The Chair of Saint Augustine

In my last post I mentioned that I have great respect for Roman Catholicism’s firm stance against much of the fashionable and mindless liberalism of our day. That said I still harbor many doubts and concerns about (what I would term) the innovations of the Roman Church, and in this, I am firmly within the Anglican tradtion. That doctrine can develop is beyond question–the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church is a sure guide if we submit ourselves to its authority. Such submission however, must also be undertaken with the understanding that iron sharpens iron and it may take many years of discussion and debate for the Church to resolve where the Spirit is leading. Despite the fact that Rome is famed for the length of her deliberations, in some instances they have pronounced as dogma to be believed by all innovations which, while not necessarily against Scripture, is an expanstion upon it which has no warrant as a doctrine of salvation. The promulgation of the Marian doctrines of the perpetual virginity and the assumption are examples: they may be believed, but they should not be incumbent upon all on pain of salvation.

The primary place where I find myself disagreeing with the Roman church, and agreeing more and more with the reformers, is in the basics of their anthropology. While the majority of Roman theology seems to begin from the assumption that before the fall humanity was by nature in perfect communion with the father, Protestants argue that even before the Fall grace was a necessary ingredient for human communion with God… i.e. we were not able even then… in a way then, the incarnation can be seen not simply as a remedy against the fall, but also as the means through which God continues to perfect and create. If this latter proposition sounds “catholic” in some respects, that is because it bears a resemblance to the “incarnation anyway” position of people such as St. Bonaventure. What in fact makes it a “protestant” view is its anthropology: we were never, by nature, holy or good enough to achive communion with God, and it is only by God entering human history in human form that this communion can be achieved. The Crucifixion and the Resurrection were necessitated by the Fall and the need for restoration… the incarnation opens the door to full communion with God, and this would have occured whether we lived in a fallen world or not.

Another aspect of theology that is affected by these differing anthropologies is in fact ecclesiology. I am in firm agreement with Article XXI of the 39 articles of Religion, which states:

“And when [councils] be gathered together (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God), they may err, and sometimes have erred, even in things pertaining to God. Wherefore things ordained by them as necessary to salvation have neither strength nor authority, unless it may be declared that they be taken out of Holy Scripture.”

The dissonance between my own view of the Church, which I felt was fairly High, and that of many convinced Roman Catholics became apparent to me this summer when I engaged in some discussions with several impressive RC seminarians and graduate students at the Acton Institute conference I mentioned in my previous post. During some of our conversations between class sections, it became apparent that our views of the Church were not as close as I had imagined. The primary point of contention was over whether the Chuch can make mistakes. Now, as a member of the Episcopal Church who is in conflict with the decisions of our General Convention, and because I do believe that this body does in fact constitute a portion of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, I must believe that the Church can in fact err and make mistakes–at least in the short run. The Roman Catholics I discussed with adamantly refused to admit that the Church could, would or had made any mistakes in its past. The interesting thing about our discussions was that it seemed that we were each taking the term Church to mean something literal, but in different ways.

For my part, I don’t believe that the Body of Christ as an eschatological reality can err or be sinful–indeed, when we confess the Creed on Sunday and say that we believe in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, we are indicated that we believe the Church to be Holy. Yet, we also state that we believe the Church to be one, which on one level it fundamentally is not at this time… it is at this level that I believe that the Church can indeed be sinful or err. For my Catholic friends, they were clear to make a distinction between the Church and people within the Church, whom they did admit to be sinful. Yet, their rigorous defense of the institutional Church as one and the same as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church gave me pause.

The reason for my concern with thier defense of the Church was that I believe that each Church institution–whether it be Roman, Antiochian, Anglican, Methodist, Lutheran etc… is merely a cell within the wider organism of the Church Catholic (any definition of the “catholic” church that embraces less is well… not catholic). Each of these cells exists as hermenutic through which to interpret the Gospel. At one point in time, prior to the Reformation, each of these hermenuetics or their predecessors, existed within the Western Church. Post Reformation, they exist in distinct organizational bodies, but they are no less valid for thier fragmentation. Each of these cells however, exists for the furtherence of the Gospel, and when they cease to further the Gospel they can die without remorse on the part of the Godly. Their function betrayed, God will cease to bless their cause and they will be merely shells of what they once were, if they exist at all (look at the mainline these days). Yet I feel that those of us who are faithful and remain in the rotting carcasses of the mainline churches, are called to be faithful to Christ, not to the institution… nor are we called to replace one institution with another for “ease of use.” Rather, we are called to live in the interim state until Christ calls the faithful remnant of these bodies together and reconstitutes an organization from which his Gospel can be proclaimed. In other words, the institution and the Church are separate… institutions may die, evolve, migrate, but the Church is always there, waiting in the saeculum for the return of her Lord.