chosen seem at best ambiguous and at worst at odds with the Church’s teachings. For example, Luke Timothy Johnson wrote:
The church in every age must be measured by the standard of the apostolic age as witnessed not by the later tradition but by direct appeal to the writings of the New Testament. Placing the contemporary church against the one depicted in the Acts of the Apostles makes clear how much the prophetic witness of the church has been compromised by its many strategies of adaptation and survival over the centuries. This is the sense of the word employed by reformers like Martin Luther, who combated the excrescences of medieval Catholicism by appealing to the teaching and practice of the New Testament. Where in the New Testament do we find pope or cardinals? Where do we find mandatory celibacy? Where do we find indulgences, or even purgatory? Where do we find the office of the Inquisition? These are powerful questions. Equally needed is the prophetic call to a simpler and more radical “New Testament” lifestyle by Christians.25
Firstly, the Tradition of the Church is Apostolic in origin, a river of living water within the Church that, guided by the Holy Spirit, connects us to Christ its Source. So it is inaccurate to describe it as something “later” than the Apostolic age and then pit it against the sacred Scriptures of the New Testament. Scripture and Tradition complement each other and form the deposit of faith. While the Scriptures do hold a unique position within the Church, Johnson’s statements regarding Tradition advocate a position aligned with sola Scriptura Protestantism rather than with Catholicism.26
Secondly, Johnson’s claim that the prophetic witness of the Church today has been compromised is a denial of the Catholic doctrine of the indefectibility of the Church.27 It’s unclear what exactly he has in mind here, but we can infer it from his later statements of Luther’s protests against the papacy, indulgences, purgatory, and so on. The key point, however, is that a Catholic who rejects the belief that the office of the papacy is divinely established is not orthodox. Similarly, the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences have been dogmatically defined, and to reject them is to reject Catholic orthodoxy.28
Johnson claims to be a Catholic but he dissents from the Church’s defined doctrines, and insofar as he does that, his position is heretical. Though not quoted on these doctrines in Armstrong’s book, Johnson also dissents from the Church’s teaching on women’s ordination and same-sex issues. While I know that Armstrong does not endorse all of Johnson’s beliefs, it must be made clear that in these quotations Johnson is not presenting authentic Catholic teaching, but is instead presenting his dissenting opinion, as if it were a legitimate position within the bounds of Catholic orthodoxy. Armstrong and anyone else can discover this by reading the magisterial documents of the Church and learning her teachings, summarized helpfully in the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The reality of the situation is not he-said, she-said, where one Catholic scholar’s opinion is pitted against that of another. Rather, here we have authentic Catholic doctrine versus the heterodox opinions of someone who openly dissents from the Church’s teachings.
Armstrong cites Johnson in an attempt to show that there is a stream of thought within Catholicism that is aligned with his understanding of the Church and unity. We see this in evidence when Armstrong discusses Vatican II’s Decree on Ecumenism. Armstrong writes:
Earlier the [second Vatican] council has said that other Christian communities should “return” to the Catholic Church. Later statements have suggested much the same, but many Catholics [e.g. Johnson] believe there is an element of tension between the council’s dogma about the church and its expressed desire for unity with non-Catholics. I believe the stronger voice, the one expressing desire for unity, will ultimately win.29
We can see then that Armstrong is relying on Catholic dissenters as though they add Catholic support to his ecclesiology and his ecumenical vision. This is problematic for at least two reasons. First, practically, it sets him up for failure and disappointment at the actual ecumenical dialogue table, when he is confronted with the fact that what these dissenters claim is not what the Catholic Church actually believes and teaches. Second, authentic ecumenical dialogue requires that each party construct its conception of the other’s position by way of its authorized persons or documents, not by relying on persons who claim to belong to that institution but openly dissent from its authoritative teachings.
The Catholic Church teaches that the Church of Christ subsists in her. There is no ambiguity there and no way for that teaching to change. The Catholic Church teaches that full unity between Protestants and Catholics is achieved ultimately only through Protestants entering into full communion with the Catholic Church. That might be through means that allow them to retain authentic aspects of their patrimony — see the Anglican Ordinariate for an example — but it cannot mean agreeing to a unity that violates or falls short of the three visible bonds of unity, compromises any Catholic dogmas, or makes apostolic succession optional. I do not think Armstrong realized that some of Johnson’s opinions are contrary to the Church’s teachings and that these opinions can never “win” out in the Catholic Church. Rather, I think Armstrong read ideas from a Catholic scholar that were sympathetic with his own and considered this to be an area of legitimate theological speculation that could eventually become the Church’s teaching.
Armstrong sees missional-ecumenism as the path to the best unity we can have this side of heaven. Pastors, churches, and individual Christians can live in a missional-ecumenical way by working together to love Jesus and incarnate His love in their neighborhoods, overlooking their theological differences and focusing on the fact that we’re all Christ-followers.
For Armstrong, missional-ecumenism is not just about doing corporal works of mercy together, but about spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. This idea sounds good, but serious problems emerge immediately. To share the gospel requires that we understand what the gospel is, and is not. If we cannot agree on that, then we will not be able to share the gospel in unity. To take just one example, justification is an important part of the gospel, yet Catholics and Protestants do not agree on how one is justified before God. We also do not agree on which books comprise the Bible, whether the Bible is the sole infallible rule of faith, whether Apostolic Succession is a divine institution, the nature and number of the sacraments, and many other doctrines.
Armstrong wishes for Christians to take a mindset that does not allow these differences to stop collaboration in evangelizing, but their existence throws a large wrench into the missional-ecumenical scheme. The differences are in the very essence of what the gospel is, and how we are to be saved.
I have had direct experience evangelizing with a Protestant brother. Due to our serious theological differences, I found myself nuancing or outright correcting his statements toward an atheist friend. He likewise was frustrated by the claims I made with which he disagreed. While we both shot for a “mere Christianity” approach so as to present a united front to our non-believing colleague, the differences between our beliefs quickly became apparent.
The takeaway lesson is that Catholics and Protestants can and should work together in areas and ways that we can do so. But when we come to sharing the gospel, the differences between us cannot be hidden, and we must either adopt a lowest common denominator approach to evangelization to avoid these differences, which is problematic for the reason I showed above, or witness them ruin the whole missional-ecumenical scheme, insofar as that scheme involves shared doctrinal evangelism, beyond the corporal works of mercy. For Catholics, the gospel includes the visible Church Christ founded and submission to her teaching authority, along with the seven sacraments and the belief in sacred Tradition. For Catholics, the content of the gospel includes the content of the Creed, which requires believing in the Catholic Church. Hence, reducing the gospel to the bare bones of what we have in common with our Protestant brothers is simply not an option for Catholics. We cannot sell someone short of the full truth found in the Catholic Church. At the same time, Protestant evangelists would no doubt object to a Catholic they were with sharing the full Catholic gospel, since Protestants think much of it to be wrong, and vice versa. Armstrong desires “missional-ecumenism” to embrace the sharing of the gospel together, but as we see, accepting this idea is intrinsically problematic for Catholics.
I knew little about John Armstrong before reading his book. I had run across his blog a few times and knew he was keen on unity, but otherwise was unfamiliar with his work. As I read his book I felt like I was getting to know a kindred spirit. He believes God has called him to work toward Christian unity; I have felt the same calling, and it is rare to encounter another with a passion for it. In fact, his calling and journey fascinate me because they are so similar to my own, and as I read his book I felt like I was reading my own book, but from someone who has not quite been able to believe the Catholic Church’s claims.
Armstrong’s humility comes out as well throughout the book, as he shares stories of his encounters with other Christians. He isn’t afraid to admit his weaknesses and fears, which is incredibly refreshing. I actually hate to disagree with him, because it is apparent that he is a man who longs for the unity of Christ’s Church. But in spite of this desire, there are significant differences between us, and his vision for the solution, while helpful in several ways, cannot ultimately bring about the unity Christ desires and for which He prayed.
I hope that Armstrong will continue along the path that he has already begun, and continue to ask the questions that he has raised concerning the nature of the Church that Christ established and His prayer for our unity. And I pray others will read his book and ask those important questions as well.
Devin Rose is the author of If Protestantism is True: The Reformation Meets Rome (2011). He blogs at St. Joseph’s Vanguard.
UPDATE: John Armstrong has responded here.
- Armstrong, John H. (2010). Your Church Is Too Small: Why Unity in Christ’s Mission Is Vital to the Future of the Church. Zondervan. Kindle Edition. p. 43. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 14. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 18-19. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 80-31. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 19. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 32. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 35. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 36. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 62. [↩]
- See, for example, “Branches or Schisms?” [↩]
- Ibid. p. 81. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 81. [↩]
- Ibid. pp. 19-20. [↩]
- His definition of ‘sectarianism’ presupposes that no existing institution is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, and therefore with respect to Catholicism and Orthodoxy, his definition of ‘sectarianism’ is a question-begging definition, as was shown here. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 81. [↩]
- See, for example, here. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 77. [↩]
- See the Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 815. [↩]
- See p. 117 of Your Church is Too Small. [↩]
- See also, for example, this comment, where he writes, “A schism from the Church is a break-away “church” that denies or opposes the creed and core of the faith found in Scripture.” [↩]
- Ibid., pp. 117-118. [↩]
- CCC 541. [↩]
- Lumen Gentium, 3. [↩]
- See also Dominus Iesus, 18-19, 21. [↩]
- Quoted by Armstrong on pp. 71-72. [↩]
- See Session 4 of the Council of Trent, Session 3 (2.5 and 3.8) of Vatican I, and Dei Verbum 9 and 10 from Vatican II. [↩]
- The Catholic Church teaches the following: “Furthermore, the promises of the Lord that he would not abandon his Church (cf. Mt 16:18; 28:20) and that he would guide her by his Spirit (cf. Jn 16:13) mean, according to Catholic faith, that the unicity and the unity of the Church — like everything that belongs to the Church’s integrity — will never be lacking.” Dominus Iesus, 16. [↩]
- See Session 25 of Trent. [↩]
- Ibid. p. 120. [↩]