Here at last is my piece defending the development of Protestant ecclesiology, which I've been promising you for several years now. I've been sitting on it for nearly two years now--finishing it turned out to be easier and quicker than I'd anticipated. Perhaps I really will get a lot of things done now the dissertation ordeal is drawing to a close . . . .
This may not be exactly the kind of dialogue you want to have. That's OK. Writing this has helped me clarify my own views on many points. Here it is:
Against this attack, the doctrine of development is the most effective response. Catholics usually have little difficulty showing that modern Catholic doctrine has important points of continuity with that of the early Church, and that patristic teaching contains many ideas that foreshadow later developments and can plausibly be argued to contain the principles of those later teachings. So for instance Irenaeus’s claim that Mary is the new Eve points toward the Immaculate Conception and other Martian doctrines, and Ignatius’s simple affirmation that Christians eat and drink Christ’s Body and Blood points toward transubstantiation. Furthermore, Catholics can show that Trinitarian Protestants also hold doctrines that have developed historically, and that the negative argument as employed by
But this is only part of the Protestant argument, and not the strongest or most important part. The main use of the “innovation” argument for Protestants is to level the playing field. It is a response to Catholic claims of Protestant innovation. And all too often Catholic apologists appear to be using a double standard—holding Protestants to a close, literal reading of patristic texts to support their position, while invoking “development” when similar arguments are turned against them. Because conservative Protestants have a tendency to think in fairly literal terms and to have a proof-texting approach to Scripture, this is both maddening and effective in an argument with them. Also, the more radical forms of Protestantism clearly are unjustifiable on the basis of Scripture. And finally, development can easily work in tandem with a claim to authority. The argument can be made that we should trust the historic, institutional Church to interpret Scripture rightly, and that the doctrine of development refutes claims that the Church has manifestly failed to do so. I myself would entirely agree with this argument. (Exactly where and how authority is to be located within the historic Church is another issue, about which my opinions waver and which I’d like to try to keep out of this discussion.)
I believe, however, that development is of limited usefulness as an argument against Protestantism, if abstracted from an appeal to authority. On a number of points, a good argument can be made for moderate, traditional Protestant teachings as developments of early Christian doctrine—the same kind of argument on which Catholics rely to justify their own developments. I am not arguing that Protestant doctrines are as clearly or explicitly found in the Fathers as their Catholic counterparts. In some cases that may be true, but that’s not what my argument rests on. Nor am I arguing here that the Protestant teachings are true. I am simply arguing that an appeal to antiquity, bolstered by a theory of development, does not conclusively refute all versions of Protestant teaching on several key points: ecclesiology, the authority of Scripture vs. tradition, and sacramental theology. I argue that no concept of development can be found that justifies Catholic developments without also justifying Protestant developments, unless one simply appeals to the decision-making power of the Church.
For now, I’m going to make this argument with respect to ecclesiology, particularly the doctrine of extra ecclesiam nulla salus and the various definitions of the limits of the Church on which that doctrine depends for its practical meaning. The Protestant ecclesiology I’m going to defend is one held by many orthodox, ecumenical members of mainline Protestant denominations today. Many of my colleagues and professors at
In this view, there is a visible universal Church made up of all local churches that hold to the Christian faith as divinely revealed. This faith is understood to consist in certain essential teachings, best summarized in the Creeds; in acceptance of Scripture as the divinely inspired source of Christian truth and life; the practice of the two sacraments of the Gospel, baptism and the Lord’s Supper; and the moral teachings of Scripture as summarized in the Ten Commandments. I’m aware that Catholics have many questions about how this list of essentials is arrived at, but I’m not concerned to defend this particular list here. I’m giving it only to provide some indication of what the Protestants I’m speaking of would think are the doctrinal limits of the visible Church. Any religious body that denies the divine inspiration of Scripture (as opposed to a particular theory thereof such as inerrancy), or doesn’t practice the two evangelical sacraments (again, as opposed to holding faulty theories about it); or denies a central creedal doctrine such as the Trinity, is not part of the Church and is not, theologically speaking, Christian. (I myself have found this hard to apply in certain places, such as Quakers or Oneness Pentecostals; but again some of my friends at Duke would be quite willing to apply it strictly and say that such people are not Christians.) People outside the Church may be saved, by being judged according to their light, or by baptism of desire, or by some way known only to God alone. But normatively speaking there is no salvation outside the Church.
Division within the Church is seen as tragic but inevitable as long as we live in a fallen world. The full visible unity of the Church will probably only occur at the coming of
I argue that this way of understanding the Church, whether or not it is true, is defensible as a development from patristic ecclesiology in the same way as (even if not to the same degree as) the ecclesiology of Vatican II. Both ecclesiologies have major points of continuity with the teaching of the Fathers; both attempt to apply patristic principles to a very different set of circumstances; and both find themselves obliged to depart from some things accepted as true during the classic period of patristic theological activity.
I should probably summarize what I think Vatican II’s ecclesiology is, since we may differ on this point. As I understand it, Vatican II taught that the Catholic Church of the Creeds subsists uniquely in those churches in communion with the Pope, and that full participation in the Church is possible only for members of that visible body. Other Christians are still members of the Church, but in a more or less imperfect way. They are united to the Church by baptism, by much orthodox doctrine, by the Holy Scriptures (even if in truncated or interpolated form), and most of all by the grace of the Holy Spirit present among all who truly believe in Christ and endeavor to live a Christian life as best they know. The extent to which non-“Catholics” are united to the Church varies greatly, ranging from the separated Eastern Churches, who are “almost there,” over to non-sacramental or non-trinitarian forms of Protestantism.
The common roots of these two ecclesiologies lie (after the NT) in the second and third centuries of Christianity--the period in which certain people who believed in Christ were coming to see themselves as members of the “Catholic” Church, in opposition to other groups claiming to be Christian. These other groups fell initially into two main categories—on the one hand, those who denied basic elements of the deposit of faith (Marcionites, Valentinians, Sabellians, and later Arians), and on the other, those who separated from the “Catholic Church” on the grounds that it was insufficiently rigorous in its treatment of sinners or otherwise corrupt (Montanists, Novatianists, and eventually Donatists). As
The problem, of course, is that Cyprian’s position was no sooner formulated than it was rejected by
Anti-Protestant polemic during and after the Reformation is forthrightly Augustinian—or even Cyprianic. Protestants are seen as in no way part of the Church, having completely separated themselves from it. Given the fact that many Protestants rejected the Catholic doctrine of baptism, Catholics in fact regarded Protestant baptism as dubious at best until the 20th century. By the 19th century, the Catholic Church was willing to grant that those Protestants who were “invincibly ignorant” could be saved, but I’m not aware of any expression of this view on the Catholic side during the 16th and 17th centuries. Indeed, in the late 17th
Meanwhile, Protestants themselves initially tended to adopt a more or less Augustinian ecclesiology themselves. As late as the end of the 17th century, even a relatively irenic Lutheran like
Modern ecumenism, then, was born from the practical realities of Christian division. The ecclesiology of Vatican II is a thoughtful and reasonable response to the reality of Christian piety among Protestants and to the development of Protestant ecumenism. But it is not, on the face of it, obviously continuous with patristic or medieval ecclesiology (with regard to EENS at least) in a way that Protestant ecclesiology (as I’ve defined it) is not. On the contrary, as my Duke colleague
Neither orthodox Catholics nor (most) Protestants maintain the strict Cyprianic view. Nor does Vatican II lend itself to
Yes, ecumenical Protestants go further than Catholics inasmuch as we deny that the Church subsists fully and uniquely in any one communion. But we are more traditional than Catholics inasmuch as we hold that the Word and the Sacraments have no saving efficacy outside the bounds of the visible Church. You modify the traditional view by allowing that communities separated from the Church can receive grace from Word and Sacraments; we modify it by defining the visible Church as existing wherever the Word and Sacraments are present. Granted, Vatican II tries to avoid a break with the tradition by saying that separated communities have some degree of union with the Church. And some doctrine of degrees of communion is necessary for both ecclesiologies. Again, I’m not trying to compare which ecclesiology is more traditional as a whole. Rather, I’m saying that if we contradict the Tradition, then so do you. The only way (to borrow a metaphor from The Pilgrim’s Regress) that you can cross the drawbridge while keeping us from crossing it is to invoke authority to define just how much change constitutes a genuine break with Tradition.
I apologize for the length of this argumentmost of which dates from nearly two years ago. If I were starting from scratch now I’d keep it briefer. But here it is. Reply to it when and how you wish.