An article on R. C. Sproul’s ministry website, Ligonier Ministries, asks the question: “How then can we tell when a church in name is also a church in reality?” The article answers this question with two criteria: the word and the sacraments.
In regards to the word, the article reads:
“1. The Word — there is no true church without the right proclamation of the Word of God. In other words, a group that denies any of the essential truths of the Christian faith is not a church. The essential truths of Christianity are clearly taught in Scripture, and the Nicene Creed is one document that helpfully summarizes them. A truth like justification by faith alone is included in this list even though it is not specifically mentioned in the creed, because Paul lists it as a defining mark of the Gospel (Gal. 1:6–9; 2:15–16), and it is a necessary deduction from the creed’s emphasis on salvation through Christ alone.”
From a Catholic perspective the answer that the “right proclamation of the Word of God” is a criteria by which one determines whether a church is a true church seems to beg the question: how does one determine what is the right proclamation of the Word of God? Wouldn’t an Arian or a Donatist, or even a Jehovah’s Witness claim that their view is the right proclamation of the Word of God? These kinds of answers seem to ignore that every heretic believes their own interpretation of Scripture is the right proclamation of the Word of God. Such an answer fails to provide a helpful solution to the question: what is a true church?
The response “In other words, a group that denies any of the essential truths of the Christian faith is not a church” likewise begs the question: which doctrines are essential truths of the Christian faith and which doctrines are not? Wouldn’t Luther and some Protestants claim the doctrine that Christians are justified by an alien righteousness is an essential doctrine while other Protestants would disagree? Wouldn’t some Protestants, like Calvin, say that a right understanding of the Eucharist is necessary for salvation while other Protestants would not hold to such an opinion? Of course, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Protestants and Evangelicals would all have some major disagreements with each other and some of these groups would say the others have denied essential truths of the Christian faith. Who then has the authority to determine what is and what is not an essential doctrine? Such questions must be answered by those that claim the Word of God is one of two criteria that determine what is a true church.
The article continues “The essential truths of Christianity are clearly taught in Scripture”
If the essential truths of Christianity are clearly taught in Scripture, why is it that so many Christians are not able to agree on which doctrines are essential and which are not? How does one reconcile this with St. Peter’s words “There are some things in them [St. Paul’s writings] that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures”? (2 Peter 3:16) Furthermore, how can this be reconciled with the response of the Ethiopian eunuch “How can I, unless someone guides me” (Acts 8:31) to Philip’s question “Do you understand what you are reading” (Acts 8:30)? St. Vincent of Lerins long ago in the fifth century recognized that the Scriptures can be very complex and are not always clear to the individual interpreter and wrote:
“But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason,—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novation expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Appolinarus, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.” http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/3506.htm
The article also writes “the Nicene Creed is one document that helpfully summarizes them [essential doctrines].” How does one know the Nicene Creed is any more authoritative than an Arian creed produced by an Arian council? Additionally, is it not the case that many Protestants reject the part of the creed which teaches baptismal regeneration (“We acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins”)? Does one include the Filioque in the creed or not? Is it an essential doctrine? Clearly the suggestion that the Nicene Creed is a good standard to judge what is essential while completely rejecting the authority of the church that defined the creed is not a good, or even consistent, answer.
The article goes on:
“A truth like justification by faith alone is included in this list even though it is not specifically mentioned in the creed, because Paul lists it as a defining mark of the Gospel (Gal. 1:6–9; 2:15–16), and it is a necessary deduction from the creed’s emphasis on salvation through Christ alone.”
Where does Paul teach justification by faith alone as to mean that one is justified solely by the imputation of an alien righteousness? How is this a “deduction from the creed’s emphasis on salvation through Christ alone” when Catholics can affirm that salvation comes from none other than Christ yet reject the doctrine of the imputation of an alien righteousness? Such questions must be answered before one can embrace the said doctrine, especially if it is going to be embraced as an essential doctrine.
The second criteria the article provides is the sacraments. Concerning this criteria the article says:
“2. The Sacraments — a true church rightly celebrates the Lord’s Supper and baptism. That is, the sacraments must be conducted in line with Scripture’s clear teaching, and we must allow for latitude where such things are not so plain. For example, the biblical instruction on the mode of baptism is not as clear as we might like; thus, we cannot anathematize those who disagree with us in this specific area. Celebrating the sacraments correctly also involves keeping unrepentant sinners from partaking in these means of grace (church discipline). Though inseparably linked to the sacraments, sometimes we make special mention of church discipline as the third mark of the church (1 Cor. 5).”
Naturally, the claim that ” a true church rightly celebrates the Lord’s Supper and baptism” begs the question: what is the right celebration of the Lord’s Supper and baptism? Wouldn’t Luther say the right celebration of the Lord’s Supper includes the doctrine of consubstantiation, while other Protestants would not? Wouldn’t some like Luther and Calvin claim God regenerates in baptism, while other Protestants would not?
The article reads: “That is, the sacraments must be conducted in line with Scripture’s clear teaching, and we must allow for latitude where such things are not so plain”
Catholics would say the Scriptures clearly teach that Christ is really present in the Eucharist (John 6) and that the mass is a true sacrifice (Malachi 1:11), while only some Protestants would accept the former and most would reject the latter. Who has the authority to determine who is correct as to what the Scriptures clearly teach since there are so many views as to what the Scriptures clearly teach?
How do Catholics Answer the Question?
The article says Catholics answer the question by saying “the bishop is the mark of the church, that is, the true church is present when you have a duly consecrated bishop who is part of a line of succession going back to the apostles. Ultimately, a bishop is a true bishop only if he submits to the pope; thus, in Roman Catholicism only Roman Catholic parishes constitute the true church.”
This representation of the Catholic perspective is somewhat accurate and somewhat inaccurate. The Catholic view is that a local church is a true local church if it’s Bishop has been validly ordained by another Bishop with Apostolic succession. However, it is not true that a Bishop is only a true Bishop if he submits to the Pope. A validly ordained Bishop with Apostolic succession who is not in communion with the Bishop of Rome is still a true Bishop and the churches in his diocese are still true local churches. These true local churches, due to their Bishop’s lack of communion with the Bishop of Rome, are not part of the Universal Church, however. In order to be part of the Universal Church, a local Church must be in communion, through their Bishop, with the Bishop of Rome.
A Voice from the Past Speaks
St. Ignatius of Antioch, the disciple of the Apostle John, confirms the Catholic view that a local church is a true church if it is in communion with the Bishop, as he wrote:
“In like manner, let all reverence the deacons as an appointment of Jesus Christ, and the bishop as Jesus Christ, who is the Son of the Father, and the presbyters as the sanhedrim of God, and assembly of the apostles. Apart from these, there is no Church. Concerning all this, I am persuaded that you are of the same opinion. For I have received the manifestation of your love, and still have it with me, in your bishop, whose very appearance is highly instructive, and his meekness of itself a power; whom I imagine even the ungodly must reverence, seeing they are also pleased that I do not spare myself.” (Epistle to the Trallians, Chapter 3)
And in his Epistle to the Philadelphians, chapter 3, he wrote:
“Keep yourselves from those evil plants which Jesus Christ does not tend, because they are not the planting of the Father. Not that I have found any division among you, but exceeding purity. For as many as are of God and of Jesus Christ are also with the bishop. And as many as shall, in the exercise of repentance, return into the unity of the Church, these, too, shall belong to God, that they may live according to Jesus Christ. Do not err, my brethren. If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God. If any one walks according to a strange opinion, he agrees not with the passion [of Christ.].”
Clearly, in the mind of the Apostle John’s disciple, to be in schism with the Bishop is to be outside the church and to be in communion with the Bishop is to be in communion with Christ. In chapter 4 of the same epistle, St. Ignatius wrote:
“Take heed, then, to have but one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, and one cup to [show forth] the unity of His blood; one altar; as there is one bishop, along with the presbytery and deacons, my fellow-servants: that so, whatsoever you do, you may do it according to [the will of] God.”
We see that the Apostle John’s disciple placed a great emphasis on a local church’s unity with the Bishop in order to be a true church.
In light of Apostolic Tradition on the office of Bishop, which is witnessed to in St. Ignatius’s epistles, the Catholic Church seems to offer a much better answer to the question: “How then can we tell when a church in name is also a church in reality” than the Protestant answers which simply beg more questions. The Catholic answer is that a local church is a church in reality if it is in communion with the local Bishop with Apostolic succession. The local churches whose Bishop is in communion with the Bishop of Rome are part of the Universal Church. It is this church that has the authority to determine what are the essentials and it is this Church that Christ Himself established in His earthly ministry.