Thinking About Salvation III

Jeff and Tripp are impatient for me to discuss potential notions of exclusivism insofar as it’s tied to my growing understanding of the Church as the human and divine means of our salvation. To be fair and honest upfront, I’m not sure this blog will actually answer that, so much as try to lay some groundwork for my further thinking on the matter. I should also note that I will both draw from and assume much of the thought contained in the essay I’ve already written on the unity of the Church. So, for more detail, you can go there. I will summarize my thought on the Church’s unity, and attempt to draw it together with what I’ve been sorting out regarding salvation.

The point with which we, as Christians, have to start is the ontological unity of the Church. From Jesus’ prayer in John 17 to Paul’s majestic comments in Ephesians, as well as elsewhere throughout the New Testament (cf. 1 Corinthians 1-3, 10-11, 12-14; Colossians 1; etc.), the Church is one. I cannot stress this too strongly. There was not some glorious point in the past in which the Church was one, but then split. The witness of Scripture is that the unity of the Church is based in the person of Christ, indeed, on the unity of the Trinity. There can be no division within Christ, nor in the Trinity, nor can there be in the Church. If the Church were ever to cease to be one, it would fail to be in union with Christ and with the Trinity, and would cease to be. In which case, Jesus’ promise that Hades would not prevail against the Church would be null and void, and make of Jesus a false prophet.

The witness of the earliest Christian writers, Ignatius of Antioch, Irenaeus of Lyons, Cyprian of Carthage, all witness as well to the, what I am calling, ontological unity of the Church.

Now, certainly there are historical difficulties which challenge our thinking on this matter. There are the Monophysite and Monothelite schisms, the Great Schism of east and west, the Western schism between Protestant and Catholics, and the 22,0000-plus schisms worldwide among the Protestants themselves alone. Had these schisms not taken place, and were we not Protestants, then the issue of unity would be a non-issue. Regrettably, however, all of us Protestants now living live within a milieu of schism, nor do we know anything different.

There seem to me to be only about three ways (though each has its own potential variations) to deal with the facticity of the Church’s unity, and the myriad schisms among Christians. One way is to assert that the unity of the Church is coterminus with a specific body, though not denying the salvific and mysterious grace of the Holy Spirit among those outside that body. This is view of the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches about themselves respectively. Another way is to assert the unity of the Church but to deny its applicability to any one church or group of churches, which is to assert something like an invisible unity among all believers in all churches. This is the view of most of the Protestant churches. What seems to me to be the only other major possibility is to deny the Church’s essential unity in the present and to assert that this is only a proleptic state reserved for the eschaton.

This last seems to me to be the most problematic of all. It appears to me to wrench what I take to be the straightforward reading of the biblical texts, and, more importantly, divorces the present state of the Church from union with God. More to the point it radicalizes the Church to the point that the Church is each individual, and does not allow for any possibility for real union among believers. In other words, it normalizes schism in the here and now.

The so-called “Protestant” view, while charitable toward those who differ from us, and rightly affirming diversity in non-essential matters, as well as properly humble with regard to truth claims, is not without its own set of problems. Chief among those is an implicit denial of the Incarnation. By making of the Church’s unity something like an invisible state, this view devalues the embodied existence we as Christians have and will have for eternity, in favor of some sort of Gnostic-like state of adherence to a set of beliefs, robust enough to still be Gospel, but small enough so that we can include, if not everybody, most everybody. The problem, however, is one of criteria. If, as Protestants generally assert, each believer, or each community, sets its own standards of belief and practice, how is it that some sort of invisible unity can make any sense? If we all go our own way believing whatever it is that we believe, how is this any better than the state of schism which prevails? We just simply open our arms and affirm our solidarity with those with whom we disagree? But then doesn’t that make a mockery of the beliefs we hold? It seems to me that this view attempts to have diversity and unity at the same time, but the Protestant problem is primarily one of authority. And without a cogent answer to that, and with implicit Gnosticism and potential denial of the Incarnation, it seems a dead end. Considering that Protestant schisms continue to grow, it’s not likely that the proof of the pudding is in the eating here.

But of course, it’s not as though the Roman Catholic-Eastern Orthodox understandings of ontological and visible unity being conterminus with their respective churches seems any more palatable to the ones considered on the outside of the visible Church. The pluses here, of course, is that it both makes sense of the biblical texts and takes seriously the embodied existence we Christians have as redeemed people, and thus takes seriously the Incarnation, as well as providing the one thing that Protestants cannot provide in their claims–a tangible historic link to the New Testament Church.

This is not to be understated. All Western churches can only trace their history back to Rome. It is through Rome that any Protestants can lay claim to a historic connection to the Church of Peter, Barnabas, Stephen and Paul. Orthodox, insofar as I undertand it, are fortunate in that they go right on back. In fact, the Thessalonian church exists to this day. The historic connection is important. Even we Protestants have to base our understanding of the Gospel and the early Church on historically validated (or validatable) events. Rome and the East go right on back.

However, the problem here is one of criteria. How does one actually “prove” one’s claim to being the Church? I’m not talking here of tracing a certain lineage. Rather, I’m talking about proving one is the Church Christ founded. Apostolic succession alone won’t do it. Some of the worst heretics in the Church could have traced a valid sacramental line back to Peter and the Apostles. (Need we remind ourselves of Pope Honorius, or Nestorius?) Certainly continuity with the Apostles’ teaching is paramount. But how does one discern between rival claims to orthodoxy?

Clearly, the implication here is that, depending on how one answers the question of unity, the undersanding I’ve come to regarding the role of the Church in our salvation will have huge implications for one’s relation to the various schisms we see before us today. If the Church is located in Rome or the Orthodox churches, then, it seems to follow that one must find one’s way to Rome or the East in order to experience the fullness of the grace of Christ. While not denying that grace operates outside the Church, there is a certain responsbility one has to the truth when one discovers it. But perhaps it’s possible to work out the problems of Protestant invisible unity in such a way so as to preserve the understanding of salvation without having to swear allegiance to the Pope, or repent of one’s former heresies as a Protestant when chrismated in Orthodoxy.

Well, I’ve already lengthened this beyond forbearance. So I’ll leave it with that non-conclusion and duck the arrows sure to come.