Is the search for “The True Church” a valid one?

The comment string on my post below linking to Pastor Weedon’s blog (An entertaining comment string on Weedon’s Blog) drew an old and familiar voice back into the discussion. Terry Maher (aka Past Elder) ended that discussion by saying he was “bowing out”, which is why, rather than reply to his comment there expecting an answer from him, I choose to post this as a separate question here throwing it open to all of you.

The comment string ended with this comment from Terry:

Your question is circular: which church is the true church as the Catholic church says the true church is. There will only be one answer, ever — the Catholic Church. The problem is not in the answer but in the loaded question designed to produce the answer. The RCC may offer these days more variations on the question, but the answer is always the only thing the RC faith is about — the RC church.

The difficulty with that proposition is twofold:

1) Personal: Years ago I thought to myself that the Catholic Church of the Creed was simply an article of faith – the “true Church” does not have a corporate visible existence here on earth. I came to that conclusion to enable myself to be faithful to what I thought was “Catholic” while yet remaining a Lutheran (this was way back in 1986 already). Yet the issue of the ordination of women threw all this into confusion. If some visible corporate Christian communions (perhaps even the one to which I belonged) were ordaining women what did this mean for my ecclesiology. At first, I ran with the idea that each decision was valid for the communion which made that decision so long as it followed the lines of authority recognised by that tradition. Two good Lutheran clergy friends (one now a Catholic the other not) put paid to that idea by pointing out that something was either true or not true: either it was a valid act to ordian a woman to the holy ministry or it wasn’t. That meant that some Christian communities got it wrong – they were not all equally valid expressions of the Church Catholic. So which communions could claim to be valid expressions of the Church Christ established? Could my own communion make such a choice? In effect, I was asking the question: Which of all the possible Churches to which I could belong are “true Churches”? I asked this question not as a Roman Catholic, but as a Lutheran. Lutheran ecclesiology could not answer my question. Eventually – as a Lutheran – I found that I could no longer maintain the ecclesiology I had developed. Eventually eventually I found the only ecclesiology that seemed to ring true was that of the Church which calls herself Catholic. So I wasn’t asking a “loaded question” proposed by the Catholic Church. I was embarking on a search as a Lutheran and found the answer as a Catholic.

2) Historical: From the word go, it appears that there was some debate about which was and which was not the true Church. St Paul rejected the “church” of the “Judaisers”. St Ignatius and St Ireneaus rejected the “church” of the Gnostics. Laterthe “churches” of the Montanists and Donatists were also rejected (although they were recognised to have true sacraments). The entire history of Christianity seems to have been built upon the idea of searching for “the true Church”. This was seen as a matter of eternal salvation. Was this whole history wrong-headed? Was the question wrong-headed from the beginning? In this day and age, when the variety of Christianities is as great as any other, are we to seek only the “true Christianity” and not the “true Church” which teaches it?

In short: is the search for “the True Church” a valid one, or not?

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41 responses to “Is the search for “The True Church” a valid one?

  1. Peregrinus

    Um.

    Any answer to the question has to start from two observations.

    First, “church” has more than one valid meaning.

    Secondly, “true” has more than one meaning. (Even when we reject relativism!)

    In the Catholic understanding, any group of baptised Christian united in communion under their bishop is a church (often called a local church). And a group of such churches united by communion through their bishops (and, usually, by a shared liturgy, a common canonical territory, shared organisation/jurisdiction, etc) is also a “church” – e.g. the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. And then we have the universal church.

    A local church, in the first sense described above, is truly a church. It is a true church.

    Likewise, a church defined by shared liturgy and territory is a true church, and this is so whether it is in communion with Rome (like the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church) or not (like the Orthodox Church of Ukraine).

    Now, if we consider the universal church, and if we say that the true universal church is the Catholic Church, defined by communion with the Bishop of Rome, then we are left with the slightly odd situation that we have many true churches which are not part of the true church.

    Which means, I think, that when we use the term “true church” at the universal level we have to qualify what we mean by “true”, to avoid misleading. Which in turn leads to the suspicion that “true church” is not quite the right phrase for whatever it is that we are trying to say.

    At no point in the Catechism is it claimed that the Catholic church is, at the universal level, the “true church”. In its discussion of the oneness of the church, the Catechism point to the church’s source in the Trinity, it’s foundation by Jesus and its inspiration by the spirit, but these can all be said to be characteristics of churches not in communion with Rome. The Catechism goes on to speak of “wounds to unity” which in the course of history have resulted in “large communities” becoming “separated from full communion with the Catholic church”. But it also emphasises that “all who have been justified by faith in Baptism are incorporated into Christ; they therefore have a right to be called Christians, and with good reason are accepted as brothers in the Lord”. At the same time, it speaks of the “fullness of grace and truth that Christ has entrusted to the Catholic Church”.

    All this suggests to me that a simple binary, in which an individual or a community either is a member of the “true church” or is not, is an oversimplification. If all Christians justified by faith in baptism are incorporated into Christ, and if (as Catholics believe) the church is the mystical body of Christ, then there is an fundamental sense in which the church – the true church – embraces all Christians.

    I think the best way to put it is not to say that the Catholic church is (or claims to be) the “true church”, but rather to have truly discerned how the church is called to express and live its oneness, i.e. through a relationship of Eucharistic communion with the bishop of Rome. On this view, it’s not that non-Catholic Christians are outside the true church, but that they are not living in the eucharistic communion in which their membership of the true church calls them to live. (And the responsibility for this failure, the Catechism states explicitly, lies as much with Catholics as with non-Catholics.)

    So, did you, David, discern that the Catholic Church was the “true church” and therefore join it? It’s hardly for me to put words in your mouth, but as I see it you discerned that your membership of the true church, resulting from your baptism, called to you to live in eucharistic communion with the Bishop of Rome.

    • So, did you, David, discern that the Catholic Church was the “true church” and therefore join it? It’s hardly for me to put words in your mouth, but as I see it you discerned that your membership of the true church, resulting from your baptism, called to you to live in eucharistic communion with the Bishop of Rome.

      Your ecclesiology is quite correct, Perry, and one which I share. Nevertheless, it must be said that it works better for one within the Catholic Church trying to understand one’s relationship with those who are baptised but not in perfect communion with her, than for the one outside the Catholic Church trying to discerning the calling into her.

      It is true that as a Lutheran I “discerned my membership of the true Church” (what we Catholics would the “real but imperfect” communion of our separated brethren and sistern) by the mere fact that I knew myself to be a validly baptised and believing Christian.

      But what I needed to discern was the truth or otherwise of the Catholic claim (as defined by the Second Vatican Council) that

      “The sole Church of Christ [is that] which our Saviour, after his Resurrection, entrusted to Peter’s pastoral care, commissioning him and the other apostles to extend and rule it…. This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in (subsistit in) in) the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him” [LG 8# 2].

      So, in the words of the Council, what I was seeking was that visible community which could truly claim to be the “sole Church of Christ” among the many which in fact claimed (in one way or another) to be either “the” or “a part of” this sole Church of Christ. This definition declares that “THIS Church” (ie. the “sole Church of Christ”) has continued to “subsist in” the Catholic Church in governed by the successor of Peter (the Pope) and the bishops in communion with him. Thus, in order to fulfill my identity as a true Christian, I needed to belong to this “sole Church”, to be in communion with this particular communion of local Churches.

      So the one flowed from the other, but there would have been no flowing without first the seeking for that communion in existence today which could truly lay claim to being the continuation of the “sole Church” which Christ established.

      BTW, to see a good example of how a Lutheran goes about trying to discern where the “true Church” is, have a look at Pastor Weedon’s blog at http://weedon.blogspot.com/2007/05/lot-of-angst.html#comments . From what I gather, Pastor Weedon at some stage battled with the same questions that I did, but chose differently.

  2. Kiran

    Hmm.. I have recently been wondering about the Orthodox. Of course, there is no danger whatsoever of my becoming an Orthodox Christian, not because of communion with the Pope, but because of something less (if you like) fundamental: the theological authority of Augustine. Similarly, I wouldn’t be a Lutheran, simply because I believed “episcopal polity” to be not optional, but essential to the constitution of the Church. Likewise, I am a (Roman) Catholic because I believe that communion with the Bishop of Rome is a part of the faith. But this is not an argument so much about how churches should be built, but what “the Church” is.

    But Perry, I think your argument is very close to that of Kasper in the famous Kasper-Ratzinger debate. The “true Church” is not used of local churches per se. The local church is the local manifestation of the Universal Church. Also, we are saved by being incorporated into the Body of Christ. So, when I converted, I decided that “x” was the visible Body of Christ, “x” of course, being the Catholic Church. I didn’t decide that action x was required of me as a Christian, but that body “x” was the Catholic Church.

    On the other hand, I don’t doubt the salvation of the Orthodox (nor that of Protestants: Something which I found very disturbing in the comment thread in question was the assumption that the Pope is or will be damned), though I believe everyone who is saved will be saved by Christ, through His Church, because I believe that such bodies have preserved more or less what was given them by the Church.

    • Peregrinus

      I don’t claim to be on top of the Kasper-Ratzinger debate, so I don’t classify my own position in terms of that debate. But I don’t want to suggest that the local church “precedes” the universal, in the sense that the universal church is merely a federation of local churches, or conversely that the universal church “precedes” the local, in the sense that the local churches are simply “branch offices”. Both the local church and the universal church are fully churches; they are “true churches”.

      Incorporation into the Body is by baptism; that incorporation calls us to communion and is fully realised in communion, but I think we would deny something important about baptism if we qualified in any way the claim that by baptism we are incorporated into the Body. That’s why I don’t think we can draw a neat line and say that those on this side are in the true church, and those on that side are outside it. What we have is a universal church marred by the failure to realise complete Eucharistic communion, and people and communities whose participation in that church is not fully realised. I think the difference between Christians is not so much that they disagree as to what the “true” church is, but that they disagree as to what participation in the true church calls us to.

      Yes, salvation is through the church, but this is true not just for non-Catholics but for non-Christians, and I don’t think we can understand this statement to mean that individual intentional participation in the church (whether understood as the Catholic church or the body of all Christians) is a precondition to everyone’s salvation.

      • Kiran

        No. I think you will find that by and large, as a matter of fact, they disagree with what the true Church is. I mean there are some exceptions like the Anglican Papalists, who agree with what the true Church is (and Anglicans in general are given to greater variation in ecclesiology), who are consequently in an interesting place, but by and large, most non-Catholics are non-Catholics because they don’t believe the Catholic Church to be the true Church.

        But I don’t see how else one can interpret salvation through the Church as having content at all if it doesn’t mean individual intentional participation (to the extent that one sees) in the Church.

        One of the marks of the Church is that she is visible.

        • Peregrinus

          [i]No. I think you will find that by and large, as a matter of fact, they disagree with what the true Church is. I mean there are some exceptions like the Anglican Papalists, who agree with what the true Church is (and Anglicans in general are given to greater variation in ecclesiology), who are consequently in an interesting place, but by and large, most non-Catholics are non-Catholics because they don’t believe the Catholic Church to be the true Church.[/i]

          But, Kiran, those who don’t believe the Catholic Church to be the true church are not thereby in disagreement with the Catholic Church since, as pointed out, the Catholic Church doesn’t claim to be the true Church.

          Non-Catholics do indeed disagree with the Catholic Church – that’s why they are non-Catholics – but one point of agreement across the great bulk of Christians is that we participate in the mystical body of Christ through baptism. If we insist on identifying a “true church” which is only a subset of all the baptised, then we are identifying a “true church” which is not the mystical body of Christ. I query the usefulness or accuracy of such a meaning of “true church”, and point out again that this is not the language that the church itself uses.

          The church’s claim about itself is more nuanced – it is that the Catholic church possesses “the fullness of grace and truth”, and that the Church of Christ “subsists in” the Catholic church. Non-Catholics might either reject these claims, or affirm them but only in a non-exclusive sense. Either way, it’s not helpful to characterise the disagreement as a disagreement about what the “true church” is. As far as Catholics are concerned, the true church is the church founded by Jesus Christ, entrusted to the Apostles and inspired by the Spirit, and I think most non-Catholics would affirm that.

          • Kiran

            Well, subsist must not be understood to oppose “is.” Else we wouldn’t be able to say “Jesus is God.” There are two different ways of speaking of the Church, one as the City of God, i.e. the community of all those known only to God Himself, of those destined for salvation.

            Nonetheless, this does not mean that there isn’t a visible Catholic Church. My other point is that, it is useful precisely because that is the search that I made as a convert, and a number of converts I know have made. There is the “Aha” moment, when one realizes that the Church is “right” about this or that, or that she has the authority to define certain things, or simply that this is evidently the Body of Christ. (In my case it was some combination of all three) My point is that to convert, it isn’t sufficient, for instance, to realize that this or that taught by the Catholic Church, is right, but to move beyond that to saying this is where I belong, pointing to the Church, by which I mean the Visible, One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, Church.

            • Perry said: The Catholic Church doesn’t claim to be the true Church.

              I don’t know about that. It is instructive to read the Doctrinal Note from the CDF “REspones to some questions regarding certain aspects of the doctrine on the Church” (http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20070629_responsa-quaestiones_en.html 29th June 2007).

              Here we read:

              “It is possible, according to Catholic doctrine, to affirm correctly that the Church of Christ is present and operative in the churches and ecclesial Communities not yet fully in communion with the Catholic Church, on account of the elements of sanctification and truth that are present in them. Nevertheless, the word “subsists” can only be attributed to the Catholic Church alone precisely because it refers to the mark of unity that we profess in the symbols of the faith (I believe… in the “one” Church); and this “one” Church subsists in the Catholic Church.”

              and also:

              “The use of this expression [“subsists in]…indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church.”

              So, if we define what we mean when we say “the true Church” as “that Church with which the Sole Church of Christ is fully identical”, then the Catholic Church (or at least her doctrinal commission) DOES make the claim to BE the “True Church”.

              • Peregrinus

                Kiran, David

                I agree with Kiran that “subsists in” must not be understood to oppose “is”. On the other hand, it must also not be understood to be “is”. As Kyle points out, the “subsists” language is borrowed from Trinitarian theology; that alone should make us wary of any attempt at simplistic reductionism.

                I don’t like the “one true church” language because it obscures important truths. I note that the church itself doesn’t use it. David, you helpfully point to the CDF’s “Responses to Some Questions . . .” which helpfully directly addresses the subsists/is distinction. I quote the relevant question and answer in full:

                THIRD QUESTION

                Why was the expression “subsists in” adopted instead of the simple word “is”?

                RESPONSE

                The use of this expression, which indicates the full identity of the Church of Christ with the Catholic Church, does not change the doctrine on the Church. Rather, it comes from and brings out more clearly the fact that there are “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which are found outside her structure, but which “as gifts properly belonging to the Church of Christ, impel towards Catholic Unity”.

                “It follows that these separated churches and Communities, though we believe they suffer from defects, are deprived neither of significance nor importance in the mystery of salvation. In fact the Spirit of Christ has not refrained from using them as instruments of salvation, whose value derives from that fullness of grace and of truth which has been entrusted to the Catholic Church”.

                So “numerous elements of sanctification and of truth” which “properly belong to the Church of Christ” are found “outside her structure” [i.e. outside the structure of the Catholic Church]. I don’t read the word “properly” here as suggesting that those gifts shouldn’t be found in non-Catholic churches, that they have been in some sense stolen or misappropriated; that it is improper to find them in, say the Orthodox Church. I think what is means is that these gifts belong to the Church of Christ, are characteristic of it; they are properties of it in a way analogous to the fact that freezing at 0 degrees is a property of water. Where you find these gifts, therefore, you find the church of Christ, albeit only in part, only imperfectly realised, etc. And this, of course, accords with our theology of baptism.

                In other words, the “one true church” language is an oversimplification. If it’s used in a triumphalist Catholic kind of a way, it obscures the (considerable) extent to which the Church of Christ is manifested outside the structures of the Catholic Church. If it’s used in a wishy-washy indifferentist kind of a way, it obscures the (central) role of Eucharistic communion in realising the church. And, used either way, it misleads.

                • Kiran

                  Well, the Eucharist makes the Church, but if one takes the line of the Joint Declaration of 1982 with the Orthodox, a Eucharist is properly celebrated in union with a Bishop (which by the way is why a large part of the debate over concelebration is misplaced solicitude).

                  Fair enough, one does see elements of the Church outside, but then again, one doesn’t see “the Church” as such, but her fruits.

                  Also if you are talking with an Orthodox believer, say, he would tell you, he would have to, that His Church is the true Church. For the Orthodox, even more so than for us, the language about the Church being found outside the Church is wishy-washy.

                  At any rate, my point is that, when one looks for the Church, one looks at a body before working out fully what it is that one oneself believes. One comes to believe things as the Church teaches us, but one must first believe that “x” is the Church. This is part of the implications of Augustine’s statement that one believes in order to understand. Led by God through one’s conscience, one accepts a teacher first.

                  • Peregrinus

                    “Fair enough, one does see elements of the Church outside, but then again, one doesn’t see “the Church” as such, but her fruits.”

                    Well, I take your point but, again, I think it’s very easy to fall into oversimplifications. We see baptism, for example, outside the (Catholic) church. While baptism is certainly a fruit of the church – the church baptises, and this is a core aspect of it’s Great Commission – it’s also a foundation of the church – it precedes the church, as well as being a work of the church. And this example could be multiplied.

                    I hesitate to have an argument with you about what an Orthodox believer would say. But I would point out that the Orthodox don’t have, and don’t see as necessary, a unified church in the Roman sense. Orthodoxy is manifested in a group of autonomous churches, united by communion and belief but not by any organisation or jurisdiction. It may be that Orthodox eccesiologists would say that these churches together constitute “the true church”, but (a) I await evidence, and (b) that seems to me very close to the Protestant position that the church is constituted by faith and by teaching, and not by any structural or organsational unity.

                    I entirely agree with you that we are led to faith through participation in the church. And, furthermore, we live our faith through participation in the church. The notion of an unchurched Christian is just bizarre. But I don;’t know that that helps us greatly in decidign whether “one true church” is a useful concept.

                    • Since I am Orthodox I’ll put my pitch in regarding what the Orthodox believe is “Church”.

                      Don’t mistake the different ethnic jurisdictions and lack of reporting to one single earthly head as similar to protestantism. All the jurisdictions are unified as a body in communion with a Eucharistic center and apostolic succession. We all believe the same dogma share the same feasts, liturgies, saints, etc. The head of our Church is Christ. There were 5 original Sees with Rome being the first among equals. Not the head but an equal. (Of course, this is not the Roman Catholic understanding but I am just trying to communicate what the Orthodox believe.) In no way can this be construed as Protestantism where every little group believes different dogma, where communion is not tied to union in faith and succession.

                      Father Stephen Freeman once wrote: The Orthodox Church has perhaps the weakest ecclesiology of all, because it depends, moment by moment, on the love and forgiveness of each by all and of all by each. Either the Bishops of the Church love and forgive each other or the whole thing falls apart. “Brethren, let us love one another, that with one mind we may confess: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” These are the words that introduce the Creed each Sunday, and they are the words that are the bedrock of our ecclesiology…

                      This might seem a little disorganized (especially for someone of German ancestry, like me!) but it works for us just fine because the Holy Spirit protects the Church.

                      About as far as the Orthodox would be willing to go regarding those outside of her walls would be…”We know where the Church is but we don’t know where it is not.” Although to be sure some Orthodox would not be willing to take it even that far.

                      I caught the question regarding the Orthodox understanding of Church and though I would reply. Hope it helped. Carry on…

                    • And, furthermore, we live our faith through participation in the church. The notion of an unchurched Christian is just bizarre.

                      Precisely, Perry. But that is just what many Christians are. It is the absurdity of their situation which constitutes their call into the Catholic Church.

                      Baptism is the foundational Christian initiation, but Baptism does not establish the Church and the Church does not find its “summit and source” in Baptism. The Church consists of those baptised Christians who, gathered with the bishop who represents Christ, commune from the one Eucharistic table. Note well that the sacraments of initiation are three:

                      1) Baptism, which gives new birth and communion with God in Christ
                      2) Confirmation, which seals communion with the Bishop who administers it
                      3) Eucharist, which seals the communion of the individual with the whole people of God.

                      In effect, those Christians who belong to “churches” that do not have valid confirmation or eucharist have not fulfilled their initiation into the Church. They are, as you put it, “unchurched Christians”.

                      Nevertheless, the fact that they are baptised means they are in a real communion with the Church, although imperfect. Their baptismal vocation is to perfect their initiation into the Church, as Unitatis Redintegratio says:

                      “All of these [those marks of the Church which exist outside her visible boundaries], which come from Christ and lead back to Christ, belong by right to the one Church of Christ.”

                    • Dixie,

                      What I don’t understand is why, if there is so much peace and forgiveness between all Orthodox bishops, there are some Orthodox bishops that I can’t invite to an event when there are Orthodox bishops from another jurisdiction present due to the fact that both parties will be put out by the fact of the presence of the other?

                      This seems to me to relate to the fact that there has not been a Pan-Orthodox Council. There does not seem to be enough peace and forgiveness for them all to co-exist in one room together.

                      The recent case of Bishop (now Archbishop) Hilarion walking out of the Catholic-Orthodox consultation because the Estonians were there is a case in point.

                    • Peregrinus

                      David,

                      Couple of quick points:

                      1. Unchurched Christians are called by their Christianity into the church. Absolutely.

                      2. Baptism doesn’t make the church, but it is an essential part of what makes the church. In that sense, it precedes the church. To the extent that any Christian community practices baptism, it shares in something which is proper to the church of Christ, which “belong” to the church of Christ, in the words of Unitatis Redintegratio. And this is, obviously, truer for a community which practices all the sacraments of intitiation.

                      But the Baptism and the other sacraments of initiation are not just attributes of the church; they are what constitute the church. . Thus these communities are, to the extent that they share in these sacraments, not wholly outside the church. At the same time their participation is not complete if they are not in eucharistic communion with the Bishop of Rome. I think we would take the view of Orthodox Christians, not that they are called to leave their churches and enter the Roman church, but that they are primarily called to restore communion between their churches and the Bishop of Rome (as, of course, are Catholics)

                      This is why I don’t like a simple binary you’re-in-or-you’re-out “one true church” concept. It doesn’t reflect the reality that communion is a relationship and, like any relationship, it can have degrees.

                      Dixie,

                      I didn’t want to suggest that Protestant and Orthodox eccesiologies are indentical; only that they are similar to one another (and different from Catholic ecclesiology) in not seeing a unified organisations structure under a single leadership as a necessary element of the catholicity of the church. What unites orthodoxy is a single communion which is not reflected in a single institution. What unites Catholicism is a single communion out of which a single institution emerges.

                    • I certainly wouldn’t suggest that the peace and forgiveness required for our ecclesiology is a “heaven on earth” thing. Sure there are arguments, flair-ups, etc. While our ordinations are Sacraments and the bishops receive grace through them, they still remain human beings capable of imperfection. But in the end, what every Orthodox knows, the Cup cannot be divided. We have to hang in there and work out our differences. And in the course of Church History sometimes working out those differences has taken hundreds of years. Don’t forget, too, portions of the Orthodox Church are just now recovering from Communist oppression…there are things to work out…and the Orthodox will work them out.

                      I know that seems really messy from a Western point of view but it’s what has been done for 2000 years and so far, by the grace of God, it works.

                      Perry…got it. Thanks

                    • I don’t know if you have noticed, but we seem to have run out of “reply” options in this string. Please see below for a continuation of the discussion! (15th Jan)

      • The usual term that we use for what you are trying to wrestle with, Perry, is the “real but imperfect” communion of all the baptised with the Catholic Church.

        And Kiran is right, there is a very great difference in understanding between the various confessional communions (not to say among individual Christians) as to what “the true Church” is (see again the comment string on the old Weedon post here: http://weedon.blogspot.com/2007/05/lot-of-angst.html#comments ). This is why ecclesiology is such a major ecumenical headache today.

    • Matthias

      Kiran , speaking as a Protestant i would have to say that i too do not doubt the salvation of the Orthodox nor Roman Catholic and as you have so well put it “saved by Christ, through His Church”.

  3. It’s all been entertaining, David, although I was glad that the repetitious arguments in your other thread were kept to a minimum. All agree that at this late stage in the discussions the arguments aren’t going to change anyone’s mind.

    I will say Pastor Weedon’s comment about the Orthodox needing to believe what they write is just plain silly. I imagine one could do this same thing, extracting quotes from great Buddhists, the writings of Joseph Smith, etc…which agreed with one’s theology and could make a similar statement. Orthodox theology can’t be compartmentalized. As my presbytera is fond of saying, “One can only go as far as their theology will take them.” There really are links upon links and it all has to be taken more holistically than a few passages out of a couple of books. I think Pastor Weedon knows that and just likes to throw the spanner in the works for fun. 🙂

    Anyway…it was good to see the feisty PE back here for a while.

  4. William Tighe

    David,

    Where you wrote:

    “Later the “churches” of the Montanists and Donatists were also rejected (although they were recognised to have true sacraments).”

    I don’t think this is, in fact, true as regards the Montanists (who among other errors seem perhaps to have “ordained” women and to have added an order of “prophets” above that of bishops), although it is as regards the Donatists. Had you written “Novatianists” instead of “Montanists” it would have been a true and unexceptionable statement.

    I also tend not to speak of the “churches” of the Gnostic, since most Gnostic groups seem to have rejected the very idea of (a) “Church.” This does not apply at all to the Marcionites, who, although they shared some ideas with some Gnostics, most definitely were a “counter-church,” perhaps the first such in history. (In some ways I consider them a Second-Century parallel to the Mormons.) The Catholic Church never recognized their “Orders” (or “local churchness”) any more than it did for the Montanists.

    • You are right – I would have been better off choosing the Novationists (or another schismatic body) rather than the Montanists. My mistake.

      But re the Gnostics, surely there must have been gatherings, or “churches”, of gnostic teachers, since Ignatius in his letter to Smyrna seems to want to provide a way of telling the difference between the “false” assemblies of the gnostics and the “true” Catholic assemblies (a distinction based on the bishop being a true successor of the apostles)?

  5. christine

    The “true” Church? Let history speak for itself, David. I am thinking about your claim, again, that the Catholic Church doesn’t have the “luxury” of giving every member an advanced catechesis.

    What has that idea resulted in, but that the Catholic church is a body where the many are run by the few, the many being spectators to what the few do on their behalf.

    Even when the church began to encounter the barbarians this was present. Hoping to at least wean them from their violent lifestyles the church settled for the least common denominator, the Ten Commandments. She also increased her ritual and ceremony to satisfy their taste for more and more of the same, as they were fascinated by it and demanded more. Eventually the clergy came to be seen as the “professionals” who would live a more stringent Christian life on behalf of the laity and it is no accident that monastic life began to increase as well.

    What a sorry substitute for living out the baptismal call that is required of every Christian, no matter where he/she has been placed and what a contrast to the early Christians such as the Bereans who “searched the Scriptures daily.”

    And what an equally sad spectacle to see Benedict giving universal permission for the Tridentine Rite as long as one does not question the validity of the novus ordo. The Catholic church now has two rites living side by side that present to very different theologies. It is very difficult to recognize that if one has had no living experience of the preconciliar church.

    Do you really thing Pius X would recognize this as “the” Church?

    • Kyle

      I think the Vatican II document ‘Lumen Gentium’ deserves a mention here. Lumen Gentium said, although very briefly, that the Church which Christ established, entrusted to his apostles and was instructed by the Holy Spirit subsists in the Catholic Church. The word ‘subsist’ here draws on the language used to describe the Trinity. We say that God subsists in three persons — that is, that the substance of each person is the same as the substance of God, that each is identical to God. The Son is not of a different substance to the Father or the Holy Spirit because that would be tantamount to a kind of polytheism. The relationship between the true Church and Catholic Church is the same. The Catholic Church, wherever it is locally or temporally, is of the same substance as the Church which Christ established.

      This does not mean however that the Catholic Church is identical in every respect to the Church of Christ. While the Father and Son are of the same substance and God ‘subsists’ in both, the Father and Son are different persons. So too with the Catholic Church. The liturgy may change over time; the clergy may have a different life; new forms of Christian life may emerge, monastic or eremitical; creeds and dogmas may emerge to meet new challenges; and catechesis may vary. So the Church in each century will differ visibly from the Church that began in Jerusalem. However, we would argue that despite all these changes, Christ’s Church fully subsists here because there has been no change in its substance — its sacraments, gospel and salvific mission. Whether we are talking about the medieval period or a future century, whether in one country or another, whatever language or rite, it is the same Church.

  6. Kiran

    Christine, more importantly, I think Augustine would.

    • Kiran

      Let me explain. If you look back at the Church in Augustine’s time, you will find the same sad, but essentially similar situation. There is an attempt by the clergy (and monks) to expand Christian living beyond the ranks of clergy (and keep in mind, Augustine waited until he was sure he could live a celibate life before deciding to get baptized), but as far as the masses were concerned, he was less than successful. What he did achieve was to combat certain particular problems (drinking for instance), and leave us a large amount of writing. Fairly equivocal, I’d say. This is not now, as it wasn’t then, ideal, but Original Sin is a powerful thing. You can’t possibly be claiming that Protestant laity, by and large, are better in this respect. Nor for that matter, the Orthodox. I don’t think this has to do with institutional failure, per se, so much as with the consequences of Original Sin.

      And as for two different theologies, again, that is an exaggeration. Sure, people get muddled up in their theology, and unfortunately, theology at large is in a bad state, but you cannot claim that, at any time in the Church’s history this was not the case. Here down below, the two cities are inextricably intermingled. And I have attended the “Extraordinary Form” exclusively for a long time, and more recently frequented both. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and neither can be extricated from the people engaged in the ritual act.

    • And, for that matter, I have often thought that were Luther to return to life today, he would be more likey to recognise the Church in the Catholic Church than in the many churches which claim his name. Just a guess. We will never know, of course.

  7. Gareth

    An interesting question and article David,

    I have been a practising Catholic all my life and have never really questioned at any stage of my life that the Catholic Church was not the true church.

    However, I have a major dilemna in which I am sure that many Catholics would share in that I have two or three really close Protestant friends who’s faith life and knowledge of christain morals etc are far superior to any Catholic I know.

    I am sure the grass is not always greenier on the other side, but it appears that the local church’s they belong to have a far, far superior ‘general’ church atmosphere in terms of activities available outside the regular church service and also in terms of the way they are able to form friendships with fellow church members.

    To tell you the truth, I would be downright embarrsed if I had to invite some of my devout Protestant friends to my local parish – where absolutely nothing happens outside of the Mass and the priest can not even preach a half-decent sermon.

    It is a real, real dilemna.

    It is well-known that many Protestants ‘church shop’ until they find the church that is right with them, but poor Catholics are stuck with their local parish.

    Most Catholic converts I know also say that the church’s they previously belonged to was a better community than any Catholic Church they have attended.

    So I relectuntantly acknowledge that the Catholic Church is the one true church, a good thing to remember for the wrong reasons.

  8. Christine

    To tell you the truth, I would be downright embarrsed if I had to invite some of my devout Protestant friends to my local parish – where absolutely nothing happens outside of the Mass and the priest can not even preach a half-decent sermon.

    Gareth, I take no pleasure in agreeing with you but that is exactly what I endured in my ten years as a Catholic. Catholic priests still are not well educated in homiletics because the Catholic Church is primarily rooted in the sacraments.

    I don’t blame the Catholic laity either. I know what the documents of Vatican II say and I also know that they have been very poorly implemented. The “Spirit of Vatican II” is a very different thing.

    I also acknowledge that as a Confessional Lutheran I have much in common with Rome and for that I rejoice. However, I have to agree with what Past Elder posts here — there has been a disruption in how the Catholic Church understood herself prior to Vatican II and how she understands now, and having the novus ordo living alongside the “Old” Rite is not going to cure it.

    I didn’t return to the Lutheran Church primarily because I wanted a sense of “community” although that is decidedly there. It is because I did some serious reexamination of the claims of the Catholic Church and my own and found that I could no longer accept the teachings of Rome.

    Christine

    • I didn’t return to the Lutheran Church primarily because I wanted a sense of “community” although that is decidedly there. It is because I did some serious reexamination of the claims of the Catholic Church and my own and found that I could no longer accept the teachings of Rome.

      I think you are on surer ground here, Christine, than in your comments above when you were pointing out all the deficiencies that Gareth also acknowledges in our experience of church life in the Catholic Church. We need to distinguish what we are talking about. Terry Maher (past elder) gave me a good image, even though he has never himself used it in exactly the way I do. He spoke of discovering that the Church he thought was “mother” was in fact a “whore”. I thought at the time that it should not surprise us if the Church who is the spotless bride of Christ does appear sometimes to act more like a whore – particularly in the way particular human beings within the Church sometimes behave. Nevertheless, a woman can be a “whore” and still very truly a “mother” to her children. Maternity does not depend upon morality!

      No, as children of the Church, we must seek our true Mother (just as surely as we must seek our True Father in Heaven), and be prepared to recognise her. This recognition is both natural (as children indeed recognise their mother) and a grace.

      Nevertheless, you at least point to a basis upon which one could reasonably discern an answer to the question: “Are you my mother?” (to take a classic children’ book title).

      Lutherans generally look to the public teaching of any particular body of Christians as the criteria by which they judge whether or not they are “true churches” (they would never put it that way, but in judging whether or not they can be in full altar and pulpt fellowship with another body, that is in fact what they are asking).

      Catholics do not ignore teaching, by any means (although they are rather more open and keen – generally – to find formulas of doctrinal agreement with other communions than I have found Lutherans to be – such as current Christological agreements with the Copts, the Joint Declaration with the Lutherans, and the acceptance of the anaphora of Addai and Mari), but they also value communion and continuity. This is part of our conviction that the Church is in fact a living visible communion constituted as a society upon the earth throughout all time.

      In one way, you could say that it was this continuity in communion which was for me (at least) the final validating factor in accepting the Catholic Church to be who she claimed to be – and, contrawise, my ceasing to believe that the Lutheran Church of Australia could make a good case for a comparible claim.

      Because of this demostrable historical (ie. real and not imagined) continuity of communion between the Catholic Church of today and the apostles – and therefore Christ himself – I cannot reject anything that the Catholic Church teaches. I cannot thus set myself up as a judge of her doctrines. This willingness of the individual to “judge doctrine” is an mark of Lutheran Christianity. I am not a Catholic because I have judged her doctrine to be true (although I accept this). I am not even a Catholic because I accept her doctrinal claims about herself (this would be to exercise personal judgement). I am a Catholic because only the Catholic Church demonstrates those marks which all Christians agree the Church must have: that she is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic in a demonstrable historical sense.

  9. Christine

    One more thought, Gareth that just occurred to me. I don’t know if you saw the recent Pew Research survey but “church shopping” is quite common now among all denominations.

    Catholics, too, are hopping from parish to parish in order to try to find good liturgies now that they are not restricted to their territorial parishes. Having grown up with one Lutheran and one Catholic parent I’ve seen the inside workings of both.

    Lutherans do not fit the classically Protestant mold. Protestants and evangelicals recognize that with our theology of Holy Baptism and the Sacrament of the Altar we are catholic and evangelical, not “reformed” in the sense that they are.

    As immigrants to this country we have that shared history with the Roman Catholic community.

    Christine

    • You are right, Christine. Catholics do “parish shop” – a practice I deplore and have tried in my personal life to reject – but they don’t generally “church shop”, ie. they are not likely to join the local Anglican Church for a while or the local Community Church while still considering themselves Catholic (our Prime Minister might be an exception). In the same way, Protestants might “shop” between various protestant churches, but you will never see them worshipping at a Catholic parish for a while (eg. because they like the preacher) but still considering themselves protestant.

  10. Um, David, I wonder if, when you were Lutheran, you gave sufficient weight to what CA VII says about where the church can be found. It’s always seemed to me to be a brilliantly simple and correct answer to that question.

    On the matter of the church’s ‘visibility’, if I’m not mistaken that language came into Lutheranism via Calvinism. The Lutheran way was to think of the church as ‘present’ yet to some extent hidden under earthly forms. Thus, I would basically respond that an entity does not need to be ‘visible’ to be ‘present’. In that sense, yes, the church is an article of faith, but that does not mean it is not ‘real’!

    (Yes, I’m back on-line, and I will try to pick up that conversation we were having before I left Victoria asap, before it gets ‘cold’, although I still have a lot of unpacking to do.)

    • Goodo, Mark! Glad to hear you have arrived in Queensland safely, and pray that your future ministry there is fruitful.

      My main concern with CA VII is that it basically describes an “event ecclesiology”, ie. the Church is (or becomes) visible in the event of the liturgical gathering around Word and Sacrament. There is so much to unpack here (not the least, Ignatius of Antioch’s own definition of the true Church being “where the bishop is” – not unconnected, of course, with the validity of the Word preached and the Sacraments celebrated there!).

      But there must be a relationship which ties the Church together which extends beyond the event of the Sunday Eucharist (which is, of course, foundational for the Church – Ecclesia de Eucharistia and all that). The Augsburg Confession fails to identify how the Church in the world may actually be found, or what it actually is on a daily basis.

      In the end, even the Lutheran Churches regularly make judgements about the ecclesiological veracity of particular constituted bodies of Christians every time they consider applications for altar and pulpit fellowship with another body.

      What is required then, is a greater understanding of what the “Word rightly preached and the Sacraments rightly celebrated” mean in concrete terms.

      The conection with Ignatius could be fruitful here, because he sees both Word and Sacrament (which are essential to the Church) being tied to the ministry of the Bishop. Communion between local churches is thus established through personal communion of the bishops with one another. Communion with the bishop, whose office places him “in persona Christi” and who is thus also a visible and personal expression of the Church, becomes the way in which the “Word and Sacrament” community is expressed beyond the event or phenomena of the liturgical action itself.

      This would be a fruitful place for Lutherans to begin in investigating and enriching their own ecclesiology. It would also open up ways in which Lutherans and Catholics could come closer together in ecclesiological communion.

      • Yes, those are good points, David.
        CAVII was of course formulated at a time of crisis, and therefore is to a certain extent provisional, awaiting the acceptance by Rome of the Reform. But I still find it a good rule of thumb. Event ecclesiology? I think we’d have to unpack that, there is more to Lutheran ecclesiology that CAVII after all.

        Alas, I’ll have to leave it there as I’ve been called to visit my ‘bishop’, necessitating a two hour drive (and while I’m officially on holidays, too).

        Thanks for your kind thoughts, too.

        • Yes, I would be very happy to see Lutheran ecclesiology “unpacked” a little more (when you have finished unpacking, that is!). I don’t think this has been done enough.

  11. Christine

    but they don’t generally “church shop”, ie. they are not likely to join the local Anglican Church for a while or the local Community Church while still considering themselves Catholic (our Prime Minister might be an exception).

    I’m wondering, David, if you also saw the Pew Research report which stated that about 15% of Catholics attend their own parish church while also attending non-Catholic churches? Even if they don’t formally leave the Catholic Church this is a pretty serious breach, especially if they participate in Communion services in the other churches.

    Some Protestants are doing likewise, but they don’t consider themselves to be a state of mortal sin if they intentionally miss their own services on Sundays.

    My Catholic brother-in-law and his wife attended a Presbyterian church while living in the South. When they returned North they went back to a Catholic parish.

    Christine

  12. Mike

    A long and fascinating discussion.
    WRT Peregrinus’s concerns, it seems to me that there is a big distinction between asking “can we identify the One True Church with the Catholic Church”, and on the other hand asking “Who are the members of this Church?”

    This second question is complicated by the fact that we acknowledge the possibility of being in a real but imperfect (and non-explicit) communion, with that same Catholic Church. But I think this is precisely where we can begin to make sense of the “true churches who aren’t part of the “True Church””.

    Moving back to the first question, I know that any claim that the Catholic Church is the One True Church, directly founded by Christ as his one and only church, seems arrogant to most non-Catholics. And probably most Catholics. But I reckon it’s far more arrogant to deny this, but then insist that we are entrusted with the “fullness of grace and truth”.

    What does this mean – we just happen to be the best?

    • Yes, Mike. I just saw your comment here before I posted the one below. I think you and I are making the same distinction: it is one thing to talk of true Christians and another to talk of the True Church.

      Very interesting too is your comment that if we reject “true Church” language for the Catholic Church, in favour of simply saying “fullness”, it may well appear that we are simply saying that “we happen to be the best” of all the options available. We do not say that, and that would be both arrogant and false. (“Best”, as one theologian remarked, “is not a theological category.”) Perhaps it is because some convert to the Catholic Church because they perceive her to be “the best” option, that they fall away (or back) when the discover that she has so many blatant faults.

  13. Perry,

    Picking up the long string above which ran out of “reply” options.

    You said:

    “This is why I don’t like a simple binary you’re-in-or-you’re-out “one true church” concept. It doesn’t reflect the reality that communion is a relationship and, like any relationship, it can have degrees.”

    I am not really working with a “your-in-or-you’re-out” concept. As regards individual Christians, I work with a “real or not communion” (ie. baptised or not) and “perfect or imperfect communion” (ie. in communion with the successor of Peter or not) concept.

    As regards Church bodies as such, it is patently obvious that a community of Christians cannot be “a Church in the proper sense” if they do not have a valid Eucharist. The fact that the Orthodox and Oriental Churches DO have a valid Eucharist puts them in quite a different relationship to the Catholic Church (an “all-that-is-needed-for-full-communion-is-full-communion” situation) from the Protestant groupings.

    On the other hand, I wonder if we can simply say as you do that Baptism “is an essential part of what makes the church. In that sense, it precedes the church.” At least, we cannot say this in the same sense that we say that the Eucharist “makes the Church” and that the Eucharist “precedes the Church” – both of which are true statements. We can say what you have said in the sense that all the sacraments are marks of the Church – but, for instance, marriage does not “make the Church”, nor does annointing the sick. There is, as you will be aware, a long theology of the pre-existence of the Church – and even if we do not run with this, there is sense in which the Church is born out of the first Eucharist celebrated in the Last Supper, and from the blood and water that flows from Christ’s body on the Cross. Baptism is therefore incorporation into THIS body. There was therefore “Church” before Baptism, and baptism is “putting on Christ” or entering into Christ and his Body. It is true to say that the Church constitutes the mystical communion of all the Baptised, but the Church is not created by all the Baptised coming together, if you get what I mean. This is the reason that we cannot simply say that where a group of baptised Christians gather together, there is the Church. Ignatius did not say this. He stipulated that the Church was where a group of Christians gathered together around the Bishop and the Eucharist he celebrated.