Friday, January 04, 2013

‘The Church’ in Roman Catholic Ecclesiology: is it the ‘Universal Sacrament of Salvation’? Or merely an idol?

The Roman Catholic Church, at Vatican II, called itself “the universal sacrament of salvation”. Here is how they put it:

In later usage the term sacramentum emphasizes the visible sign of the hidden reality of salvation which was indicated by the term mysterium. In this sense, Christ himself is the mystery of salvation: “For there is no other mystery of God, except Christ.” The saving work of his holy and sanctifying humanity is the sacrament of salvation,… a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men.” The Church’s first purpose is to be the sacrament of the inner union of men with God….

This much is Rome’s paying lip-service to the concept that I’ll relate below. As such, it should be seen as external to the direct relationship of the believer to Christ.

But as I’ve written in the past, what Rome gives with one fork of its tongue, it takes away with the other.

Because men's communion with one another is rooted in that union with God, the Church is also the sacrament of the unity of the human race. In her, this unity is already begun, since she gathers men "from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues”; at the same time, the Church is the "sign and instrument" of the full realization of the unity yet to come.

As sacrament, the Church is Christ's instrument. “She is taken up by him also as the instrument for the salvation of all,” “the universal sacrament of salvation,” by which Christ is “at once manifesting and actualizing the mystery of God's love for men.” The Church “is the visible plan of God’s love for humanity,” because God desires “that the whole human race may become one People of God, form one Body of Christ, and be built up into one temple of the Holy Spirit.”

With this second fork, Rome is making itself not merely an external sign, but “the instrument” alone which through flow “sacramental graces” “in their fullness” – without which men are “sort of on their own” – they can’t get the grace of the other sacraments.

But in reality, here, it sets itself up as an idol opposed to the direct mediation by Christ alone. In effect, it claims to be a mediator of the Mediator.

Michael Liccione (278) follows through with some of the logical result of this model:

1. You cite mathematics and the natural law as fields in which we don’t need “interpretive paradigms,” and you present those as analogues to theology. Now I don’t happen to agree that some fields of human knowledge require no IPs, but I’ll grant that assumption anyhow for argument’s sake. The real problem with your argument is that it assumes there is no relevant difference between what’s knowable by natural reason and what can be apprehended only by the supernatural gift of faith (emphasis added).

Interesting the way you oppose “the supernatural gift of faith” with “what’s knowable by natural reason and what can be appended”.

My point is that God has given man the capacity to be a direct receptor of that revelation. The notion that man will somehow miss what God is saying, either through general or special revelation, is not something that God has left to chance, although, your model assumes that God can only mediate his revelation through the Roman Catholic Church. That is false. Rather, Rome has set itself up as an idol, claiming to represent God, but really only getting in the way.

Bavinck notes, “The revelation that appeared in Christ as such is absolutely not opposed to nature but only to sin, which as an alien element has insinuated itself into the world. Revelation and creation are not opposed to each other, for creation itself is a revelation.”

Thus Adam in his world knows God not only by speaking personally with him, but by correlating that knowledge with what he perceives of God in the world around him (Romans 1). These two things are consonant, not separate. Bavinck continues:

Revelation was present before the fall. Even now, revelation is still present in all the works of God’s hand in nature and history; his external power and deity are perceived and understood from his creatures. And even supernatural revelation as such is so far from being in conflict with nature that every human in the core of his or her being is a supernaturalist and believes in a direct operative presence of God in the world (emphasis added; from Bavinck, “Reformed Dogmatics”, Vol 1, pg 361).

This is what makes entirely superfluous your positing some sort of “authority” which can mediate “the formal proximate object of faith”.

In reality, “the formal proximate object of faith” is “Christ alone”. “The Church” in Roman Catholic doctrine is a substitute for Christ. As such, it is an idol.

This is my main objection to Roman Catholicism. You deflect the believer’s mind from God, and focus it on “the Church”. “The Church” as defined by Rome is not “the sacrament of salvation”. It is an idol that leads people to focus on things other than God in Christ.

That is what I’m saying all along. God has created human beings with a direct capacity not only to understand him, but to be in direct union with him. If we really believe that we are in “union with Christ”, then, this direct union with “the Mediator” makes every other relationship secondary. This includes the relationship with other Christians, including “the church” as Protestants describe it, and particularly “The Church”.

It works the other way around. Christ is in us; word, church, and sacrament function externally to “stir up the spirit that is within us”. This is why we don’t miss what God is saying to us.

You may have heard Bonhoeffer’s famous statement, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die”.

Here is how that works:

Thus it begins; the cross [for Christians] is not the terrible end to an otherwise god-fearing and happy life, but it meets us at the beginning of our communion with Christ.

Communion with Christ is thus a form of isolation from the rest of the world – even from other Christians. Bonhoeffer continues with this concept:

We must face up to the truth that the call of Christ does set up a barrier between man and his natural life. But this barrier is no surly contempt for life, no legalistic piety, it is the life which is life indeed, the gospel, the person of Jesus Christ. By virtue of his incarnation [Christ] has come between man and his natural life. There can be no turning back, for Christ bars the way. By calling us he has cut us off from all immediacy with the things of the world. He wants to be the centre, through him alone all things shall come to pass. He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things. He is the Mediator, not only between God and man, but between man and man, between man and reality. Since the whole world was created through him and unto him (John 1:3, 1 Cor 8:6, Hebrews 1:2), he is the sole Mediator in the world. Since his coming, man has no immediate relationship of his own any more to anything, neither to God nor to the world; Christ wants to be the mediator. Of course, there are plenty of gods who offer men direct access, and the world and the world naturally uses every means in its power to retain its direct hold on men, but that is the very reason why it is so bitterly opposed to Christ, the Mediator.

The Roman Catholic Church says you can only come to Christ in a way that is mediated only through [or only in “fullness”] “the Church” and its sacraments. And this is why, as I’ve posted prominently at my site, “The Reformers’ forensic understanding of justification ... the idea of an immediate divine imputation [of righteousness] renders superfluous the entire Catholic system of the priestly mediation of grace by the Church.”

But Paul says, “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” And also, “for God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”

This is a one-to-one relationship. Your fear is, as you said in 281, “The problem with lacking such a distinction is precisely that we cannot distinguish between what God is saying to us and what we are saying to ourselves.”

But God himself does not leave this to chance. Your notion that we must accept some earthly authority “as divine” is a poor and idolatrous substitute for the one, unmediated (or “mediated by Christ alone”) divine authority.

Thus, as you build your argument:

We can know truths of mathematics and precepts of the natural law by natural reason, but we cannot know divine revelation by such means. In the very nature of the case, we can only accept and believe divine revelation by faith, which entails trusting some authority as divine…

You deny the very power of God. You remove God in Christ from the direct sight of the believer, and you place “the Church” as an alternative “divine authority”. A secondary “divine authority”.

Rome seeks to impose itself and its will between the believer and Christ. In that way, it is simply an idol.


  1. Man, these Catholic teachers sure do complicate things. Evene Bonhoeffer, whom I glean from, is a bit too deep for me.

    I'm glad for deep theology, and yet I love the simplicity of Christ crucified for me, becuase He was asked by His Father to bear this death and drink this cup, of my sin and transgressions, so that I would be forgiven and clean by His precious blood. As John, His disciple and friend tell us: "...if we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin."-1st epistle
    Have a great weekend and Lord's day!

    1. Thanks Don, I hope you have a great weekend as well!