Swimming the Tiber 7: The Church Is One

Ecclesia, however, ought to mean the holy Christian people, not only of the time of the apostles, who are long since dead, but clear to the end of the world, so that there is always living on earth a Christian, holy people in which Christ lives, works, and reigns per redemptionem, through grace and forgiveness of sins, the Holy Ghost per vivificationem et sanctificationem, through the daily purging out of sins and renewal of life, so that we do not remain in sin, but can and should lead a new life in good works of all kinds, such as the Ten Commandments, or Two Tables of Moses, require, and not in the old, wicked works: that is St. Paul’s teaching. But the pope and his followers have applied both the name and the picture of the Church to themselves alone and to his shameful, accursed crowd, under this blind word ecclesia, “church.”

– Martin Luther, On the Councils and the Church (1539), trans. C. M. Jacobs

Looking again through Luther’s On the Councils and the Church, the terms he uses in the quote above for Catholics may be the nicest things he has to say about us. But the main point of this quote is to refer to his stance on the invisible Church, which has been adopted broadly by most modern Protestants. (Many modern Protestants also, generally speaking, hold to Zwingli’s view, in that the invisible Church includes not only all Christians from all ages, but also all saved heathen, such as those without access to the Gospel, those who die in infancy, and so on. Luther would have repudiated that list.)

Luther does not deny the existence of the visible Church, but he trivializes it. The visible Church may be seen in small church congregations or in megachurches, but it always includes hypocrites and the unsaved, and so no church (whether building or group) can be considered a microcosm of the “true” Church, the invisible Church. The Catholic Church, according to Luther, is not part of the “visible Church,” but rather the “false Church,” and by 1539, he is equating Catholics with demons, generally speaking. (He only became more combative and vilifying as he aged.)

I said in my introductory post that I would spend a lot of time referring back to St. Francis de Sales’ Catholic Controversy; this is one of those times. Francis dismantles the argument that the invisible Church is the only true Church and he does it so handily that one is left confused how one ever believed otherwise. He spends four chapters on the subject in the first part of the book (1.5 – 1.8), so I’m not going to quote all of it. But for those of you who don’t want to take the time to read it right now, I will try to quote some highlights. He introduces the section thus:

Our adversaries, clearly perceiving that by this touchstone their doctrine would be recognised as of base gold, try by all means to turn us from that invincible proof which we find in the marks of the true Church. And therefore they would maintain that the Church is invisible and unperceivable. I consider that this is the extreme of absurdity, and that immediately beyond this abide frenzy and madness. I speak of the militant Church of which the Scripture has left us testimony, not of that which men put forward. Now, in all the Scripture it will never be found that the Church is taken for an invisible assembly.

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

(For what it’s worth, in contrast to Luther, these are probably the strongest words de Sales has to say about Protestant doctrine.) His reasons, in short, are these:

  1. In Scripture, the Church is assembled, taught, ruled, greeted, persecuted; to it we are told to come, by it we are to be received. These are not things that can be done invisibly. Cf. Matthew 18:16-17; Acts 8:1, 3; 14:22, 26; 15:4, 41; 20:17, 22, 28; Galatians 1:13; 1 Timothy 3:15.
  2. In the Old Testament, the prophets describe the Church in visible terms–a glorious bride for the King (Psalm 45), the sun and moon and the witness of God’s promise (i.e., the rainbow–cf. Psalm 89:30-37), and a mountain (Isaiah 2).
  3. Likewise, that she is not only visible, but can be known. Cf. Song of Songs 6; Isaiah 8:8 (if even fools can find their way, must the Church not be plainly visible and knowable?).
  4. The pastors and teachers of the Church are visible, therefore the Church is visible. This is true of the Apostles, of the Papacy, of the priests, and also of Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and your local pastor.
  5. The Church’s duties include preaching the Word and administering the sacraments, and these actions are visible.
  6. The patriarchs of Israel were visible, and the synagogue is a type, a precursor, for the Church. As I will discuss in some detail later, all types are inferior to the thing they prefigure. If Adam is human and visible, so also Christ is (at least!) human and visible; if Israel is visible, so also the Church.
  7. As the twelve patriarchs were visible and headed the Church in Israel, so also the Twelve Apostles were visible and headed the Church in Christ.
  8. As the Israelites lived visibly in the nation of God, so we live visibly in the Church of God. They had circumcision, we have baptism; they had the Levites and rabbis, we the elders and pastors; they had the paschal lamb and manna, we the Body of Christ; they were persecuted by Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, we by pagans, heretics, and radical Islam.

Goodness of God!–and we are still to ask whether the Church is visible! But what is the Church? An assembly of men who have flesh and bones;–and are we to say that it is but a spirit or phantom, which seems to be visible and is so only by illusion?

– Francis de Sales, The Catholic Controversy 1.5, trans. Fr. Mackey, OSB

Cf. Luke 24:37-43.

But let it not be said that Catholics believe the Church is only visible; of course, the Church is invisible, but it is visible also. The Church is one Church, as Christ prayed for us (John 17), and, like Christ, who is both man and God, and like each of us, who are both body and spirit, the Church is both visible and invisible; it has both interior and exterior, as Francis writes. The interior is even more beautiful than the exterior–look again at Psalm 45:13.

But never let it be said that the Church is only interior or only spirit or only invisible. A man is not a soul; a man is a soul and a body. On this Catholics and Protestants agree: E. Stanley Jones, a Methodist missionary, wrote, “A soul without a body is a ghost; a body without a soul is a corpse.” (The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person 40) For the Catholics, we read: “The human person, created in the image of God, is a being at once corporeal and spiritual. The biblical account expresses this reality in symbolic language when it affirms that ‘then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.’ ” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 362; cf. Genesis 2:7)

In the same way, the Church is not merely a spiritual gathering, but a visible one, a physical one. Thus, and only thus, can the Church really be a universal Church (a “catholic” Church) as God intended (cf. again John 17; Ephesians 2:11-22).

“But-but-but!” you may say, “Of course there’s a visible side of things, but that includes all the heretics and false teachers, and the true Church doesn’t have anyone but the saved!”

Doesn’t it? The large house of God, which St. Paul calls the “assembly (church) of a living God, a pillar and a support of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, my translation)–certainly the true Church, yes?–the large house of God contains “not only gold and silver objects, but also wooden and earthen [ones], and on the one hand, the [things] unto honor, but on the other hand, the [things] unto dishonor” (2 Timothy 2:20, my translation). As I wrote in an earlier post, St. Peter is given the keys to the kingdom of heaven (surely the true Church), and thus he has the ability to loosen (remit, forgive) sins or bind (retain) them–so those in the Church, which the gates of Hell will not overcome, sin and have sinned, and some will retain their sins (cf. Matthew 16). And we can be sure that any judging done by St. Peter and the apostles is done on those in the Church, because–as St. Paul tells us–those outside are judged by God alone (cf. 1 Corinthians 5:13). Remember, too, that both the servant and the son abide in the house of God for a time (cf. John 8:35); so the damned, at least for now, are included in the true Church.

And Francis de Sales has many more arguments on this point, but I think I’ve made enough for my purposes. The Church, the true Church, the Body of Christ, the house of God, the kingdom of heaven, is necessarily both visible and invisible. It includes both sinner and saint.

Tune in next time for a discussion of one the implications of a visible true Church: how do works fit in? Most Protestants accuse Catholics of having “works righteousness” and “salvation by works”–what does that mean, and why isn’t it the whole story? Let’s find out when “Swimming the Tiber” returns.

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