Sunday, October 12, 2014

My Journey, Part 10: Ecclesiological foundations

This is part 10 of my rebooted series on my journey from Evangelicalism to Eastern Orthodoxy. The full series can be found here:

1Back to the beginning
2Cracks appear
3Questions multiply
4Questioning the "gospel"
5The big question
6A better hermeneutic
7Explorations in epistemology
7.5Excursus on oversystematization
8Back to the gospel
9The new direction
10Ecclesiological foundations
11.1Sola scriptura
11.2The insufficiency of Scripture
11.25Addenda on sola scriptura
11.3Holy Tradition
12Bridging the cracks
13.1Orthodoxy and Genesis 1–3
13.2A Better Atonement (Against Penal Substitution)
13.3Faith Alone?
13.4The Colour and the Shape of the Gospel
14Worshipping with the Church
15Mary, Saints, Baptism, and Other Odds/Ends
16Looking Back, Coming Home

The ways the Orthodox Church struck me as true can be broken down into five main categories: ecclesiology, tradition, epistemology/spirituality, vision of the "gospel", and worship. Each of the last three are dependent on tradition, which is dependent on ecclesiology, so I'll start there.

Ecclesiology is the study of the Church: its origin, nature, extent, purpose, and present reality. It is very closely related to...


The common Protestant story of the Church goes like this: Jesus established His Church by commissioning the apostles to preach and live the gospel and teach others to do the same. So the early church was born, miraculously growing by the apostles' missions. By the Spirit they were inspired to write the words of Scripture, thus preserving the gospel for future generations from our sinful tendency to forget it. Led by this same Spirit, the early Church lived the gospel authentically, a beacon of hope and light in the midst of the pagan Roman empire. It produced some exemplary theologians like Augustine who adeptly expounded the truth of Scripture and fielded them against the heresies of the day. The early Church was not Roman Catholic or Orthodox; it was simply Christian, pure and simple. But then, sometime around when the conversion of Constantine and the Edict of Milan in the early 4th century made Christianity the religion of the empire, things started to slip. Corrupted by newfound imperial prestige and drawn away from a faithful reading of Scripture by the expansion of extrabiblical tradition, the church increasingly failed to live faithfully to the biblical vision of the gospel.

The next thousand or so years are a slow process of decline, with the church becoming more corrupt and increasingly encumbered by human tradition until the true gospel message was almost silenced by the clinking of coins in exchange for indulgences, the prayers to the Virgin Mary, the flames of purgatory, etc. But then in came Martin Luther to the rescue, standing for the simple biblical truth of the gospel over and against the extrabiblical traditions of the Catholic church and the tyranny of the papacy which sought to stifle it. From there follows a series of other great, praiseworthy, and exemplary theologians, pastors, preachers, and ministers who advanced Luther's passion for the gospel and reliance on the word of God as the highest authority in belief and practice, which always seems to end in your own church, the most faithful practitioner of "biblical Christianity". (Though that isn't to say that other churches are just wrong or their members definitely aren't saved, not even necessarily Catholics; what matters and makes one a true member of the Church is saving faith in Jesus Christ as one's Lord and Savior for the forgiveness of sins)

I suspect that something like this story lies somewhere in the mind of most evangelicals. However they nuance it, the basic structure of an exemplary/"biblical" early Church, imperial/medieval backsliding, and ongoing Reformation recovery of a "biblical Christianity" centered around the simple message of the gospel is nearly universal. But even more than this, there is an assumption that church history, except insofar as it involves the earthly ministry of Jesus and the creation of the Bible, is ultimately dispensable. Though the church has not always been faithful to the biblical vision in the past, what matters is following God through His word in the present, learning from the past but not bound by it.

Now, let me tell a different version of the story.

At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus commissioned His apostles to continue His ministry and pass on His teaching through His body, the Church. The apostles, and the bishops they appointed to carry on their ministry and teaching, would shepherd the Lord's flock as His ministers, manifesting His presence to His people. In particular, He commissioned Peter and his confession of Jesus as the Christ as the solid rock on which His church would guard and develop the faith given to it against persecutions, heresies, and apostasies. Guided and aided by the Spirit, the Church stood firm and preserved the deposit of the faith through intermittent Roman persecutions until the conversion of Constantine made Christianity the religion of the empire. Though imperial acceptance was not without its heresies and temptations, the Church's newfound influence and prestige allowed it to rapidly grow and spread, even beyond the borders of the empire.

In the coming centuries Christendom would be racked by theological controversies in which the Church's core beliefs about Christ, the Trinity, and other essential doctrines would be hammered out. As the eastern church was tossed about by conflicting teachings about these things, the apostolic see founded by Peter in Rome served as a bastion of orthodoxy to help establish and preserve a unified faith. But because of increasing linguistic, cultural, and (following the fall of Rome) political barriers between the eastern and western churches, they grew increasingly estranged. In several notable incidents, the eastern church flouted the authority of the bishop of Rome, leading to its eventual schism in 1054.

The "middle ages" saw the height of the Church's influence on society and significant advances in theological studies (especially via the Scholastics) and art, but also an increasing struggle against the corruption of both monastic orders and church prelates, which were answered by a series of reform movements, some of which went better than others. But not all were content to pursue reform within the Church. Early reformers like Wycliffe and Hus sought to end abuses by separating from the structure of the established church, and their followers formed splinter churches that would later join the Protestants. Then, just after the fifth Lateran council sternly called out corrupt prelates, came the storm.

Incited by the former Augustinian monk Martin Luther, churches and states began leaving the Church en masse, rejecting the apostolic authority and teaching of the Church in favor of their own interpretations of the scriptures. This quickly opened the door to all kinds of "biblical" heresies and errors which quickly multiplied as Protestantism fragmented. The Council of Trent, called thirty years later, provided a more faithful answer to the concerns raised by Luther and others, reforming the corrupted practices of the Church while rejecting the false teachings of the Protestants. In the ensuing centuries, other challenges to papal power would arise from within the Church which, while not leading to schism, did precipitate the decline of of the worldly influence of the Church, a process that was completed in the nineteenth century by the rise of nationalism and governments that did not take kindly to meddling by a foreign power. The bishop of Rome settled into a role somewhat more like that of the first popes, shepherding the Church in matters of faith, doctrine, and ethics while also seeking to remain a voice on these matters to the wider world.

Obviously, this is a Catholic telling of the history of the Church. (Which was quite hard for me to write, not being familiar with the Catholic viewpoint) Let me tell this story one more time.

At the end of His ministry on earth, Jesus commissioned His apostles to continue His ministry and pass on His teaching through His body, the Church. The apostles, and the bishops they appointed to carry on their ministry and teaching, would shepherd the Lord's flock as ministers of His presence, preserving and passing down the apostolic teaching without change. The early Church worshipped God in spirit and in truth, confessing and living the gospel even through Roman persecution. When a doctrinal controversy arose or a higher ruling on a question affecting the whole Church was needed, bishops would come together in councils (dating back to Acts 15) and come to agreement in a demonstration of the spiritual unity of the Church.

After the conversion of Constantine, it finally became possible to convene truly universal councils drawing in bishops from the whole church, through which some of the Church's foundational beliefs about the nature of God and our savior Jesus Christ were established over against numerous heresies. Tragically, though, not all of the churches consented to these decisions, and some (the Nestorian and Miaphysite churches in the east) rejected the rulings of the councils and went into schism from the Church; one can only hope this schism will be temporary.

Though the bishop of Rome served as a pillar of doctrinal orthodoxy during these councils, he began to see himself as a monarch ruling over the other bishops, rather than merely the first among equals, meddling in the affairs of other bishops and even seeking to unilaterally modify the Nicene Creed (which had been universally accepted at the first ecumenical council). As his worldly and spiritual power in the west increased, he clashed with the eastern patriarchs on multiple occasions. Eventually, through a representative, the pope excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople during the eucharist, and the eastern and western churches went into schism. Subsequent attempts at reunion failed to gain any ground, especially after the west sacked Constantinople and established a Latin patriarchate during the Fourth Crusade.

Hemmed in by the Latin church on the west and Muslims in the south and east, the Church had nowhere to take the gospel except north. With the councils and controversies in the past, missionaries were able to bring a fully articulated Christian doctrine to the Slavs, who became wholehearted followers of the Way, especially in Russia, where the Church continued to grow. Though oppressed and persecuted in the following centuries by a number of regimes opposed to Christianity (notably the Turks and the Soviets), the Church has preserved the faith delivered to the apostles in its fullness right up to the present.

Though it may be a bit less familiar, this is my attempt at telling the story of the Church from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. Just like individual Protestant Churches, Catholics and Orthodox also see the history of Christianity in different ways which construe their own tradition as the one that has remained truly faithful to Christ. Clearly simply clinging to your own story and ignoring the ones held by other Christians will get us nowhere constructive. You have to compare stories, try to see them from the perspective of their tellers, and ask yourself: which one holds the most water? After intensively studying the history of Christianity for my master's program, I believe the Orthodox story does.

Comparing the stories

Though I used to hold something like the evangelical telling of Church history that I related above, I no longer accept it for a variety of reasons. First, as I will get to next time, I think this telling is based on a misunderstanding of what "tradition" is in the Church. Evangelicals are prone to contrasting "human" traditions with the "divinely inspired" Bible, which is supposed to preside over them all. But Catholics and Orthodox don't view the Bible as something distinct from tradition, set over against it, but as a product of tradition. It is not so much a constitution or charter for the Church to abide by as it is an expression of the apostolic faith, which predates the completed Bible by centuries. Suggesting that the correct way to "do church" was to base everything on the Bible not only ignores the fact that the Church predated and established the biblical canon (and the books of the New Testament), but also ignores the role oral/liturgical tradition, ecclesiastical authority, councils, and apostolic succession played in the guidance of the early Church. Most people didn't even have Bibles due to the difficulty in making them; the only way they got any Scripture was by hearing it in church rather than by reading, which made impossible the kind of personal Bible study that is universally recommended by Protestants. Contrasting the divinely inspired Bible with human tradition also forgets that the Bible itself is both divine and human, that the Bible never "speaks" without a human act of interpretation, and the promise of divine guidance even after the writing of the New Testament given to the Church given in John 16:13: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth". Orthodox don't simply believe the Bible is a divine book and the Church is a human institution; they consider both to be incarnational, both divine and human, the testimony to and the body of Christ.

To me, the Protestant telling of church history now seems more like an ex post facto justification for the legitimacy of one's church/denomination than it does an honest look into the history of the church. This is especially hard to deny when one considers all the subtly different versions of this story used by various denominations, many of whom hold different positions on the basic nature and doctrine of the Church. Through my hopefully multi-sided study of church history, it became clear to me that the Protestant reformers were not faithful recoverers of "biblical Christianity", but schismatics little different from others who similarly justified their teachings with Scripture. This is obscured by the fact that Protestantism's story quite consciously sets it apart from the depredations of medieval Roman Catholicism, but virtually (or completely) ignores the Orthodox Church. The claim that the early Church was "simply Christian" is an example of this. Splitting away from a false church does not necessarily place your church closer to the truth. In fact, because of the temptation to define oneself by what you are opposed to (which the early reformers greatly succumbed to regarding the Roman church), you are more likely to destabilize your beliefs and ultimately move even further away from it.

The Catholic telling is more plausible. Catholics have a much fuller view of tradition that I believe is closer to the historical Christian one (though not identical to the Orthodox view). Its telling does not minimize tradition, ecclesiastical authority, or apostolic succession as means by which the Church operates and continues. Its criticisms of Protestantism highlight its rejection of these things in favor of the Bible as the sole mediator of truth, in common with so many other schismatics. Catholicism's disputes with Orthodoxy are also historical in nature, centering around the causes of the Great Schism of 1054: papal supremacy and the filioque. As I will get into later, this issue is too complicated to be conclusively settled with simple arguments, but in my judgment the Orthodox view (that the pope unduly assumed an unwarranted and un-Christlike authority over his fellow bishops) is more plausible, especially in light of the two churches' later developments. Thus, I think the Orthodox Church makes the most plausible claim to having preserved the apostolic faith of the early Church to the present day.

Protestant ecclesiology

The nature of the Church is a doctrine on which there is fairly widespread agreement among Protestants (even if they begin to differ on the particulars of its operating). Most follow in the tradition of Luther and Calvin, who (according to scholar Don Thorson) "agreed that Jesus Christ established one church; however, the true church was more invisible than visibly existent in a single, monolithic institution, such as the Catholic Church."

Luther, for his part, felt compelled by conscience and Scripture to oppose the teaching of a church that he (rightly) believed had corrupted the gospel, prescribing unbiblical and empty practices for salvation while neglecting to develop any authentic faith in its laity. The church was said to be authoritative, but with its authority the church was teaching lies and misusing Scripture. Unable to believe that it was anything but a false church, Luther needed to rethink what the Church really was. His answer was that it was simply composed of those who truly had a "warm personal faith" in the Lord, not simply those who outwardly claimed to. Roland Bainton explains in his biography of Luther:
Luther was not concerned to philosophize about the structure of Church and state; his insistence was simply that every man must answer for himself to God. That was the extent of his individualism. The faith requisite for the sacrament [of the Lord's Supper] must be one's own. From such a theory the obvious inference is that the Church should consist only of those possessed of a warm personal faith; and since the number of such persons is never large, the Church would have to be a comparatively small conventicle. Luther not infrequently spoke precisely as if this were his meaning.
Thinking through the implications of this view of the Church, Luther saw parallels with the early, pre-Imperial church. The true Church, far from the magisterial institution of Rome, was a diaspora of God's redeemed, obscure and often persecuted, united by the Holy Spirit more than any visible connection.
The true Church for him was always the Church of the redeemed, known only to God, manifest here and there on earth, small, persecuted, and often hidden, at any rate scattered and united only in the bond of the spirit. Such a view could scarcely issue in anything other than a mystical fellowship devoid of any concrete form. This was what Luther meant by the kingdom of Christ. He did not pretend that it could be actualized, but he was not prepared to leave the Church disembodied. The next possibility was to gather together such ardent souls as could be assembled in a particular locality.
When debating Johann Eck at Leipzig, Luther found himself compelled to support two articles of the condemned heretic Jan Hus, which got him into further trouble: "The one holy universal Church is the company of the predestined", and "The universal Holy Church is one, as the number of the elect is one".

Luther did not take this spiritual definition of the Church as far as later Pietists would. His emphasis on personal saving faith was tempered by his continuing support of infant baptism, and his continuing view that the church and state should be coextensive:
This was in tension with his opposition to the individualistic form of believer's baptism held by the Anabaptists: he fell back on the faith of the sponsor, seeing it as necessary to snatch children away from Satan, unable to see the Church and state as separate entities. "The greatness and the tragedy of Luther was that he could never relinquish either the individualism of the eucharistic cup or the corporateness of the baptismal font.
Luther's dilemma was that he wanted both a confessional church based on personal faith and experience, and a territorial church including all in a given locality. If he were forced to choose, he would take his stand with the masses, and this was the direction in which he moved.
The Augsburg Confession, a major statement of the Lutheran faith, defines the Church as "the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is rightly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. And to the true unity of the Church it is enough to agree concerning the doctrine of the Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments."

Calvin's view of the Church was largely compatible with Luther's. Sounding somewhat like Hus, he incorporated his theology of divine election into his view of the Church:
When in the Creed we profess to believe the Church, reference is made not only to the visible Church of which we are now treating, but also to all the elect of God, including in the number even those who have departed this life.
For Calvin, the true Church consisted of all of God's elect, throughout space and time. This was amenable to a view of the Church as a diaspora of the redeemed, similar to Luther.
Though the devil leaves no stone unturned in order to destroy the grace of Christ, and the enemies of God rush with insane violence in the same direction, it cannot be extinguished,—the blood of Christ cannot be rendered barren, and prevented from producing fruit. Hence, regard must be had both to the secret election and to the internal calling of God, because he alone “knoweth them that are his” (2 Tim. 2:19); and as Paul expresses it, holds them as it were enclosed under his seal, although, at the same time, they wear his insignia, and are thus distinguished from the reprobate. But as they are a small and despised number, concealed in an immense crowd, like a few grains of wheat buried among a heap of chaff, to God alone must be left the knowledge of his Church, of which his secret election forms the foundation.
The unity of the Church consists of Christ's spiritual headship over her, rather than any visible connection. Despite the apparent division of the Church in the midst of which Calvin found himself, he believed that the true Church remained whole, albeit "in concealment".
By the unity of the Church we must understand a unity into which we feel persuaded that we are truly ingrafted. For unless we are united with all the other members under Christ our head, no hope of the future inheritance awaits us. Hence the Church is called Catholic or Universal (August. Ep. 48), for two or three cannot be invented without dividing Christ; and this is impossible. All the elect of God are so joined together in Christ, that as they depend on one head, so they are as it were compacted into one body, being knit together like its different members; made truly one by living together under the same Spirit of God in one faith, hope, and charity, called not only to the same inheritance of eternal life, but to participation in one God and Christ. For although the sad devastation which everywhere meets our view may proclaim that no Church remains, let us know that the death of Christ produces fruit, and that God wondrously preserves his Church, while placing it as it were in concealment.
The full knowledge of the Church belonged to God alone (2 Tim 2:19). But we can gain some idea of where the true Church is, Calvin said, by looking for its marks: the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments.
Wherever we see the word of God sincerely preached and heard, wherever we see the sacraments administered according to the institution of Christ, there we cannot have any doubt that the Church of God has some existence, since his promise cannot fail, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt. 18:20).
In summary, Calvin believed the true Church consists of all true Christian believers (the elect).
The Church universal is the multitude collected out of all nations, who, though dispersed and far distant from each other, agree in one truth of divine doctrine, and are bound together by the tie of a common religion.
In regard to individual churches, we can identify them by the aforementioned two marks, but with individual believers it is not so simple. Those who make professions of authentic faith may not actually be part of the true Church, but since we can't know their hearts with certainty we should "leave them the place which they hold among the people of God, until they are legitimately deprived of it."

The Westminster Confession, a major confession of the Reformed tradition, espouses an ecclesiology (unsurprisingly) similar to Calvin's.
The catholic or universal church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fullness of Him that filleth all in all. (6.140) 
The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the gospel (not confined to one nation as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children; and is the Kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ; the house and family of God, through which men are ordinarily saved and union with which is essential to their best growth and service. (6.141) 
The Lord Jesus Christ is the only head of the Church, and the claim of any man to be the vicar of Christ and the head of the Church is without warrant in fact or in Scripture, even anti-Christian, a usurpation dishonoring to the Lord Jesus Christ. (6.145)
In a more contemporary example, the Barmen Declaration, a statement adopted by German Christians opposing the alliance of the German church with the Nazi government, defines the Church as "the congregation of brothers and sisters in which Jesus Christ acts presently as the Lord in Word and sacrament, through the Holy Spirit." Wayne Grudem defines the Church more concisely as "the community of true believers for all time." He explains that the true spiritual reality of the Church, as God sees it, is (similar to Calvin) all of the elect throughout time, but the visible Church, as Christians on earth see it, consists of those who outwardly attend and will always include some false believers. Similarly, Millard Erickson (the author of the tome I'm studying for my master's systematic theology class) believes that the church does have a visible dimension, namely the fellowship of professing Christian believers, but the invisible spiritual reality of the Church (all those who have authentic saving faith in Jesus) receives priority. Ideally, these two groups will be identical.

It's fairly easy to pick several recurring themes out of these examples of Protestant ecclesiology. Protestants, generally, accept the traditional definitions of the Church as undivided as well as both visible and invisible, but these things must be qualified. The true Church is an invisible spiritual reality, the body of all true believers in the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ throughout time and space, fully known only to God. It is this Church which has always been undivided in its authentic faith. Its visible manifestation, local congregations of believers, is not guaranteed to be so, consisting in many parts and denominations and not without some false Christians in its midst (some members of the true Church might also be outside the bounds of the visible Church). Protestants would probably agree that the visible and invisible Churches were identical in the early years of Christianity, but as the Catholic Church became institutionally corrupt and turned from Scripture to tradition the two increasingly diverged.

Orthodox ecclesiology

Protestants hold that theirs is the biblical and historical definition of the Church. But is it? When I look at the writings of theologians outside or prior to the Protestant tradition, I see a somewhat different picture of the Church. For example, Irenaeus, a prominent father of the eastern Church, wrote in the second century:
True knowledge is the teaching of the Apostles, the order of the church as established from the earliest times throughout the world, and the distinctive stamp of the body of Christ, passed down through the succession of bishops in charge of the church in each place, which has come down to our own time, safeguarded without any spurious writings by the most complete exposition [i.e. the Creed], received without addition or subtraction; the reading of the Scriptures without falsification; and their consistent and careful exposition, avoiding danger and blasphemy; and the special gift of love, which is more precious than knowledge, more glorious than prophecy, and which surpasses all other spiritual gifts.
Irenaeus gives three marks of true knowledge (of the Lord). The second is the reading and exposition of the Scriptures, as Calvin affirmed. The third is the presence of Christian love, something John Wesley would have heartily supported. But the first, and most detailed, is something else. It is the Church's faithful preservation of the apostolic tradition, the succession of bishops from the apostles, the continuation of "the order of the church as established [by Christ] from the earliest times throughout the world". The true Church, he says, is known not simply by accurate exposition of the Scriptures and Christlike love, but by its continuity in leadership and teaching with the Church created by Jesus.

In his treatise Against Heresies, Irenaeus also wrote words that could almost be referring to the reformers:
But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth... 
It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about.... 
In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth.
To Irenaeus, it seems that the preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments is not enough. Also crucial is the continuity of the true Church's teachings with those of the apostles, maintained by the apostolic succession of bishops. This continuity is how the early Church rebuffed heretics who claimed to base their teachings on Scripture. The preservation of the teachings of the apostolic faith, not simply continually turning back to the Bible, was how Irenaeus had confidence that the faith of the Church in his day was "one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth." Remember, this was in the second century, when the Church was still meeting in private homes or catacombs and suffering under Roman persecution. If the Protestant ecclesiology really was the original belief of the Church, it didn't last long, and there is no patristic evidence for it.

The traditional Orthodox doctrine of the Church, expressed in the Nicene Creed, is that it is "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. Fr. Thomas Hopko in his invaluable work The Orthodox Faith explains what these descriptors mean far better than I can. I'll just make a few notes..
  • The Church is one visibly and invisibly. Orthodox do not draw the Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church, at least not as strongly. Because the Church is the body of Christ, it is equally a visible and an invisible entity, and cannot be divided or broken up in either way. This does not exclude the possibility of someone outside the Orthodox Church having faith, this will not be the apostolic faith in its fullness. A common adage I've heard to explain the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church is that "We know where the Church is, but not where it isn't."
  • The Church is holy not because of the holiness of its members (as the Donatists taught) but because of the holiness of God. Christians participate in God's holiness rather than possessing it. Fr. Hopko writes, "The faith and life of the Church on earth is expressed in its doctrines, sacraments, scriptures, services, and saints which maintain the Church’s essential unity, and which can certainly be affirmed as 'holy' because of God’s presence and action in them." Jaroslav Pelikan, in his history of Christian doctrine, explains that "the church, the Scriptures, the priesthood, the sacraments—all were called 'holy', both because they were holy in themselves and because they made men holy by the sanctifying grace whose instruments they were."
  • The Church is catholic means that it is full, complete, lacking nothing of the Christian faith. This was actually news to me; I thought "catholic" meant "universal" across time and space. "To believe in the Church as catholic, therefore, is to express the conviction that the fullness of God is present in the Church and that nothing of the “abundant life” that Christ gives to the world in the Spirit is lacking to it (Jn 10:10). It is to confess exactly that the Church is indeed “the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:23; also Col 2:10)."
  • The Church is apostolic in two ways, both connected to the meaning of the Greek word apostolos, "sent one". The Church, thus, is sent into the world just as Christ and the Holy Spirit were. As Jesus said, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you." (Jhn 20:21) As well, the Church is built on the apostles who were sent from Christ.
Timothy Ware comments on the visible and invisible nature of the Church:
The Church—the icon of the Trinity, the Body of Christ, the fullness of the Spirit—is both visible and invisible, divine and human. It is visible, for it is composed for specific congregations, worshipping here on earth; it is invisible, for it also includes the saints and the angels. It is human, for its earthly members are sinners; it is divine, for it is the Body of Christ. There is no separation between the visible and the invisible, between (to use western terminology) the Church militant and the Church triumphant, for the two make up a single and continuous reality. "The Church visible, or upon earth, lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church, of which Christ is the Head.' it stands at a point of intersection between the Present Age and the Age to Come, and it lives in both Ages at once. 
Orthodoxy, therefore, while using the phrase 'the Church visible and invisible', insists always that there are not two Churches, but one. As Khomiakov said: 
"It is only in relation to man that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; its unity is, in reality, true and absolute. Those who are alive on earth, those who have fulfilled their earthly course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God ... The Church, the Body of Christ, manifests forth and fulfils itself in time, without changing its essential unity or inward life of grace. And therefore, when we speak of 'the Church visible and invisible', we so speak only in relation to man."
This well-researched paper addresses Protestant ecclesiology directly. The author summarizes its basic tenets thus:
  • The True Church is the invisible church, known only to God.
  • The visible church can be divided.
  • There is no necessary correlation between the visible and invisible church. Membership in a local body is merely helpful, but not essential, to one’s salvation.
  • The visible church is not indefectible or infallible; that is, no one church has the fullness of the truth. All have erred and will err.
  • Episcopal government, the ancient three-fold order, is not of the essential nature of the visible church, but merely one allowable form of polity among many.
  • Apostolic succession is of faith alone, not of faith and order.
#3 is somewhat misleading; many Protestants would place more emphasis on membership in a local church than saying it's "merely helpful", though I don't think many would go so far as to say it is essential for salvation. Read the (fairly lengthy) paper if you wish; I'll merely summarize the author's main points.
  • "Not only the content of our reflection on the nature of the Church must be consistent with Holy Tradition, but also our methodology." (p. 9)
  • The Church participates in the image and likeness of the triune God via Christ. Being His body, it is both human and divine.
  • The Reformers, because of the perceived necessity of individual faith in God and the corrupting effects of sin on the human heart as well as all human institutions, believed that God was the only one who could identify who was a "true" Christian.
  • The Reformers often cited Augustine's distinction between the visible and spiritual Church, but rather than denigrating the institutional Church through this distinction Augustine was actually defending its authority and its role as a channel of grace despite the presence of false believers. The Church is the visible means of grace that God has instituted, and man should look nowhere else for salvation. (See the quote on p. 14)
  • The early Church saw little of the distinction between the visible and invisible Church that the Reformers argued.
  • "Eastern Christians believe that dividing the Church into visible and invisible parcels actually contradicts the very nature of the Church. The Church is one, whole organism. The visible is inseparably linked to and a part of the invisible, and vice versa. If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ (not two different bodies, one in heaven and one on earth), then her nature must be an undivided whole." (p. 28-29)
  • There are echoes of both Nestorianism (the heresy that Jesus as a loose union of two distinct persons) and Docetism (the heresy that Jesus was purely divine and only appeared to have a human body and nature) in Protestant ecclesiology.
  • Orthodox and Protestants agree that Christ is the head and the Church is his body. However, Protestants tend to understand these foundational truths differently.
  • "Orthodox cannot accept the Protestant belief that material disunity has no effect on ontological unity. Orthodox believe that material disunity causes an ontological disunity (or rather an ontological separation, since Christ is not divided)." (p. 33)

A summary of contrasts

As we have seen, it isn't quite accurate to say that Protestants believe in an invisible Church while Orthodox believe in a visible Church. They both believe the Church is both visible and invisible, but in different ways. Protestants make a stronger distinction between the visible and invisible Church, and hold that the invisible, spiritual dimension of the Church is the truer, corresponding to the way God knows those who are his. Orthodox refuse any such distinction. As Ware said, the only visible-invisible distinction in the Church is between its earthly members and those in heaven.

Besides this, another big difference is that Protestants seem to regard the Church as consisting strictly of a collection of individual Christians, in both its senses. The visible Church is not identified with a building or institution, but is simply all those who profess the Christian faith. Similarly, the invisible, spiritual Church is simply the whole congregation of the redeemed/elect of God. In contrast, Orthodox believe that the Church is more than a collection of individuals, reflecting its dual human/divine nature. It is more than the sum of its parts, having its own spiritual existence beyond its human members. Ware explains:
The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different than what they are as individuals; this "something different" is the Body of Christ. Such is the way in which Orthodoxy approaches the mystery of the Church. The Church is integrally linked with God. It is a new life according to the image of the Holy Trinity, a life in Christ and in the Holy Spirit, a life realized by participation in the sacraments. The Church is a single reality, earthly and heavenly, visible and invisible, human and divine.
I think this is also the basis for the Orthodox/historic Christian view that offices in the Church were intrinsically holy not on the basis of the holiness of the people serving in them, but because of God's holiness. This holiness was not simply imputed or reckoned; it was real, but independently of the person who was instead made holy by it. The office was, in some way, not coterminous with the individual holding it. Pelikan writes:
The church, the Scriptures, the priesthood, the sacraments—all were called "holy", both because they were holy in themselves and because they made men holy by the sanctifying grace whose instruments they were.
One other distinction I've noticed is that for Protestants, the Church is subjectively defined, at least in practice. What I mean by this is that who is "really" in the Church, and even to an extent the authenticity of a local church or denomination, is known by God alone. We can discern clues as to these things, but in the end we can never claim to know for sure whether someone's faith is true (i.e. whether they are a member of the true Church), nor can any one church exclusively claim to be the "true" Church. (A charge often leveled at Catholics and Orthodox) This is because the clues are subjective, like the true preaching and teaching of the Word, the proper administration of the sacraments, or loving, Christlike behavior; Protestants hold an abundance of "biblical" views on what all of these things really look like. There is thought to be a spectrum of purity, with even "true" churches having more or less pure teaching; it is no one's place to try to discern who is "in" or "out".

In contrast, for Orthodox membership in the Church is objective, a visible reality as well as a spiritual one, marked by the sacraments of chrismation, baptism, and the Eucharist, in keeping with their incarnational model of what the Church is. Likewise, the authenticity of the Orthodox Church is not based on its adherence to an invisible, unreachable, "biblical" standard of orthodoxy that no one can claim to know perfectly, but on its historical status as the same visible Church that Jesus founded, which has faithfully preserved the apostolic faith for almost two thousand years.


I have come to prefer the Orthodox view of the Church for at least four reasons.

First, I think the Protestant view involves an implicit dualism. This is seen in the belief that the "true" Church is a spiritual reality, physical only insofar as it is composed of flesh-and-blood people, and also in the contrasting of the divine source of authority for the true Church (the Bible) with "human" institutions and traditions. In Luther's initial formulation, it was based on the need to respond to the evidently false teaching of the established, institutional, visible church; in light of this, Luther felt compelled to envision the reality of the Church in such a way that false Catholic teaching did not really compromise the true Church. But this was unnecessary and ultimately harmful, since the true Church was and is visible, albeit distinct from the Roman church. In contrast, the Orthodox ecclesiology is based on, and inseparable from, Orthodox Christology. The Church is the body of Christ; Christ was both man and God, and likewise the Church is both spiritual and embodied. To me, at least, the latter position is self-evidently true over the former.

Second, Protestant ecclesiology is individualistic. Whatever mysterious connection may exist between them, the Church is ultimately the sum of all those who have individual saving faith. You become a part of it by accepting this faith, independently of your church membership. At worst this leads to "just me and Jesus" Christianity that views the Church as a dispensable vehicle for getting someone into a personal relationship with Jesus. Even in moderation, I think this kind of individualism (not upholding the value of the individual believer, but the practice of reducing things to the individual level) does not belong in Christianity. Well before I found the Orthodox Church, I was expressing dissatisfaction with it:
How is the gospel usually stated in evangelicalism? 'God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life, so He sent Jesus so that your sin could be forgiven and you can have a personal relationship with Him.' With such a personal understanding of the gospel—as being all about you and God—is it any wonder that so many American Christians have a self-centered faith? (2013-1-10)
It contributed to my confusion about how Paul wrote about "the gospel":
The view of the law as existing to show us our sin and lead us to the gospel seems to confuse redemptive history with personal application. What about the millions of Jews who lived and died under the law before the gospel was revealed—what was its purpose for them? To convict them of sin and leave them hopeless or dependent on the sacrificial system? (2013-2-4)
Eventually, this individualistic picture of the gospel gave way to a more historical, corporate one:
I thought about all the historical narrative and Jew/Gentile language as if it were the backdrop to God's continuing mission of saving individual souls—which He doesn't always succeed at! (2014-2-25)
Orthodox ecclesiology embraces the historical, corporate dimension of the church. The unity of believers in one body is strongly affirmed in Orthodox theology and worship. The Church has both a concrete nature and a spiritual one, and both are more than the sum of their human members. This is the theology I see in the Bible and the early Church, more than the individualistic Protestant view.

Third, a visible, objectively defined view of the Church is important because it allows doctrinal conflicts to be resolved without lasting schism (usually, at least). Imagine what would have happened if the early Church facing a barrage of heresies had had a modern Protestant ecclesiology. At the very least, there would probably be a church of Alexandria (a theological school which emphasized Christ's divinity) and a church of Antioch (which was concerned about maintaining his humanity), and the western church would have been "farewelled" centuries earlier. As well, there would probably be an Arian church, a Pelagian church, a Montanist church, a Gnostic church, a Nestorian church, a Marcionite church, a Donatist church, a Judaizer church, some kind of Christian/Manichee hybrid church, churches disagreeing with the decisions about the New Testament canon... (Only there would probably not be one of each of these churches by now, but dozens or hundreds due to later stresses)

Because the Protestant definition of the Church, in practice, comes down to "those who adhere to all the beliefs and/or moral standards that I consider essential", it becomes very difficult to actually prosecute heresies; those who adhere to them can simply leave, form a new church, and argue (from the Bible) that it is a truer church than the one they left! Because of this, in Protestant circles heresy usually doesn't get resolved so much as it gets called out and then divided over (fun fact: the Southern Baptist Convention originally formed to protect the "biblical" rights of slaveholders to their property). An ecclesiology that sees the Church as visible, external, objectively "there", more than simply a collection of individuals who believe the same thing, was essential for holding the early Church together.

I often hear the mantra, "In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity" to describe how Christians should approach doctrinal debates and go about distinguishing authentic Christian belief from false without becoming hyper-exclusive. But this only works if there is agreement on what the essentials are, which in many cases there is not. But the Orthodox Church actually realizes this ideal. The Church itself, not anyone in it, decides what is and is not essential. In the Orthodox Church, there are a variety of views on creation/evolution, on the nature of salvation, on the last things, and others, and no one claims that anyone else is somehow less than a true Christian because of it. Often the views are more compatible than competing, all expressing different facets of the same faith. Orthodox are able to sanely distinguish between what is worth defending and what is not in a way that seems miraculous, nay, impossible to a Protestant like me because the Church is what sets the limits of right belief, not individuals interpreting the Bible for themselves. By making membership in the Church visible and objective, they are able to have charitable, constructive conversation about the things of God without getting into the kinds of endless, often-acrimonious debates that lurk like land mines in Protestant theology.

Finally and proceeding from the previous point, the unity and objective definition of the Orthodox Church leads to a fuller faith than I have experienced in Protestant churches. I think Protestants have become somewhat desensitized to church division. Due to the sheer number of churches out there and the minority of the differences between some of them (and the aforementioned invisible view of the true Church), they are unwilling to conclude that only one church "has it right". So attempts are made to define a set of essential beliefs or attributes that constitute an "orthodox" church. This search for common factors tends to be minimalistic in nature, boundary-oriented: what must a church affirm/do and not affirm/do to be considered a true church? Or, individually, what must someone do/believe to "get saved"? The claim that no one church has the whole truth, but many have part of it even sounds alarmingly like good old relativism (try replacing "church" with "religion"). In contrast, the Orthodox faith is considered "maximalistic", whatever exactly that means (you can imagine), and center-oriented. Though the councils do provide strong limits to Orthodox theology, there is much less of a practical emphasis on finding who is Orthodox or not, since it is obvious unless someone is flagrantly immoral or teaching heresy. There is a lot more attention given to preserving, rejoicing in, and seeking the fullness of the historic Christian faith.

And yet...

For all the ways I've come to agree with Orthodox theology, ecclesiology is also the area of my biggest currently standing disagreement with Orthodox theology. Late in the paper I linked to above, a Protestant participant in an ecumenical discussion read the following quote from Ware's book:
Nor is this unity merely ideal and invisible; Orthodox theology refuses to separate the ‘invisible’ and the ‘visible Church,’ and therefore it refuses to say that the Church is invisibly one but visibly divided. No: the Church is one, in the sense that here on earth there is a single, visible community which alone can claim to be the one true Church. . . . There can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms within the Church.
And gave this response:
This last statement is perhaps the most precise affirmation of that which I would deny. I would deny that the Church is both invisibly one and visibly undivided. No: the Church is invisibly one and is visibly divided. I would deny that there is a single, visible community which alone can claim to be the one true Church. No: no single, visible community can make that claim. I would deny that there can be no schisms within the Church; there have been, and there might yet be. I would affirm, by contrast, that the various traditions which comprise Christendom are all aspects, “branches” if you will, of the visible Church. They are visibly divided, but invisibly unite.
Obviously I don't agree with his branch theory for the Church, but I find that I still agree with him more than not when he says "the Church is invisibly one and is visibly divided. ... I would deny that there can be no schisms within the Church; there have been, and there might yet be." Right now I am at the same (tentative) conclusion, but for different reasons. It's not because I believe that it's always arrogant for any church to claim that it alone is the true Church, that no church has the right to make this claim. I come to this conclusion from a historical perspective, from asking two questions:
  1. The ecumenical council of Chalcedon claimed to speak for the whole Christian world with its Christological definition (the word "ecumenical" comes from the Greek oikoumenē, meaning the whole inhabited earth), yet the Oriental Orthodox churches rejected its canons and went into schism instead. How, then, can it be considered truly ecumenical?
  2. The Great Schism between the eastern and western churches is an even thornier problem. As I explained above, each church tells its own version of the schism depicting how the other church went into schism from it. Each story is at least internally consistent, as far as I can tell. What, then, is there to decide which story (and church) is true besides their own say-so? Even before 1054, the churches became increasingly estranged until they were visibly united in little more than name only.
Though I hope I'm wrong, right now I can't see these events as anything other than real schisms in the Church, not just from it. And even though it hasn't accepted false teaching, it's hard for me to believe the Orthodox Church isn't impoverished at all by the loss of the Latin and Aramaic churches. At least for now, I await an explanation for these things.

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