Sunday, July 15, 2007

Old News

A little while ago Ben asked for my opinion on this. I assumed he meant the subject of the article, and not the article itself, and that's what this post is about. (Let this be a lesson. If you ask for it, there's a good chance I'll blog about it.)

Recently the Pope signed off on a document that reasserted the primacy of the Catholic Church. The document says that Protestant churches "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense," and that only the Catholic Church has the fullest means to Salvation.

My reaction?


This document isn't a big deal, and this position isn't a big deal. This is old news, it's been said before, and it'll be said again. But that's not the reason this is small potatoes. No, this is small potatoes because this is no more than pontification (hehe) on small semantic issues.

First, it's important to understand what this document is not. It is not a statement on Salvation. It is not a statement on styles of worship. It is not a statement on who is and is not Christian. In this document the Church has not said that other Christian denominations are not-Christian (apologies for the double negative). It has not said that other Christians (or non-Christians for that matter) lack a path to Salvation. It has not said that other Christians fail in their worship.

It has merely said that the Catholic Church has the fullest means to Salvation and the best form of worship. It's a statement that we've got more tools and Truth than other Christian denominations. And that's exactly what you'd expect the Church to say; if it didn't think it had the best means to reaching God, then it would adopt different ones.

At the same time, the document surely goes further than that, or at least it seems to on first blush. When it says that other Christian denominations "cannot be called 'churches' in the proper sense" it does mean more than "we're the best!" But what more does it mean? For that, you need to understand that what is being said is very technical in nature, and you need to have an appreciation of the very specific jargon being used.

In the Nicene Creed the Christian recites that they believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church." Similarly, in the Apsotles' Creed the Christian professes belief in "the holy catholic church." Odds are good that if you're a Christian you accept both of these creeds, and almost certainly at least one of them. They've both been around for ages; the Nicene was developed between 325 and 381. These are the summation of our faith as Christians, and they help shed some light on exactly what the Pope was saying in his recent document.

First, both creeds acknowledge a singular church. In the Nicene we say "one" and in the Apostles' we say "the". By this, we mean that Christ established one Church on Earth. He gave the deposit of the faith to the 12, and they were to spread it. This is why many Christians have trouble with the Mormon faith: it can be seen as saying Christ started another Church. I won't get into that here, but suffice it to say that even most Protestants accept that Christ started only a singular Church on Earth. I haven't ever heard anyone claim that Christ told Martin Luther to start a second church, or Calvin, or Wesley, or Henry VIII. No, there's supposed to be a singular Christian church. And that is why unity is so important to us Christians, something a lot of outside observers simply don't understand.

Second, both creeds acknowledge that the church is 'catholic'. This isn't to be confused with big-C 'Catholic'. This is little-c, and the word 'catholic' means 'universal.' As Christians, we believe that God's Church extends to all the world, through all of time. It is neither geographically or temporally limited. The Church started with Christ, and expanded through time and space, and will so continue.

Finally, in the Nicene, we Christians acknowledge that the Church is 'apostolic', meaning that it is descended directly from the Apostles - Christ's chosen priests - and that it continues on in the stead of the 12.

In this document, the Pope has laid claim that the Catholic Church is the Church, the singular one started by Christ. All the other denominations that started off are not properly 'churches' because they weren't started by Christ. They're communities of worship. They're certainly Christian. They provide means of Salvation. But that doesn't mean that any of them can truly be called a "church" in the singular sense that Christ intended when he gave direction to the 12 Apostles.

More than anything, this is a document that reflects on history. It looks at the path of Christianity, and sees that Christ created a singular Church here on Earth, and gave the 12 Apostles governance over that Church. They were the original bishops. Those 12 went out and appointed people to govern over the Church when they passed on (both in time and space). These were the next bishops, and they took over for the Apostles. When those people passed on, new people filled their positions, taking over for the people who took over for the Apostles. And so on. The positions - bishoprics - outlasted the people filling them. The positions were permanent, the people filling the spot only temporary stewards.

Peter, the first among the Apostles, went to Rome. His successor was Linus. His successor was Anacletus. And so on and so forth. (This is all documented in great detail.) And so the Church was governed, in this 'apostolic succession', until the Great Schism, when the church divided between Rome and Byzantium. There was a dispute over whether or not the primacy of Peter continued with his Bishopric. The East said no, and the Church split, creating the Orthodox Church (which actually still has apostolic succession, much like the Catholic Church, meaning they're both part and parcel of the same singular universal Church, and this is acknowledge in the Pope's document).

When the Reformation came along new denominations started springing up, headed by folks who had been excommunicated; people who were no longer part of the singular Church started by Christ. Therefore, when new leaders of these denominations were appointed, they did not receive those appointments are part of the apostolic succession governed by the bishops of the Catholic Church. These denominations have continued on, much like the Catholic Church. They've continued to split and fracture into new denominations, each with their own form of governance, some very akin to the apostolic succession of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and some very different.

But what is key - and what this document means to stress - is that these denominations are missing a central ingredient in what defines the singular Christian Church: actual apostolic succession. As Christians we accept - we profess in our creeds - that Christ started just one Church. But in reality it looks like there are hundreds of 'churches.' How to distinguish the one that Christ started? You need to trace it back to the Man/God himself.

The only way to do that is with Apostolic Sucession. You can trace back the Catholic Church all the way to Christ. Every single Bishop ever ordained was ordained by another man who was already a Bishop. And this is documented, every single one, all the way back to the original Bishops: the 12 Apostles. There has been a physical laying-on of hands for every single one. Christ laid hands on the 12. The 12 laid hands on their successors, who laid hands on their successors, all the way down to the current leaders of the Catholic Church. No Protestant denomination has that.

And that's really what the Pope's statement comes down to. Why does he say that the Protestant Churches aren't properly called 'churches'? Because they're missing the key ingredient of Apostolic Succession.

Yes, you're still a Christian. You can still receive God's Grace. You can still be saved. The Catholic Church affirms all of those things (and frankly, I wish they would have clearly done so in this document). But, without Apostolic Succession you can not trace your denomination back to singular Church that Christ started.

Maybe that's not such a yawner.

Nobody callin' on the phone
'cept for the Pope maybe in Rome


Ben said...

Ah, ecclesiology! I really do intend to respond to this when I have time to sit and digest it all. Which ain't happening when we need to prepare for my mother-in-law visiting this weekend.

Sufficie to say my doctrine of the church differs from Benedict's. Surprise, surprise.

Ben said...

um.....I meant to say "suffice", not "sufficie"

Sounds sort of like a cute word: "Aw, look at the little sufficie (suh-fice-ee). It's almost a grown-up suffice, but not quite!"

Typos send the mind in strange directions, and none of those directions are related to work. So off to work I go.

But I DO intend to respond.

Jeff said...

You Christians are weird...

I guess I don't get this whole "church/Church" thing. Why does it matter? I mean, if you still have a relationship with God, if you're still "saved," why would someone care if they're following some apostolic succession?

Matthew B. Novak said...

Because not all Christians think you're immediately and permanently "saved" by a relationship with God. That whole idea is a relatively recent phenomena. And maybe even more essential, the Christian faith is largely about community, not an individualistic faith. Thus, as important as the individual relationship with God is, so too is the community relationship.

Also, a person's church helps them understand God and interpret the Bible and such, so it's relevant for that.