The Nature of the Church

PETER KREEFT

One thing we can do to help is to understand our Protestant “separated brethren”. This task involves understanding how they understand us, or misunderstand us. The


The umbrella issue that separates us, under which the other issues stand, is the nature and authority of the Church, for all the things that Catholics believe in that Protestants don’t (e.g., the seven sacraments, transubstantiation, praying to saints, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption, papal infallibility), Catholics believe in because of the teaching authority of the Church. What is the Church, as taught in Scripture, and what is the basis of our disagreement with Protestants over its nature?

I was a Protestant (Dutch Reformed) for the first twenty-one years of my life. Becoming a Catholic was one of the two best things I ever did — that, and marrying the greatest woman in the world. Yet, I have never lost my respect and affection for the faith of my Protestant friends. This part of the book is designed to help Catholics understand the most serious Protestant objections to Catholicism and to answer them.

Such a task is necessary, not optional. We have entered upon a new age of ecumenism. Battle lines are being radically clarified and redrawn. It is finally becoming clear (almost everywhere except in Northern Ireland, it seems) to both “sides” that we have misidentified our real enemies; that an orthodox Catholic and an orthodox Protestant have far more in common than either has with a Modernist in his own church. For the questions that divide Protestants from Catholics, like whether popes are infallible, are obviously less important than the questions that divide orthodox Christians from Modernists, like whether Christ really rose from the dead. If popes are not infallible, then our certainty about dogma may be in trouble, but “if Christ is not risen from the dead, your faith is vain and you are still in your sins.”

More misunderstanding and hostility have been overcome in the last thirty years than in the previous three hundred, in large part because of Vatican 11 and the last four popes, all of whom have placed dialogue with Protestants high on their agenda. In fact, John Paul II announced that one of the three priority items for his pontificate was reunion, first with Eastern Orthodoxy. (The other two were cleaning up the church in America and preventing nuclear war.)

Healing the schism of 1054 with Eastern Orthodoxy involves overcoming far fewer obstacles than healing the division of the Protestant Reformation, of course. Yet we may not abandon even that harder hope, for it is clearly our Lord’s will that we be “one flock, with one shepherd”. Our divisions are not necessary, not in the nature of things. They all began in history, and they can end in history.

One thing we can do to help is to understand our Protestant “separated brethren”. This task involves understanding how they understand us, or misunderstand us. That is our topic here.

The umbrella issue that separates us, under which the other issues stand, is the nature and authority of the Church, for all the things that Catholics believe in that Protestants don’t (e.g., the seven sacraments, transubstantiation, praying to saints, Mary’s Immaculate Conception and Assumption, papal infallibility), Catholics believe in because of the teaching authority of the Church.

What is the Church? As Pope John XXIII put it, she is our mater et magistra (mother and teacher), but she is our mother before she is our teacher. We are born into a spiritual family, not by physical birth but by faith and baptism. This spiritual family has various names. The three most important ones are (1) the Church, ek-klesia, literally the called-out ones, those who are called by God out of the world to be part of his new world, new kingdom; (2) the mystical body of Christ, Christ’s own hands and feet; (3) the people of God, the family of God.

How do Protestants understand the Church? Because everything I have just said about the Church is clearly taught in Scripture and because orthodox Protestants believe everything in Scripture, they believe all these things. Where, then, is the disagreement?

For one thing, it is a difference in emphasis. Protestants are more individualistic than Catholics. They tend to think that individuals are saved first and then join a sort of society of the saved. Catholics think, rather, that being saved is to be put into the Church, as Noah’s family was saved by being put into the ark. (The Fathers of the Church often used Noah’s ark as a symbol for the Church, by the way. When you compare the variety of creatures in both vessels, the comparison seems apt).

But Protestants too have to admit that the Church is not just a human social club but of divine origin because Scripture clearly teaches this. Where, then, do they differ with us? Their criticism is usually that Catholics ignore the need to make an individual, personal decision for Christ, or choice to believe; that Catholics think they can be born into the faith, inheriting salvation from their parents.

But this is not a doctrinal disagreement. It is a practical, pastoral concern. Most Protestants are willing to admit that individualism is a mistake, and most Catholics are willing to admit that being born into faith is a misunderstanding. Where, then, is the doctrinal, dogmatic disagreement about the Church?

Perhaps it concerns the authority of the Church. Let’s assume that both Protestants and Catholics understand the true nature of authority: that it means right, not might, in fact, “author’s rights”, and that in Christ it is wielded by love and service, not by lording it over others. Once Protestants understand this definition and understand that Catholics understand it too, the fear of the authority of the Church is largely dissipated.

Because Protestants accept Scripture and because Scripture clearly teaches the authority of the Church (“He who hears you, hears me,” said Christ to his apostles), Protestants admit that the Church has authority. But some of them restrict this authority to the first generation of apostles, forgetting that these apostles themselves authorized successors, bishops. If you believe in the authority of Christ and Scripture, you must believe in the authority of the apostles because according to Scripture Christ authorized them; and if you believe in the authority of the apostles, you must believe in the authority of their successors because the apostles authorized them.

Some Protestants will accept this succession in principle but say that the Catholic Church has betrayed its authority by misusing it (this argument confuses the person with the office) or that the Church claims too much authority (but how do they know what is too much?) or that the Catholic Church is not the only church with divinely commissioned authority. This last idea is quite unscripturall for Christ never spoke of “churches”, only the “Church”. He is not a polygamist.

Protestants reply that these references to the one Church apply only to the “Church invisible”, not to the “Church visible”. But although the Church is invisible (mystical), it is also visible, and visibly one, in Scripture. Saint Paul was utterly scandalized at the beginnings of denominationalism in Corinth.

Some Protestants think Catholics hold that the Catholic Church is divinely inspired, like Scripture, and has the authority to invent new dogmas. This is a misunderstanding. The Church does not claim divine inspiration to add to revelation, only providential protection to safeguard it from subtraction. Even the dogmas not explicitly found in Scripture, like papal infallibility and Mary’s Assumption, are not new but old. The Church merely defined the doctrines that had been believed and lived from the beginning.

Papal infallibility certainly seems to be a specifically Catholic dogma that Protestants cannot accept. But they often misunderstand it. First, they often think of the pope as an autocrat rather than as the head of a body. (A head is part of a body, not floating above it in the air.) Second, they often think of the Church along political lines and want it to be a democracy. But Scripture thinks of the Church along organic lines, and no organic body is a democracy. Third, they often misunderstand infallibility as attaching to the Pope personally. In fact, it attaches to the office, not the person, and only when defining a doctrine of faith or morals.

Perhaps in my haste I have overlooked something. But it seems that all the differences between Protestants and Catholics on this fundamental, divisive issue, the nature and authority of the Church, come down to (1) differences in emphasis, (2) practical, pastoral criticisms, (3) scripturally answerable arguments, or (4) misunderstandings. If this is so, then there is no obstacle in principle to reunion without compromise of dogma.

This morning, while receiving the Eucharist, the thought struck me: “How different we are from Protestants: they have no eucharistic Real Presence!” But then a second thought struck me: “How like them we are even while receiving the Eucharist, for the whole point of the Eucharist is that very Christ whom they too love as their whole point and end and meaning. “ Our signs are richer, but the one signified is the same. He comes to us down different roads (e.g., the Mass), but the one who comes to fetch and fondle his sheep is one. And he wants to fetch them all home to be one.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Kreeft, Peter. “The Nature of the Church.” Chapter 42 in Fundamentals of the Faith. (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), 267-271.

Reprinted by permission of Ignatius Press. All rights reserved. Fundamentals of the Faith — ISBN 0-89870-202-X.

THE AUTHOR

Peter Kreeft has written extensively (over 25 books) in the areas of Christian apologetics. Link to all of Peter Kreeft's books here.

Peter Kreeft teaches at Boston College in Boston Massachusetts. He is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Educator's Resource Center.

Copyright © 1988 Ignatius Press


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