This Week

  • Sunday: 10:00 Worship (Colossians 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13; Sermon: “Ask”; Semi-Annual Meeting, Motion: to elect Rev. Phillip A. Ross as pastor, with potluck following.
  • Tuesday: Bible Study @ Jeremiah’s, 2 p.m.; Elders, 3 p.m.
  • Wednesday: Outreach, 1 p.m.
  • Saturday: Emmaus Reunion Group, 8 a.m.
  • AA Meetings: in the Parish Hall:
    • Tuesdays, 6:30 – 7:30 p.m. – Discussion
    • Wednesdays, 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. – Big Book
    • Fridays 7:00 – 8:00 p.m. – Discussion

The Virtue of Protestant Catholicism

Samuel G. Parkison

“I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners.”

These are the words C.S. Lewis gave to his character, Screwtape, imagining what a senior demon might think about Christ’s one, holy, catholic, apostolic Church. “That,” adds Screwtape with a disdainful shudder, “I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy.”

This Church – the one spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners – is what we confess to believe in when we affirm the Nicene Creed. Not only do we confess to believe in it, we confess also to be a part of it. To be a Christian is necessarily to be a footman in this army; to march behind a sea of faithful warrior-saints who have gone before us, and in front of many who will follow – all on our way to storm the wobbling gates of hell (Matt. 16:18).

Of course, this description of the Universal Church, romantic though it sounds, is hard to square with the week by week experience of most local churches. What hath Nicaea to do with the struggling First Baptist Church of Middle-of-Nowhere? And more broadly, what does catholicity even mean for Nicene-affirming Protestants? So long as a conflation between “spiritual unity” and “structural unity” remains, a Protestant-Catholic is nothing short of an oxymoron.

Nicene Oneness

It is very tempting to pine after an era of the Early Church marked by ultra-unified structure; the golden days when polity was completely and totally uniform. But, alas, such a picture is likely a historical fiction. It took a while before Rome consolidated formal authority, and until that point, Nicaea functioned as a doctrinal ballast for the Christian Church. It was understood by those who affirmed it as a codification of the “Rule of Faith” – the “faith once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) – which means that the “oneness” and “catholicity” its proponents defended was not the kind of “oneness” and “catholicity” many of our Roman Catholic friends defend today. It was rather a convictional “oneness,” which means it is just as much a part of Protestant (and, dare I say, evangelical) heritage as it is a Roman Catholic or (big “O”) Orthodox heritage. This is why Protestants can confess the “apostolic” line in the creed with no guile. We affirm an “apostolic succession” of a kind, though it may be better to describe it as a “apostolic foundation,” from which we never move beyond (Eph. 2:20-21). “Oneness” in the Nicaean sense, need not imply an absolute structural or relational oneness.

None of this is to imply that structural or relational unity is unimportant. Indeed, the spiritual “oneness” that all true Christians share is ample motivation to pursue as deep a unity as possible; bitter factions are manifestly un-Christian. At least, they ought to be; for we are painfully aware that even if sectarianism is un-Christian as a prescription, it is all-too-Christian as a description. The presence of factions can be spotted all the way back in the New Testament Church (1 Cor. 3:1-9); the tribalism Protestants (sometimes, rightly) get a bad rap for has had to be confronted and rebuked in the Church for two thousand years.

This means that Christ’s prayer for his disciples’ unity (Jn. 17:20-21), while implying a great deal for how Christians ought to act toward one another, nevertheless speaks to a deeper oneness – a spiritually essential oneness that transcends the visible divisions, despite the best efforts of some. Otherwise, Christ’s prayer is in fact ineffectual, and held hostage by our actions (a dreadful thought). No, Christ has torn down the dividing wall of hostility, and sinfully try as we may to re-erect it, we will ultimately be unable (Eph. 2:14-22). Therefore, just as how all Christians are “holy” in an already/not yet sense – positionally holy in Christ, progressively holier in the present age – so too are all Christians “one” in an already/not yet sense. And just like how the Church’s positional holiness ought to motivate her progressive holiness, so too should her positional, eschatological oneness motivate a relational oneness in the present age.

Rather than trying to undo the unifying work of Christ, all Christians – that is, the “one body” brought about by the “one Spirit” and called to the “one hope,” under the authority of the “one Lord,” who profess the “one faith” expressed in the “one baptism,” to the glory of the “one God and Father” (Eph 4:4-5) – ought to recognize their unity in Christ. (…to be continued…)

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