Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Incarnational Unity of the Church

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. [There is] one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who [is] above all, and through all, and in you all. (Eph 4:1-6 NKJV)

And He put all [things] under His feet, and gave Him [to be] head over all [things] to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:22-23 NKJV)

This post is something of a sequel to the one in my Journey to Orthodoxy series on ecclesiology, the nature of the Church. In it, I compared and contrasted the prevailing Protestant and Orthodox views on the Church. I gave some reasons for my finding the Orthodox telling more convincing, but also laid out two of my lingering doubts about it. This time around, I hope to go somewhat deeper, spending some time on the history of the Protestant visible/invisible Church distinction itself, and to offer some better conclusions from what I have learned of Orthodoxy in the past year.

Tracing the dichotomy back to Augustine

First, the history of the distinction made by Protestants between the invisible Church (the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic body of Christ, the company of the predestined or the justified known only to God) and the visible Church (the local gatherings or manifestations of the true Church, always intermingled with hypocrites and the reprobate in this life). I will refer to this distinction as the "invisible-church theory", keeping in mind that those who hold to it do not deny that there can be and are authentic visible manifestations of it. The Reformation teachers of this distinction traced it back to proto-reformers like Hus and Wycliffe, and before them to Augustine and his interpretation of Scripture. Millard Erickson summarizes:
This distinction [the relationship between the visible church and the invisible church], which first appeared as early as Augustine, was first enunciated clearly by Martin Luther and then incorporated by John Calvin into his theology as well. It was Luther's way of dealing with the apparent discrepancies between the qualities of the church as we find them laid out in Scripture and the characteristics of the empirical church, as it actually exists on earth. He suggested that the true church consists only of the justified, those savingly related to God. (Christian Theology, 966)
Thus, when Luther described the Church as the congregation of the justified and Calvin as the sum total of God's elect throughout time, known only to God (2 Tim 2:19) and marked by the true preaching of the Word and the administration of the sacraments, they did so with reference to Augustine as the patristic foundation and chief proponent of this teaching and the interpretation of Scripture on which it is based. This claim is more striking than it might seem at first. Did Augustine really espouse a prototypical form of the invisible-visible church distinction which would only be taken up and given its proper place a thousand years later by the reformers?

The father of the west states something like this idea in his work On Christian Doctrine 3.32 (actually in the context of describing the seven "rules" or teachings of the heretic Tichonius, but he seems to be in agreement about the rules themselves). He writes:
The second rule is about the twofold division of the body of the Lord; but this indeed is not a suitable name, for that is really no part of the body of Christ which will not be with Him in eternity. We ought, therefore, to say that the rule is about the true and the mixed body of the Lord, or the true and the counterfeit, or some such name; because, not to speak of eternity, hypocrites cannot even now be said to be in Him, although they seem to be in His Church. And hence this rule might be designated thus: Concerning the mixed Church. Now this rule requires the reader to be on his guard when Scripture, although it has now come to address or speak of a different set of persons, seems to be addressing or speaking of the same persons as before, just as if both sets constituted one body in consequence of their being for the time united in a common participation of the sacraments. An example of this is that passage in the Song of Solomon, I am black, but comely, as the tents of Kedar, as the curtains of Solomon. (Song of Songs 1:5) For it is not said, I was black as the tents of Kedar, but am now comely as the curtains of Solomon. The Church declares itself to be at present both; and this because the good fish and the bad are for the time mixed up in the one net. (Matthew 13:47-48) For the tents of Kedar pertain to Ishmael, who shall not be heir with the son of the free woman. (Galatians 4:30) And in the same way, when God says of the good part of the Church, I will bring the blind by a way that they knew not; I will lead them in paths that they have not known; I will make darkness light before them, and crooked things straight: these things will I do unto them, and not forsake them; (Isaiah 42:16) He immediately adds in regard to the other part, the bad that is mixed with the good, They shall be turned back. Now these words refer to a set of persons altogether different from the former; but as the two sets are for the present united in one body, He speaks as if there were no change in the subject of the sentence. They will not, however, always be in one body; for one of them is that wicked servant of whom we are told in the gospel, whose lord, when he comes, shall cut him asunder and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites. (Matthew 24:50-51)
Elsewhere, in On Baptism 5.27, he writes that the presence of both the godly and the ungodly in the Church at the present time does not falsify Scriptures testifying to the purity and holiness of the Church, as they are speaking of the predestined, those whom God knows are his:
And in that the Church is thus described in the Song of Songs, "A garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse; a spring shut up, a fountain sealed, a well of living water; your plants are an orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits;" (Song of Songs 4:12-13) I dare not understand this save of the holy and just,— not of the covetous, and defrauders, and robbers, and usurers, and drunkards, and the envious, of whom we yet both learn most fully from Cyprian's letters, as I have often shown, and teach ourselves, that they had baptism in common with the just, in common with whom they certainly had not Christian charity. For I would that some one would tell me how they "crept into the garden enclosed and the fountain sealed," of whom Cyprian bears witness that they renounced the world in word and not in deed, and that yet they were within the Church. For if they both are themselves there, and are themselves the bride of Christ, can she then be as she is described "without spot or wrinkle," (Ephesians 5:27) and is the fair dove defiled with such a portion of her members? Are these the thorns among which she is a lily, as it is said in the same Song? (Song of Songs 2:2) ... The number, therefore, of the just persons, "who are the called according to His purpose," (Romans 8:28) of whom it is said, "The Lord knows them that are His," (2 Timothy 2:19) is itself "the garden enclosed, the fountain sealed, a well of living water, the orchard of pomegranates with pleasant fruits." ... For, in that unspeakable foreknowledge of God, many who seem to be without are in reality within, and many who seem to be within yet really are without. Of all those, therefore, who, if I may so say, are inwardly and secretly within, is that "enclosed garden" composed, "the fountain sealed, a well of living water, the orchard of pomegranates, with pleasant fruits."
Augustine seems to be making exactly the same distinction that the reformers did, between a visible Church composed of a mixture of true and false believers, of the predestined and the reprobate (it bears reminding that predestination was one of the areas in which Augustine departed from the consensus of the rest of the patristic fathers) and the true Church composed of those whom God knows are his. Like Calvin, he cites 2 Timothy 2:19 in support of this idea; he also draws from the imagery of the parables of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) and the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50) to describe the present Church as a mixture of those who will be welcomed into the Kingdom and those who will be turned away at the last judgment.

Yet if you look at the context in which Augustine utilized this picture of the Church, you see that he did so in a way that differs sharply from the reformers. Augustine was responding to the claims of the Donatists, a schismatic, rigorist Christian sect (to which Tichonius somewhat inconsistently belonged) that held that the Church had to be holy, composed of saints rather than sinners, and that its very unity and catholicity depended on its holiness. They believed that the Church at-large had fallen into corruption and abandoned the true faith, except of course for the Donatist churches, by receiving and restoring traditores, Christians who had handed over copies of the Scriptures to escape persecution. They believed that this and other serious sins disqualified a Christian from roles of leadership, even after penance; any sacraments administered by a traditor bishop were invalid, and churches under the authority of traditores were not part of the one Church. The Church, to be holy, had to be led, and the grace mediated through the sacraments administered, by those who were still capable of doing so, who were not put themselves out of the Church by such sin.

In response to this, the Catholic/Orthodox (Catholodox?) Church taught that the grace mediated through the sacraments works ex opere operato, "from the work having been done"; that is, it is dependent only on the holiness of God in which the Church shares, not on the holiness of the officiant. Rather than the holiness of the Church depending on the holiness of its earthly members, Christians are made holy through their sharing in the holiness of God and his bride, the Church.

This is the context in which Augustine wrote against the Donatists. He sought to account for the apostasy and unholiness of many of the Church's members while undercutting the heretics' call to separate from the visible Church by upholding the continuing holiness of the one Church herself. In the present age, the Church is like the field in which both wheat and weeds have been sown, or the net in which both good and bad fish are caught. At the end of the age, God will separate the two, but until then, we should not be shocked that they are mixed together in one Church, and we certainly shouldn't go into schism over it! (For we will very quickly find that the new, schismatic "church" is little better) We Christians are charged with sharing in God's holiness, a project that will not be perfected in this life, yet our failures and faults do not endanger the holiness of the Church, which comes from Christ rather than her earthly members.

...and through to the Reformation

How does this bear on the reformers' use of Augustine? When he says things like "for that is really no part of the body of Christ which will not be with Him in eternity" (On Christian Doctrine 3.32), or "For in the ineffable foreknowledge of God, many who seem to be outside are actually within, just as many who seem to be within are in reality outside" (On Baptism 5.27), he certainly sounds a lot like them. Yet at the same time he vigorously opposed the possibility of schism from the visible Church, which he certainly still considered to be essentially one. His description of the Church as the collection of the predestined was not used to justify the division of the visible Church while affirming its continuing, invisible unity, but to affirm its visible and invisible unity in spite of the unholiness of its members. The Church may be a mixture of light and dark in its worldly existence, yet it remains one. Jaroslav Pelikan writes in his history of Christian doctrine:
[Augustine's] definition of the church as the "number of the predestined" was to figure prominently in the polemics of the late Middle Ages and the Reformation against the institutional church, but in Augustine's theology it has precisely the opposite function. It enabled him to accept a distinction between the members of the empirical catholic church and the company of those who would be saved, while at the same time he insisted that the empirical catholic church was the only one in which salvation was dispensed; 'for it is the church that gives birth to all.' Although God predestined, 'we, on the basis of what each man is right now, inquire whether today they are to be counted as members of the church.' It was to the church as now constituted that one was to look for grace, for guidance, and for authority. Those who accepted 'the authority of the Scriptures as preeminent' should also acknowledge 'that authority which from the time of the [earthly] presence of Christ, through the dispensation of the apostles and through a regular succession of bishops in their seats, has been preserved to our own day throughout the world.' (1.303)
Briefly applying this to the parables of Christ that Augustine draws from, we note that in both parables, the ones who draw the distinction between good seed and bad, or between good fish and bad, and who carry out the work of separating between the two, are God and his angels (13:37,39,49)—and this separation happens at the end of the age. (vv. 40,49) In the parable of the wheat, the sower (God) warns his harvesters (the angels) against gathering up the weeds prematurely, because they might uproot some of the wheat with them. (That is, seeking to weed out false Christians at the present might bring about the loss of some who would otherwise have found salvation)

Thus the end of the age, the final harvest, is when the present impurity of the earthly Church, the presence of hypocrites and the unholy within and of the righteous without, will be fully resolved, and the Church as a whole will at last be "on earth as it is in heaven". Those who, like the Donatists, attempt to purify the Church through schism are attempting to carry out the judgment God will perform at the end of the age, before the appointed time and with their own limited human knowledge and wisdom. Thus Augustine's distinction between true and false members of the body of Christ, far from justifying any attempt to separate out the two through schism, would instead condemn such efforts as a betrayal of the unity of the Church and a usurpation of God's role as judge.

Thus I think that Augustine's argument, when read in its context, argues against his later use by the reformers rather than supporting it. In fact, the interpretation used by the early Protestants, that the true Church is the number of God's elect regardless of visible church affiliation, would have played right into the Donatists' hands, justifying their split from the catholic Church to escape what they saw as its apostasy (while maintaining their membership in the invisible Church) rather than militating against it. Fr. Stephen Freeman, who has lately been blogging on ecumenism and the unity of the Church, writes that although the idea of a "hidden Church" consisting only of the truly faithful known only to God dates at least back to Augustine as we have just seen, the novelty introduced by the Reformation is that "for the first time, this collection is abstracted from the actual, historical manifestation of the Church." The adjective "faithful", in Protestant usage, loses its specific foundation in the apostolic faith of the one historic Church and takes on a much more nebulous, generalized meaning (that still somehow excludes Catholics).

In significant ways, then, the early reformers resembled their chosen church father Augustine less than they did the Donatists that he rebuked. Yet they also differed in other ways, which would prove to be problematic as well. Chief among these is the fact that the Donatists still considered the Church to be visible and one; they simply considered themselves to be the last faithful remnant of it. In the later Chalcedonian and Great Schisms as well, both parties considered themselves to be the continuation of the one indivisible Church—in accordance with their common ecclesiology, albeit in contradiction to each others' claims. But with the Reformation (and the figures preceding it, like Wycliffe and Hus) we see something new. Though the unity of the Church is still seen as essential to its nature in some way, this apparently no longer prevents it from being disrupted or broken.
At the dawning of the sixteenth century, in spite of the corruption that prevailed in many quarters, and of the many voices clamoring for reformation, there was general agreement among Christians that the church was in essence one, and that its unity must be seen in its structure and hierarchy. ... Most of the major Protestant leaders did believe that the unity of the Church was essential to its nature, and that therefore, although it was temporarily necessary to break that unity in order to be faithful to the Word of God, that their very faithfulness demanded that all possible efforts be made to regain their lost unity. (Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity 1.163)
To a classical Christian, the possibility of breaking the unity of the one body of Christ would have been unthinkable, impossible, precisely because that unity is essential to what the Church is. But not so anymore. Instead of one of its basic, defining traits, after the Reformation the unity of the Church becomes an ideal to strive for, desirable but not currently realized. Later movements like the Disciples of Christ and the modern ecumenical movement would do just that. Pelikan contrastingly describes Augustine's theology thus:
Unity, on the other hand, was not the final result of a long process of growth, but the immediate and necessary corollary of grace. 'If baptism is the sacrament of grace while the grace itself is the abolition of sins, then the grace of baptism is not presence among heretics (although baptism is). Thus there is one baptism and one church, just as there is one faith.' The one sin that threatened the church [during the Donatist crisis] was not the adultery or even the private apostasy of a bishop, but schism. (Pelikan 1.311)
If I had to briefly summarize the difference between Augustine's ecclesiology and its later use by the reformers, I would put it this way: Augustine drew his distinction between the visible, mixed Church and the invisible, true Church in the context of a strong affirmation of the essential unity of the Church in order to oppose a schism. The reformers picked it up in the context of at least a practical denial of the essential unity of the Church in order to justify many schisms.

Consequences of an essentially invisible Church

This shift in ecclesiology had the effect of relativizing (or outright ignoring) the promises of classical ecclesiology as they pertained to the visible Church: it was no longer essentially, indivisibly one, only the invisible, "true" Church was. This invisible Church was also no longer related in any definite way to the visible one. There was not even one particular visible church body; any body meeting certain criteria or possessing certain "marks" was believed to be a manifestation of the invisible, true Church. In this way, it was believed, the Church remained one, holy, catholic, and apostolic, despite the increasing divisions being wrought in its visible outworking.
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. (Calvin, Institutes IV.1.2)
In concealment, but also in abstraction. Freeman comments: "For the modern world has completely re-thought the matter of the Christian Church, and the state of things today is the result. In particular, modern Christians have largely lost the ability to think of the Church as “One,” in any way that is not a vague, nebulous unity of abstraction." Insisting that the Church is one in some invisible, abstract way cannot but alter our working definition of "unity", generalizing it until it means little more than a sentiment of warm-heartedness, mutual appreciation, or willingness to cooperate, expressed by gestures of hospitality like joint prayer, the sharing of preachers, and open communion. Just as I was composing this, Peter Enns articulated the same sort of difference between unity in general and unity in particular: "When we are talking 'general' unity, it’s all good. But when we get to specifics, things get awkward." No amount of wordplay can change the fact that the invisible Church of the modern world is not "One" or "united" in any way remotely resembling how the ancient Church was. Freeman continues in a follow-up post:
My writing painfully about the meaning of union and the One Church, is not to argue about the status of various Christian “Churches.” ... Rather, it is first to return the meaning of “One Church” to its proper place, with all of the pain and scandal that attends it. The One Church is ultimately found in One Cup, and there, only through true repentance and acceptance of the fullness of the faith. And if we are not there, then at least we must say so and cry out to God. He gives grace to the humble and resists the proud. It is beyond arrogance to say we are one when we are not. There can be no communion in a lie, or only a communion of death.
Another effect of this new ecclesiology is that it subjectivizes membership in the Church. The marks used to identify the presence of this Church, like sincere and true preaching of the Scriptures, the right administration of the sacraments, belief in some "essential" Christian doctrines, or simply an authentic, heart-felt inner faith are all just that—subjectively discerned. They cannot simply be seen; they have to be evaluated. Different groups will evaluate them differently. The turmoil and conflicts of the early Reformation make this abundantly clear; Calvin would not have included Catholic churches as manifestations of the true Church, and were they following his criteria Catholics would likely not have said the same of Reformed churches either. Membership in the true Church (or equivalently, being "saved" or simply being a "true Christian") all become subjectively defined, invisible even to the individual in question, a matter of opinion, a value judgment. It becomes impossible to speak of the extent of the Church without making at least an implicit pronouncement on the state of the faith of others.

One last consequence is the multiplication of visible divisions in the church(es). In his extensive analysis, The Unintended Reformation, Brad S. Gregory writes that "having rejected the authority of the Roman church, Protestants shared no institutions or authorities in common to which they could turn to resolve disputes among themselves." (369) In the case of a disagreement on doctrine or practice, the easiest and most natural course of action was no longer to have a council or bishop adjudicate and expect both parties to abide by their decision, but simply to let them go their separate ways, believing and worshipping according to their consciences while still remaining somehow "one". So with Luther and Zwingli, so with the magisterial reformers and the early Anabaptists, so with the colonists who fled to American to practice their religion in peace. As I said in my last post on the subject, the Donatist controversy (and every other controversy in the early Church) would have ended very differently if this approach had been the prevalent one; there would probably still be a Donatist church (or churches) to this day. In such a system heresies can no longer be silenced; instead they simply continue coexisting separately alongside the parent church that turned them out, claiming to still be part of the same invisible Church. And who can tell them differently? Pelikan, describing the Catholic Church's rebuttal to Jan Hus' view of the Church, writes: "For while it was true that the predestinate were the ones who made the church 'the true body of Christ,' the Hussite definition would destroy all certainty about the church and with it all ability to function in the church." (4.75-76) There is certainly truth to such concerns.

On a more personal level, the subjectivism and fissiparousness of invisible-church ecclesiology gave rise to the "sea of relativism" I felt trapped in while seeking answers to my questions about the Bible—how to read and apply it, its place in the Christian faith, its relation to Jesus as the Word of God—and the gospel—atonement, the relationship between faith and works, Paul's view on the law, and the basic nature of salvation.  I was confused and questioning all of these things, and there were no definite answers that I could see, only a multiplicity of possibilities and Christian traditions I could turn to in order to validate them. Which one represented the truth? I couldn't see any way to tell, and they couldn't all be right. I saw no choice but to search for the truth on my own, independently of any church tradition, acutely aware of the implicit individualism of this quest. All I had to show for it were possibilities and theories, ideals that were much better represented in Christian academia than any church I knew of. Any faith I constructed from my readings and theologizings would be little more than a cognitive web of ideas more of my own creation than God's, a far cry from the all-embracing life that the Christian faith is supposed to be.

Excursus: The branch theory

I only briefly touched on the branch theory in my last post. Basically, it is a theory within Anglican theology that the three major Christian communions claiming apostolic succession (Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and the Anglican Communion) do not truly represent schisms in the Church, but rather are "branches" of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. This theory is a non-starter for Orthodox theology for several reasons.
  1. It is even more innovative than the invisible-church theory; I have never heard anyone claim it dates back to before the nineteenth century, let alone that it was taught in the early Church. This inspires little confidence that it is not also an attempt to explain the visible division of the Christian churches and avoid the need to rejoin the Catholics (or Orthodox).
  2. It also strains and abstractifies the definition of "unity" just as much as the invisible-church theory. In what meaningful, concrete sense can church bodies that deny each other communion and teach radically different faiths (in the case of Anglicanism, there are radical internal differences between the evangelical and Anglo-catholic wings, precipitating the archbishop's recent decision to reorganize the Communion into a looser affiliation) constitute one Church? The Catholic author Adrian Fortescue rightly writes of the Eastern Orthodox: "The idea of a church made up of mutually excommunicate bodies that teach different articles of faith and yet altogether form one Church is as inconceivable to them as it is to us [Catholics]." To both of these churches, "faith" does not describe a sentiment or general conviction; it is specific and content-laden. Fr. Freeman explains: "the One Church had always known what 'faithful' meant. It meant to accept without reservation the one faith of the one Church and to live in conformity with her canons and teachings. This was the ship of salvation established by Christ."
  3. Its opening admission that the Church has fallen into schism within itself amounts to an outright denial of its unity.

The fullness of him who fills all in all

To (re)introduce the Orthodox perspective on the nature of the Church, I'll quote Bishop Kallistos Ware at length, who says it much better than I can (with my own comments interspersed).
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.
Ware recognizes Augustine's distinction between the visible and invisible dimensions of the one Church while expanding them both. The Church is visible, earthly, human, and mixed, but it is also invisible, heavenly, divine, and pure. Before it was ever used to argue against the invisible-church theory, the dogma of the unity of the Church was an affirmation of the indivisibility of these two realities of the Church. The key to this unity, as Ware argues at the end of this paragraph, is eschatology: at present, the Church is still a work in progress, but viewed through the lens of eschatology the Church is glorified and perfect. But that contrast isn't the end of it: Orthodox believe that through the incarnation, through the cross and the resurrection in particular, the eschaton, the age to come, the End (see Rev 21:6) has broken into the present, and that in the Church these two realities exist on top of one another. Fr. Freeman puts it this way: "[Christ's prayer 'that they may all be one'] is a prayer that will indeed have an eschatological fulfillment: 'All things will be gathered together in one…' But in Christ, the Eschaton has already come. We may eat and drink of that One and become the life of the One fulfilled in this world."
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."
The Church, according to Khomiakov, is accomplished on earth without losing its essential characteristics. This is a cardinal point in Orthodox teaching. Orthodoxy does not believe merely in an ideal Church, invisible and heavenly. This 'ideal Church' exists visible on earth as a concrete reality.
This is, roughly, how Orthodox account for the present discrepancy between the visible imperfection of the Church and the language of perfection applied to her in the Scriptures. It is not that only the invisible Church is the true one, and visible gatherings of truly faithful Christians, regardless of church affiliation, are manifestations of it (this explanation reeks of Platonic dualism). Because the end of the ages has come upon us (1 Cor 10:11) in the form of the resurrected Lord, it is possible to affirm that the visible, human, concrete Church is, by the sacramental grace of God, already the eschatological, purified bride of Christ. Through our present, visible participation in the concrete Church we are blessed to be able to join in the heavenly worship offered to God by the angels in the heavenly Church, for these two Churches are one. To separate them because of that which is passing away is to redefine the Church on our own, human terms.

How can this mysterious union of this age and the age to come be? The Incarnation shows how:
Yet Orthodoxy tries not to forget that there is a human element in the Church as well as a divine. The dogma of Chalcedon must be applied to the Church as well as to Christ, Just as Christ the God-man has two natures, divine and human, so in the Church there is a synergy or co-operation between the divine and the human.
Here Ware describes the analogy between the incarnate Christ and the Church, his body. The Church is both fully divine and fully human in something like the way that Jesus is (and the Scriptures as well). There is thus a congruency between ecclesiology and Christology. Vladimir Lossky fleshes this out further, describing the invisible-church theory as the ecclesiological analogue of the Nestorian heresy:
The Church, in its Christological aspect, appears as an organism having two natures, two operations and two wills. In the history of Christian dogma all the Christological heresies come to life anew and reappear with reference to the Church. Thus, there arises a Nestorian ecclesiology, the error of those who would divide the Church into distinct beings: on the one hand the heavenly and invisible Church, alone true and absolute; on the other, the earthly Church (or rather 'the churches') imperfect and relative, wandering in the shadows, human societies seeking to draw near, so far as is possible for them, to that transcendent perspective. (The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church, 186)
He goes on to describe a monophysite ecclesiology as the divinization of every detail of the Church and resultant inflexibility (as seen in the old believer schism), a monothelite ecclesiology ("a negation of the economy of the Church in regard to the external world"), and its opposite, an over-readiness to compromise and sacrifice the truth in order to adapt to the external world. But just as Christ is fully God and fully man "unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably" and without denigrating either nature, so the one Church is both visible and invisible, earthly and heavenly, of this age and the age to come.

Ware continues to describe the mystery:
Yet between Christ's humanity and that of the Church there is this obvious difference, that the one is perfect and sinless, while the other is not yet fully so. Only a part of the humanity of the Church—the saints in heaven—has attained perfection, while here on earth the Church's members often misuse their human freedom. The Church on earth exists in a state of tension: it is already the body of Christ, and thus perfect and sinless, and yet, since its members are imperfect and sinful, it must continually become what it is. [Footnote: 'This idea of "becoming what you are" is the key to the whole eschatological teaching of the New Testament']
But human sin cannot affect the essential nature of the Church. We must not say that because Christians on earth sin and are imperfect, therefore the Church sins and is imperfect, for the Church, even on earth, is a thing of heaven and cannot sin. How is it that the members of the Church are sinners, and yet they belong in the communion of saints? 'The mystery of the Church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this "something different" is the Body of Christ.
So I was wrong last time when I said that the Church does not basically consist of people. It does, yet because of its incarnational, eschatological nature, its essential nature as the one holy catholic and apostolic body of Christ is not damaged or destroyed by the impurity of its earthly members.
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.
This paragraph beautifully summarizes the reality of the Church and how its unity fits seamlessly into this. The late Fr. Thomas Hopko similarly writes: "Within the unity of the Church man is what he is created to be and can grow for eternity in divine life in communion with God through Christ in the Holy Spirit. The unity of the Church is not broken by time or space and is not limited merely to those alive upon the earth. The unity of the Church is the unity of the Blessed Trinity and of all of those who live with God: the holy angels, the righteous dead, and those who live upon the earth according to the commandments of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit."

To finish the Ware quote:
'The Church is one. Its unity follows of necessity from the unity of God.' So wrote Khomiakov in the opening words of his famous essay. If we take seriously the bond between God and His Church, then we must inevitably think of the Church as one, even as God is one: there is only one Christ, and so there can be only one Body of Christ. 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 true Church. The 'undivided Church' is not merely something that existed in the past, and which we hope will exist again in the future; it is something that exists here and now. Unity is one of the essential characteristics of the Church, and since the Church on earth, despite the sinfulness of its members, retains its essential characteristics, it remains and always will remain visibly one. There can be schisms from the Church, but no schisms within the Church. And while it is undeniably true that, on a purely human level, the Church's life is grievously impoverished as a result of schisms, yet such schisms cannot affect the essential nature of the Church.
Hopefully this sets Ware's closing affirmation, that there can be schisms from the Church but not within it, in its proper context. The unity of the body of Christ precludes not only the possibility of it being divided into pieces (or branches), but also the separation of its visible and invisible (or present and eschatological, or divine and human, or earthly and heavenly) dimensions. It is this very unity that assures its holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity; when we worship with the Church, we can be confident that we worship in the fullness of the faith once delivered, not merely in an imperfect human attempt to reconstruct it. The Church and membership in it are objectively, visibly defined; there is no room for ambiguity or controversy about what and where the Church is. This averts the consequences of the invisible-church theory I have described.

I would argue that this perspective on the Church resembles that of Augustine much more than the invisible-church theory. It does not legitimate schism; it denies the possibility of it, just as he did. It distinguishes between the visible and invisible dimensions of the Church as he did, while denying that they should or can be separated. It does not call for speculation into the state of other believers in order to trace the extent of the Church, but arises from the humility that views oneself as the worst all sinners. As Augustine said, "we, on the basis of what each man is right now, inquire whether today they are to be counted as members of the church." And if I, the first of the sinners, am counted worthy to be a member of the Church, how can I judge anyone else who has not put himself out of the body as unworthy? Of course, Augustine's perspective differs from that of the rest of the fathers in his one-sided approach to predestination and particular use of it when describing the invisible Church, as is well-known, but this does not invalidate his point.

Some closing questions

Why is all this important?
Why am I spilling all this virtual ink on a subject that I've already covered? In part, to show how it is possible to have very diverse views on something while affirming the same foundational statement ("one holy catholic and apostolic Church") about it. Though its adherents might claim to affirm the Creed, the invisible-church theory is an innovation; it is not how Christians have viewed the Church from the beginning, but rather uses familiar language to say something new. I have tried to express this as clearly as possible. This difference is not trivial; if one theory is true, the other cannot be.

With that said, perhaps the biggest reason I find the Orthodox teaching on the unity of the Church compelling is that it makes that unity so much more meaningful and coherent. It is no longer an abstraction, and neither is the Church. It now means something concrete to say that the Church is one: it is one body, praying and teaching one faith, united to God and the whole communion of saints through its eucharistic union with Christ by means of the One Cup, as Fr. Freeman was quoted as saying earlier. As well, this unity harmonizes perfectly, dare I say beautifully, with the unity of God, of Christ (whose body it is), of his humanity and divinity, of the Holy Spirit indwelling it.

Compared to this, the invisible-church theory feels like a compromise, a consolation, a quasi-Platonic denial of the reality of the visible disunity in favor of an intangible "spiritual" unity. Yet at the same time, no one would have adopted it without first concluding that the Church is visibly divided (else there would be nothing to explain)—the result of a judgment based too much on external impressions rather than faith in the unity of God. Yet Paul writes, "From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh." (2 Cor 5:16) This interpretation places strain on the very concepts of "one" or "unity". It does not integrate seamlessly with the unity of God and the incarnation. How can the body of Christ be spiritually one yet visibly divided? No, there is not one invisible, spiritual Church that we must find and convince ourselves has remained whole through all the denominational divisions; there is one particular, visible, incarnational Church, and so there has been from the beginning.

Isn't it arrogant to claim that your church is the One True Church?
Something I should have made clear to my Protestant friends a long time ago: My claim to be joining the "one holy catholic and apostolic Church" (which does implicitly exclude your church) is not a claim about the authenticity of your personal faith or salvation in any way, though I think it is often taken that way. Again, Orthodoxy strongly discourages speculation about the authenticity of the faith of others; first remove the plank from your own eye. Nor is it a claim that the Orthodox Church is somehow "better" or "truer" than the visible church body you are a part of. (Though I have definitely been guilty of this in the past) A few months ago Fr. Freeman wrote strikingly about Orthodox triumphalism:
the Orthodox Church is not better than some other Church. If you declare such a thing to be true, then you have actually denied the truth of Orthodoxy. We believe the Church to be One. We believe the Church is One because God is One. And, as in the case of God, it is One of which there is not two. If Orthodoxy is The Church, then it’s not the better Church. It is not something that can be compared to anything else. ... As soon as comparisons are made, the Church is reduced to one among the many and the concept of “many churches” is granted, denying the declaration of the Creed. The Orthodox Church is not better – it simply is what it is.
In other words, the Orthodox Church does not somehow gain the "right" to call itself the one Church through any sort of comparison process with any other Church, like you might apply when selecting a church. It confesses that there is no other Church, nor can there be. It does not become the one Church by qualifying for the honor, nor by meeting any sort of criteria or by the possession of particular "marks". It simply is what it is, and it always has been. Ware fleshes this claim out more:
Orthodoxy, believing that the Church on earth has remained and must remain visibly one, naturally also believes itself to be that one visible Church. This is a bold claim, and to many it will seem an arrogant one; but this is to misunderstand the spirit in which it is made. Orthodox believe that they are the true Church, not on account of any personal merit, but by the grace of God. They say with St. Paul, 'We are no better than pots of earthenware to contain this treasure; the sovereign power comes from God and not from us' (2 Corinthians iv, 7). But while claiming no credit for themselves, Orthodox are in all humility convinced that they have received a precious and unique gift from God; and if they pretended to others that they did not possess this gift, they would be guilty of an act of betrayal in the sight of heaven. (The Orthodox Church 246)
It actually feels liberating not to have to argue that the status of the Orthodox Church makes it "better" or "truer" than all other churches. There is plenty that is regrettable in the Church's history, and plenty that is praiseworthy in other communions, but this is because of the liberality and uncontainability of grace, not because of any abstraction of the Church. Orthodox are primarily interested in defining where the Church is, not identifying places where it isn't. Orthodoxy prefers to pay focus on the center of the Church (that is, Christ) rather than nail down its precise boundaries.

How do I view concerns for the unity of the Church as a questioning Protestant?
I still remember how ardently concerned I used to be for this thing call "church unity". I was deeply concerned with all the ugly conflicts, the misunderstandings, not to mention the differences in teaching and practice among those calling themselves Christians. I believed, as I still do, that it harms and hinders the witness of all Christians to the world. I dreamed of the healing of these divisions and how I could possibly be a part of it. Yet my concern sprang from my trusting my own impressions of disunity and division rather than the promises of God and the biblical account of the nature of the Church. Like so many others, I believed that the promised original unity of the Church was merely incidental, something that human error had since broken and that needed to be put back together again.

I am relieved that I was mistaken. There's no doubt that the urgency of my earlier ecumenical concerns has lessened as a result, but I still identify with Paul's wish "that there be no divisions among you, but that you be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor 1:10)—though in my actions I feel like I work to subvert that harmony as often as I build it up. There is a certainly nothing wrong with the measures I used to have in mind for healing divisions among the churches, like increased cooperation and more-aligned teaching between denominations and communions, but these advances cannot create the organic, one-body unity that Orthodox see in the Church. Again, the unity of the Church is not a project or an ideal, something future that one day may be accomplished. It is an eternal reality, a consequence of the oneness of God. The most "ecumenical" gesture I or any Christian can make is to simply join it, not to try to recreate it.

How would I answer my lingering doubts on the unity of the Church from last time?
The Chalcedonian and Great Schisms certainly stand as the most convincing counterexamples to the teaching I have presented. All of the parties involved agree that these schisms weren't qualitatively different than others, they didn't actually break the Church in two; they only differ in scale, and the fact that both sides of the schisms have continued existing as separate churches into the present. This continuation of both sides of a schism raises the natural question: how do Orthodox, or Catholics, or the Oriental Orthodox, or any church with apostolic succession know that theirs is the true Church and not the schismatic one? Don't their symmetrical claims cancel or disprove each other?

I don't think it's possible to "prove" which church is in the right, or these schisms would not have lasted so long. Does this mean these churches are stuck in the same sea of relativism that Protestants are? I don't think so. All of them still believe in the essential, incarnational unity of the Church. Their competing claims by no means entail that they are all wrong and that Protestant ecclesiology is right; their continuing agreement on the visible unity of the Church only strengthens the case for the truth of the teaching. In his latest post on unity and "un-ecumenism", Fr. Freeman writes:
Those who stand outside of Orthodoxy and point to the schisms between the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, or the schism with the Roman Catholics, fail to understand what they see. Those schisms are real and they are indeed problems. But in each case, those involved have not renounced the reality of the One Church, nor the sacramental life of the One Cup. The schisms are something to be healed and are treated with great seriousness. But there can only be a true restoration of communion and union in the One Church. It is the very nature of that one life [that] is being preserved and proclaimed, even in the face of schism. If you will, the language and grammar of the One Church is spoken fluently in those ancient groups. Conversations are therefore possible. If, for example, a path of union were found between the Oriental and Orthodox Christians, it would not involve re-teaching the entire nature of what it means to be a Christian and what the character of that life looks like. Both speak the language of union.
There is no (or at least less) subjectivity in choosing between these churches because they all continue to believe that your choice between them matters. It matters immensely. You aren't simply choosing a visible church body that fits your convictions, conscience, and preferences while participating in the invisible Church through your authentic individual faith the whole time. You are searching for the one holy catholic and apostolic (and visible) Church. Catholics and both kinds of Orthodox all agree that only one of them can be it. Choose wisely.

With that said, I can at least give my reasons for choosing as I have. As a result of better communication, the growing consensus among Orthodox (confirmed by several meetings in the second half of the twentieth century) is that the schism with the Oriental Orthodox has been a 1500-year misunderstanding. There is no real disagreement between the churches, only the use of different words to express the same reality regarding Christ's humanity and divinity. They hold the same faith as the Orthodox Church, which would make a reunion a mere formality. And hopes for reunion are high, especially with the upcoming council next year. So it is actually possible (and hopefully the case) that the choice between Eastern and Oriental Orthodoxy (yes, the names mean the same thing) really doesn't matter, not any more than the choice between (say) the Greek or Russian Orthodox Churches matters. Perhaps if I'd read a book by an Oriental Orthodox first, I would be joining them instead. As it is, I look forward with hope to seeing the schism closed.

The Orthodox Church's differences with Rome are much better established and unlikely to be downgraded to a misunderstanding anytime soon. I believe the Orthodox Church has preserved the apostolic faith free from western distortions like the papacy and the Filioque; it is much easier for me to believe that these things are later additions to the faith (no one disputes the dating of the Filioque) than parts of the apostolic deposit. I don't think I should have to argue this point very rigorously to my predominantly Protestant audience. As well, the Orthodox Church has been preserved from the overriding rationalism and widespread corruption that gave birth to the Reformation, and through it modernity.

This post has gone on more than long enough. I'll close with one last extended quote by Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop who wrote regarding a schism that broke out in his own diocese. As usual for the fathers, there is no hint that the unity of the Church only applies to its invisible dimension, or that the visible and invisible dimensions can be held apart at all. Rather, he presses hard for the essential unity of the Church with a variety of analogies, some of them quite beautiful—the marriage analogy, which I didn't have time to get into at present, is especially worth considering. More recent Orthodox don't share his hardliner attitude toward schismatics (it is directed at those who actually incite schisms, and tends to have the opposite of the intended effect on non-Orthodox Christians today), but his theological points stand.
Does he who does not hold this unity of the Church think that he holds the faith? Does he who strives against and resists the Church trust that he is in the Church, when moreover the blessed Apostle Paul teaches the same thing, and sets forth the sacrament of unity, saying, “There is one body and one spirit, one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God?” (Eph 4:4)
And this unity we ought firmly to hold and assert, especially those of us that are bishops who preside in the Church, that we may also prove the episcopate itself to be one and undivided. Let no one deceive the brotherhood by a falsehood: let no one corrupt the truth of the faith by perfidious prevarication. The episcopate is one, each part of which is held by each one for the whole. The Church also is one, which is spread abroad far and wide into a multitude by an increase of fruitfulness. As there are many rays of the sun, but one light; and many branches of a tree, but one strength based in its tenacious root; and since from one spring flow many streams, although the multiplicity seems diffused in the liberality of an overflowing abundance, yet the unity is still preserved in the source. Separate a ray of the sun from its body of light, its unity does not allow a division of light; break a branch from a tree,—when broken, it will not be able to bud; cut off the stream from its fountain, and that which is cut off dries up. Thus also the Church, shone over with the light of the Lord, sheds forth her rays over the whole world, yet it is one light which is everywhere diffused, nor is the unity of the body separated. Her fruitful abundance spreads her branches over the whole world. She broadly expands her rivers, liberally flowing, yet her head is one, her source one; and she is one mother, plentiful in the results of fruitfulness: from her womb we are born, by her milk we are nourished, by her spirit we are animated.
The spouse of Christ cannot be adulterous; she is uncorrupted and pure. She knows one home; she guards with chaste modesty the sanctity of one couch. She keeps us for God. She appoints the sons whom she has born for the kingdom. Whoever is separated from the Church and is joined to an adulteress, is separated from the promises of the Church; nor can he who forsakes the Church of Christ attain to the rewards of Christ. He is a stranger; he is profane; he is an enemy. He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the Church for his mother. If any one could escape who was outside the ark of Noah, then he also may escape who shall be outside of the Church. The Lord warns, saying, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who gathereth not with me scattereth.” (Mat 12:30) He who breaks the peace and the concord of Christ, does so in opposition to Christ; he who gathereth elsewhere than in the Church, scatters the Church of Christ. The Lord says, “I and the Father are one;” (Jhn 10:30) and again it is written of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, “And these three are one.” (1 Jhn 5:7) And does any one believe that this unity which thus comes from the divine strength and coheres in celestial sacraments, can be divided in the Church, and can be separated by the parting asunder of opposing wills? He who does not hold this unity does not hold God’s law, does not hold the faith of the Father and the Son, does not hold life and salvation.
Who, then, is so wicked and faithless, who is so insane with the madness of discord, that either he should believe that the unity of God can be divided, or should dare to rend it—the garment of the Lord—the Church of Christ? He Himself in His Gospel warns us, and teaches, saying, “And there shall be one flock and one shepherd.” (Jhn 10:16) And does any one believe that in one place there can be either many shepherds or many flocks? The Apostle Paul, moreover, urging upon us this same unity, beseeches and exhorts, saying, “I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no schisms among you; but that ye be joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.” (1 Cor 1:10) And again, he says, “Forbearing one another in love, endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” (Eph 4:3)
Cyprian of Carthage, On the Unity of the Church, 4-6,8

No comments:

Post a Comment