Acroamaticus, previously mentioned on this blog, has begun to post on his “Lutheran Catholicity” blog. The first post takes up the challenge for him to try to define “catholicity” apart from communion with the bishop of Rome. He has outlined three “principles” that for him are a sine qua non of catholicity. I don’t quibble with his identification of these principles – they are among those that I would specify as Catholic “principles” also. [Although I don’t really like talking this “principles” language, even though my favourite theologian wrote a book along these lines. I could recommend that to anyone wishing to read more on this subject.]
But I do need to quible with his definition of at least one of these “principles”, namely, the “Gospel Principle”.
2. The Gospel Principal. To be catholic a statement or practise must be consonant with the Gospel, defined in the narrow sense, i.e. that we are freely justified before God for Christ’s sake when we believe that we are recieved into God’s favour and our sins forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. This faith God imputes to us as righteousness (Romans chs. 3 & 4) [see Augsburg Confession, Art IV). Any statement or practise that contradicts God’s Gospel can self-evidently not be catholic.
But how can we make such a “narrow definition” of any part of the faith, let alone “the Gospel”, a part of a definition of what it means to be “catholic”? To give St Vincent of Lerins his due, at least he got the “always” and “everywhere” part right. Something cannot really claim to be “catholic” unless it can be demonstrated to be held by the whole Church rather than a “narrow” group of theologians or believers. In fact, the “narrow” sense in which Acroamaticus describes “the Gospel” is quite open to being called a “sectarian” principle, rather than a “catholic” principle.
My personal conviction is that there is no sense in which one can speak of being “catholic” apart from “the Catholic Church”. Now, we have been through all this before with Past Elder (are you still lurking there in the shadows, ol’ boy?), but let me say it again: the faith only has meaning, is only catholic, within the Communion of the Church. All these assertions that Acroamaticus makes (“To be catholic a statement or practise must be …”) – in whose book? under whose authority? As I said, I am not arguing with the fact that the Scriptures, the Gospel and the Church in her historical aspect are all central to what it means to be “catholic”. But I can assert this because the Church says so, not because I say so. By definition, I cannot, on my own, declare what it means to be “catholic”. That is something that can only be done by the community which IS “catholic”.