Wednesday, January 09, 2013

How Visible Should Christian Unity Be?

Leonardo De Chirico has posted his Vatican Files 16: on the need for visible Christian unity.

He touches on one of his own themes, namely, that Protestant critiques of Roman Catholicism require more of an “integrated analysis”:

The author suggests that evangelicalism's appraisal of Roman Catholicism has lacked systematic awareness, tending instead towards more episodic aphoristic criticism of Roman doctrine, which for all its truth lacks integrated analysis. With this in mind, Dr. de Chirico proposes a critique which (i) applies the category of 'system' or 'worldview' to Roman Catholicism, and (ii) perceives two foundational theological foci in Roman theology - the relationship between nature and grace, and the self-understanding of the Church….

He cites Pope Benedict from a recent “Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity”. There is no mistaking what he says:

Pope Benedict XVI restated the basic Roman Catholic idea concerning the necessary visibility of Christian unity: "We must not forget that the goal of ecumenism is the visible unity among divided Christians."The Pope later explained that "it is in full communion in faith, in the sacraments and in the ministry, that will become concretely evident the present and active power of God in the world."

De Chirico clarifies what Benedict says: “Visibility is therefore a threefold achievement whereby there is unity in the profession of the faith, unity in the celebration of the sacraments, and unity in the recognition of the same ministerial order. But questions remain”. He then cites two of them:

1. Does John 17 Support the Fully Orbed Roman Catholic View of Unity?

2. [Is there] a More Biblically Realist View of Visible Unity?

In answer to the first, he provides an analysis of another talk by Cardinal Kurt Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, looking at John 17, “which Cardinal Koch divided in six parts. According to John 17 as it was read by Koch, Christian unity has six dimensions: spiritual, visible, Trinitarian, eschatological, missional, and martyrological (i.e. the unity of Christian martyrs)”:

What is of interest here is that Koch insisted that visible unity is that for which Jesus prayed and that which he rooted in the Trinitarian life. Since the Church is "the icon of the Trinity," her unity reflects the unity of the Trinity. Koch underlined the fact that Christian unity cannot be "invisible" but should always be recognizable in the usual threefold way: common profession of faith, common sacraments, common ministry.

In other words, in order for unity to be Trinitarian unity you need the Roman Catholic Church that has kept the sacraments in their integrity and has transmitted the ministry in the proper apostolic succession. The visibility of the Trinitarian unity requires and demands the institutional (Roman Catholic) church, its hierarchy, and its sacramental life. In this view, other visible forms of Christian unity are imperfect and partial because they lack the (Roman Catholic) sacraments and ministry. According to this view, visible unity will be achieved when other churches and ecclesial communions embrace not only the common profession of faith, but also the Roman Catholic sacraments and priesthood.

De Chirico provides only a brief comment on this notion: “It is hard to read this chapter and conclude that the reference to the Trinity as the pattern for Christian unity refers to a hierarchical and sacramental ministry. The latter [hierarchical and sacramental ministry] seem added dimensions which are quintessential to the Roman Catholic understanding of unity, but are difficult to trace back to Trinitarian life per se.”

Following Oscar Cullmann, I’ve argued that Roman hierarchy and sacraments are later accretions to the structure and practice of the New Testament church, and this very thing can be shown from Cullmann’s analysis of John 17:

After an analysis of John 14:26 and 16:13 he suggests is precisely concerned with “the relation between the historical Jesus and the risen Lord … “The Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you [men in front of me] all things, and bring to your remembrance all that I said to you” [that is, you men who are sitting here in front of me: apostles whom I have chosen and whom I will send]. (71).

Crucial, however is “the relation between this tradition and the apostolic office”. This promise [and I’ve heard “infallibility” defended based on John 16:13] was not made to “the Church” which came after the Apostles.

Christ himself distinguished “these men sitting in front of me” both here (“all that I said to YOU”), and in John 17:20 (“I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word…”

Christ himself “interrupted” the notion of “apostolic succession”, having distinguished sharply between the Apostles and their “successors”.

But Back to De Chirico. Citing Martyn Lloyd-Jones, he says contra Koch:

According to Lloyd-Jones's reading of the passage, Christian unity starts within and then works outward. It is primarily unseen and internal, although it manifests itself visibly. The Trinitarian foundation speaks about the depth and scope of this union, but it does not spell out any given institutional path in which it is bound to express itself.

This interpretation of the text indicates that neither a particular form of apostolic succession nor a particular sacramental and hierarchical system can be derived from the Trinity itself as if it were the only or the absolute or the perfect pattern for Christian unity.

But even at the end of this “unity” event, De Chirico notes that “Cardinal Koch's lecture was followed by a prayer for Christian unity with a final intercession to Mary and by a song entitled "Mary, You Are our Mother" which said "... you (Mary) are our Advocate ... Queen of Peace". Even in this ecumenical event, there was no apology for deeply felt convictions. Roman Catholic ecumenism is not about reducing the claims of Catholicism but is a way of implementing them.


  1. John,

    above, "...I’ve argued that Roman hierarchy and sacraments are later accretions to the structure and practice of the New Testament church"...

    These are your words, yes?

    Clarify that for me if you would?

    In any event, yours words or not, that is very powerful in understanding one of the schemes of the devil is it not? His approach, allowed and permitted, is to subtly add a little bit here and there so that after a while there is no clear discernment just that that accretion is accepted as "truth" when in fact it isn't!

    I read this quote by Spurgeon the other day that seems somewhat apropos to what you are revealing here in this post:

    "Discernment is not simply a matter of telling the differrence between what is right and wrong; rather it is the difference between right and almost right"

    1. Hi Michael -- Yes, I just intended to say that these were not a part of the New Testament church. Many Roman Catholics want to look at this in an all-or-nothing kind of way (and arguably, that may stem from the language about the church "stands or falls"), but from a historical perspective, I don't think that's correct. (That seems to be "stands or falls from a hierarchical perspective"). But I think it's more complicated than that. The Lord didn't abandon "the church" during the dark ages or the middle ages. He kept a remnant.

      I like that Spurgeon quote, and we should always strive to understand rightly. But I think there are many, many whom He has called to Himself over the centuries who may only have understood things "almost rightly" or even "through a glass darkly". He is always faithful, even when we are not.