Monday, November 01, 2010

When Do Protestants Know When to Return to Rome?

There's a provocative piece up by Bryan Cross on the blog "Called to Communion". The opening grabbed my attention.
“So we stand here and with open mouth stare heavenward and invent still other keys. Yet Christ says very clearly in Matthew 16:19 that He will give the keys to Peter. He does not say He has two kinds of keys, but He gives to Peter the keys He Himself has, and no others. It is as if He were saying: why are you staring heavenward in search of the keys? Do you not understand I gave them to Peter? They are indeed the keys of Heaven, but they are not found in Heaven. I left them on earth. Don’t look for them in Heaven or anywhere else except in Peter’s mouth where I have placed them. Peter’s mouth is My mouth, and his tongue is My key case. His office is My office, his binding and loosing are My binding and loosing.” – Martin Luther [1]
The article goes on. . .
Last year on Reformation Day we posted a sermon by Stanley Hauerwas on that very subject. A short time later I was sitting in a living room, talking with a life-long Protestant about the Catholic Church. This gentleman was doing most of the talking, and I was mostly listening, trying to understand him and his point of view more accurately. At one point he said, “You know, I have a lot of respect for the Catholic Church, and for Catholics. They are good people, and they do a lot of good for our community. But the one thing that I find offensive about the Catholic Church is the arrogance of its claim to be the Church that Christ founded.”

The arrogance question aside, this gentleman was more informed about the Catholic Church’s claims about herself than are most people. In my experience most Protestants are unaware of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church that Christ founded, the very Church referred to in Matthew 16 where Jesus changed Simon’s name to ‘Peter,’ said to him, “Upon this rock I will build my Church,” and gave to him the keys of the Kingdom. From my experience, most Protestants suppose that the Catholic Church thinks of herself as just another Christian denomination. Upon learning that the Catholic Church claims to be the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, they are utterly surprised and in some cases offended.[2] For example, when Responsa ad quaestiones was released in the summer of 2007, some Protestants were surprised by its contents, and others were offended by it.3

One reason for their taking offense is that many do not know that the Catholic Church has always believed and professed that she is the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church that Christ founded, and that any church or denomination or individual who is not in full communion with her is to some degree separated from the Church that Christ founded. For them, this teaching seemingly implies that non-Catholics are ‘second-class citizens,’ when from their own point of view they are no less united to Christ’s Church than are Catholics. So their taking offense is understandable.

But typically those who find the Church’s claim offensive do so not because they have researched the history of the Catholic Church and concluded that it began at some point later than the events recorded in Acts 2, but because they have a qualitatively different conception of what the Church is. Theologically they oppose the very notion that some communion or institution is the one that Christ founded, referring to such a notion as ‘sectarian’ or ‘sectarianism.’ From their point of view, all those who love Jesus are equally members of the Church that Christ founded. They do not believe that Christ through His Apostles gave charge of His Church to an hierarchy of bishops in a perpetual line of succession having an essential unity that is essentially visible. In their view, the Church Christ founded is fundamentally an invisible union of all those who love Jesus, no matter what their denomination or tradition. From that point of view, the claim by one institution to be the Church that Christ founded can be offensive.[4]

Some Protestants who know of the Catholic Church’s claim to be the Church that Christ founded are not offended by this claim. They are not offended by it, because they remember Protestantism’s historical origin in the Catholic Church. They remember that in the minds of the first Protestants, the intention was not to separate from the Catholic Church, but to reform the Catholic Church. For these first Protestants, their resulting separation from the Catholic Church was a kind of ‘necessary evil,’ not intended to create one or many schisms from the Church, but to bring needed moral and doctrinal reform to the very same Church that Christ had founded. In the minds of those first Protestants, this separation was to persist only until the Catholic Church was sufficiently reformed, so that they could return to full communion with her. The present-day Protestants who remember this obviously do not believe that the Catholic Church is infallible; that is why they believe that they can justifiably be separated from her. But they do believe that the Catholic Church from which they are visibly separated is (or has the best claim to being the visible continuation of) the Church that Christ founded, and they look to be reunited to her as soon as she is sufficiently reformed.[5]
The article is thought provoking. I hope you will go and read it in its entirety.

[1] The Keys, in Conrad Bergendoff, ed. trans. Earl Beyer and Conrad Bergendoff, Luthers Works, vol 40, Philadelphia: Fortress, 1958, pp. 365-366.
[2] For the Catholic Church’s claim about herself, see Mystici Corporis Christi (1943), Lumen Gentium (1964), Dominus Iesus (2000), and Responsa ad quaestiones (2007).
[3] See here for some examples.
[4] See our article titled, “Christ Founded a Visible Church.” The notion that any institution’s claim to be the Church that Christ founded is sectarian is the ecclesial equivalent of the Christological claim that any man’s claim to be the Son of God is divisive and arrogantly exclusivist. See my post titled, “Among You Stands One Whom You Do Not Know.”
[5] This stands in contrast with the branch theory of the Church with no visible principle of unity. According to such a theory, there is no such thing as schism from the Church; all ‘schisms’ are eo ipso branches of the Church, and there is no objective touchstone for distinguishing between schisms from the Church and branches within the Church. The criterion for determining whether some community of persons is a branch within or a schism from the Church is sufficient conformity to one’s own interpretation of Scripture. A Protestant holding to this branch theory does not view himself to be in any sense or degree separated from the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded, but rather sees himself as a member of one of many legitimate branches of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church Christ founded. If the Church is conceived as a set of branches with no objective principle of unity, nothing requires that the branches be visibly, doctrinally, or sacramentally united, and so the perpetual separation of the branches is acceptable by default. In this way, the branch theory ‘defines schism down,’ making it seem to be something morally and theologically acceptable. With a simple semantic sleight of hand, schisms from the Church are defined away, wiped from the conceptual horizon and hence no longer perceived as something to be opposed and overcome by all those who love Christ and seek the full visible unity of all Christians. See my post titled, “Branches or Schisms?

1 comment:

Doug Chaplin said...

I'm not sure whether this post is ignoring or ignorant of classical claims by reformers that they were not starting a new church but removing the abuses and deformations of The Church introduced over history and upheld by the Papacy. The Reformation liked to think of itself as an ad fontes movement, and in many ways it inherited and redeployed the conciliarist arguments of previous generations.

My point is not whether that is right or wrong, but that many modern Christians are as ignorant of the history of Protestant claims as of Catholic ones. The way you and Cross frame the argument suggests either a false naivety or the sam historical ignorance you impute only to Protestants