Results tagged “catholicity” from Reformation21 Blog

A Vital Call for the Vitals of Religion

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In the denomination in which I serve as a minister--The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)--we have confessional standards to which all our ministers voluntarily agree to submit, subscribe, and support. The language we use to describe this action is that of adoption. He must, our Book of Church Order requires, be "able in good faith sincerely to receive and adopt the Confession of Fatih and Catechisms" of the church as "containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures" (BCO 21.4).

That fact being stipulated, the adoption of the documents as containing the system does not mean a jot and tittle adoption of every "statement and/or proposition" (BCO 21.4). To put it another way, one is not automatically disqualified from being able to minister in the PCA because of a difference with the Standards. Instead, ministers and candidates for the ministry may take exceptions--at the discretion and permission of a Presbytery--to any differences or scruples they might have with the official doctrine of the church as contained in the standards. When this happens each exception is weighed and examined by the court of the church. Some exceptions are deemed acceptable and thus approved; others are not.

Of course, all of this raises the following questions: "By what standard is an exception deemed acceptable or not? Is there another repository of truth which may be mined and appealed to in order to determine whether or not an exception is acceptable?"

The answer to the latter question is "Yes!" The litmus test used to determine acceptance and approval of exceptions to the standards is this: "The exception(s) must not be the kind that is either hostile to the system or strikes at the vitals of religion" (BCO 21.4). In other words, all exceptions are acceptable as long as they don't strike at the vitals of religion. So far so good, right?

But this forces additional questions to surface. What are the vitals of religion? Where might one find the list of them? What types of exceptions are hostile to the system? Where might one find that list?

This is where things get quite interesting. The answers that I have heard to those questions, at least from my experience and in my opinion, is alarming. The vitals of religion evidently clearly exist. They are mentioned in the BCO, after all. But no one can seem to agree what they are or where they are codified. In the context of debate on the Presbytery floor, I've even asked for someone to articulate them! Many people seem to know what they are and where they are codified. But the problem is that often their particular lists differ from the list of their colleagues.

Evidently the vitals of religion are different for different people. And because different people make up different Presbyteries, they are, therefore, different for different Presbyteries. Furthermore, if history teaches us anything it's that the vitals actually change over time as well. What was once a vital and struck against the system in 1973 is no longer a vital today and therefore acceptable. And we should expect the same evolution and progression to continue. What is a vital today will not likely be a vital in 50 years from now.

This undefined language of the BCO is, at this point, highly subjective and allows for the acceptance of anything so long as it is agreed upon by the majority who determine that the exception is not threatening a vital.

From this we can conclude that a vital is what the contemporary majority at the time of examination determines a vital to be.

The only way to remedy this is to come up wth a list of vitals--that is, acceptable exceptions--or require strict subscription to the original documents. There are simply no other alternatives. And when the list of vitals is produced, no doubt, a sub-set of vitals-of-the-vitals will emerge, and then we are back to square one. Apart from strict subscription, all other solutions will allow for the contemporary majority to determine what is acceptable or not in the denomination.

At the end of the day, Even if we come up with a list of vitals for the entire denomination now it will reflect the contemporary opinion of the majority. So, really, the only option is full subscription to the old confessional standards. If this is rejected the PCA will be, in 50 years, what the PCUSA is today.

In his Address to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation of 1520, Luther takes aim at the Roman Church's "flimsy and worthless" claim to possess the exclusive authority and ability (by virtue of some unique spiritual gift) to interpret Scripture. "It is a wickedly invented fable," the Reformer writes, "and they cannot produce a letter in defense of it, that the interpretation of Scripture or the confirmation of its interpretation belongs to the pope alone." Against that "fable" Luther produces biblical texts that emphasize the distribution of spiritual gifts throughout Christ's entire body and equally emphasize every Christian's need to humbly submit himself to, and benefit from, insights into the meaning of God's Word that Christ's body collectively produce. He also notes how persons in Scripture occupying legitimately authoritative roles in the life of the church -- Peter, for instance -- occasionally required correction from others. So much, Luther puts it elsewhere, for the pope's claim to get wine from the same cask that gives everyone else water.

Upon the surface, it may seem curious that Luther chases these comments about Rome's presumptuous claim of some exclusive prerogative to discern Scripture's meaning with equally fervent comments denying Rome's exclusive right to convene ecumenical councils of the church. "They have no basis in Scripture for their contention that it belongs to the pope alone to call a council or confirm its actions." Against this further presumptuous claim on Rome's part Luther recalls that both the Jerusalem Council (in Acts 15) and the Council of Nicaea (325 A.D.) are generally regarded as "Christian" (i.e., legitimate and authoritative) despite their having been convened by persons other than Peter or pope respectively. Luther also employs some common sense, in the form of an analogy for the problems presently pressing upon the church, to suggest how absurd such a claim becomes when popes refuse to actually call councils (for fear, perhaps, that such councils might point a correcting finger at them): "Would it not be an unnatural thing, if a fire broke out in a city, and everybody were to stand by and [let] it burn on and on and consume everything that could burn, for the sole reason that nobody had the authority of the burgomaster, or because, perhaps, the fire broke [out] in the burgomaster's house?" Translation: If the building's on fire and there's buckets and water standing by, you don't wait for the fireman to show up and shout directions, you just get busy throwing water in the general direction of the flames.

Why, one might ask, the concern for a church council -- why, in other words, the concern to address the church's theological and moral failings -- once one has succeeded in stripping Rome of any exclusive right to interpret Scripture? Why not just wash one's hands of the whole Roman affair and commit oneself to doctrinal purity and proper charity with like-minded individuals who embrace Scripture as the only infallible source and norm of Christian beliefs and practices?

For one thing, because in wresting the exclusive authority to interpret Scripture from the papacy's grip, Luther didn't intend to turn it over to himself or any other individual. He intended, rather, to return that right and privilege of biblical interpretation to the church (properly defined). Luther by this point in his career freely admitted that church councils can get it wrong. But he believed they were far less likely to than any discrete individual, not just because there's safety in numbers, but because the church enjoys specific promises from God that inform (without making infallible) her efforts to understand and apply God's Word to her own corporate existence. Luther's desire for a church council stemmed, then, from his perception that the true catholic church might, in relation to his own difficulties, exercise her prerogative of biblical interpretation in such a venue and decide in his favor on the issues of authority and salvation that now separated him from Rome.

But also reflected in Luther's call for a church council -- beyond the hope that such a council might, on the basis of Scripture, decide in his favor on the controverted issues of the day -- is Luther's simple love for the church. Luther, quite simply, wasn't willing to give up on the church as a (western) whole, or to rest content in the knowledge that at least a large part of that church agreed with him. This was true even after his excommunication and the establishment of state endorsed evangelical churches throughout the Holy Roman Empire and in Scandinavia. For years beyond Worms -- even when a peaceful resolution to the Reformation controversies no longer seemed possible -- Luther continued to call for a church council.

In recently re-reading and teaching on Luther's Address to the Christian Nobility, I began to wonder whether we as Protestant heirs of Luther today possess any part of his love and zeal for Christ's bride, or specifically for her catholicity and unity. I wonder, in other words, if we haven't grown too comfortable in our fragmented Protestant existence, and in the opportunity that our stretched-thin and mobile and consumeristic lifestyles present to walk away from problems in the church (at least as such problems present themselves to us in concrete congregations and denominations). To capitalize on Luther's analogy, it seems to me that the church -- no matter what form she takes in our particular lives -- is always on fire to some extent, or at least, there's almost always a fire brewing. How often are we waiting for someone to come and shout directions, or simply walking away entirely, instead of grabbing a bucket and getting to work? Is indifference our principal response to a burning church -- indifference rooted, perhaps, in the fact that in our day we think not in terms of church but of churches, and are fairly confident when fire breaks out that we can find a different congregation or denomination where things are less hot (at least for another five minutes)? As for the fires we've just walked away from when we move on -- well, as they say, someone else's problem.

We need more bucket grabbers in the church these days. And bucket grabbing, I think, looks like greater commitment to the church in its local expression and, simultaneously, commitment to the church on a much larger scale. We need less rhetoric of "service to the church" these days -- rhetoric that often masks rather blatant exploitation of the church by "Christian" organizations and individuals -- and more genuine service to the church; service, that is, driven by love; service that might leave us with singed eyelashes and splinters in our hands, but might equally save a few people from getting burned.

 

In the Nicene Creed we confess that the church is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic." Of these four marks, the third mark--the catholicity of the church--is probably the most susceptible to misunderstanding among evangelical Protestants.

The catholicity of the church, according to common Protestant confession, concerns the "universality" of the church. Under the authority and blessing of her risen Messiah, the church is commanded to make disciples of "all nations" through Word and sacrament (Matt 28.18-20) so that a chorus composed of every tribe, tongue, and nation may with one voice offer praise to God and to the Lamb (Rev 5.9-10). 

But the catholicity of the church is about more than just the multi-national nature of its membership. The catholicity of the church also refers to the "wholeness" of its doctrine and virtue. According to Cyril of Jerusalem, the church 
is called Catholic . . . because it extends over all the world, from one end of the earth to the other; and because it teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge, concerning things both visible and invisible, heavenly and earthly; and because it brings into subjection to godliness the whole race of mankind, governors and governed, learned and unlearned; and because it universally treats and heals the whole class of sins, which are committed by soul or body, and possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named, both in deeds and words, and in every kind of spiritual gifts.
The church "teaches universally and completely one and all the doctrines which ought to come to men's knowledge." The church "treats and heals the whole class of sins." And the church "possesses in itself every form of virtue which is named . . . and every kind of spiritual gifts." In other words, the church teaches "the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20.27) in order that, through its teaching, Jesus Christ might redeem and renew the whole human person according to the image of God. In doing so, the church fulfills its catholic identity.

The church is called to catholicity in membership and in maturity. Both aspects of catholicity honor the supreme and universal Lordship of Jesus Christ. Both aspects of catholicity are essential to the church's well-being (see Eph 2.11-22; 4.11-16). 

In recent days we have become increasingly alert to the church's failure to pursue and realize the universal nature of its membership. In seeking to address this failure, let us also seek to address our failure to pursue and realize the fullness of Christian doctrinal and moral teaching in our ministries. The two failures, after all, are often related. Whether it be "attractional churches" or "radical grace churches," both are especially suited to the sensibilities of old white guys.

"There's one more thing I hate more than lying and that's skim milk, which is water that's lying about being milk." Ron Swanson's attitude toward skim milk should be our attitude toward skim milk Christianity. We confess the unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity of the church. Let's not be content with our failures to realize either the universality or the wholeness of the church's identity. And let's pray that the Lord of the church will grant us grace, under his Word and by his Spirit, to realize the promise of the church's identity as "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church."