I recently saw one of the pastors of my wife’s Lutheran parish carrying around a copy of C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity”. Five minutes later both he and I were in conversation with a non-Christian of Muslim background who was asking about what the Christians believed about free will and predestination. Well. Those two questions instantly divided “mere Christianity” into at least three radically different camps…
Pastor Mark has a post on this topic over at Glosses from an Old Manse (“Heretics, Sectarians and ‘The Lutheran Difference'”). He writes:
As I have stated in these glosses before, I don’t believe there is such a thing as “basic Christianity”, in the sense of some pre-theological, non-doctrinal, supposedly pure version of Christianity that we could discover if we could just somehow jump over 2000 years of church history. People who advocate “basic Christianity” are either naïve, confused, ignorant, duplicitous and/or probably about to start a new sect. We might wish it were so, but what we actually have in this world, whether we like it or not, are several exclusive versions of Christianity that happily share a good deal of orthodox doctrine inherited from the early church, but who also each hold exclusive articles of faith which are deemed important enough for the faith and life of their adherents to warrant ecclesiastical separation from those who teach otherwise. This separation is deemed necessary to preserve the doctrinal purity of the body. Unless a church body has completely relativised all doctrine, it holds to some form of this position, because it understands that doctrine and life are intimately related. Even liberal churches enforce doctrinal standards!
For the most part, I agree with him – although I don’t think I would have called C.S. Lewis “naïve, confused, ignorant, [or] duplicitous”; perhaps he was a little over hopeful, and you can’t blame a convinced Christian for being that. However, the interesting part of Pastor Mark’s description is his belief that those who advocate a “mere Christianity” are “probably about to start a new sect”. At this point, his comments take a decidedly ecclesiological turn:
This has always made perfect sense to me, even when I was a “seeker” and then a neophyte. It seemed to me then that a church body which did not care enough about what it believed to delineate itself in some way from other, differing church bodies probably didn’t believe in much to begin with and wasn’t worth exploring (in actual fact there are “post-Christian” churches like this, but that is a subject for another post). …And so, in spite of all I hold in common with Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, namely the creeds of the early church and the heritage of the Fathers, I could not in good conscience join in worship which included prayers to Mary and the saints. Apart from the lack of scriptural warrant for such prayers, I suspect that at heart this practice reflects a different understanding of the Gospel. Similarly, as much as I share a passion for justification by grace through faith alone with the Reformed, I couldn’t commune at a Lord’s Supper with a congregation which does not confess that the bread and wine are the true body of Christ given into death for us and the real blood of Christ shed for the forgiveness of our sins. To do so would be, to my mind and conscience, a denial of the Gospel (the sacrament is the Gospel…for me).
At first glance it might appear that the major issue for Pastor Mark is doctrine, ie. what kind of Christianity (if not “mere Christianity”) is espoused by these different groups. But in fact, there is a deeper question, which is “To what degree can I call any of these groups “church”?” He goes on to say:
It is not that I am questioning the salvation of Catholics or Orthodox or Presbyterians. They certainly have enough of the Gospel to be saved, it’s just that they don’t have enough of the Gospel for me to recognise them as church in an unqualified sense. Their doctrine needs to be informed and reformed by the Gospel before I could acknowledge them as such. I write in the first person, but it should be said that such is the position held by all confessional Lutherans. In holding this view we are following the Augsburg Confession, which states that “[t]he Church is the congregation of saints, in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly.” [my emphasis]
When Pastor Mark refers to recognising other groups of Christians as “church in an unqualified sense”, I hear echoes of Dominus Iesus which spoke of “Churches in the proper sense”. Despite Protestant protest against the Catholic Church using such an idea, unless one is to resort to a kind of “mere ecclesiology” to match one’s “mere Christianity”, there has to be a sense in which one defines what “a true Church” (or “the true Church”) is, and thus be able to judge whether or not a particular group of people IS a “Church” in either a qualified or unqualified sense.
Lutherans work with a clear definition of “the Church”. As Pastor Mark quoted from the Augsburg Confession, it is the “congregation…in which the Gospel is taught purely and the Sacraments are administered rightly.” Well and good, only that definition requires other definitions: ie. what is the “pure teaching” of the Gospel and how does one administer the Sacraments “rightly”? Who is to judge? It cannot be “the Church” that judges, since “the Church” which we are trying to define here. I mean suppose I were to establish a Network of Right Thinkers. In the constitution I put: “The Network of Right Thinkers shall be an association of all those who think rightly”; and then I go on to say “Right Thinking shall be determined by the Network of Right Thinkers”. You would immediately see the problem there, wouldn’t you? Of course, a Lutheran will reply that it is not the Church, but the Scriptures, which determines “pure teaching” and “right administration”, but that merely shifts the definition of “Church” to the “congregation which interprets the scriptures correctly” and you can see that that has exactly the same problems as my constitution for the Network of Right Thinkers.
The problem with a definition of “the Church” (or “a Church”) along these lines is that it is remarkably susceptible to just the kind of thing that Pastor Mark is warning us against, namely, sectarianism. Take for instance his statement above, that he “could not in good conscience join in worship which included prayers to Mary and the saints.” Why not? Until the 16th Century, the intercession and invocation of Mary and the saints was a standard and universal feature of Christianity, both East and West. But then someone suggested a “mere Christianity” which not only did not include this ancient and universal practice, but actually forbade it. The next thing is that those who forbade this practice – suspecting “that at heart this practice reflects a different understanding of the Gospel” from their own “mere Christianity” – began “a new sect”. Their “exclusive articles of faith” were “deemed important enough for the faith and life of their adherents to warrant ecclesiastical separation from those who teach otherwise” – ie. the rest of Christendom as it existed in their day.
I know there were other issues than just the intercession and invocation of the saints that led to the separation of the “evangelicals” from communion with the Bishop of Rome, but, keeping this separation in mind, and keeping in mind that it came about because of what this particular group believed to be “pure Christianity”, listen now to what Pastor Mark says next:
But the blame for [this division] lies…with the teachers of outright false doctrine who have led others – sometimes millions – astray (the heretics), and with those who have separated from their mother church without due reason (the sectarians). It is the promotion of false doctrine that is deplorable, because, at the least, it renders the proclamation of the Gospel in a particular church impure; and, at its worst, it undermines and overthrows the Gospel completely. Sectarianism, on the other hand, which is almost as deplorable as false teaching and heresy, is a sin against love and tears the outward body of Christ apart for no valid reason.
Umm. I agree entirely with what Pastor Mark is saying about “mere Christianity”, but I am surprised that – although he himself clearly describes the problem – he doesn’t see how this leads directly to “mere ecclesiology”, ie. sectarianism. Nor does Pastor Mark seem to appreciate that the community to which he belongs actually originated in just this manner, that is, first by teaching a version of “mere Christianity” (the “Gospel purely taught”) and then by separating from “their Mother Church”. (Although I hasten to add, as Vatican II does, that “men on both sides were to blame”, and that we cannot blame the division on those who belong to these communities today).
It seems to me that
1) if we are not all to be subsumed into a “mere ecclesiology” to match our personally chosen version of “mere Christianity”, we need some other grounds for determining what “a Church in the proper sense” is.
2) that that body which is truly “Church” – and which thus exercises the teaching authority which Christ gave to his Church – is the body which can rightly claim to teach the Gospel purely and to administer the sacraments purely.
Of course, you can see where this is leading. We Catholics hold that
1) Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him; [and that]
2) The Churches which [even if] not existing in perfect communion with the Catholic Church, remain united to her by means of the closest bonds, that is, by apostolic succession and a valid Eucharist, are true particular Churches. (Dominus Iesus §17)
Whatever else may be said of these definitions (and it is noteworthy that in “Light of the World”, Pope Benedict stresses that full communion with the Bishop of Rome is not regarded by the Catholic Church as “of the essence” of a “true particular Church”), it may at least be said that it is an objective definition which is not susceptible to alteration by anyone claiming to know what “mere Christianity” is. Any group of Christians who have a bishop who has not broken from the ancient succession, and thus a valid priesthood and Eucharist, is a “true particular Church”. This is a strong and robust ecclesiology which ensures that the faith that is taught is cannot become a “mere Christianity” of the lowest common denominator, a Christianity which is “naïve, confused, ignorant, duplicitous and/or probably about to start a new sect”, a Church in which the Gospel is “taught purely” and the Sacraments “administered rightly”.