An Invisible Church Has No Dogma

The Called to Communion guys have written a compelling article defending the Catholic conception of the Church: a visible, hierarchically organized Body.

But Protestants believe that the Church Christ founded is a purely spiritual, invisible entity. The only thing visible about it is the individual Christians still on this earth.

Protestants have to go this direction as a consequence of their belief that the early Church became corrupted. That visible Church was and is the one that has existed throughout history and was led by bishops with succession from the Apostles. But since Protestants think it went apostate, the only solution is to say that the “true” Church is invisible, with no relation to the corrupt visible organization called the Catholic Church.

I am not going to rehash Called to Communion’s excellent article–please do read it!–but instead just look at a few consequences of Protestantism’s ecclesiology.

An Invisible Pillar, a Silent Church

In Ephesians 3:7-10 St. Paul wrote that:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.

The Protestant invisible Church can make nothing known. Its embodied members (of a disembodied, shapeless entity) certainly do speak and say that this or that is the gospel; this or that is true; this or that is reliable, but they speak in a cacophony of contradictory voices, not in a unity of truth required to fulfill St. Paul’s words in Ephesians.

Pope Pius XII wrote:

Hence they err in a matter of divine truth, who imagine the Church to be invisible, intangible, a something merely ‘pneumatological’ as they say, by which many Christian communities, though they differ from each other in their profession of faith, are united by an invisible bond.

St. Paul says in 1 Tim. 3:15 that the Church is the pillar and bulwark of the truth. A bulwark is a defensive fortification that can be identified, is fixed, and can actually refute attacks from heretics and apostates. This requires a visible entity that can speak with divine authority.

pil1The Protestant invisible Church cannot be a bulwark: it is purely invisible and un-identifiable. Since Protestant denominations and churches contradicts each other on countless doctrines, all speaking without any authority beyond their own opinion, it is impossible to even know what the truth really is, even if one of them happened to be speaking it.

Protestants would answer that you know what is true by your personal reading of the Bible. So you know who is speaking the truth by judging their words based on your interpretation of the Scriptures (which is, of course, the accurate one).

Did God Allow This to Be?

If Protestantism is true, woe to the illiterate and unlearned. Woe to the majority of generations who have lived in the past 2,000 years who were not able to read, and even if they could, were not scholarly enough to interpret the Scriptures soundly.

Protestants say: “Those unlearned people could learn the truth from going to a church that preached the true gospel.” Yet recall the way to identify a “church preaching the true gospel” is to go to one that agrees with your interpretation of the Scriptures. In the case of unlearned people, how are they supposed to come up with a true interpretation of something they cannot read? Should they listen to someone else read it and then come up with all the doctrines of justification, sanctification, salvation, baptism, Eucharist, liturgy, and so on?

And how do they know the books of the Bible in the first place? Are they to find old manuscripts of ancient books and begin reading them all?

God, fortunately, is kinder, stronger, and more gracious than this. He founded His Church to speak with an authoritative voice, with His voice: “He who listens to you, listens to me.” It was through His visible, hierarchically organized Church that He has made known His manifold wisdom, as St. Paul, inspired by the Spirit, proclaimed in Ephesians 3.

This visible Church is a bulwark, a sign of contradiction to the world and to the cacophony of Protestant denominations. When heresies have arisen, as they have in every century, the Church convenes councils to authoritatively condemn the heresies and explain the orthodox belief. This Church is identifiable: you find it through the succession of the Apostles, the bishops of the Church.

The unlearned and illiterate have never been left alone. God made it possible for all of them to know Him in spirit and truth, through the sure voice of His Church. Thanks be to God for His great mercy and love, ensuring that we know the truth. It is hard enough to live out the truth when you know it. When you don’t know whether what you believe is true or not, when you have errors in your faith, it is impossible to live the truth in its fullness.

Christ founded a visible Church, with unity of faith, sacraments, and government. Deo gratias.

One Great Way to Help Chinese Catholics

I have a story to tell you.

I just met a man named John. He was a hotshot Wall Street lawyer, doing the big things for the big money. He was living a version of the American Dream, but there was only one problem: he realized some deep part of him felt empty.

John began to search and study and even pray and discovered that the Catholic faith he had been brought up with had lots of ideas–good ones!–about our purpose here on earth, about who we are and what we were created for.

John left Wall Street and began to live out his Catholic faith. He was in China and started a Catholic business to help the Church there. Crossings Tea was born:

I founded Crossings Tea to sell high quality tea from China and to support the local diocese where all of our tea is grown. I work in the remote Three Gorges region, which produces spectacular tea, and where the local diocese is one of the most under-served in China. By teaming up with the local clergy and Catholic farmers, we’re working to keep the struggling diocese alive.

And thus began my tea mission, a social enterprise grounded in the Church’s teachings on social justice.

john1Turns out my wife and I love tea–not just Lipton and Nestea but the real deal stuff–and so John’s mission was one I didn’t need any encouragement to tell people about. Drink good tea from local Chinese farmers and help the Church in China? Win!

They have Three Gorges Black, Green, and Jasmine varieties of tea and are in the process of expanding the varieties they offer. They are discovering and visiting Christian tea farmers around their province so they can set up the distribution and sales of the tea to us.

So go ahead and order some tea: you’ll be supporting local Chinese Christian farmers, the Church there, and getting great tea in the process!

“God Let the Church Fall Into Error Almost Immediately”

The title says it all: this is the conclusion that Protestants much reach if they look at the early history of the Church and her teachings.

Catholics believe that God has protected His Church from error.
Protestants believe God let the Church fall into heresy very rapidly.

This is a central difference between Catholicism and Protestantism.

bibl1I’ve been impressed by the honesty and study of three Protestants in this regard: William Webster, Shawn Madden, and Ken Temple. I’ll summarize their findings in regard to the early Church and baptism.

Ken, who has been commenting here again recently, won my respect in his comments in past years and also over at Called to Communion. Years ago on the Canon Question post, he and I had a short back-and-forth. I posed this dilemma:

“Baptismal regeneration is found everywhere in the writings of the Christians in the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries. Yet you are saying we should accept the testimony of these same men to give us confirmation of the canon? Why should we? They got something as simple as symbolic-baptism wrong.”

 Ken Temple wrote this in reply:

I don’t know why many in the Early Church got that wrong (that we have records of), but they do seem to believe in some kind of baptismal regeneration. I believe they got it right on the NT canon eventually; but were wrong on baptismal regeneration. I don’t know why and I cannot explain it. That is a question I have, and would like to study it further.

That was an honest answer. He recognized that the early Church taught something fundamental about baptism that he thinks is contrary to Scripture.

He is not alone in this admission. Shawn Madden, a professor at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary (and a friend of a good friend of mine), sent me a paper on baptism that he wrote exploring the earliest sources in the period immediately following the Apostles:

[I] will look specifically at how the rite of baptism, as emblematic of the whole of Christian Theology, took on unnecessary and wholly unwarranted rites, due to whatever reason, though the primary seems to be an inability of the mind of man, even those closely associated with the apostles, to totally comprehend the absolute simplicity (albeit, absolute commitment) resident in the phrase “by faith alone you are saved, and not of works . . . .”

He then shows how the doctrine on baptism was corrupted within the 150 years with rites, oils, fasting, infants being baptized, baptismal regeneration being taught, etc.

William Webster, a well-known Protestant author, wrote in his book The Church of Rome at the Bar of History that there is “universal consent of the Fathers” to baptismal regeneration and all that it entails. He wrote that the Church went off the rails right at the beginning.

Does the Bible Say the Church Will Go Off the Rails?

The Bible has many passages that indicate that the Church will not go off the rails, that she will not formally teach heresy as truth.

Observe 1 Timothy 3:15, where St. Paul talks about “the household of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”

A pillar isn’t a pillar if it immediately falls over. It can’t be a bulwark of the truth if it instead teaches error shortly after the Apostles died.

Similarly, Jesus promised the Apostles the Holy Spirit in John 16:13: “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come.”

That promise wasn’t just to the Apostles, but to the Apostles as the rightful leaders of Christ’s Church, and to their successors as well. How much sense does it make that Jesus sent the Spirit and that everything fell into heresy shortly thereafter?

And how about the famous passage in Matthew 16:18: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it.

But the powers of death, the gates of Hades, did prevail in a substantial way if the visible Church that God established on earth started teaching heresy as truth not too long after the Apostles lived.

The Catholic position is the more faithful position to the Scriptures. The Protestant one rests on believing that “my own interpretation of the Scriptures today is better than those who lived within a few generations of the Apostles.” Why should we take an error-prone interpretation 2,000 years later to be better than that of people discipled by the Apostles and their direct successors?