Friday, March 06, 2015

What’s wrong with Rome’s Christ-Church Interconnection?

The Roman Catholic “Nature-Grace Interdependence” along with its “Christ-Church Interconnection”
The Roman Catholic “Nature-Grace Interdependence”
along with its “Christ-Church Interconnection”
In the last three blog posts, I’ve followed Gregg Allison’s comprehensive work on Roman Catholicism, “Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment”, which I’ve called “Eternal Rome, Eternal Mediator? (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

This “Christ-church interconnection” places Rome squarely in the ontological plan of Christ and Christ’s kingdom, in a way that it can never be moved (from a Roman perspective). It is an ontological reality that places Rome upon the very “edge of the Godhead”, so to speak (“grace completes nature) – and renders it as the sole channel of grace in the world, as Allison notes. Check out this link for one succinct example of how this plays out in real life:

The Catholic faith, however, contains a doctrine involving Christ’s founding of and indissoluble union with the Catholic Church as His Mystical Body, sustained in part but essentially through His unique relation to St. Peter and his episcopal successors in Rome in their role as the Vicar of Christ until Christ returns. The Catholic act of faith is in this way unique, because in making this act of faith, one does not merely assent to propositions concerning Christ as considered apart from the Church, or as considered apart from any visible body on earth.

One expresses faith in Christ-as-inseparably-united-to-the-Catholic-Church, and thus faith in His working in and through His Church, to guard her from error and guide her into all truth until He returns. Because of the essential role of St. Peter and his episcopal successors in the structure and identity of the Catholic Church, the act of Catholic faith includes faith in Christ regarding each successive pope, specifically faith that Christ will protect each pope in his exercise of the papal office from promulgating any false doctrine.

This “act of faith” as he describes it is a mere presupposition – and further, it is a presupposition that has been challenged by history, and found to be sorely wanting.

Here is how Allison “assesses” this doctrine:

Evangelical theology disagrees strongly with its counterpart’s self-understanding as the ongoing incarnation of the ascended Christ. Such a construction posits far more of a continuity between the incarnation of the Son of God as Jesus Christ and the Church as the prolongation of this incarnation than is warranted.

The incarnation of the second person of the Trinity was a unique event: There was no prefiguration of it in the Old Testament, nor is a principle or law of incarnation articulated in the New Testament. Accordingly, there can be no continuation of the incarnation, nor any derivative, secondary instance of it, with respect to the church (or any other reality, for that matter).

Furthermore, evangelical theology finds much that is wrong with the [Augustinian concept of] totus Christus. The concept is based on a misunderstanding of Paul’s body imagery, interpreting a metaphor in realistic terms.

Indeed, the apostle employs analogical language when speaking of the head with its body: “For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior” (Eph. 5: 23).

To apply the totus Christus concept in interpreting this analogy results in the near identification of the two marriage partners, with the primacy of the existence of the husband and the contingency of the existence of the wife being reinforced; this is neither a Pauline nor a biblical idea.

Similarly, Jesus’s affirmation (Matt. 25: 31– 46) that as people concretely and kindly treat (or overlook and do not help) the least of his disciples, they do it to him, underscores that their treatment or mistreatment of Christ’s followers is a measure or reflection of their attitude toward Jesus and their alignment with his kingdom.

And Jesus’s warning to Paul (Acts 9: 4–5) that, by his persecution of Christians, Paul was persecuting Christ, certainly underscores the union of Christ with his disciples, who share in his sufferings (Phil. 1: 29).

To be fair, “this somewhat ontological interpretation” of these passages by the Catholic system is possible, thus providing reinforcement for the Catholic Church’s self-understanding as the extension of the incarnation. However, it is countered by the evangelical system’s relational interpretation: These passages underscore that the church, which is “in Christ,” stands in intimate relationship to Christ but is not a prolongation of his ascended being—the ontological interpretation.

There are two things in play here with this point: the first would be the “ontological union”the hierarchy, as defined by Rome (and described by Bryan Cross above) – thus cementing Rome’s hierarchical structure in God’s plan of authority “for all time”, and secondarily, the “ontological union” of all believers.

The second is adhered to by adherents of various “deification” and “chain of being”. Rome, in pursuit of its own aggrandization, not only gloms onto a very bad theology, but it “ontologically” tacks on its corrupt hierarchy for good measure.

But there is another, more severe critique of the Catholic Church’s self-understanding, a criticism that renders the ontological interpretation of these passages quite implausible. Often overlooked in this discussion is the fact of the ascension and its implications for Christ: Presently, he is not here on earth but is ruling from heaven from his position of authority at the right hand of the Father.

It was to heaven that Jesus ascended (Acts 1: 11); it was to this exalted status that the Father raised him (Eph. 1:20–21); it was from there that Christ sent the Holy Spirit to take his place as another Helper (John 15:26; Acts 2:33); and it is from heaven that Jesus will return (Matt. 26:64; Acts 1:11; 1 Thess. 4:16).

“The Roman Catholic system looks at the ascension within the continuity of the pattern established with the Incarnation, even though it recognises the newness of the post-ascension period of the same law . . . . The Evangelical system tends to view the ascension in more abrupt, radical ways in that it conceives it as the coming to an end of the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ which cannot be extended or prolonged in any form because of its uniqueness with the economy of salvation and its once and for all soteriological significance.”

This position of discontinuity is not to deny that the fullness of Christ fills his body (Eph. 1:23), but it must be understood with respect to his divine omnipresence and spiritual presence: Because he is fully divine, the Son of God is present everywhere with the entirety of his divine being at the same time, and that divine presence is manifested in specific ways in specific times, for example, to bring blessing when the church exercises discipline (Matt. 18: 15– 20), engages missionally (vv. 18–20), and celebrates the Lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 10:14–22).

Accordingly, to affirm totus Christus as the whole Christ—the divine-human God-man enthroned as king in heaven—being present in both the head and the body, is wrong.

Indeed, it results in several grave errors (noted above, and to be discussed later), including the Catholic view of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist (transubstantiation); the substitution of “the church in the place of its absent Lord,” especially noticeable in the Church’s hierarchy standing in the place of Christ; and the identity of the universal church with the visible Catholic Church on earth.

Moreover, evangelical theology objects to the essential mediatorial role ascribed to the Catholic Church as the prolongation of the incarnation of the ascended Christ.

At this point, the first axiom of the Catholic theological system, the nature-grace interdependence, joins with the second axiom to exert a strong influence. While emphasizing the uniqueness of the mediation of Jesus Christ for salvation— an operation of grace clearly in line with Scripture (e.g., 1 Tim. 2:4–6)—Catholic theology incorporates the axiom of the interdependence of nature and grace, with the result that it “allows, indeed demands, the contribution of nature in the operation of grace.

According to the Roman Catholic nature-grace pattern, the uniqueness of the mediation of Jesus Christ needs to be qualified in terms of requiring the participation of nature in the working out of the mediation. . . . The Church, therefore, as the body of Christ and the sacrament of the intimate union with God and humanity, shares the mediatory office of Jesus Christ whose Incarnation she extends.”

It is important to underscore that, for Catholicism, such ecclesial cooperation and mediatorial assistance “neither take away from nor add anything to the dignity and efficacy of Christ the one Mediator.”

While an evangelical assessment of the Catholic system must acknowledge the system’s claim to hold in tension what seem to be mutually contradictory tenets of mediation—Christ’s unique mediation is carried out through the Church’s shared mediation—evangelical theology is at great pains to understand this conjunction.

Its criticism focuses on the two axioms that support this Catholic concept of the mediatorial function of the Church: the nature-grace continuum is wrong, and the Church’s self-understanding as the extension of the incarnation is wrong. And, in this case, two wrongs put together do not make a right.

Accordingly, evangelical theology lives by the Protestant solus Christus—only Christ, not Christ plus the Church.
Allison, Gregg R. (2014-11-30). Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Kindle Locations 1211-1264). Crossway. Kindle Edition, pgs 63-66 in the printed edition.


  1. It seems that a lot or Rome's errors can be traced back to Augustine. The Totus Christus doctrine being a good example. What do you think of Augustine John? Is he your favorite church father?

    1. No, I very much dislike Augustine; I think he did great harm -- which was magnified by the level of influence he had. Of course, he was a smart guy, and he wrote a lot, but much of it was in the form of neo-platonic bloviation, which, unfortunately, was viewed as gospel by later Christian writers.

      Here are a couple of links where I've described his negative influence:

    2. See also:

    3. Reading your first post on Augustine, what then is the differences between what McGrath says and the NPP? It seems very similar regarding the 'righteousness of God.'

    4. Trent -- I'm not quite sure "who" in the NPP you have in mind (and I can't say that I'm thoroughly versed in what they say anyway).

      By the way, have you seen this article from Craig Keener?

      ... a number of the Latin Fathers knew Greek less well than even students in second-year Greek classes today; some of Augustine’s interpretations, for example, depend on misunderstandings stemming from Latin translations.

      So if the NPP is picking that up, then so much for them.

    5. I have seen the article. But, I was picking up on a different part of it, not necessarily Augustine. Rather I had in mind McGrath and his quotes seeming to support the 'righteousness of God' equals covenant faithfulness. So the interpretation of some church fathers (who were wrong) would then support a NPP view...perhaps i am just rambling now.

    6. Rather I had in mind McGrath and his quotes seeming to support the 'righteousness of God' equals covenant faithfulness. So the interpretation of some church fathers (who were wrong) would then support a NPP view...perhaps i am just rambling now.

      Well, yeah, I'll give it to the NPP folks that they're buying into a 2nd year Greek mistake.