The Church and the Kingdom
A New Testament Study
By Jesse B. Thomas, D. D., LL.D
THE "HOLY CATHOLIC CHURCH"
THE APOSTLES' CREED AS A BASIS OF UNITY
A feverish anxiety has of late become increasingly manifest that Christ should "restore at this time the kingdom to Israel." Sanguine evangelists have promised themselves that it is possible to Christianize the world "in this generation." Eager social reformers, reckoning the corporate regeneration of the social order as tantamount to, or, at least, the necessary precedent and immediate condition of the regeneration of the individual, have indulged in roseate hopes of a speedy economic and civic millennium. Meantime, the universal "fatherhood of God and brotherhood of man" have been formulated into a kind of working creed. New emphasis has been laid, among theologians, on the incarnation as, in effect, establishing a literal "solidarity" of the race.
In line with these general tendencies has appeared a quickened longing for the "reunion
of Christendom." The "Lambeth Proposals" for a consolidation of Protestantism under the "Historic Episcopate" have been followed by overtures to Rome for recognition of the legitimacy of Anglican Episcopal orders. Pan-Anglican, Pan-Presbyterian, Pan-Congregational, and other ecumenical conferences, have been convoked. National "federation of churches" for practical ends has been attempted. Nearly allied denominational bodies have consolidated. Interdenominational movements of divers kinds have been enthusiastically launched. The familiar words,
"We are not divided;
All one body we -
One in hope and doctrine.
One in charity,"
seem rather to irritate than inspire while they remain sentimental only. Men crave their palpable and permanent realization. But how is this to be promptly effected?
I. The Proposed "Talisman Of Unity." - One of the most plausible of the suggestions toward this end was, sometime since, offered by the late distinguished rector of Grace Episcopal Church in New York City. He proposed the acceptance of the
"simple terms" of the Apostles' Creed as a "talisman of unity" to rally the scattered forces of the "mighty army" of the "Church of God." This creed is already a part of the baptismal formula of the Latin, Anglican, Lutheran and Continental Reformed Churches. It is embodied in the Westminster Shorter Catechism. It is regularly recited in many Congregational churches. It is commended for weekly public use in the "People's Psalter," prepared for, and in many instances used by, Baptist churches. It is the doctrinal formula of the Evangelical Alliance.
Rev. Dr. H. A. Stimson, of the Congregational body, has expressed the belief that "the faith of the first century is to be the faith of the twentieth century"; since "the oldest extant Christian Confession that has any completeness is rapidly finding a new acceptance. It is heard to-day in public worship upon more lips than any form of words outside the Bible." The significance of this prophecy and the cogency of Dr. Huntington's suggestion lie in the assumption.
1. That the creed in question is apostolic in origin. If it embody the "faith of the
first century," it flows from near the fountain-head. Tradition once credited each of the apostles with having contributed a clause to it. This is an illusion now wholly abandoned, says Ha mack; but the "Catechismus Romanes" still insists that the language of the creed is purely of apostolic origin. This, if true, would seem to give it an authority close akin to that of the New Testament, produced by the same hands. The New Testament being recognized as the tribunal of highest appeal, such an origin would make the document highly important as an aid to the interpretation of the words of the same writers in the New Testament itself.
2. That the "Holy Catholic Church" is a definable historic reality. It will be observed that all the theories of the Church, thus far examined (except the voluntary theory), agree in their reference to the actual or historic Church as "catholic"; that is, as world-embracing in comprehensiveness and single in nature. With one consent, therefore, they unite in professing faith in the "Holy Catholic Church." It is, of course, implied that "churches" are only to be spoken of in a tropical sense, as typical of or fractional parts of the "Church"
proper, which is always ecumenical in range. But these assumptions prove, on examination, to be wholly unfounded. For
3. Neither the creed itself nor the emphasized phrase are traceable to the first century.
(1) The creed, in its present form, is affirmed by Harnack to be traceable no further back than to the middle of the fifth century. The "complete form of the creed," as Dr. Stimson admits, "gained general currency in the West" only "after the eighth century." The version in use before that time (itself going back only to the third century) omits the word "catholic," speaking only of the "Holy Church." That this was the earlier form is admitted by Romanists as well as Protestant historians.
(2) The word in question (catholic) is not applied to the Church in the Septuagint nor in the New Testament in a single instance. It is only inferentially, and therefore disputably, attached to it.
(3) Early Christian literature is equally innocent of any such application of the term. The word is not to be found in any of the earlier formularies, nor is it used (in the ecumenical or comprehensive sense) in
any early writing. The term "Holy Catholic Church" does indeed appear in the letter of Ignatius to the Smyrneans, belonging (if genuine, which is still hotly disputed) to the second century. But F. C. Conybeare, who has made a special study of the literature of that place and time, insists that it is either a later interpolation or, of itself, proof that the document is not genuine. For that phrase "did not come into vogue until the latter half of the third century"; indicating that, if not interpolated, it shows the letter to be a "forgery of that date." He finds that the Armenian version of the letter (which is earlier than the Greek) uses, "instead of the obnoxious phrase, the simple and primitive expression we meet with in the Acts; viz., the 'churches' in such and such a region." But this is of small account, for in any case the word "catholic" is clearly not there used in the later sense of "ecumenical" or "universal." It was manifestly qualitative, implying catholicity of doctrine, and not quantitative, alluding to comprehensiveness of extent. The letter concerning the martyrdom of Polycarp, probably a contemporaneous document, alludes to the "Catholic church in Smyrna." This must,
of course, refer to the orthodoxy or catholicity, in doctrine, of the body mentioned, which was local and not world-inclusive. Abundant evidence of the prevalence of this sense of the word among earlier Christian writers, limiting the idea of the "church" to the visible local body, might be given. The word "catholic" as applied to the church, and conveying the sense of a single world-body, was as yet foreign to the thought of the Christian community.
4. The phrase in question, instead of being a "talisman of unity," evokes only discord. While all join in the use of the same words, scarcely any two agree as to their meaning.
The Tridentine formulary affirms, while the Augsburg denies, the visibility of the "Holy Catholic Church"; but the Westminster Confession declares it to be both visible and invisible. According to the latter, it includes "the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one"; at the same time, it "consists of all those, throughout the world, that profess the true religion, and of their children." In the latter sense it is "catholic or universal" in that it is "not confined to one nation as
before under the law" (which would seem to imply catholicity in character rather than extent). The Anglican Confession, in its nineteenth article, makes "the church" to be "a congregation"; implying a local and generic sense of the term "church" (as is clear from its further unequivocal use in Articles XXIV. and XXXV.); but in the same article reference is confusingly made to "the Church of Rome"; and in Article XXXIV. to "a particular or national church." The Oberlin Declaration holds the "catholic church" to be made up of "all particular churches" as "parts." The "People's Psalter" arbitrarily dissects out the phrase in question; substituting therefor the words "the church of the living God." The reciters of the creed, therefore, are discordantly professing accord in their common faith in a "Holy Catholic Church," of absolutely incoherent character. It must be a visibly organized world-power, and, at the same time, a purely mental creation; an aggregation at once of national corporations, of hereditary groups, of voluntary associations, and of individuals. It may be "catholic" in the sense of actual prevalence everywhere, or only in that of fitness to prevail. It may
be limited to the unknown elect (being thus indeterminate in time and space), while it must also include elect and non-elect, voluntary and involuntary, in the determinate company of contemporary "professed" believers and "their children." The term has become, that is to say, "vox, et praeterea nihil." The Augsburg Confession goes back to the phrase employed in earlier forms of the Apostolic Creed - the "holy Church." Luther, in his catechism, makes it the "holy Christian Church." The First Helvetic Confession declares that the "Holy Catholic Church" is "open and known to the eyes of God alone"; yet so distinctly recognizable by certain rites that without submission to these none can be reckoned as (without the special grace of God) belonging to it. Calvin, returning to the Old Testament, found visible unity again by help of the Abrahamic covenant, in making the Christian a prolongation of the Jewish organism; thus securing corporate continuity through heredity. In this he followed the Romish theory, excluding its political aspects only.
The Anglican Bishop Pearson, in commenting on the Apostles' Creed, defined the "Holy Catholic Church" as "one by unity
of aggregation," "all particular churches being members of the general and universal Church." Bishop Blomfield, in his "Three Sermons on the Church," confirmed this judgment, claiming that all particular churches are "branches more or less profitable, more or less flourishing, of the one Holy Catholic Church." Strangely enough, the Congregationalists, in their Oberlin manifesto, have recently formulated a substantially similar formula, so far as literal terms go. Dr. Candlish, on the other hand, confidently treats it as settled that the Church consists solely of the "company of the elect forming the body of Christ." But, as to each of these definitions, according to the old proverb, "his neighbor cometh after and searcheth him." Dr. Hort, after careful scrutiny of the text, can find "not a word that exhibits the one ecclesia as made up of many ecclesiae"; nor can he come upon any "evidence that St. Paul regarded membership of the universal Ecclesia as invisible, and exclusively spiritual, and as shared by only a limited number of the external ecclesiae; those, namely, whom God has chosen." His own conception is that "to each local ecclesia St. Paul has ascribed a corresponding
unity of its own: each is a body of Christ and a sanctuary of God: but there is no grouping of them into partial wholes or into one great whole. The members which make up the one ecclesia are not communities, but individuals. . . . The one ecclesia includes all members of all partial ecclesiae, but its relations to them all are direct, not mediate." He significantly adds, as if afraid of being taken too literally in his definition of the word, that Paul's reference to the "one universal ecclesia," which occurs first in Ephesians, "comes from the theological, rather than from the historical side ... it is a truth of theology and of religion, not a fact of what we call ecclesiastical politics." Returning upon our track, we find it alternately affirmed and denied (1) that the universal Church is made up of particular churches; (2) that it is composed of the individual members of such particular churches; (3) that it is confined to the elect, independent of church relation altogether. If it be admitted, then, that Paul did have in mind a "universal" Church, it must still be left uncertain what kind of a Church he meant.
But, as to the matter of definition, we
are not yet at the end of confusion. Let us accept Bishop Pearson's formula, and we are instantly confronted with the inquiry, What is that "particular church" of which the Church universal is made up? Referring to the thirty-fourth of the thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England, we learn that "every particular or national church hath authority to change and abolish ceremonies," etc. In the nineteenth article of the same formulary occurs the statement that "the visible church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men in the which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments be duly administered according to Christ's ordinance, in all those things that are of necessity requisite to the same." It is further added, somewhat incoherently, that "as the churches of Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch have erred, so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of ceremonies, but also in matters of faith." The former of these articles would compel us to regard the universal Church as made up, under Bishop Pearson's definition, exclusively of national churches: since the "particular" is made synonymous with the "national." But the
latter article clearly employs the term "church" in a distributive or generic sense: for it describes "the visible church of Christ" as "a congregation of faithful men"; i.e., any such congregation. Yet the addendum refers, in the same breath and without any explanation, to the "church of Rome," as if included in the same category of local bodies. This is incomprehensible, unless the reference be to the primeval church of Rome, which was such a single congregation. But it is more pertinent to our present inquiry to observe that it is, in these articles, made essential to the being even of the local church that "the sacraments be duly administered," etc. Such due administration is, by the English Church, reckoned absolutely impossible except at the hands of those who have been episcopally ordained. It follows, therefore, that no dissenting local body, to say nothing of its being non-national, can be acknowledged as a constituent of the Church universal. The Congregationalists could scarcely have intended to be measured, in their Oberlin use of terms, by the standard here indicated. It seems a little odd, in any case, that they should accept the title "Church Universal"
as a fit designation of unconfederated local bodies throughout the world, while repudiating the name "Church Congregational" as describing the affiliated Congregational churches of America. Does mere geographical extension invert the meaning of words? If we turn unsatisfied from the Episcopal to the Presbyterian definition of the Church universal, we shall encounter equally baffling cross-currents of opinion. Who are "the elect," referred to by Dr. Candlish (following the Westminster Confession) as composing the "one body of Christ"? The authoritative Melancthon cautions us against the delusion that any of the elect may be found outside the visible Church: the astute Charles Hodge assures us that visible individual saintship is the true criterion, wholly irrespective of church relation; while Calvin rebuffs all inquiry by the blunt announcement that the elect are known to God alone. The Romish Church insists that the true Church universal must, of necessity, be visible: the Reformers inclined to treat it as essentially invisible: while the Westminster sages refused to be impaled upon either horn of the dilemma, but boldly bestrode it, affirming that the Church universal is at the same
time visible and invisible. As invisible, it "consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be, gathered into one, under Christ the head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all." As visible, it "consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion, together with their children." In this latter sense only is it affirmed to be "the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ, the house and family of God, out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation."
In this last sentence we reach a direct affirmation concerning our main subject of inquiry; but it plunges us into still further difficulty. Instead of one universal Church, as a subject of possible identification with the kingdom, we are furnished with two, whose constituency must be widely different. For the "elect," past, present and to come, are freely admitted not to be coincident in outline with the existing company of ostensible church members and their indiscriminately registered households. But, unfortunately, the Church selected for identification with the kingdom is not that referred to by Paul, under the figurative
terms, "the spouse," "the body," etc., but another and purely fictitious organization concerning which we shall consult Paul in vain, since he never in the remotest way alludes to it.
In it is true that in the Baptist Confession of 1643 there appears the statement (Art. XXXIII.) that "Jesus Christ hath here on earth a spiritual kingdom, which is his church"; but that the compilers did not thereby intend a world-church as correspondent to a world-kingdom, is evident from the tenor of the whole article, which specifically refers to "a company of visible saints" united together "by mutual agreement," as well as from the character of the proof-texts cited, not one of which is included among the passages relied upon to substantiate the notion of a universal Church. In the Confession of 1689 the Westminster definition of the invisible "catholic or universal Church" is bodily appropriated, while the so-called visible catholic Church, there mentioned, is ignored, and the identity of either with the kingdom fails also to be asserted. Throughout the rest of the document reference is almost uniformly had to the local body. The single article
alluded to must, therefore, be recognized as a fruit of the eager desire expressed, in their prefatory words, by the compilers, to avoid the suspicion of an "itch to clog religion with new words." They have, as they affirm, carried their conciliatory purpose so far as to "make use of the very same words with them both" (Presbyterians and Congregationalists), wherever harmony of general opinion would permit. While their adoption of so much of the Westminster formula is an unquestionable assent to the notion involved, it can not be regarded as so positive and well considered an indorsement as if the language had been wrought out on an independent Scriptural basis by themselves.
It will be noticed, furthermore, that this Confession of Faith was modestly claimed to be approximate only, and that our fathers declared they would "account him their chiefest friend that shall be an instrument to convert us from any error that is in our ways." The Westminster folk, whom they loyally followed in part, have already been convicted of an "error in their ways," as Dr. Candlish confesses, in their overconfident identification of the Church
and the kingdom. Having proven untrustworthy at one point, it can not be unlawful to suspect possible error and misleading influence at another. A hint of disposition to distrust at this point may possibly appear in the circumstance that the later New Hampshire Confession, probably more widely adopted than any other by the Baptist churches of America, excludes all reference whatever to a "universal Church," visible or invisible.
After this protracted and unfruitful reconnoitering of the exegetical horizon, we may be forgiven, at least, for the suspicion that infallible guides are not in sight. However uniform the interpreters may be in their agreement that there is a universal Church, they are as persistently uniform in mutual contradiction as to its nature.
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