I’m pleased to offer this go-round of the Really Recommended Posts to you, dear readers. I think they are about as diverse as you can get. We have Stephen Colbert on his faith, illegal immigration and Christianity, apologetics, Jesus’ view of Scripture, and Planned Parenthood on the docket today. Check them out and let me know what you thought!
Watch Stephen Colbert, a Lifelong Catholic, on Hearing a Female Priest Celebrate the Eucharist– I don’t put a lot of stock in celebrity comments about faith or politics or really anything. After all, they don’t automatically become authorities simply because they are famous. However, Colbert’s faith is quite sincere, and this whole interview is worth watching. Here’s a clip in which he talks about a female priest celebrating the Eucharist.
American Christianity and Illegal Immigration– Here’s a fairly lengthy look at the historic interaction with illegal immigration that American Christianity has had. It helps provide a historical perspective on some of the current debates regarding illegal immigration.
Apologetics Strategies: The Myth of a Bulletproof Argument– It is easy to think that, regarding Christian apologetics, we can come up with an argument that will convince everyone. Is that the case? Here’s a post on apologetic method that is well worth your time.
Jesus Viewed Scripture as Inerrant: A Reply to Kyle Roberts– A few weeks ago I featured an article arguing all Christians should view the Bible as inerrant. Here is a follow-up post in which Rob Bowman takes an extended look at Jesus’ view of Scripture.
3 Pinnochios to Planned Parenthood Supporters for Slippery Mammogram Language– The Washington Post calls out Planned Parenthood supporters for their claims about mammograms. Look, Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide any mammograms at all. Not a single one. It should not be used as a scare tactic against those arguing to defund the abortion provider.
The Question of Authority
One cannot question that perhaps the most central issue which divides the Roman Catholic Church from Protestants is the question of authority. The issue touches upon a number of others. Who has the authority to interpret Scripture (ultimately)? What is the structure of a church? How do we learn doctrines? It must be acknowledged by all that the Roman Catholic Church’s claims to authority are paramount. It is possible for the Church to claim infallible authority for its teachings, however few claims they have actually made.
The question of authority persists in its importance today. If one church body–the Roman Catholic Church–is capable of infallibly defining doctrine for the whole of the Christian world, and some deny these doctrines, then that automatically means that those who deny these doctrines are in some sense denying God. It is important to note what the Church itself has said regarding this doctrine. Here is part of the definition of infallibility from the First Vatican Council (Section 4, Chapter 4):
[W]e teach and define as a divinely revealed dogma that when the Roman Pontiff speaks EX CATHEDRA, that is, when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church, he possesses, by the divine assistance promised to him in blessed Peter, that infallibility which the divine Redeemer willed his Church to enjoy in defining doctrine concerning faith or morals.
What is to be said about those who deny any teaching that the Pope declares infallible? Again, I’ll allow the Church to speak for itself:
So then, should anyone, which God forbid, have the temerity to reject this definition of ours: let him be anathema.
Because I personally do reject some of the infallible teachings of the Church (such as the Marian Dogmas of perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and the asumption), I, by virtue of this teaching, am anathema. Thus, it should be clear that the authority of the church is at the core of the divide between Catholics and Protestants.
The problem of authority is often pressed by Roman Catholic thinkers as a kind of argument against Protestantism. The way in which it is is presented is often through an argument for unity. For example, the claim is made that the Magisterium is capable of preserving doctrinal unity to a higher degree than the Protestant denomination. The claim is also often accompanied by an offhand remark about the number of Protestant Denominations. What is the implication? The discordant voices within Protestantism are, in some way, to be viewed as a discrediting piece of evidence when it comes to the nature of the truth claims of these churches. The implication (as quoted here) that some Roman Catholic apologists draw is that this proves the necessity of an infallible interpreter of doctrine/Scripture.
Initially, the claim sounds a bit appealing. One may trust in the infallible Church to settle the debate on various theological topics once and for all. One need not try to draw out the implications of specific texts for themselves, leading to any number of diverging interpretations and arguments and ultimately, the splitting of the church into ever-smaller units each warring against each other and saying they have the truth.
There’s one major problem, though. By whose authority does one make the decision to trust in the infallible magisterium? This question should be on the mind of any individual who chooses to join the Roman Catholic Church based upon the argument from authority. After all, it is the decision of the individual to trust the Church which leads to accepting the Church as the infallible authority.
One must then ask the question: are you infallible? That is, is your [fallible] decision to make the Roman Catholic Church your infallible authority itself an infallible decision? Could you be mistaken? If the answer is that you are indeed fallible and you may be mistaken, then it must follow that any trust placed in the allegedly infallible Church must be equally fallible and stand upon shaky ground. For it is the person who joins the church who has joined the Church, not vice versa. The decision rests upon the individual, and it is therefore a fallible decision to make the Church infallible for one’s faith.
This argument therefore tears down any grounds one might have for asserting that one should trust the infallible Church in order to eliminate the discordant voices of Protestantism or choose-your-own-theology which may be the case outside of the Roman Catholic Church.*
*This is not to mention the often discordant voices within the Roman Catholic Church itself and the fact that fallible persons must interpret allegedly infallible statements in order to discern what they mean. Are you an infallible interpreter? Surely not.
Moreover, suppose it is correct that the Church is the infallible interpreter of the Bible and tradition. Does this not mean that any allegations that one is under the authority of the Bible, Tradition, and the Church really boil down to the authority of the Church? After all, the last and final authority in interpreting the Bible, Tradition, or the Church is the Church. If one has a dispute about the meaning of a biblical teaching, the Church may (but does not have to) make the ultimate, infallible decision regarding its meaning. If one argues that tradition hints at something which the Church does not teach, the Church is the ultimate arbiter of tradition as well. Thus, it seems like the final authority in every case lies with the Church. The system, I would argue, ultimately boils down into sola ecclesia.
A Final Note for my Roman Catholic Readers
I want to end with a call to my Roman Catholic readers. First, I would note that in this post I have not sought to insult or denigrate Roman Catholics or their beliefs. I have allowed the Vatican to give its own definitions and presented them, I hope, without distortion. Second, I think that we need to be honest about the differences that we have rather than covering them up. Third and finally, these differences should not, I hope, lead us to be incapable of working together in social and yes–at times–even theological issues. I hope that you will be comfortable interacting with me on this topic and others. I appreciate whatever insight you would like to share.
The Church Universal- Reformation Review– I discuss the possibility of maintaining a universal church in light of the breakup of the church into ever smaller groups. I place this discussion against the background of Reformation theology.
“20,000 denominations”– an in-depth analysis of the claims of those who wish to use denominationalism as an argument against sola scriptura. The link for the article the author evaluates is now down.
Much of the argument found herein has been learned from listening to or reading James White, and although I do not directly quote his work I am greatly indebted to him. A particularly helpful work was The Roman Catholic Controversy.
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from quotations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited; images are often freely available to the public and J.W. Wartick makes no claims of owning rights to the images unless he makes that explicit) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.
Perhaps the most crucial debate of the Reformation Era was over the nature of the universal church. During the Reformation, the church had split into numerous separate bodies. But were each of these bodies truly “the church”? Was salvation only found through membership in the Catholic Church? Finally, how did one determine what church bodies were part of “the church” if there were some new criterion for establishing what counted as “the church”? Having found their origins prior to the Reformation and a spectrum of answers during the Reformation, these questions continue to be debated into our own time.
The Church Universal
The key to understanding the emerging doctrine of the church within the Reformation is to note a distinction in meanings for “apostolic continuity.” On the one hand, one could note a literal apostolic continuity in which the authority of the Apostles themselves was passed from one person to another. On the other hand, some argued that the authority of the church was found in continuity with apostolic doctrine, not with a literal continuity of passed-on authority (McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction 141ff, cited fully below).
The Protestants began to view church authority as a consequence of right doctrine. This view allowed them to divorce themselves from the Roman Catholic church (and thus potentially lose the literal passing down of authority from one to another from the apostles) while still maintaining that their own churches remained part of the church universal.
Yet this was not the only question facing those trying to distinguish which churches were “true” as opposed to “false” churches. Surely there ought to be some signs of a “true church” to distinguish it from those that had fallen away. Martin Bucer and Martin Luther offered ways forward on this: the marks of the church. Luther insisted that what made a true church was “right administration of the sacraments and true preaching of the Gospel” while Bucer held that there was a third mark: discipline (Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation, 181, cited below).
The Background to the Reformation Debate
Alister McGrath notes how important it is to note the origins of the reformation debate regarding the church here. Specifically, the debate can be traced back to the Donatist controversy in the earlier church (third century). Essentially, this controversy centered around the very nature of the true church. The Christian church had been persecuted, and many had renounced their faith in order to avoid persecution. The question was asked: should these persons be allowed back into the true church? Could they still administer the sacraments and interact with the true body of Christ?
The Donatists said that those who had lapsed had become apostate and could not be allowed back into the church. However this belief was eventually considered to be incorrect and detrimental to the unity of the Church. Augustine argued against the Donatists and pointed out how the church is a “mixed body” of sinners and saints (McGrath, 144ff).
The concept of a sinner-saint was utilized by Martin Luther and other Reformers to note that the church was a body in which the Holy Spirit was actively working sanctification. That is, God was working to make the Church holy, but that did not mean that each individual in the church was absolutely devoid of sin.
How did all of this fit into the Reformation discussions on the true church? Simply put, the Donatists were radically schismatic. They sought to divorce themselves from “sinners” within the church. The Donatists were condemned for their schismatism, and so the Reformers had to deal with the fact that they themselves had either been forcibly removed from or split from the Roman Catholic Church. Thus, the importance of apostolic authority through theological unity became central in understanding the continuity of the Church.
The Modern Debates
The notion that right doctrine delineates the true church as opposed to literal apostolic continuity has a number of interesting outcomes which are very relevant for today’s church bodies.
First, it introduces a great difficulty for many church bodies in determining with whom one can fellowship. If the authority of the church universal is based upon true teachings rather than a passing down of authority from one person to another, then where is the line for how much teaching must be correct in order to remain as the true church?
Different church bodies offer different answers. Some church bodies err on the side of openness and humility and allow many into their fold who hold radically differing views. People in these organizations may hold to different views on things like the ordination of women, the age of the earth, and the like. Other church bodies err on the side of unity in doctrine and restrict membership to those that affirm sound doctrine as taught by their own body. For these church groups, a certain creed or body of work is referenced as the authoritative teaching of the church. If one differs from these teachings, then one is not part of their church body. (For more on the notion of using creeds or bodies of teachings as authoritative interpretations, see my post on “Who Interprets Scripture? Sola Scriptura, the Reformation, and the modern era.”)
To be frank, some Christians fail to recognize the diversity of these answers and simply assume that anyone who has a differing organizational structure is “liberal” or “conservative”–using the words in a derogatory manner. Such an attitude does not contribute to discussions on church organization. By failing to recognize the commendable attitude of humility in the churches that emphasize the unity of faith as opposed to the unity of individual doctrines, some unfairly label other church bodies as unbiblical or apostate. Similarly, by failing to recognize the commendable need for unity of belief in church bodies that emphasize right belief, some unfairly label these church bodies as schismatic or unchristian.
It also seems to me that both of these groups should learn from each other. Too many church groups vary too far one way or the other on these issues. Church bodies that emphasize humility in doctrine can often undermine their own church’s teachings. Similarly, church bodies that emphasize unity in doctrine can undermine their capacity for outreach and cooperation with other church bodies.
The Roman Catholic Church, following Vatican II, officially viewed non-Catholic churches as separated brethren–other bodies of true believers who were practicing independently. Such an affirmation ultimately undermines part of the debate that has raged since the Reformation: are Protestants saved, according to Roman Catholic teaching? This debate was hot during the Reformation and beyond, as the Roman Catholic church continued to deny salvation outside of the Catholic Church. Now, however, it is acknowledged that salvation can be found within Protestant circles as well.
Finally, the options Luther and Bucer offered to describe the “marks of the church” continue to be extremely important. Bucer’s emphasis on independent church discipline has–insofar as I can tell–largely fallen by the wayside, though it remains a point of interest in Anabaptist and other traditions. Although I would be hesitant to make a structured church discipline one of the marks of the true church, it would appear to be greatly important to have a system for disciplining those within the church who do not adhere to basic moral and/or doctrinal norms. However, this must be consistent with the notion that all believers are sinners being formed into saints through the process of sanctification. The modern church in the West perhaps does not have enough emphasis on the importance of church discipline, but caution should be taken so that a reform in this area does not lead the church back to a Donatist-like position.
So what makes a church a true church? The Reformers do still speak to us on this issue. Continuity with apostolic teaching is that which designates a true church. It is not easy to know where to draw the line between unity and humility, but over-emphasizing either leads to great difficulties for a church body. Of utmost importance, however, is the acknowledgement that though not all church bodies agree on every topic (there’s an understatement!), these church bodies are part of the saving body of Christ and therefore part of the salvific work of the Holy Spirit. Remembering this simple fact might help to spur on a bit of humility and unity among the Church Universal.
Please check out my other posts on the Reformation:
I discuss the origins of the European Reformations and how many of its debates carry on into our own day.
The notion of “sola scriptura” is of central importance to understanding the Reformation, but it is also hotly debated to day and can be traced to many theological controversies of our time. Who interprets Scripture?
Alister E. McGrath a, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).
Diarmaid MacCulloch The Reformation (New York: Penguin, 2003).
Image: credit to Beatrice- http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:San_Pietro_e_Ponte_SAngelo_(notte).jpg
Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction was a gift from an anonymous donor. I was blown away when I saw it show up at my door and I have to say Thank you so much for being such a blessing! Whoever you are, you made my day. Well, more than just one day actually. This series of posts is a direct result of your donation. Thank you!
The preceding post is the property of J.W. Wartick (apart from citations, which are the property of their respective owners, and works of art as credited) and should not be reproduced in part or in whole without the expressed consent of the author. All content on this site is the property of J.W. Wartick and is made available for individual and personal usage. If you cite from these documents, whether for personal or professional purposes, please give appropriate citation with both the name of the author (J.W. Wartick) and a link to the original URL. If you’d like to repost a post, you may do so, provided you show less than half of the original post on your own site and link to the original post for the rest. You must also appropriately cite the post as noted above. This blog is protected by Creative Commons licensing. By viewing any part of this site, you are agreeing to this usage policy.