Sunday, May 06, 2012

Article 19: What is the Church?


Today's article begins the section of the Articles of Religion having to do with the principle question of "What is the Church?" As one can imagine, this was one of the primary questions of the Reformation. In their rebellion against Rome, Protestants had to scramble to be able to justify their breaking with the Catholic Church and Tradition and still legitimately call themselves the Church and not be some rag tag band of heretical schismatics, which Rome was more than happy to label them as such. 


Different branches of Protestantism came up with differing definitions of what the Church is and what the Church was not. Again, one must put aside the modern notion of "denominationalism." Most of the Reformers never dreamed that what they were doing to reform the Church was simply a matter of going off and forming their own little sect or denomination, one amongst many. What the principle Reformers were doing, they believed, was going off and re-forming the One True, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They were not attempting to form a separate rival church, but to go off and re-create Christ's true church. That is key to understanding the Reformation. 


As such, Martin Luther originally intended to simply reform the Catholic church, but once that didn't happen, he went off to reform the Church to what he believed was the true church. Luther for most of his life, hoped that reconciliation with Rome was possible. As time passed, he grew more and more defensive and began to believe that there could be no reforming of Rome. 

Other reformers from John Calvin to Zwingli to the Anabaptists had different definitions of what they believed the true church to be. These definitions ranged anywhere from the dichotomy of having the "invisible church" as opposed to the "visible church" to the idea of the "Marks of the Church," where a church or congregation, if they had these marks, could believe it was part of the true church. Different reformers had differing lists of what marks the true church would manifest. Some argued only one: the preaching of the true Word of God. The Catholic Church, following the wording of the Nicene Creed, believed there to be four: "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic."

John Calvin argued that their were two marks: both of which seem to be adopted by the following Article of Religion:

XIX. Of the Church
The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in the which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly- ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

One will note that the Articles of Religion defines the church as that which "the pure Word of God is preached" and where the "Sacraments be duly ministered." Also at issue in this article is the basis of infallibility. The second little throw away sentence has to do with the understanding of Apostolic Succession. Rome and the East were both arguing that you cannot be apostolic, and therefore call yourself "The Church," if you do not have Apostolic Succession. All this gums up notions of the validity of Holy Orders and therefore the validity of Sacraments. If you were not ordained by someone who was ordained by someone (all the way back) who was ordained by an Apostle,  then you are neither a valid minister nor a valid church. 

While I agree in part with the 2 marks, I think both terms are extremely vague. I mean, how does one define the "pure Word of God?" Does that mean the Word of God preached without the influence of Tradition? And what about the Sacraments? As we will discover in subsequent articles in this section, that nature of Sacraments has to be defined. To most Protestants there were two: Eucharist and Baptism? What about the others? Rome immediately jumped on such definitions and said, in essence, "Fine, we can go with that. Since you are not administering the 7 Sacraments, how can you be the true Church?" To which Protestants said, "Well, Jesus only administered 2 Sacraments, the other 5 are not a preaching of the "pure Word of God" but tainted by Papist Tradition and popery." And round and round they went, pretty much to this day. 

Many Reformers also argued that the Church had been corrupted by Tradition and needed only to get back to the Early Church of the Apostles to solve all its problems. This never really panned out in reality, 
nor did any of the Protestant "True Churches" ever really converge into the One True Church. In fact, the seeds this notion of the 2 marks haunts us today. There are thousands of Protestant denominations, and the number grows years when a denomination gets into a theological squabble about this or that issue. One side says the other is not preaching the true Word of God and breaks off and forms its own denomination, ad infinitum

This is an issue as a whole that I have wrestled with personally for many years. I do believe the Nicene Creed, and I do believe the statement that the Church is one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. What I have issue with is this notion of "being one." How on Earth Protestants can claim with a straight face to be "one" where there are clearly thousands of Protestant denomination bothers me. To me, the Church is the Bride of Christ. Christ has one bride: the Church, not many brides: the churches.

I simply have to have faith that God can somehow work through and in the midst of all this sinful division in the Church. What is somewhat unique to the Anglican tradition that gives me some hope is the idea that Anglicanism has never claimed to be the One, True Church, just a part of the One, True, Church. You note that in this final sentence/paragraph. All Churches have erred and therefore none can claim to be free of error. Being a good Anglo-catholic, I struggle with this but maybe that gives us hope that God can work amongst fragments to build something greater.

My question is though: At what point must the Reformation end and the Restoration begin? How might the branches return to form one tree? Something to ponder that I myself do not have a good answer for. 


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