Martin Luther Reformation Christians True Church Catholic

October 31, 2017

A Post-Reformation Understanding of the True Church as the People of God

Understanding the Protestant Reformation and its impact on both Catholics and Protestants, and where Christians should go from here, was the topic of a conference sponsored by The Center for Evangelical Catholicism in Greenville, South Carolina on Oct. 20-21.

Jordan J. Ballor, senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute, discussed continuity and change as understood in the Protestant tradition. The early Protestants saw a need for continual speaking in integrity in church life. They concerned themselves with reformation of doctrine, but also had a “zeal for orthodoxy.” Early Protestant statements do not present an entire body of doctrine, but only particular doctrines in need of reform (especially soteriology, or the doctrine of salvation). Other doctrines, such as the Trinity or eschatology, were accepted without change from Catholicism. This selectivity of early Protestantism and its polemic had to be transcended to present a full body of doctrine.

This was done in the era of Protestant orthodoxy, which, Ballor said, lasted from the third generation of Reformers to the eighteenth century. Protestant orthodoxy did provide a “comprehensive and robust” theology. Notable in this theology was the doctrine of salvation by grace alone through faith alone which, Ballor said, answered the longing of late medieval piety (evidently its desire for assurance of salvation and friendship with God). Also notable was the pervasiveness of the theme of comfort. This is seen in the answer to the first question of the Heidelberg Catechism:

What is your only comfort in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.

It is seen as well in the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, which emphasizes that the whole life of the Christian should be one of repentance:

When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

Ballor found the year 1520 to be “an especially fruitful year” for Luther and Protestantism. Luther published To the Christian Princes of the German Nation, in which he asserted the priesthood of all believers, holding clergy to be mere “functionaries.” The ordinary vocations of life are held to be consecrated to Christ in a “bottom up” rather than “top down” analysis of Christian life.

Luther faced a Catholic argument from reason in support of the Church’s authority:

1) All souls must have a lord under Christ
2) Head of the Christian world is the Pope

The answer that Luther gave is that Christendom is primarily a spiritual reality not a political one. It is an assembly of people with one faith. Luther distinguished between the institutional Church and the invisible Church. There are two senses of Church:

1) Spiritual Christendom
2) External Christendom

Luther said that there is no need for institutional unity. Eastern Christians only respect the Pope as a patriarch, but do not accept his authority. The Kingdom of God is where there is inward faith.

Ballor said that Protestant unity was a question until the end of the 19th century. At that time, the Dutch Calvinist leader Abraham Kuyper distinguished between the institutional or visible Church and the organic Church of individual believers. This distinction is the key to Christian survival in the clash with the secular world, Kuyper believed. He held that the organic Church is rooted in Christ, the source of life. This was in line with the magisterial reformers, who had articulated the difference between visible and invisible churches. Kuyper said that a true Church exists where there is pure preaching of the gospel and proper administration of the sacraments. The organic Church consists of Christian individuals in society. In this, Ballor believes, Kuyper followed somewhat the radical reformers, the Baptists and Anabaptists, who tended to see the institutional Church as an impediment to faith.

But Kuyper’s concern for a “bottom up” Christianity was to secure a confessional Church, but not a confessional state. The doctrine of salvation is key to this. Ballor referred to Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, who said that salvation is a pearl of great price. Regenerate persons continue to die to self and imitate Christ in the world. This organic Church is the primary way the Church influences society. But this strategy was opened up centuries earlier by Luther in his doctrine of individual salvation and discipleship.

Incongruously to the modern mind, early Protestants believed that there should be no coercion in faith, but that false religion should not be tolerated since it is a threat to the Church. By contrast, withdrawal from society is associated with the radical reformers, the Anabaptists. But both of these claims show a concern for conscience. Ballor said that contrary to Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s maxim that it is impossible to live in peace with those one believes are damned, Protestantism sought to give priority to conscience. A key consequence of the Reformation is the idea that people have to live together in “deep disagreement.” (This idea seems to have been lost by contemporary advocates of political correctness.) The Protestant idea of “soul freedom” led to liberal democracy, Ballor said.

Dr. Eduardo J. Echeverria, Professor of Philosophy and Theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, discussed how the Catholic world has responded to the Reformation. He asked if the Catholic Counter-Reformation is over, and concluded that it is, because of “ecumenical dialogue.” He said that the Church has pursued “ecumenical conversation” as “an exchange of gifts.” In this, all Catholics are led to “faithfulness, renewal, and reform.” This is similar to the Calvinist doctrine of “semper reformundum” (always reforming), that has both “continuity and change.” The Church “constantly unfolds truth.” It develops, yet always remains the same in a “hermeneutics of reform.”

For continuity, the Church looks to “Lerinian hermeneutics,” referring to St. Vincent of Lerins, a fifth century monk. Holding to what has been acknowledged “always, everywhere, and by all” Christians, it posits a distinction between truth and historical context. Allowable difference was described by Pope John XXIII, in saying that the “deposit of faith is one thing, [its] mode can be different.” Echeverria held that the hermeneutics offered by Vatican II is “retrieval theology.” It “looks back to original faith to move forward,” and returns to sources in pursuit of the rehabilitation of the Catholic faith. It is not be confused with retrenchment, “nor is it re-Christianization.” Echeverria said it is best described by Evangelical theologian Kevin Vanhoozer as an approach which will “look back creatively to look forward faithfully.” He also referred to Reformed theologian G.C. Berkouwer’s formulation that the true hermeneutic stresses “remanent or retrieval.”

Echeverria said that thoughts about future of the Church must come out of today’s tension. But he noted that Vanhoozer has seen a barrier to progress in Catholic doctrine (and presumably to reconciliation with Protestants) in the non-reformable character of Catholic doctrine, which makes reformation of doctrine impossible. Luther’s hermeneutic of retrieval was aimed at renewal of global Christianity. Luther did not contemplate a new church. The renewal of the Catholic Church is the intent of the gospel, Echeverria said, and therefore the emergence of an independent Church testified to the failure of the Reformation.

In endeavoring to identify the essence of Christianity and the true Church, Echeverria said we must consider three questions:

1) What is the nature of the true Church?
2) Where is it manifested?
3) How does it relate to other groups?

In answer to the first question, Echeverria said ecumenical dialogue is more than an exchange of ideas. “Mere Christianity” shared by Protestants and Catholics in the West, and Christians in the East may be a good starting point, but it is a “dead end.” Yet “compromise is unfaithfulness.” Authentic ecumenism is a “gift in service of faith. Intense conversion of heart” is precondition of dialogue, and prayer is a basis and support of ecumenical dialogue. Echeverria said that as part of this, we must recover ability to listen, reaping what the “Holy Spirit has sowed in others.” Christians must move from antagonism and conflict to recognition of others as partners. Here Echeverria distinguished between “essential” and “accidental” Protestants. The former see themselves as having recovered the true gospel, and define themselves against Rome, while the latter see themselves as regrettably alienated from the Catholic Church.

Referring to Berkouwer, Echeverria said that for Protestants, the only way to move to position of critical engagement is to move from essential to accidental Protestantism. Essential Protestantism, Berkouwer said, is unfruitful. Essential Protestants accept dissention as normal, and the prevailing sectarianism. In contrast, Berkouwer held that there is only one Church. The being of the Church is a reality in the world, the unity of all the redeemed in Christ, it is not merely a spiritual or eschatalogical reality.

Secondly, as to the “where” of the Church, Echeverria said Berkower’s position is “incompatible” with the idea that unity has been lost. The good of unity should not be understood as the return of others to a particular church, but that Church’s growth in sanctification. The presence of the true Church is seen in the fullness of Christ in a given church.

Here Echeverria said that Catholics need to avoid the dilemma of saying that the Catholic Church is the only true Church and that there is an “ecclesiastical wasteland” outside of the Church on the one hand, and “ecclesial relativism” on the other. Evidently, he holds that the Catholic Church is uniquely the true Church, while other churches exist beside it. In this regard, Echeverria said that Kuyperian Calvinism concerning the lordship of Christ in the world is not incompatible with Catholicism.

Finally, as to the relation of the Catholic Church with other groups, Echeverria said that while the “ecumenism of return” holds that all Protestants should become Catholics, the “separated brethren” (as Vatican II refers to Protestants) have contributions to make. The Counter-Reformation is over because of ecclesial dialogue. Subsistence replaces the “is” in the Catholic Church’s claim to be the true Church, because true Christians exist outside it, but a greater catholicity will happen some day.


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