Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

Following on from my previous post.

Lesslie Newbigin writes:

The church, therefore, as it is in via, does not face the world as the exclusive possessor of salvation, nor as the fullness of what others have in part, the answer to the questions they ask, or the open revelation of what they are anonymously. The church faces the world, rather, as arrabon of that salvation — as sign, firstfruit, token, witness of that salvation which God purposes for the whole. It can do so only because it lives by the Word and sacraments of the gospel by which it is again and again brought to judgment at the foot of the cross. And the bearer of that judgment may well be and often is a man or woman of another faith (cf. Luke 11:31-32). The church is in the world as the place where Jesus, in whom the fullness of the godhead dwells, is present, but it is not itself that fullness. It is the place where the filling is taking place (Eph. 1:23). It must therefore live always in dialogue with the world, bearing its witness to Christ but always in such a way that it is open to receive the riches of God that belong properly to Christ but have to be brought to him. This dialogue, this life of continuous exchange with the world, means that the church itself is changing. It must change if “all that the Father has” is to be given to it as Christ’s own possession (John 16:14-15). It does change. Very obviously the church of the Hellenic world in the fourth century was different from the church that met in the upper room in Jerusalem. It will continue to change as it meets ever new cultures and lives in faithful dialogue with them.

God shapes and moulds His Church by bringing it into dialogue with the cultures that He places it among. God raises up enemies such as Islam; as the Church engages with such enemies it is matured and comes to a deeper understanding of herself. God also gives His Church the best of the wisdom of the Greeks and the insights of other cultures.

We are living in exciting times today, the gospel is making new breakthroughs in Africa, Asia and South America. Cultures that have been developing for millennia are suddenly brought into dialogue with the gospel for the first time. Who can say what new insights might emerge from the exciting new dialogues that are beginning? Who can say how African readings of the Scriptures might lead us to exciting new readings of Paul? Who can say what light Asian Christianity might be able to shed on the significance of biblical symbolism, for instance?

When God first created man He placed him in a garden surrounded by lands with great natural riches. Man was called to go out into the wider world and glorify the garden with the riches that he found. In the book of Revelation we see the glorified garden city that results from this process. The city is of pure gold, adorned with precious stones and with gates of pearl. All the riches of the world, the riches of the earth and the riches of the sea, have gone into its construction.

I believe that God is active in history, and that He is active in all of history. In the OT God was not merely providentially shaping Israel, but was providentially shaping tribes in the Amazon rainforest. The various cultures that God has shaped are analogous to the natural riches of the world of the world surrounding the garden of Eden. God has spent centuries or millennia moulding these cultures so that one day they may be glorified and may serve to enrich the great Temple that He is constructing in the Church.

Christ is Lord of all and all of the cultural riches scattered throughout the world belong to Him. He is gathering all of these riches into His Church. When the gospel goes into a new culture, we are not merely bringing God’s riches to a new place, but God is giving us new cultural riches with which to build the Temple of the Holy Spirit. This is one of the things that makes missionary work so significant and exciting. Missionary work can be like seeking buried treasure. We really do not know what insights God might have hidden for the building up of Christ’s body in some isolated people group in Polynesia, for instance.

It is incredibly sad to see the absence of cross-cultural theological dialogue in many parts of the Church when we have so much to gain from such dialogue. There are some who believe that missionary efforts merely involves transplanting our cultural forms of Christianity into foreign settings. The goal of missionary activity, for instance, becomes that of getting African Christians to think in terms of the Westminster Standards. The idea that our form of the Christian faith, deeply culturally conditioned as it is, might have a lot to learn from humble dialogue with more indigenous African forms of Christianity never seems to occur to us.

For instance, the Westminster Standards are the sort of documents that one would expect seventeenth century northern Europeans, trained in Western forms of logic and rhetoric (their Anglo-Saxon background muted by the academy), living in a culture where the Christian faith is pretty well established, to produce. They are deeply culturally conditioned. I imagine that if the Christian Church were faithfully to express its faith in terms of an African tribal culture, it would look surprisingly different, without ceasing to continue significant similarities. I firmly believe that God desires that we encourage the development of such indigenous declarations of faith and that we learn from each other as we engage in cross-cultural dialogue within the new culture that God is creating within the Church.

The Church does not yet have the fullness of that which God intends for it. The fullness belongs to Christ and He is gradually bringing it into the Church as the Church enters into dialogue with new cultures. However, this dialogue does not merely take place between the Church and the various cultures; it is also a conversation within the Church, between various denominations.

Within the various denominations we see many different perspectives on God’s truth. Different denominations have different emphases and insights on God’s truth. None of this is to suggest that all perspectives are in any way equally valid or significant. Nor is it to deny that there are occasions when certain faulty perspectives need to be opposed in the strongest possible manner. As in the case of dialogue between the Church and the cultures, there is a lot that must be rejected in other denominations, even where hidden treasures exist.

God is a god who separates in order to prepare the way for a more glorious union. God breaks the union of Adam’s body by removing a rib in order to make possible the union of marriage. God breaks the union between son and parents in order to form the union between man and wife. God breaks the union between the nations at Babel so that He might one day form a more glorious Nation. God separates Jew from Gentile in order that through the Jews He might bring salvation to the Gentiles and of the two form one new people. Christ’s body is broken and given to us so that a new body in which we are united to Him may be formed.

The separation, considered apart from the new union can seem like a loss and a tragedy. However, viewed as the precondition for a future more glorious union, God’s breaking of our premature unions is an act of grace. God takes apart that which is good so that we might one day enjoy that which is better still.

I believe that this is what God has done in His Church. God separated His Church into East and West. He separated His Church again in the Reformation. The rise of many denominations is a further split that He has brought about. This state of division is hardly the end that God intends. God did not take a rib from Adam so that Adam might lack a rib, but so that Adam might have a wife. In the same way, God split His Church so that the Church might one day enjoy a more glorious union. I am firmly convinced that the state of division that the Church currently experiences is not a state that will prevail throughout history.

In a prematurely united Church, the tendency would be to paper over certain theological cracks. We don’t like to admit that our great theological paradigms are incomplete and have serious problems. There are certain questions that we don’t want to ask ourselves, certain faults that we don’t wish to face. There are deep-rooted problems that have been masked for so long that we lack the power to see them ourselves and need others to identify them for us.

This is one reason why theological dialogue with one’s critics is so important. All of our theological systems are incomplete and faulty. None will endure forever. Our critics are often in a better position to identify the weaknesses of our positions, just as we are often in a better position to identify theirs. In His grace God has given us perceptive critics so that He might mature us and lead us deeper into His truth.

I believe that one of the reasons why God has saw fit to split His Church is in order to ensure that various important perspectives and insights are not lost in a premature union. Rather than permitting the creation of a weak, unsatisfactory and compromised union between various parties, God wishes to preserve the insights that He has given to various parties intact, until the time comes when the Church as a whole is mature enough truly to take these insights on board. Among the various denominations God has scattered lessons that He wishes His people to learn. When the lessons have been learnt — and not until then — the denominations will cease to be necessary.

Some will protest that, in most of the debates between denominations, one party is straightforwardly right and the other party is straightforwardly wrong. For instance they will insist that, in the debates between Baptists and paedobaptists on the question of paedobaptism, both cannot be right and at least one party is quite wrong. Writing as someone who is convinced that the Baptism of infants is supported by Scripture in a number of ways, I think that this would be a good example to deal with. If paedobaptism is justified by Scripture what sort of lessons might God want to teach His Church through the witness of the Baptists within her on this particular issue?

I believe that such a question should not be viewed in abstraction from history. The Baptist position arises within a Church that has undergone a particular historical development and faces particular challenges in the future. The Church’s historical development was far from tidy and in certain areas the Church’s practice and theology developed like a crooked bone growth. In such a situation God breaks the bone in order to reset it. I believe that this might provide a helpful perspective on the development of the paedobaptist position that Baptist theology arose in response to. The following is a sketchy reading of Church history, designed to illustrate the corrective purpose that Baptist theology may be designed to perform in this area.

In the earliest Church most of the baptisms would be ‘convert’ baptisms of adult individuals and of households (some of which would, I believe, have included infants). However, as the Church became more settled one would expect to have more baptisms of infants by themselves. The book of Acts and the Pauline epistles generally address fairly young communities, where most of the baptisms that would have taken place would have been household or adult individual baptisms. However, later in the second and third centuries, infant baptisms began to become more common. Later in history they were to become the norm.

The shift in emphasis from adult Baptism to infant Baptism in Church history is not primarily a theological shift, but one that results from changing historical circumstances. Such a change is quite significant. In the case of household baptisms and the baptisms of adult individuals, personal faith is quite prominent. The head of the household or adult convert has personally come to faith. In the case of the head of the household, this change of allegiance is one to which his household would generally submit and be included within.

A situation in which each generation has only experienced baptism as infants is quite different and personal faith can often be eclipsed. The same could be said in the case of circumcision to some extent: the strong connection between circumcision and personal faith in the case of Abraham was in danger of being lost where circumcision became something that every Israelite boy received at the age of eight days. Moses and the prophets had to remind the people of this connection on a number of occasions.

In such a changed situation, the understanding of the meaning of Baptism and its connection with faith will most likely change somewhat as well. Root metaphors might shift; for example, Baptism as ‘death and resurrection’ seems a less obvious metaphor for the Baptism of infants.

In the earliest churches most baptisms would be baptisms of converts and their families. Infant baptisms would be less regular. Those baptized as infants in such a situation (second generation Christians) would grow up in a context where adult convert baptisms still predominated. Third, fourth and later generation Christians would begin to face a different situation, however. They would live in a Church where infant baptisms predominated. In the Middle Ages infant baptisms so predominated in some places that adult convert baptisms would have been very rare.

All of this results in a dramatic shift in the Church’s experience of Baptism. The NT and earliest Church texts were written into a context where adult Baptism (not understood as a theological position) predominated. The baptismal liturgies would have been designed for adult converts. When infant baptisms would have occurred they would generally have taken place in the context of adult conversions. As the situation developed, however, infant baptisms would increasingly take place by themselves as discrete events from the baptisms of adult converts. This would begin to raise problems as the Church’s theology of Baptism and baptismal liturgies had to cope with its changing experience of Baptism. Baptismal liturgies originally intended for adults would have to be altered to deal with situations in which no adults were being baptized.

The meaning of infant Baptism (more understandable in the case of household Baptism) would begin to become problematic. A theology of Baptism addressed primarily to a situation in which adult convert baptisms were being practiced would have to negotiate with a Church where such baptisms were uncommon. It seems to me that these problems would become increasingly acute among third and later generation Christians and, for this reason, it does not surprise me that we find the Church of the third and following couple of centuries struggling to marry its theology of Baptism and the predominating practice of infant Baptism.

Infant baptisms would not originally have been treated as a special case demanding particular justification, but would have been understood in relation to the convert baptisms that took place within the Church. As time went on the Church’s experience of Baptism changed as infant baptisms became more common, to the stage that they were the norm. This would exert pressure on the Church’s theology and liturgy, which were designed for a very different situation.

In this new situation, infant baptisms would come to be regarded in abstraction from adult convert baptisms and certain theological themes and liturgical practices that were prominent in the Church’s understanding and administration of Baptism would seem to be less applicable in the case of infants. This would lead to the raising of questions about the theological basis of the practice (not so much in order to justify the practice as in order to understand its necessity, which wasn’t properly illuminated by the Church’s existing theology of Baptism).

I think this is part of the reason why we find the historical record that we do. I also think that this helps us to appreciate that groups like the Anabaptists were largely raising tensions that hadn’t yet been truly resolved by the tradition. The pre-Reformation Church generally celebrated infant Baptism as a form of clinical Baptism and chrismation and first communion came to be deferred. It is hardly a sign of a healthy situation when Baptism is separated from itself and from the Eucharist like this and the baptized are only half initiated into the life of the Church. Whilst I disagree with the Anabaptists’ theology, I think that they helped to highlight problems that had never been completely addressed. The Church had never completely come to terms with the predominance of infant Baptism. I think that the Anabaptist movement, by raising the problem again, challenged the Church to do a better job than it did the first time around.

The earliest Jewish Church was also, to some extent, an ecclesiola in ecclesia. It was a new community within the larger community of Israel and for a number of years the ties between the Church and the more general worship of Israel persisted. Whilst the Church was clearly also a distinct community in its own right, this continued connection to the wider worship of Israel would have shaped its self-understanding in various ways. The Church inherited the role of the prophets, forming new communities within the larger community as a testimony to it, preparing the nucleus of the people of God that would be preserved through and established after divine judgment.

Many within the early Church were observant Jews and synagogue-worshippers, who would have continued in these practices as Christians. Their sense of being a community separate from and in opposition to other Jewish communities would have been less pronounced. In such settings the Church would have had a self-understanding of its community that differed somewhat from that which would develop when a complete split with the worship of the Jews had occurred. The Church would primarily be regarded as the nucleus of God’s restored people within the larger body of the people of God, not yet a completely distinct people. In such an understanding of the place and significance of the Church the role of confessing mature believers would be highlighted and infants, though seen as part of the community, would be more secondary, less the nucleus of God’s restored people as those who were being gathered around this new nucleus.

Much of the teaching of the gospel (the Sermon on the Mount, for instance) is addressed to such ‘prophetic communities’. These prophetic communities would have been formed of adult, predominantly male, disciples. These prophetic communities existed as the centre around which the new people of God were to be formed, the spearhead of the new movement that God was bringing about. A number of similar movements have developed within Church history. Communities arise, designed to play a prophetic role to the people of God as a whole, modelling a new form of faithful living that has been lacking within the wider Church. Monasticism is a good example of such a movement.

I believe that an ecclesiola in ecclesia can do immense good for the Church. These spearhead movements call the Church to mature forms of faithfulness and conformity to God’s Word. In a Church where everyone has been baptized as an infant, such movements are immensely important, calling for costly discipleship and voluntary personal commitment. Such prophetic communities serve as cities on a hill, modelling heroic faithfulness to the Church as a whole. In so doing they serve a purpose similar to that which the disciples of Jesus and John the Baptist played in relation to Israel.

The spiritual affinity between the Anabaptists and such movements as the Franciscans has been noted by a number of people. I believe that part of God’s purpose in raising up such movements is to ensure that His Church does not forget the message of such passages as the Sermon on the Mount. Whilst the community is larger than the nucleus, having a nucleus of mature and committed disciples in crucial for the health and growth of the Church. Baptists and Anabaptists, in reminding the Church of this fact, have done immense good. I believe that their testimony and example has borne fruit in many parts of the wider Church.

Of course, this entire process is not a one-way affair. Paedobaptists are also a means of teaching Baptists that, despite the importance of mature and committed discipleship as that which sets the tone for the rest of the Church, the Church is not merely composed of those who have arrived at a mature profession of faith. In God’s wisdom He has brought infants into His family. Infants remind us of our own impotence and strengthen the Church by means of the common concern that the Church has for their development in the faith. Just as the birth of a child transforms the new mother and father and is a means by which God greatly matures them (in every sense of the word!) and reforms them into a family, so it is with infants in the Church. God gives adult believers weak infants to humble them, remind them of their impotence and encourage them to grow. God gives weak infants strong adult believers in order to ensure that they are raised in the faith and one day become strong adult believers themselves.

A Church in which there are no weak infants and everyone is expected to manifest a heroic personal faith commitment can be unforgiving and tend towards rigorism. A Church in which there are no mature adult believers will soon become compromised in belief and practice and lack direction.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
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16 Responses to Thoughts on Denominations, Church Union and Reunion 2

  1. Bryan Cross says:


    When you say, “the denominations will cease to be necessary”, it looks as though you are saying that the future unity of the Church (prior to the Second Coming, but after the reunion of all denominations) will be non-institutional. In other words, it seems as though in your opinion, the visible Church in the future will not be one institution, but simply non-institutional. Am I understanding you correctly?

    You said in your combox comments to “The Denominational Church” that you think “Christ founded the Church to enjoy institutional unity”, implying in my mind that you think that the Church (in its future state of reunion) will be institutionally one. So do you think that the Church in its future state of reunion will be institutionally one or simply non-institutional?

    If you think that the future visible Church will be one institution, then I don’t understand why you are trying to do something to the Church (make her institutionally one) that [you think] Christ Himself did not see fit to do while on earth.

    But if you think that the Church in her state of future reunion will be non-institutional, then I don’t see how that is anything other than ecclesial anarchy, the necessary fruit of individualism and ecclesial egalitarianism.

    – Bryan

  2. Pingback: Alastair on Missions « Everyone’s Entitled to Joe’s Opinion

  3. Al says:

    I don’t know what the future Church will be like. However, I expect that it will enjoy some form of institutional unity.

  4. Kent says:

    Amazing post. Thank you.

  5. Bryan Cross says:


    I too seek institutional unity. I do so believing that I’m not outdoing Christ, because I believe that Christ founded an institution. I’m not sure if you agree that Christ founded an institution, because I do not know what it means for something to have “institutional dimensions”. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you agree that Christ founded an institution.

    The way we work for institutional unity will depend on whether we believe that one of the presently existing institutions is the original one. If none of the existing institutions is the original one, then all the existing ones can be done away with, and a single new one created. But if one of the existing institutions is the original, then institutional unity should involve all the other institutions being incorporated into the original.

    You seem to think that if there was an original institution, it was schism-sensitive, such that it [though not the Church-as-mere-aggregate-of-believers] ceased to exist in the event of some schism. That is because, apparently, you think the institution of the Church does not have an ultimate “principium unitatis” (principle of unity) fixing the locus of institutional continuity in the event of schism. In that way you seem to have something more like a “mereological essentialist” view of the original institution — all the parts (or at least all the major parts) are equally central to the being of the organism as such. The organic notion of unity, by contrast, allows that an organism can lose certain parts and still continue to exist as an organism. In more complex organisms some parts are more central than others to the continued existence of the organism. This is why, for example, if you lose your toe you neither cease to exist nor do you continue on as a toe.

    But I think there is good reason from the Scripture and the fathers (see especially the quotations of St. Cyprian, St. Ambrose, and St. Optatus) to believe that the successor of Peter has the role of principium unitatis. This is why, in my opinion, the original institution did not cease to exist when schisms occurred. Those remaining in full communion with the successor of Peter ipso facto remained in the original institution. And those separating from the successor of Peter ipso facto separated from the original institution. That does not mean (necessarily) that those departing from full communion with the successor of Peter depart from the aggregate of all believers.

    The point I am making is that if your reunification plan involves starting a new institution (and abolishing all the present ones), then your plan assumes that the Catholic Church is not the original institution Christ founded, and that the successor of Peter does not have the role of principium unitatis. But Catholics cannot accept those assumptions. Therefore, while Catholics share your desire for institutional unity, we cannot support the manner in which you [apparently] wish to see it brought about. Moreover, there cannot be true institutional unity of all Christians without a unified sacramental (as opposed to democratic) authority. Any form of magisterial authority involving multiplicity at the highest level will be intrinsically disposed to schism. This is why institutional unity requires a visible principium unitatis, and that principium unitatis, in order to be a principium unitatis, must itself be one.

    – Bryan

  6. Al says:

    I believe that the institution that Christ founded is more than merely the ‘aggregate of all believers’. I believe that ideally the unity of the Church should be expressed governmentally and sacramentally. The Church should find unity in the sacrament and unity in the bishop. However, the unity of the Church cannot be reduced to either of these things. The Church is not just united in one way, but in many.

    It is also possible for the Church to cease to be united in some respects, but retain unity in many others. We see an example of this sort of thing in the case of Israel and Judah. The people of God did not cease to be unified in some respects. In other respects they were separated from each other by God’s purpose.

    Let’s say that the institution of the Church that Christ founded had the pope as one of its principles of unity. Suppose that Christ did intend that one dimension of the unity of His Church was to be the unity found in the one Bishop of Rome, the first among equals. This does not mean that, after the split between the West and the East and the split at the Reformation the Roman Catholic church is the one true institution that Christ founded.

    Biblical analogy is helpful here. In OT history God split the nation. He had established the Davidic dynasty and had made clear that His purposes would finally be fulfilled through this dynasty and that the people would only find the fullness of unity under a Davidic king. However, He did not so bind the unity of His people to the Davidic king that the people would cease to be one in the absence of such a king. God could punish Solomon and Rehoboam by splitting the kingdom. In so doing the northern kingdom was not merely left as stragglers from the fold, but God established them and recognized them as a sovereign people in their own right.

    The institution of Israel was greater than the Davidic ruler. The king could have the kingdom taken from him. The institution of the Church, likewise, is greater than its leaders, even if they have been established by divine purpose. The institution of the Church is greater than the papacy. Parts of the Church can rebel against a corrupt papacy, just as God led many of His people to rebel against corrupt Davidic kings, and still retain sovereign rights. Much of the institution of the Church has been torn from the hands of the papacy, just as God tore the kingdom from the hands of Solomon and Rehoboam. This is simply the way that God works.

    If we were to choose to stick with this analogy we could readily admit — if we were to choose to press the analogy in such a direction — that the pope has a special place in God’s purposes for the Church and that the final unity of the Church will have unity in the pope as one of its dimension, without in any way suggesting that the Roman Catholic church as it now exists is the one institution that Christ founded.

  7. Bryan Cross says:


    Let’s say that the institution of the Church that Christ founded had the pope as one of its principles of unity. Suppose that Christ did intend that one dimension of the unity of His Church was to be the unity found in the one Bishop of Rome, the first among equals. This does not mean that, after the split between the West and the East and the split at the Reformation the Roman Catholic church is the one true institution that Christ founded.

    It either means that, or it means that the institution that Christ founded ceased to exist. The institution, so long as it exists, cannot fail to have its locus in its principium unitatis. The idea that the institution continued as something other than the Catholic Church but not as any particular institution, would reduce the institution to the aggregate of believers. In other words, it would conceptually eliminate the institution altogether by conceptually making the institution equivalent to the aggregate of believers.

    And the notion that the institution continued on as some other particular institution would have to posit a different principium unitatis, someone other than the successor of Peter.

    You might accept the idea that the institution ceased to exist. One problem for that position is that the future institution you envision would then not be the same one that Christ founded. It would not be a divine institution (i.e. one founded by Christ), but a manmade institution. The only way to have a divine institution in the future is for it to be the divine institution that Christ founded. And that means that the original institution cannot go out of existence.

    But as I just showed, if the original institution did not go out of existence, then it would have had to continue as one of the concrete institutions, in 1054 as either the Catholic Church or one of the EOCs, and in the 16th century as either the Catholic Church or as one of the Protestant denominations. And, as I have tried to argue, the role of Peter as principium unitatis is good reason to believe that in any split, where goes Peter, there goes the institution that Christ founded.

    – Bryan

  8. Al says:

    While I believe that the Church can find unity in the pope, I do not see any truly convincing argument either from Scripture or tradition that the unity of the Church is founded on the papacy as a Petrine office.

    You might appeal to Matthew 16:18. I will readily admit that Peter is there referred to as the rock on which the Church will be built. I believe that he is referred to in such a manner because he is the first among equals of the apostles (cf. Ephesians 2:20; Revelation 21:24). What I fail to see is any reference to a continuing Petrine office. It is the apostolic foundation of the Church that is here referred to, not a continuing office.

    That said, in principal I see no reason why there is anything wrong with the Church recognizing one leading bishop who plays the role of first among equals in the worldwide church (whether he is in Rome or elsewhere).

    When the Scriptures talk about the unity of the Church, the unity of the Church is seen in our common Lord, Spirit, body, faith, Baptism and God and Father (Ephesians 4:4-6). Elsewhere the identity of the Church as one body is seen as a reality resulting from the celebration of the sacraments (1 Corinthians 10:17; 12:13). Had the biblical text declared ‘one Lord, one pope, one baptism’ I wouldn’t be debating with you.

    That which Christ original founded on the apostolic foundation will never cease to exist. However, it will not always manifest the fullness of institutional unity. Its unity is not institutional in the way that you are suggesting. I would like to see you present an exegetical case for the position that you are advancing here.

    The unity of the Church is certainly founded on Peter in the sense that if we are not founded on the apostolic foundation we are not part of the one Church of Christ. However, the whole idea of Peter representing the papacy as principium unitatis is quite absent from Scripture. Despite its long history, it strikes me as an ecclesiastical fairytale, rather than as something with any claim to our assent. Of course, I would love for you to prove me wrong here.

  9. Bryan Cross says:


    Thanks for your reply. Some of the things you write here suggest to me that you are approaching this question from a sola scriptura point of view. If so, then it will be harder (though perhaps not impossible) for us to come to agreement regarding the role of the successors of Peter. In other words, a disagreement at a deeper level (regarding sola scriptura) may be playing a significant role in our disagreement regarding the proper ecclesial role of Peter’s successors. I think that it is important to understand Scripture through the fathers. And I think the fathers have a clear belief in sacramental Apostolic succession. That includes the idea that the gifts and authority that Christ gave to the Apostles were conferred upon the bishops whom the Apostles appointed. I would call into question the assumption that Scripture should be more explicit about the nature of Apostolic succession. I think such an assumption expects the whole of the NT books to be something that they are not, i.e. something like an exhaustive theological and ecclesiological guide. If the NT is supposed to be a guide for the apostolic-to-episcopal transition [I mean the transition from rule of the Church by Apostles to rule of the Church by bishops], then the NT is woefully inadequate. I don’t even think the Apostles set out to write a “New Testament”. The Apostles’ instructions regarding the apostolic-to-episcopal transition are something they would be less likely to *write* about, both because this transition occurred at the end of the Apostles’ careers, and because they would have most likely communicated these instructions to the bishops in person, not in a letter from a distance. (This is suggested, for example, in verses like 3 John 1:13.)

    The point is, I think your expectation for Scripture explicitly to support the *succession* of the Petrine office, or to support Apostolic *succession* in general, is based on an ungrounded assumption about the purpose and intent of the NT. It expects the NT to say more than it was intended to say.

    That is a quick summary of why I think approaching this issue from the sola scriptura perspective is not justified. That is why I think looking passages like Matt 16:18 through the eyes of the fathers is a more helpful way of determining (more fully) what the Apostles taught about Apostolic succession in general, and how that applied to the role of Peter’s successors. I think Stephen Ray’s book Upon This Rock offers a very helpful look at the fathers on the subject of Peter’s successors. I have also collected some quotations from the fathers on this subject here.

    – Bryan

  10. Al says:

    What I am looking for from you is some serious engagement with the text of Scripture. What you have given me are some tendentious readings of tradition. I am quite happy to attend to tradition and accord it the respect that it deserves. However, when someone cannot demonstrate the accordance of their tradition with Scripture and simply reasserts their tradition there is a problem. You have yet to properly address my scriptural arguments.

    I am quite happy to grant a form of the doctrine of apostolic succession. I believe that succession in the apostolic Church occurs in Baptism and in ordination to the presbyterate. The apostolic faith is not merely passed on in ordination to priesthood or to the episcopate, but in Baptism. Baptism is a priestly rite (cf. Exodus 40:11-13; Hebrews 10:19-22), setting every Christian apart as a priest in God’s new Temple and passing the apostolic faith on to them.

    Apostolic succession through ordination to the presbyterate is something that I hold to as well. I am not persuaded that bishops hold a genuinely distinct office from that of presbyters, with distinct powers that other presbyters lack. However, I do not deny the important role of bishops within the Church.

    I believe that these things are important for the bene esse and plene esse of the Church, but that it is possible to have a Church without such succession. There are exceptions, such as some Roman Catholic forms of emergency Baptism (where an unbaptized person is permitted to baptize), where succession in Baptism is not maintained. There are other places where the succession of ordination has been broken. This is not the best for the Church, but the Church doesn’t cease to exist.

    Speaking for myself, I would be quite happy to submit to the primacy of the Roman See if the pope were faithful to Scripture. The authority of the Petrine office (if we are to speak of such a thing) is conditioned on the pope’s faithfulness to the apostolic faith. Where such faithfulness is lacking, even Peter himself found himself rebuked for his sectarianism.

    The bishop of Rome may have authority as the first among equals, but his authority within the Church is limited. The pope is the Bishop of Rome, but his jurisdiction doesn’t extend further than his diocese. His role as the first among equals is primarily significant in the situation of ecumenical councils. He is to be accorded respect as the first among equals of Church leaders and his voice carries particular significance for this reason. However, he has no right to dabble in the affairs of other jurisdictions.

    Other dioceses have authority in their own right. If they don’t submit to the primacy of Rome for doctrinal reasons they do not cease to be part of the Church for that reason. A situation in which much of the Church is not in fellowship with the Roman See is hardly the ideal way for things to be, but in such a situation those parts of the Church that are not in full fellowship with Rome are fully part of the Church nonetheless. The pretensions of the papacy are the problem here. Authority over the Church isn’t concentrated in Rome as Roman Catholics tend to suggest. One can quite consistently hold to the primacy of Peter, apostolic succession and the primacy of the bishop of Rome, without jumping to the rather extreme conclusions that Roman Catholics tend to jump to. The Church can enjoy an important degree of visible unity in fellowship with the bishop of Rome, but the essential unity of the Church is not founded on fellowship with Rome.

    In this discussion so far I have alluded a number of times to the situation that existed in ancient Israel. I believe that it provides an important analogy here. Judah was clearly the primus inter pares and was set apart by God as the tribe that would lead the other tribes (Genesis 49:8-12; 1 Chronicles 5:2). The Davidic dynasty was established by God and the visible unity of the kingdom was closely identified with unity with the Davidic king. When God promises the reunification of the nation it is important that the reunited nation will be ruled by a Davidic ruler (Ezekiel 37:21-25).

    However, having a Judahite ruler or a Davidic king is not absolutely essential to the unity of the Israelite nation. The people are still one people in a very important sense under the Levite Moses, or under the Benjamite Saul, or even when there is no united government during the period of the judges or following the split in the kingdom. Being under a Davidic king might be important for the bene esse and plene esse of Israel, but Israel never ceases to be Israel when it is not under such a king.

    When Solomon sinned God split the kingdom, leaving Rehoboam with only Judah and Benjamin. The majority of the nation left Rehoboam and Rehoboam was left with hardly anything. God recognized the sovereign rights of the ten northern tribes. Even though the Davidic king was the first among all of the rulers of Israel, he was not the only one to have authority over the nation and, without the consent of his brethren, Judah had not right to force his will upon them.

    I believe that this provides a very important perspective for the current situation in the Church. The pope only has authority within the wider Church with the consent of his brethren. At present he lacks such consent in many quarters of the Church. The unity of the Church is not erased. The pope may lead only a reduced part of the Church, but the Church remains the Church nonetheless. The unity of the Church, just like the unity of the people of God in the OT, does not ultimately depend on being under one divinely appointed leader. When idolatrous practices creep in, as it did with Solomon and the pre-Reformation Church, separation is perfectly in order.

    Your quotes from the Church Fathers are all well and good, but we must remember that they were writing in a different situation. It is similar to applying statements made of the Davidic king under David or the early Solomon to Manasseh or one of the other unfaithful or wicked kings of Judah (or for that matter, to any of the kings of Judah after Solomon, unfaithful or not). Within a visibly united Church, as I said, I would be quite happy to acknowledge the primacy of the Roman See, but this primacy does not remove sovereignty and a degree of autocephalous autonomy from the rest of the Church. Times have changed, and such quotes of the Church Fathers have to be applied with considerably greater caution.

  11. Bryan Cross says:


    Again, thank you for your reply. I think we are getting a bit closer to the fundamental cause of our disagreement. You write, “However, when someone cannot demonstrate the accordance of their tradition with Scripture […] there is a problem.”

    Why do you think that is a problem? (I’m assuming that by “accordance of their tradition with Scripture” you mean something like “derivability of their tradition from Scripture”, not mere compatibility of their tradition with Scripture, since the Catholic position regarding the role of Peter’s successors is compatible with Scripture.) I tried to explain why I think we should not expect more detail from Scripture on this subject. But you seem to believe that there is a problem [for the Catholic position] if the role of Peter’s successors is not made explicit in Scripture. I would like to know why you think that.

    Another point of disagreement between us, apparently, has to do with the relation of magisterial authority to the interpretation of Scripture. St. Vincent of Lerins shows us that the heretics constantly attempted to prove themselves right by appealing to Scripture. Apart from sacramental magisterial authority, people interpret Scripture as seems right in their own eyes, and there are as a result practically as many interpretations as there are individual interpreters. In my opinion, this is the fundamental reason why there are so many denominations. Tertullian explains that only those to whom the Scriptures were entrusted (i.e. the bishops in sacramental succession from the Apostles) have the authority to provide the authoritative interpretation of Scripture. (I would add also that they alone have the authority to provide the authoritative canon of Scripture.)

    So this awareness of our need for magisterial authority in our interpretation of Scripture requires that we determine who genuinely has magisterial authority. In our time, one not uncommon way of determining who has magisterial authority is finding those who interpret the Scriptures in a way that (at least mostly) agrees with one’s own interpretation. I think that is merely a more subtle form of the individualism revealed in the two quotations above, as I have argued here. I think the way to determine who has magisterial authority now, without begging the question, is first to examine carefully how the fathers understood magisterial authority. It seems clear to me that the fathers held magisterial authority to be essentially sacramental. This is why the Church determined Donatism to be a heresy. Luther and Calvin denied that magisterial authority is essentially sacramental; for them, magisterial authority is based essentially on teaching [what they believed to be] Apostolic doctrine, as I have argued here; in doing so, I think they made the mistake referred to in the Tertullian and St. Vincent quotations.

    If we agree that magisterial authority is essentially sacramental, by Apostolic succession, then we need to determine who in fact has sacramental Apostolic succession. For the fathers, the recipients of magisterial authority from the Apostles were the bishops. The notion that there is no sacramental distinction between bishops and presbyters is based on a sola scriptura methodology. But I have explained in the previous two paragraphs what is wrong with the sola scriptura methodology. Individualism is built into the sola scriptura methodology through its implicit rejection of the essentially sacramental nature of magisterial authority. (See, for example, my response to Keith Mathison’s “Solo Scriptura” article.) We can see a very clear distinction between the authority of bishops and presbyters as early as the epistles of St. Ignatius of Antioch (107 AD). Those who use the sola scriptura methodology to deny the sacramental distinction between bishops and presbyters then appeal to St. Jerome’s description of the early practice of the Alexandrian Church. But that was more likely a college of bishop-presbyters, not mere presbyters. (The terminology for these offices was not universally uniform for a while.) The consensus of the sacramental magisterial authorities, at least by 325 AD, was that only bishops could ordain. (See the fourth canon of the first Council of Nicea.) This position was not based on canon law, but on a sacramental distinction; the bishop sacramentally receives the power to ordain; the presbyter does not sacramentally receive the power to ordain. The error of the Presbyterians on this point, in my view, is again on account of their sola scriptura methodology, and their implicit ‘ecclesial deism’.

    What do these early bishops, these possessors of sacramental magisterial authority, say about the role of Peter’s successors? I have pointed you to a collection of some of their relevant writings on that subject here. They seem clearly to recognize that Jesus’s statement to Peter did not apply only to Peter but also to Peter’s successors.

    Fair enough, you say, but ‘I will not submit to him until he is faithful to Scripture’. Such a claim presumes that he is not being faithful to Scripture. The Pope, however, claims to be faithfully teaching and following Scripture (though not sola scriptura). So your claim that he is not being faithful to Scripture assumes either that Scripture does not need interpretation, or that the Pope should submit to your own interpretation of Scripture. Neither of those assumptions, in my opinion, is self-evident or capable of standing without support. If the successor of Peter is the principium unitatis, then his interpretation of Scripture cannot be dictated by individual believers. There are many conflicting opinions among believers concerning the proper interpretation of Scripture; he cannot possibly conform himself to them all. On the contrary, for there to be true unity the conformity must work the other way around; we must conform our interpretation to his.

    I suspect that phenomenologically the situation of believing oneself to have a better interpretation of Scripture than does one’s [sacramental] magisterial authority is the same whether one is correct or one is in the situation described by St. Vincent. The persons described in the St. Vincent quotation would have to undergo a kind of gestalt shift to see their actual condition. So I hope you will agree here at least that extreme caution is in order. If your claim that the Pope is not being faithful to Scripture is based on some magisterial authority (having sacramental succession from the Apostles), then which magisterial authority is it, and why do you think that this magisterial authority is equal or superior in authority to the successor of Peter?

    – Bryan

  12. Bryan Cross says:


    One more thing. I’m not sure if it is just my eyes, but the hyperlinks in my posts do not show up very well against the colored background. I wonder if you could tweak the color of your hyperlinks. Thanks!

    – Bryan

  13. Al says:

    I do not intend to hold you to prove the ‘derivability’ of every aspect of your tradition from history. However, I would like you to prove the ‘conformability’ (which is something slightly more than mere ‘compatibility’) of your tradition to Scripture. I would like to see you engage with the biblical text in making your case. Demonstrate the harmony of the text with the tradition and your case would be considerably more persuasive.

    The tradition is far from perfect. It is far more opaque than Scripture and contains many contrary voices. If we need a magesterium to interpret the Scripture we need an even more powerful one to help us to navigate the mazes of the tradition. When it actually comes down to it, tradition seldom clarifies the text as much as people claim that it does. Most theological positions have some degree of claim to the tradition and those who act as if the tradition entire were on their side are simply being very selective.

    The ‘individual interpretation’ argument is familiar, but unpersuasive. I may not accept your understanding of magisterial authority in interpretation, but this does not mean that I have any time for the interpretative anarchy that is frequently presented as the only real alternative. I firmly believe in the authority of Scripture and believe that the authority of God speaking in the Scriptures must stand over the authority of the individual interpreter. The Church’s role in interpretation is very important in ensuring that this is the case. Through faithful interpretation of the Scriptures in conversation with each other and the tradition, the shepherds of the Church ensure that the people of God remain under the rule of the Word of God. The Church’s rule of faith excludes certain readings of the text from the outset. In the Church we are part of a community of interpretation, holding each other accountable to the voice of God speaking in the Scriptures. God’s Word, not man’s, always has the final word, but we ought to submit to the authority of the Church in interpretation.

    Tertullian is right to point out that those who do not submit to the Church’s rule of faith have no right to interpret the Scriptures in the first place. The Scriptures were given to the Church and can only be properly interpreted within the Church. The Church is the only divinely-established interpretative community of the biblical text. In the sacramental life of the Church we experience the reality of which the Scriptures speak, something which helps us to read the Scriptures faithfully.

    I believe that the role of authoritative teaching is passed on in the Church. My problem with your argument is that you are trying to get me to revert to a position of the authority of individual interpretation. You haven’t given up on the authority of individual interpretation at all, you have just limited such interpretation to the pope. I am all for an authoritative role of the Church in interpretation, I just don’t believe that all of this authority is focused on one individual within the Church.

    The pope is, at best, the primus inter pares in the Church. He never ceases to be accountable to the rest of the Church in his teaching. The Church is an authoritative community and this authority is not a purely centralized authority. It is an authority akin to that of OT Israel, where each tribe had a degree of autonomy. Rome has authority in the Church, but the pope is not the only one with authority and it is not the case that all others are necessarily bound to submit to him. The pope is accountable to the Church in general and is not purely autonomous. Your doctrine of the Church is one in which the authority that belongs to the Church in general is arrogated to the pope. I have a high doctrine of the Church where you have a high doctrine of the pope and so I find your position quite unpersuasive.

    This is not about individual autonomy in interpretation. It is rather a recognition that the Church is not defined by the pope and that the Church continues to exist, even when it is not in fellowship with the pope. We all make some sort of individual decision in submitting to the pope or to other leaders within the Church, and in our reading of the tradition (which is far from univocal on such issues) so there is no absence of individual decision here. I have no time for pure individualism. In claiming that the pope is not faithful to Scripture, I am not speaking on my own authority, but speaking as one who belongs to a part of the one true Church in succession from the apostles, which stands opposed to the pretensions of the papacy to an authority that does not belong to it. I interpret the Scriptures in accordance with the apostolic rule of the Church as articulated in the ecumenical creeds and as one under the rule of ordained Church leaders, who participates in the gathered worship of the people of God.

    I find the arguments from tradition unpersuasive regarding the monarchical role of the pope in the Church. I am quite happy to ackonwledge the pope as having the position of primus inter pares. The pope, however, does not have a higher power of jurisdiction. The NT supports the position that this was Peter’s role among the other apostles. The earliest tradition also demonstrates this position in various ways and a significant number of your quotes are consistent with such a position. You quote Cyprian, whose later actions are quite revealing in showing that Rome still wasn’t regarded by many as having a higher power of jurisdiction. The development of the papacy into an office with jurisdiction over the rest of the Church is a later development that much of the Church still resists.

    Such matters will not be resolved merely by weighing up authority. When Peter was wrong in Antioch and rebuked by Paul the situation was not going to be settled by weighing up each apostle’s authority against the other. Peter was wrong and Paul was right to resist him, despite Peter’s authority. Neither side has authority of themselves. The question that must be answered in such cases is that of who has the authority of God on their side. The authority of God is chiefly exercised through Scripture and so the party that can demonstrate that the Scripture is on their side is in the right.

    My argument concerning bishops and presbyters is that they are not, strictly speaking, two distinct offices. The bishop plays a distinct role, but he occupies the same office. This argument is found throughout Church history, even among Roman Catholic authors. The episcopacy developed in history and the development of an episcopal order is both natural and biblical. I have no problem with episcopacy; my concern is with the character of the primacy of the bishop. My conviction is that the bishop is like the chief priest in the Temple: he doesn’t exercise a distinct office from the regular priest, but plays a supervising role. Limiting the performance of ordination to the episcopate makes sense, just as limiting the performance of Baptism to ordained priests does. However, neither are absolutely necessary.

    Unfortunately, I won’t have much access to a computer over the next week and so this will probably have to be my last response for some time. Thanks once again for the interaction.

  14. Bryan Cross says:


    Thank you for your reply. When you ask me to “prove” the comformability of Catholicism with Scripture, two questions come to my mind. What exactly about Catholicism do you think does not conform to Scripture? And what exactly would constitute “proof”? That is exactly what that quotation from Tertullian [linked here] reveals. The issue of magisterial authority rightly comes before debates about the interpretation of Scripture. Underlying your request that I “prove” to you the conformability of Catholicism with Scripture is an assumption that by the power of your own reason, you can determine for yourself the correct interpretation of Scripture, and thereby judge the Catholic Church to be right or wrong. So your request that I prove the conformability of Catholicism with Scripture carries with it a loaded assumption, the very assumption at the heart of Protestantism. It is precisely this assumption that I called into question in my previous post, by referring to the quotations from Tertullian and St. Vincent.

    You seem to recognize the danger of this assumption when you state that you reject the authority of the “individual interpreter”, and when you affirm the role of the “Church”, the “shepherds of the Church”, and the “rule of faith” in the interpretation of Scripture. You affirm that “The Scriptures were given to the Church and can only be properly interpreted within the Church” and that you have a “high doctrine of the Church”. But that raises the following five questions:

    (1.) Whose determination of who belongs to “the Church” (and in what capacity they belong) should we follow?

    (2.) Whose determination of who possesses magisterial authority (and how much they possess) should we follow?

    (3.) Whose determination of how much authority the successor of Peter actually has should we follow?

    (4.) Whose determination of the “rule of faith” should we follow?

    (5.) Whose determination of who speaks for the Church should we follow?

    If the answer to these five questions is “no one” or “each individual”, then we are left in the darkness, chaos, perpetual fragmentation and confusion of the individualism and egalitarianism that promotes equal authority and autonomy for all. But if your answer to these five questions is “the pastors of my denomination”, then if your pastors have this universal authority, why do you (I presume) simultaneously deny that all Christians should belong to your denomination and become subject to the pastors of your denomination? You seem to want to avoid both individualism and universal magisterial authority. But there is no middle ground. If there is no concrete individual (or group) whom we should all follow and who speaks for the Church, then we are left with the individualism of each man doing what is right in his own eyes. But if there is some individual (or group) whom we should all follow and who speaks for the Church, then catholicism (small ‘c’) is false.

    And if there is a group that we all should follow and who speaks for the Church, then whom do we follow when the members of that group disagree with each other or when they split, and on what grounds should we follow one over the other? If the grounds are one’s own interpretation of Scripture, then this positition is still fundamentally individualistic in essence. But if the grounds are the sacramental primacy of one member of the group, then on what grounds does this individual have sacramental primacy?

    (Happy birthday, by the way!)

    – Bryan

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