The Organized Church In The New Testament
Did Jesus give us an abstraction or a concrete, though spiritual, entity?
THE Catholic doctrine of the Church is one which needs a double line of defense. In order to defend it, it is necessary to prove in the first place that our Divine Lord meant to leave behind Him an organized body of followers, and in the second place that He meant to leave that body organized in a particular way, and not in any one of a dozen different ways which have been proposed or adopted as rival interpretations. This second question whether, for example, our Lord Himself instituted the episcopate, and whether He conferred extraordinary privileges on St. Peter and his successors is one that is capable of statement only after a very full, detailed treatment, and from the lips of an expert. It is the former question, appealing as it does to a set of general impressions rather than to a string of texts or a catena of age-long controversy, that I want to consider in this lecture the question, namely, whether it was in our Lord's intention to found an organization at all. For, after all, outside a comparatively close circle of her critics, the claims of the Church are set aside not, directly, because she has a particular kind of organization, but because she has so much of it; and, often enough, when you come to investigate the grievance, because she is an organized body at all. The wiseacre of the modern railway carriage has it laid up among his stock of incontrovertible platitudes that he doesn't belong to any religious body at all; if one of his fellow-travelers looks like an Anglican clergyman, he adds that if he did he would be a Roman Catholic.
The issue can be put in a nutshell if we ask: Did our Lord come to introduce into the world an abstract thing, Christianity, or a concrete, though spiritual, entity, Christendom? Is the visible monument of His sojourn in the world an influence over the thoughts and lives of men, like that of Confucius, or an Institute, like that of St. Ignatius? Is the rude name of "Christian," shouted out by the street-boys of Antioch, inherited as of right by everyone who conforms himself to Christ's rule of life, and according to the measure in which he succeeds, or does it belong, primarily, to a denned and self-propagating religious corporation, with its own forms of government and its own ceremonies? Those who, after Tolstoy and Renan, would represent our Blessed Lord as an ethical idealist, and equally those who, after Schweitzer, would represent Him as a chiliastic fanatic, are forced to suppose that the outward shell of institutional religion which has, historically, preserved His record and His message, is a husk merely, discernible from the true grain; that its hierarchy, for example, and its liturgy are, historically, accretions; spiritually, matters of indifference. There is another view which I hope to set before you, which maintains that the continuation of His work by a visible, organized Society is an integral part of our Lord's purpose in His Incarnation.
The name everywhere given to the Society which has, de facto, descended from Him is the Ecclesia. He used that name Himself, when, for example, He hailed one of His apostles as the foundation-stone of His ecclesia. There was, at that time, already an ecclesia in existence, a calling out of certain specially favored souls from among their fellow-men: it was, for practical purposes, nearly equal in extent with an ethnographical unit, the Jewish race. If, then, our Lord meant to have an ecclesia of His own, some further selection is clearly implied, whether altogether inside, or altogether outside, the old ecclesia, or as a fresh circle intersecting, so to speak, the old circle. Now, when our Lord thus takes it for granted, in speaking to a circle of not over-quick witted followers, that it is part of His purpose to establish an ecclesia of His own, it is hard to suppose that He was introducing them suddenly to a quite unfamiliar idea. He must have depended upon being understood from His context. What is the context? He has just been hailed as the Messiah. Surely, then, His answer must mean: "Yes, and as (at least) the Messiah, I have come to institute a fresh ecclesia: it is on you, Peter, that I mean to build it." The new Ecclesia is the complement, the correlative, of the promised Messiah. What, then were the ideas ordinarily entertained in the minds of our Lord's contemporaries as to the Christ and His Church? A vast amount of attention has been devoted lately to the eschatological writings which, lying outside the Canon of Holy Scripture, mostly belong to a period between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New. From a consideration of them we should conclude that the expectations of the Chosen People at the time of the Christian era were something as follows. That there was to be a kingdom of God, either upon the present earth (Ethiopian Enoch, 1-36, 83-104), or in a new Creation (ib. 37-70), either temporary (ib. 91-104) or eternal (ib. 1-90), perhaps connected with a Final Judgment, which would either precede (ib. 37-70) or follow it (ib. 91-104, and Psalms of Solomon), such judgment would be executed, perhaps on certain selected classes of men and angels (Ethiopian Enoch, 90), perhaps on all (ib. 37-70), the Kingdom and the judgment might be connected with the coming of a personal Messiah (ib. 83-90; Sibylline Oracles, No. 3), or it might not (Ethiopian Enoch, 1-36, 91-104; Psalms of Solomon, 1-16); perhaps a Man, of the seed of David (Psalms of Solomon, 17), perhaps a supernatural Being, described as the Son of Man (Ethiopian Enoch, 37-70). Either at the beginning (Ethiopian Enoch, 1-36) or at the end (ib. 91-104) of the Kingdom there would perhaps be a Resurrection, either of all mankind (Ethiopian Enoch, 51) or of the righteous only (ib. 37-70), which was to take place either in the body (ib. 1-36) or in the spirit (ib. 91-104), or in a new and spiritual body (ib. 37-70). Finally, the Gentiles would either be converted (ib. 16) or annihilated (ib. 37-70), or spared to serve the conquering Israelites (ib. 90; Psalms of Solomon, 17).
It will be seen that at this period eschatology, as an exact science, was in its infancy. But if we want to get at the popular impressions our Lord was dealing with (and it is only natural to suppose that He used language in its popular meaning when He addressed a popular audience), it seems fairly clear from all the recorded observations of His own contemporaries, from the Benedictus onwards, that the fixed hope was of the coming of a Messiah, who should set up a Kingdom, presumably an earthly kingdom, after triumphing over the Romans and the other enemies of the chosen people; repentance for sin was indicated as the proper attitude in face of this approaching world-epoch, otherwise there was no definite theology on the subject.
It was part of our Lord's teaching to identify Himself with the promised Messiah, and in doing so to correct and fill out popular conceptions of what salvation, redemption, and judgment meant. It was also part of His teaching to identify the Kingdom of Heaven (or Kingdom of God) with what? Surely in the first instance, surely where the contrary is not stated, the earthly, Davidic kingdom which His hearers would be expecting. He has to take gross, materialistic ideas, and terms as the symbols of those ideas, and invest them with a fresh meaning in order to prepare the way for that spiritual kingdom which (He told Pilate) His servants would not attempt to achieve by force. This is true, above all, of the parables, in which the phrase "the kingdom of heaven" is often too rashly assumed to refer to our future existence after the Second Advent, although a very little study of Patristic interpretation shows that in most cases there is at least a strong stream of tradition which identifies the Kingdom of Heaven with the Church militant on earth.
I say this was part of our Lord's teaching, but, as He Himself told His Apostles, it was not in the full sense part of His public teaching, for out of the crowds who heard His parables only a few, a chosen few, were meant to understand them. " To you (the Apostles) it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. Therefore do I speak to them in parables, because seeing they see not, and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand." In a word, the economy of the future Church was set forth only in a mystery, in language so clothed with allegory that the unfriendly critic above all, the Pharisee, note-book in hand and pencil behind ear would miss its significance; miss it altogether at first, and then gradually become alive to it, till after the parable of the wicked husbandmen, one of the last of all, " they knew that He spoke of them." In three main points, especially, it is necessary to re-interpret the popular ideas about the Kingdom of Heaven in the light of the Christian Church, (1) It is to include Gentiles as well as Jews, and the Gentiles are to be included as in their own right. (2) It is to precede the General Judgment, and that by a considerable interval. (3) It is not to be a perfect kingdom in the sense that there will be no traitors and no reprobates among its members.
(1) The rejection of the Jews as a race, and their displacement (in large measure) in favor of the Gentiles under the New Dispensation is the secret of nearly half the parables. The Jew is the son who undertakes to work in the vineyard and does not; the Gentile is the one who refuses and then relents. The Jew is the elder son who has never left his Father's house; the Gentile the prodigal who is welcomed (it seems so unfairly) on his return home. The Jew is the early-hired laborer, who has borne the burden of the day and the heat; the Gentile, called at the eleventh hour, is made equal to him. The Jew is the rich man who fares sumptuously every day, and, though he has Moses and the prophets, has not learned to believe; the Gentile is the beggar who seeks to feed on the crumbs that fall from the rich man's table, "and no man gave unto him," the very same phrase that is used of the prodigal. The Jew is the invited guest who accepts the invitation and then cancels his acceptance; the Gentile is called in from the highways and the hedges. The Jew is the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not as other men are; the Gentile is the repentant publican who goes home justified. The Jewish people are the fig-tree which, fruitless, still cumbers the ground; even now the Gardener of Gethsemane is praying that one more chance may be given to them. The Jewish people are the unfaithful husbandmen who are to murder the King's Son; the Gentiles are those "other husband men" to whom the vineyard will be given. Thus the Ecclesia of the New Covenant, the "faithful remnant" whom the prophets had declared to be the inheritors of God's Kingdom, is not to be a further selection within the already-selected Jewish people, like the 300 whom Gedeon selected from his already-selected 10,000. The new circle is to intersect with the old, and the calling-out will proceed according to some new, some not merely national basis of qualification.
Small wonder that our Lord should have made this point part of His secret teaching, otherwise He might well have been haled to judgment at the beginning of His ministry instead of the end; as it was His accusers could not, even at the end of it, make out a coherent case against Him. Small wonder that even in the Early Church the admission of the Gentiles to Christian privileges should have been matter of earnest discussion and slow concession; St. Paul himself speaks of it as a mystery, only latterly and only as it were grudgingly revealed. "According to grace," he says to the Ephesians, "the mystery has now been made known to me, which in other generations was not known to the sons of men, as it is now revealed to His holy Apostles and prophets in the Spirit, that the Gentiles should be fellow-heirs and partakers of the same body, and co partners of His promise, in Christ Jesus." This, then, is the first "mystery" of the Kingdom of Heaven, but our Lord tells His Apostles of the "mysteries," not merely "the mystery" what else had they to learn?
(2) However the first hearers of the Christian preaching may have conceived beforehand of the "kingdom" which the Messiah was to institute, they clearly thought that something was going to happen quite suddenly which would revolutionize the state of mankind. Whether the chosen survivors were to be introduced all at once into a new mode of existence, or whether for a period, perhaps for a thousand years, there was to be a reign of entire peace, prosperity, and holiness on the earth, with a general Resurrection at the end of it, they must clearly have imagined that the present world dispensation was running down to its immediate dissolution. In correction of that impression, our Lord is at pains to represent the extension of His kingdom as a gradual process, in the parable of the leaven, and (giving it a more concrete form) in the parable of the mustard-seed. But there is another parable in which He deals with the question ex professo that of the pounds, which He delivered "because they thought that the Kingdom of God should immediately be manifested." In this parable, the conspirators who plot against the King's life are obviously the Jews; it remains, then, that the servants, faithful and unprofitable alike, should be the chosen of the new dispensation. It is expressly said that the nobleman goes into a far country, obviously to suggest a long absence. It is the same suggestion that is made in the parables where the householder (or whoever the hero of the parable may be) is said to sleep the familiar idea of God leaving His servants on their probation. "And when it was now noon, Elias jested at them, saying, Cry with a louder voice, for he is a God; and perhaps he is talking, or is in an inn, or on a journey; or perhaps he is asleep, and must be awaked." "Up, Lord, why sleepest Thou?" is the familiar cry of the Jew in distress, and it was, no doubt, an acted parable when our Lord suffered Him self to sleep in the boat on the lake, when His disciples were threatened by the storm. "The kingdom of God is as if a man should cast seed into the earth, and should sleep and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up whilst he knoweth not." So, too, the bridegroom tarries in the parable of the ten virgins. What does all this mean, but that the new dispensation which is referred to as the "kingdom," is a dispensation in this world, of long continuance, during which God continues to hide Himself, as He did from His chosen people hitherto, in order to put His servants on their probation?
(3) And if they are on their probation, then it follows that the final selection is not yet accomplished; there are foolish as well as wise virgins in the kingdom. Hence the twice-repeated phrase, "many are called, but few are chosen" the Christian equivalent of the old Pagan tag, "Many are the bearers of the thyrsus, but few the true bacchants." Many are "cletoi," that is, members of the "ecclesia," now as heretofore, but among these many "cletoi" only a certain proportion are actually "eclectoi" in our language, predestined. The Jews cancel their acceptance of the invitation to the marriage feast, but it is not therefore to be supposed that all who sit down at that feast are the chosen servants of God; it is possible to be one of the banqueters and yet to have no wedding-garment. Two parables quite clearly treat the same issue ex professo: that of the cockle among the wheat, and that of the net drawing in all manner of fishes. The field in the parable of the cockle is the world, not explicitly the kingdom; but the net is obviously the kingdom, not simply the world, and yet there are worthless fish even inside the net, which are brought to shore (that is, to judgment) with the others. Look at it which way you will, the Church, in our Lord's own forecast, is not the Church of the predestined.
It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this point for our conceptions as to what the Christian religion is meant to be. For the Calvinist theory of the Church, which was the only logical alternative proposed for Catholicism at the time of the great European apostasy, was precisely that the Church in the true sense is simply the number of those souls whose names are written in heaven who will eventually be saved. That is to say, the true Church was of its very nature invisible. And the assumption of all that great mass of latitudinarian pietism which passes today for Christianity is in effect the same, namely, that in all religious bodies there are to be found really Christ-like, really "converted" souls, and that everyone is a member of the true Church if and in so far as he answers to that description. Which seems a very excellent and a very "spiritual" idea only unfortunately, as we have seen, it is precisely not the idea Christ taught. The Church to which He invited the Gentiles was by its very charter a visible Church.
There must, obviously, be two theories of the Sacraments to correspond with these two theories of the Church. Those who believe in an "invisible" Church think that they are going to have it all their own way when they get to the 3rd and 6th chapters of St. John. "Unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God" does that mean that a mere outward, mechanical act, the spilling of a few drops of water, seals the soul indefectibly for heaven? The idea is monstrous; we must, therefore, interpret the reference to "being born of the Holy Ghost" as implying an intelligent, voluntary acceptance of the grace offered in baptism; in other words, conversion. The man who is once really converted does really enter the Kingdom of God, no mere earthly kingdom, but an eternal inheritance. "If any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever; and the bread that I will give is My flesh for the life of the world." What a promise! "As the living Father hath sent Me, and I live by the Father, so he that eateth Me, the same also shall live by Me." The sacramental presence of Christ is actually compared, in the intimacy of its union, with the circumincession of the three Persons of the Blessed Trinity. Could such guarantees be attached to the mere reception of an outward token by the lips of one who may be, all the time, a hardened sinner? The idea is monstrous; we must, therefore, understand that the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament is true only for those who receive with worthy dispositions, and not merely those who receive hie et nunc with worthy dispositions, but those who will, as a matter of fact, persevere to the attainment of everlasting life. In a word, as the Church is a spiritual Church, so the Sacraments are spiritual Sacraments, and the material channels which are used in them are only helps to our weak human imagination.
We cannot directly counter this allegorical interpretation of a passage that cries to be taken literally from our Lord's own words, except indeed by pointing to the actual formula with which He administered the first Eucharist. For, when He uses allegory, the idea which He treats allegorically is the predicate of the sentence, not its subject; "I am the Way," "I am the Good Shepherd," "I am the true Vine." This habit of speech might cover such a phrase as "I am the living Bread," and an allegory might exhaust its meaning. But it quite certainly does not cover the phrase "This (i.e. that which I hold in My hands) is My Body." "This which is being poured out for you is My Blood." But if we will turn from our Lord's own words to those of that faithful disciple of His, who is often gratuitously hailed as the Apostle of Protestantism, we shall find, in a passage to which too little attention is ordinarily paid, a direct denial of the Calvinist theory of Church and Sacraments.
After a long passage (1 Corinthians 8 and 9), in which he has disposed of a laxist opinion in favor of eating meats offered to idols, St. Paul leaves, apparently, the argument from public scandal and devotes himself to the argument from danger of lapse into heathenism. "Know you not," he says, "that they that run in the race all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize?" This means, clearly, that there will be also-rans, that is, nominal Christians, and that the whole "field" will outnumber the Christians who will finally be saved; many are called, but few chosen. And then, at the beginning of the next chapter, he falls to comparing the two ecclesiae of God, the Church of the Old Covenant and the Church of the New. "Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea. And all in Moses were baptized in the cloud and in the sea, and did all eat the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink; (and they drank of the spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ)." He proceeds to rehearse the various backslidings which disqualified some of the Israelites for the attainment of the Promised Land, and concludes, "Wherefore, he that thinketh he standeth, let him take heed lest he fall." The parallelism in all this is perfectly unmistakable. The Israelites are said to have been baptized "into Moses" just as Christians are said to be baptized "into the Name" of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. The passage of the Red Sea, with its suggestion of burial, and the pillar of fire that accompanied the host of Israel are both old symbols (as you find them in the Liturgy of Holy Saturday) of Christian baptism. It is possible, then, to be baptized into the Ecclesia of Christ, and yet to fall short of salvation, quite as much as it was possible to be baptized into the Ecclesia of Moses, and yet fail to reach Canaan. The reference to baptism is explicit; parallelism demands that the second half of the argument should be as definite a reference to the Blessed Sacrament. The "same spiritual food" is the manna, which our Lord Himself identified as the imperfect type of the Living Bread that was to come; the water that flowed from the rock does duty for a type of the Chalice, presumably an allusion to the piercing of our Lord's side at the Crucifixion. In fact, just as it was possible for many of the Israelites to eat the manna and drink from the spring that were the pledges of God's especial care for His people, and yet fall away from Him in the desert, so there are those whose participation in the Sacrament of Unity marks them out as members of the new Ecclesia, whose names are nevertheless not written in heaven.
The theology of this last point is, of course, drawn out still more unmistakably by St. Paul a few chapters later, when he is discussing dispositions for the reception of the Holy Eucharist. " Whosoever shall eat this bread or drink the Chalice of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and of the blood of the Lord ... he that eateth and drinketh unworthily eateth and drinketh judgment to himself, if he discern not the body of the Lord " here we find that the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, so far from being a mere aid to faith designed to inspire devotion in the worthy recipient, has actually such virtue in itself that it has its effects terrible effects upon the sacrilegious soul that profanes it.
When, therefore, it is suggested (as you may see it suggested almost any day in one or other of the news papers) that if the Christian religion is to retain its hold over the allegiance of men in our times, we must get back to the "Christianity" of Christ or of His immediate followers, they are simply presenting the public with a mare's nest. For they mean by such language a Christianity which is not merely shorn of all definite dogma (which is beside our present purpose), but either lacking all outward organization or possessing only such outward organization as was confessedly human in its origin and conception. And this is, in effect, to revive that old dream of the medieval heretics, the "invisible Church," a company of pious souls all bound for heaven, with no hierarchy except such as could be measured by degrees of personal holiness, and no Sacraments save as symbols of an interior devotion already felt. Whereas the actual "Christianity" of Christ and His immediate followers involves a Church which is to replace the old "Church" of the Jewish people, differing from it in dispensing with all tests of nationality, yet resembling it in being an organized, visible community. It includes, and administers Sacraments to, unworthy Christians to whom that adherence will be useless, that participation even actively disastrous. That is the Church of Christ which it is man's business to find. Men dispute our claim to represent the Church of St. Peter; let us ask them whether it is they or we who belong to the Church of Judas Iscariot? Whom our Lord called, although He knew that he would be lost.
For the Church is not merely the continuation, but the reflection of the Divine plan according to which God took manhood upon Himself. In the Incarnation, God could only reveal Himself in proportion as He concealed Himself, in proportion as He became like us in suffering and in obedience, only without our follies, only without our sins. So in the Catholic Church a supernatural reality is manifested to us in human guise, marred to outward view by the imperfections of all her members, and stained by their crimes. The Church perfected in heaven is the jewel God stooped to covet, but to purchase it He must buy the whole field in which it is buried, and the treasure must lie hid until the purchase is completed. We do not know why God values the outward and the earthly as well as the inward and spiritual; we only know that He does so, because He created us in His Image, because in our image He redeemed us. We should not have designed such a Church as His? Perhaps not, but then, should we have designed such a world as His? The Church, if she is His, must bear the pinxit of the Creator in her very imperfections.
by THE REV. RONALD A. KNOX, M.A.
L. W. GEDDES, S.J.
ARCHBISHOP OF LIVERPOOL
Administrator of the Diocese of Northampton