John Armstrong, some of you may have guessed, is the same John Armstrong whose blog graces my blogroll. He's a former Evangelical-Reformed pastor and church planter, founder of ACT3, and is currently an adjunct professor of evangelism at Wheaton College Graduate School, amongst other things. His blog is consistently interesting, dealing routinely with ecumenical issues. His book was no exception: there were many parts with which I was very pleased, and while I frequently disagreed with his conclusions, I'm elated that there are Evangelicals asking the questions he's asking, and grappling with subjects like Church, Tradition, and so forth in a serious, humble, and non-adversarial way. It's hard to mistake the love which radiates through John's writings. In all honesty, I was a bit concerned about criticizing his book, because I consider him in very many ways my superior. But nevertheless, I asked for this, and I'm going to do it.
I. The Crux of the Book
In Your Church is Too Small (YCITS), John argues for something he calls mission-ecumenism in this book: it's a call for the Church to unite, to evangelize, and to learn to love and trust even those we disagree with. In Chapter 18, he gives examples of communities and organizations which fulfill this model. The most fascinating of these examples is almost certainly the Taizé Community, whose founder, "Brother Roger," believed in a very similar goal for the Church to John's own (p. 186). It's a Christian community, essentially monastic in nature, with Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox members living in unity. Fascinating stuff. Brother Roger himself received Communion, declaring no differences in his Eucharistic theology than the Catholic Church's (it's worth mentioning that then-Cardinal Ratzinger's decision to permit him to receive has been often criticized by traditional Catholic; I've abstained from taking a side, for lack of information). John also argues that "the road to the future must run through the past" (17).
Some of the finer parts are when John argues that "True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to groups with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian" (18).
John also focuses heavily in YCITS on John 17:20-23, and quotes it in its entirety twice (29 and 41). He refers to it as “The Lord’s Prayer” because “it is a prayer that only our Lord could offer to the Father, not one we can pray as he did. It is also the longest and most comprehensive recorded prayer of Jesus” (42). And, John notes, it’s explicitly intended for both His immediate Disciples as well as all of us who will believe in Him in ages to come. He quotes John Calvin (!) for the proposition that "Whoever tears asunder the Church of God, disunites himself from Christ, who is the head, and who would have all his members to be united together" (26).
In furtherance of this missional-ecumenical goal, John takes on conservative Evangelicals who think of ecumenism as a bad word, and how they've attempted to get around John 17:20-23 by arguing that since "the invisible church, consisting of all true Christians cannot be divided, so it must be the invisible unity of the church that Jesus is praying for here"(42-43). This analysis can’t be the full story, since as John reasonably notes, praying that people will possess something which they already do possess is senseless. Jesus’ prayer is explicitly for believers now and in the future, so everyone He’s covering is already spiritually and invisibly united in some sense for this prayer to even apply to them. So what else is there? John argues that Jesus is praying instead for “relational unity” (43). So he's for a visible Church which is One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic, and which is rooted in, and informed by, Tradition (although not to the exclusion of Scripture). There is, in other words, much that I find incredibly promising in his vision.
But that said, there's much which was, frankly, disappointing. John's asking a lot of questions which scream "Catholic Church" as their answer, and yet he remains as he was, and that's liable to be a decision hard to understand as a Catholic. Yet I find that when he did address specific Catholic objections to his position, his responses just weren't up to par from what I've come to expect of him. These are the areas where I feel like room for reconsideration, reflection and prayer may be fruitful, because what John doesn't evince is any spirit of hostility towards Catholicism.
II. How to Achieve This Unity?
John quotes the evangelical Biblical scholar Ben Witherington for a critical claim:
There is always a tension in the church between unity among believers and truth as it is understood and held by believers. Protestantism has tended to uphold Truth, with a capital T, while intoning unity with a lowercase u, with the end result that Protestant churches and denominations have proved endlessly divisive and factious. On the other hand, Catholicism and Orthodoxy have held up Unity with a capital U, and at least from a Protestant viewpoint this has been at the expense of Truth. In other words, no part of the church has adequately gotten the balance between truth and unity right, it would seem.(45, quoting Witherington, John’s Wisdom: A Commentary on the Fourth Gospel). John rightly asks, “Why couldn’t we choose to embrace both Truth and Unity?” (45). I'm more struck, however, at how topsy-turvy Witherington's entire analysis is. In my own experience, Protestant denominations readily concede that they have no monopoly on Truth, and that other valid Christian denominations (however narrowly they might draw up that list) may affirm some truths which their own denomination denies or ignores. This is the "ecclesial Deism" notion which we've talked about here before. At its extreme fringe, there are Catholics who believe that no non-Catholics are saved. I've yet to meet a Baptist who believed that of non-Baptists. And all orthodox Catholics believe that the Church subsists in the Catholic Church. No Baptist believes this about their Church. In my own experience and observation, I've seen American Protestantism suffering greatly with incomplete truth and deep divisions preventing unity: the same individual willing to admit that another denomination might have some truth his denomination doesn't have is frequently unwilling to fellowship with that other denomination anyways. And even Witherington's concession that "Catholicism and Orthodoxy have held up Unity with a capital U, and at least from a Protestant viewpoint this has been at the expense of Truth" betrays the whole argument. If the Protestant viewpoint is wrong, Catholics and/or Orthodox demonstrate that one can have Truth and Unity simultaneously: there's no either-or about it. In fact, the two are obviously related. When Europe experienced the fewest heresies, She experienced the most religious unity. So Catholicism's claim is simple enough: to the extent everyone believes as She has always believed, they will enjoy the company of a massive and ancient Church. It's Unity through Truth, or Truth through Unity, depending on how you look at it. But it's certainly not Unity at the expense of Truth, a charge I'm frankly baffled by (the usual Protestant charge against the Church is that She's too restrictive with alternate dogmas, not too permissive).
John identifies three ways in which “cooperational unity,” rooted in our shared love of Christ, might work: unanimity, uniformity, and union. John says that unanimity “assumes we should reach agreement in everything” (54). Uniformity, as John deals with it here, refers primarily to a “common liturgical practice,” with everyone praying in the same manner (56). Finally, union involves the bringing of “all of us into one visible, united church” (56-57). All three of these are important concepts, and I’m impressed with John’s keenness in noting the importance of a shared liturgical practice for the fullest of Christian unity, although I think there’s much which can be said on this topic.
Unanimity is the first, and most important of the three, since from it flow the other two. John correctly identifies it as the Catholic position, “given their belief about the magisterium and the papacy” (54). Since he’s tied it with the Magisterium and the papacy, I’m assuming that the “agreement in everything” he’s referring to is on faith and morals (or else, the reference to Magisterial teaching is inappropriate). He contrasts this position with that of liberal Protestants who “have tended to move in the opposite direction and see agreement on any significant doctrinal formulation as nonessential” (55). So the unanimity we’re talking about is on doctrinal issues.
Yet John surprisingly argues against this uniformity, and through appeal to Hans Küng, who argues that to judge unity “by externals (canon law, ecclesiastical language, church administration, etc.) is to misunderstand it completely” (55, quoting Küng, The Church, 353-54). As far as I’m concerned, this isn’t even responsive to the Catholic position. The Eastern Catholic churches are in full communion with the Western (Latin Rite) Catholic churches, all under the spiritual authority of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict. My friend J.P. is Marionite, for example. His church has a different Code of Canon Law than mine; his church has a different ecclesiastical language (Syriac-Aramaic) than mine (Latin, along with the vernacular); and we have different church administration. His patriarch is Mar Nasrallah Boutros Sfeïr, my patriarch is Pope Benedict (who is Patriarch of the West as well as earthly head of the universal Church). So Catholics obviously and demonstrably don’t believe that to have unanimity on all issues of faith, you need identical canon law, ecclesiastical language, or church administration. A common canon law, ecclesiastical language, and church administration has virtually nothing to do with a shared faith, which is what this section relates to.
Küng’s quote is one of his characteristic red herrings about what the Church teaches, and it’s a pity that John limits his treatment of the Catholic view of unanimity so lightly. After all, what is the possible problem with everyone believing the same doctrines about God and His Church? Are we concerned that God will allow all of us to go astray? The Catholic position is nothing less than a full-throated “Yes, Sir!” to Christ’s call to “complete unity” (John 17:23).
The second issue which John addresses is uniformity, “in faith and practice” (55). I’m a bit confused on this, since uniformity in faith seems to be unanimity – what does it mean to have a non-unanimous, uniform belief in something? In practice, John’s treatment is limited to liturgical uniformity. He says that there “is much to recommend this approach” (55). Yet not even a full page prior, he approvingly quoted Küng’s dismissal of just such liturgical commonalities (like ecclesiastical language). So while I find this a bit baffling, I’m inclined to agree with John on the benefits of having a common liturgical practice, while acknowledging the real danger that having an overly-uniform liturgy can be stifling to evangelism. This is a truth which the Catholic Church has learned (repeatedly) the hard way. Liturgy points profoundly towards God, but we need to leave room for the Holy Spirit, and to allow people and cultures to use their particular gifts in the manner most pleasing to God. Francis Cardinal Arinze, himself from Nigeria, has argued this same point quite beautifully on the concrete issue of dancing in the Liturgy. On this issue, I think John's spot-on.
Finally, there’s the question of union. John correctly (and frankly, bravely) identifies “the “goal of Jesus’ prayer” in John 17:20-23 as “to bring all of us into one visible, united church” (56). Again, it is hard for me to understand how we can all be in one visible, united Church, without having some shared Church administration and governance. John then notes that even when both parties believe that union is essential to unity, that’s not the end of the story: the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church share this belief, but have not yet repaired their rift. A lesser form of union, John notes, is found in ministerial relationships across denominational divides. Then John says, “Most scholars agree that very little in the New Testament resembles anything like a central church that represented all Christian churches” (57). This statement seems open to misinterpretation. A Christian living in Jerusalem who moved to Corinth wouldn’t wonder which church to join. There were no competing denominations. The thing dividing the early Church was geography, not ecclesiology. In its infancy, very little administrative structure was needed to ensure doctrinal unity: the Apostles and St. Paul were alive and travelling to ensure order in every church. This is important, and often overlooked, fact. Every church was answerable to these men.
Yet there was still one city’s church, from the earliest days, which “represented all Christian churches.” St. Irenaeus, in his book Against Heresies (Book 3, Chapter 3, section 2) written between 175-185 A.D, refers to “that tradition derived from the apostles, of the very great, the very ancient, and universally known Church founded and organized at Rome by the two most glorious apostles, Peter and Paul.” So during the New Testament age, Peter and Paul were founding and organizing the church in Rome. And St. Irenaeus says further that the faith of the Church at Rome “comes down to our time by means of the successions of the bishops. For it is a matter of necessity that every Church should agree with this Church, on account of its preeminent authority, that is, the faithful everywhere, inasmuch as the apostolical tradition has been preserved continuously by those [faithful men] who exist everywhere.” So in the second century, we hear Irenaeus claiming Roman primacy as not just a tradition already ancient, but a tradition founded by Peter and Paul.
Obviously, it looked different in the first century than it does today. The Church has exploded in size, communication and transportation are dramatically improved, and new threats to the Church have popped up. We wouldn’t expect Western Union to look the same way today that it looked in the 1850s as a small business. But finally, if John is right, and he is, that Jesus’ goal in John 17:20-23 is to see us all in one visible, united Church, this requires some sort of central governing body. There’s simply no way to have two billion Christians united in anything more than name unless the shepherds are united, and if each shepherd answers only to himself (or if each denominational body answers only to itself), schism and dissension will happen. It has happened every time it’s been tried, and Protestantism has been trying it for centuries. So Jesus’ goal requires some entity: a person, a church, a governing board, something – which can serve as a final determination on divisive issues which threaten the unity of the Church. As it happens, the early Church witness is pretty clear what that entity was: the College of Bishops in union with the Bishop of Rome, who possessed some sort of primacy and unique authority.
III. On the Use of Catholic Dissidents, and the Marks of the Church
One of the too-easy dismissals which John falls into is one I've found to be true of the vast majority of Protestant writers: he assumes that if he can find a self-described Catholic who opposes the Church teaching on a certain issue, the Church is wrong, or the issue is still up in the air. Any Catholic can tell you that this isn't the case, of course, and I'm sure that if he thought about it directly, John would agree. Lots of self-described Christians denied the Divinity of Christ: some still do. The presence of heretics doesn't disprove orthodoxy, or throw it into chaos. Yet I was appalled to find John favorably citing to “Hans Küng, a Catholic theologian who has often criticized his own church” (54). Küng is not a Catholic theologian. He was stripped of his ability to call himself such on December 18, 1979, in response to his frankly non-Catholic views on virtually all important issues dividing Catholics from both Protestants and non-Christians. John also cites Fr. Raymond E. Brown favorably (59), and cites rather extensively to Luke Timothy Johnson (see, e.g., 70-72, 135); he cites to Fr. Richard McBrien (115), to disgraced Archbishop Rembert Weakland, identifying him only as “a Catholic archbishop” in the text (117) and John W. O’Malley. This is not an exhaustive list, but it's an illustrative one. With rare exception, the citations to these dissenting Catholics are to "disprove" the Catholic view on an issue in question.
For example, in his chapter on the Four Marks of the Church (One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic), John arrives at "Apostolic." Now, the early Church had a very specific meaning for what the Apostolic Church was. It was the Church founded by the Apostles. It was emphatically not whichever candidate felt it best upheld the principles articulated by the Apostle. In fact, the addition of this Mark of the Church between the Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed was to make it abundantly clear how one could tell the authentic Church from impostors. This concept is, of course, problematic to Protestantism, whose denominations are clearly not Apostolic in the sense the Early Church Fathers used the term. That's a serious problem worthy of a serious answer. But instead, John just quotes Luke Timothy Johnson as follows:
The church in every age must be measured by the standard of the apostolic age as witnessed not by the later tradition but by direct appeal to the writings of the New Testament. Placing the contemporary church against the one depicted in the Acts of the Apostles makes clear how much the prophetic witness of the church has been compromised by its many strategies of adaptation and survival over the centuries. This is the sense of the word employed by reformers like Martin Luther, who combated the excrescences of medieval Catholicism by appealing to the teaching and practice of the New Testament. Where in the New Testament do we find pope or cardinals? Where do we find mandatory celibacy? Where do we find indulgences, or even purgatory? Where do we find the office of the Inquisition? These are powerful questions. Equally needed is the prophetic call to a simpler and more radical “New Testament” lifestyle by Christians.(70, quoting Johnson, The Creed, p. 274). So Luke Timothy Johnson claims that instead of understanding Apostolic to mean what it originally meant, we should use the term to mean sola Scriptura, which it never meant (and which inexplicably reduces the Apostolic teachings to simply the writings). So if a new Church can show that it is more similar to (its own understandings of) the Apostolic Church, it gets to take the title Apostolic.
There are a lot of problems with this, not least of which is that Luke Timothy Johnson doesn't believe a word of it. It's just a way to attack the Church. In advocating for same-sex marriage, he says openly, "I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straight-forward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good." So use some sort of sola Scriptura when it helps, discard it when it doesn't. If Johnson weren't a self-described Catholic, it's hard to see John quoting him at such length, since he's obviously wrong about the meaning of Apostolic. And shouldn't the Creed mean what the men who, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, understood it to mean? Or at least, not something diametrically opposed?
Don't get me wrong: I am quite confident that the Church's teachings on issues of faith and morals, including Petrine primacy, Roman primacy, celibacy, indulgences, purgatory can be traced with certainty to the Apostolic era. But the idea behind saying, in the section of the Creed dealing with the Holy Spirit, that we believe in (the same Credo used for our belief in the three persons of the Trinity) "One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church" is that there already is such a Church. We weren't waiting around for 1500 years for Martin Luther to make the Church more Holy and Apostolic by making it less One and Catholic. On the Catholicity of the Church, John quotes Luke Timothy Johnson being equally idiotic by claiming that the term Roman Catholic "is oxymoronic," and that while "the Roman Catholic tradition (the reader will remember it is my own) may believe the Roman tradition is all-encompassing, but that is simply mistaken." (70, quoting Johnson, The Creed, p. 268-69). Of course, the term is not oxymoronic. Pope Benedict, in his capacity as a private theologian, demonstrates the necessity of both halves of this dynamic in his 1961 essay "Primacy, Episcopacy, and Successio Apostolica," a copy of which can be found in God's Word. That essay also clearly shows the recourse to Apostolic succession, rather than private interpretation of Scripture, in the early Church. Or, if you don't want to look there, go to page 99 of YCITS, where John quotes Cyril of Jerusalem:
The church is thus called "catholic" because it is spread throughout the entire inhabited world, from one end to the other, and because it teaches in its totality and without elaving anything out every doctrine people need to know relating to things visible and invisible , whether in heaven and earth...So nota bene: the historic use of Catholic wasn't "contains everybody," a concept closer to Unitarianism; it's "contains every vital doctrine," which is the precise thing you'd expect to be tied to a specific, identifiable body. Of course, Cyril also notes that the Church is Catholic because it is global and relevant to all stratas of society, but again, this is true of the Roman Catholic Church today and throughout Her history.
IV. The Heart of The Problem?
It seems to me that the heart of the problem is this: the Catholic Church views Herself as the source and summit of earthly ecumenicism, while John seems to view Her as one of innumerable competing denominations, with no particularly special claim. When the Church talks ecumenism, She's looking for how She can adapt to the needs and concerns of others, without violating those Truths specially entrusted to Her. When John talks ecumenism, it seems almost as though he expects the Church to simply stop claiming to be something unique and special so that no one feels threatened by Her. An example illustrates this this. On page 134, he begins, "Denominations are clearly not found in the Bible, and it is time everyone admits this fact." At this point, my highlighter was out: this is a point I've long argued. There may be a number of home churches in Rome, and a separate diocese in Jerusalem, but they're theologically on the same page - John comes pretty close to saying the same thing himself on pages 108-109. But then he continues: "Perhaps the only biblical analogue that comes close to our current situation is in Paul’s discussion about worldliness in the church at Corinth. One could compare Paul’s language to our modern context and hear people saying, ‘I belong to John Calvin. I belong to John Wesley. I belong to Benedict XVI’" (134).
Of course, one of these things is not like the others. John Calvin started Calvinism, John Wesley started Methodism, and Benedict XVI started... the journal Communio, I suppose. Obviously, he didn’t start Catholicism. So if we were going to make this parallel complete, who would fill in for Benedict XVI? Who “founded” Catholicism? Not Benedict, not John Paul II, not Gregory the Great, not Emperor Constantine, and not even Peter. From a historical, theological and biblical perspective, the case for any of these candidates is weak. The answer, it seems to me, is found in Matthew 16:17-19. As John notes, the early Church was not a denomination. There wasn’t a second alternative. There was one Church, some obvious heresies, and religious groups which rejected Christ. So at what point does that one Church become a denomination? And why? Does it cease to be the Church, and become a “denomination” at the Great Schism, or the Reformation? If so, why? On what Biblical basis could we possibly derive that answer? Safely, we can say that Christ set up the Catholic Church and it is not, and never has been, a “denomination.” But John's perception of Her as such seems to lead to a lot of the confusion between our two views of the Church.
V. Some of the Finer Points
I feel like I've been quick to point out areas in which John and I disagree on the Church, but I don't want you to get the impression that the book is badly written, or an anti-Catholic polemic, or anything of the sort. John is careful to offer balanced and constructive criticism towards those who he feels are in error, even his elders, like the Catholic Church; my hope is that he'll appreciate the same done in kind to himself. In truth, the book has a number of insightful points. A few short remarks he made which struck me as succinctly addressing important points were:
- “True Christian faith is not found in personal religious feelings but in the historical and incarnational reality of a confessing church. Therefore, if we refuse to come to groups with our past, our future will not be distinctively Christian” (18).
- “Everyone interprets the Bible. This truth may be abundantly clear to you, but I have that it is easily forgotten by ‘Bible-centered’ Christians. Quoting the Bible rarely settles disagreements. By themselves, Bible verses fail to promote unity” (79).
- “Before there was a completed Bible, how did the church understand and confess the living message of Christ?” (79).
- “As a young Christian, I was taught that the church was divided and confused immediately after the generation of the apostles. But the historical evidence fails to support this idea. Cults often suggest this notion as they seek to promote ‘new’ revelation. However, some evangelicals have also used it to argue against historical traditions” (86, my emphasis added).
- “We are saved as the people of God called to live in community. There are two traps to be avoided here – (1) pseudo-pious sentimentality in which we fail to see that the church must have organization and (2) institutionalism in which we fail to see that the church is a living organism” (105).
- “Combined with Western individualism, this stress on personal salvation misses the narrative (story line) of the Bible and gives people another reason not to care deeply about the church. The biggest problem with the Western emphasis is that it misses the cosmic dimensions of the gospel – ‘the universal nature of God’s work in all of history.” (114, quoting Webber, Who Gets to Narrate the World?, p. 24).
- “The question is really not ‘Do I believe in tradition?’ but ‘Which tradition will I follow?’ Every evangelical subculture is laden with traditions peculiar to its own history.” (122, quoting Robert E. Webber).
- “In the first several centuries of Christianity, there is no doubt that Christianity was passed on primarily through oral tradition” (123).
- “Many evangelicals opposed Christian tradition because they pit the spiritual against the historical. This is a false antithesis. Those who dispense with tradition always create new traditions” (123).
- “In the New Testament, there are two types of tradition: (1) the ‘human traditions,’ which are strongly condemned by Jesus in Mark 7:6-8, and (2) the holy or apostolic tradition, referred to by Paul, who tells us ‘to hold fast to the teachings [traditions] we passed on to you’ (2 Thessalonians 2:15)” (124).
- “My appeal here is simple: The modern church desperately needs both ministers and nonprofessionals to read the patristic writers” (127).
- “I do not wish to overdramatize my point, but evangelicalism’s two-hundred-year approach to tradition has been an unmitigated disaster” (130).
Admittedly, the brotherhood between Catholics and Protestants includes the fact that both belong to a different traditional community - includes, too, the separation, and the pain of the separation, and thus presents a constant challenge to overcome it. Indeed, it is important not to ignore the element of separation which is inevitably part of this brotherhood and gives it its particular quality; to ignore it is ultimately to become reconciled to it, and that is just what we must not do.(117, quoting Ratzinger, Meaning of Christian Brotherhood, 91). I think that sums up both John and Benedict's points on how we should behave pretty beautifully.
I clearly disagree with some of John's conclusions, and I'm longing for him to go into greater depths on the Catholic questions, since so many times he seems to flirt with the Catholic position, and then withdraw without an immediately obvious explanation. But the book's first major redeeming strength is that it's incredibly thought-provoking. It's second is that, for all of the ecclesiological disagreements John and I may have, I think we can unite around the common cause that we should embrace one another as Christians and go into the world, arm in arm, to help bring about the Kingdom. And that, more or less, is the entire point of his book.