While I’m no Martin Luther, and, indeed, this is neither All Saint’s Eve nor a Reformation, nonetheless, I continue to try to coalesce my thinking on matters involving ecclesiology. As the Church nears the feast of Christ’s birth, I post the following five Advent theses:
First of all, the starting point has to be that the Church is the Body of Christ. If the Church is the Body of Christ, then it will be an incarnate body, a visible body. The Church must be manifested visibly; it will not be some invisible spiritual body only–though, since those who have died in the faith are not dead but alive, then the members of the Body of Christ also include those who are not visible to Christians in their premortem state. Only the reality of a visible Body of Christ takes seriously the implications of the Incarnation. The only other conception of the Church, that of some invisible entity, is, ultimately, Gnostic, in that in such a conception it is only the intellectual and spiritual that truly matter.
Second, if the Church is the Body of Christ, it must be one. If the Church is one, then there is only one real Church. Making this claim does not limit the grace and workings of God to the embodied Church. God sends the sunshine on the good and the wicked. The Spirit moves where he will. But it is to say that one may and must say, “Here is the Church.” In our present schismatic reality, this point must be strongly pressed, though it be as strongly disbelieved. If the Church is the Body of Christ, it cannot be divided, since Christ is one, and the Trinity is one. The schisms we have witnessed in history and presently are not divisions within the one, indivisible Body of Christ, but divisions away from it. However, as will be clarified momentarily, though schism away from the Church is a grave and serious matter, and the Church rightly both discerns various actions as schismatic and warns of the dangers of schism, it does not necessarily follow that the Church may judge the salvific fate of those who’ve sundered themselves from the one Body of Christ. Christ prohibits Christians from judging the salvation of others, though he likewise bids us discern truth from error, and calls us all to repentance.
Third, if the Church is the Body of Christ, then it is in and through the Church that the salvation Christ accomplishes may be realized. This is not to deny that salvation is ultimately a mystery into which humans may not fully look. But it is to say that insofar as God has revealed the way of salvation to us, it is accomplished in and through Christ alone. Since the Spirit has formed the Church to be the Body of Christ, Christ, as Head of the Church, accomplishes his saving work in and through his Body. If salvation will be accomplished outside of the Church, this we do not know. What we do know is that it must be through Jesus, for there is no other name under heaven, given to us humans, by which we must be saved.
Fourth, since Jesus is the incarnate God, since the Church has embodied existence, then this salvation which Christ works in his body, must be a whole salvation which involves the created world, especially the human experience. Thus, by the explicit teaching of Scriptures, our participation in the divine nature, our putting on of Christ, is not merely some ethical, moral or spiritual reality, though it is these things in part. Rather, our participation in Christ involves, through the reality of the bodily Resurrection, the transfigured elements of bread and wine, the holy oil of anointing, the water blessed in his name, the iconic visual representations of the incarnate Word and his saints, the union of man and woman, and the many varieties of gifts the Spirit bestows. Salvation is not an intellectual or disembodied reality, but encompasses all of human and created existence.
Fifth, if the Church is the Body of Christ and one, then it must be and proclaim the truth of Christ. That is to say, the genuineness of any group’s claim to be the Church (or a part of the Church) rests significantly on whether or not it proclaims the truth of Christ, for Christ himself is the Truth, and departure from truth is a departure from Christ. Christ promised to lead the apostles, and the Church, into all truth. Part of that revelation, by Paul’s own account, is both recorded in the documents that the Church has discerned to be the Scriptures and kept by way of the so-called “oral teachings” of the Apostles. It also, in concert with Christ’s promises, includes those dogmatic decisions of the one, visible Church on matters of faith (for example, the ecumenical Councils). Thus, any group which teaches that which is contrary to Scripture or the ecumenical teachings of the Church, or denies those Scriptures and teachings, may rightly be doubted as to the veracity of its claim to be the Church, or part of the Church. Thus, for example, anyone who or any group which would deny the biblical and conciliar understandings of the person and work of Christ may invalidate, by their own mouths, their claims to be part of the Church. This would include, in part, the denial of Jesus’ divinity and humanity, the Trinitarian understanding of God’s being, the Virgin Birth, the bodily Resurrection, the unending rule of Christ, etc.
More can certainly be said. But I am a bear of little brain, and these will occupy me long enough.