What is ‘the church’? What was ‘the church’?

“The Lazy Man’s Way”

In asking the question “what is the church?” in the context of 2000 years of church history, we have to also ask the question “what was the church?” And in asking the question “what was the church?” we have to also further ask the question, “what was the church at different times?” And also, we have to ask, “according to whom?”

All of those questions make it a big topic.

Rome, of course, sidesteps that process, simply holding that “What the Church is today, that’s just what it always was, except that the folks back then didn’t know it”.

They follow Newman’s notion, and take it to the extreme:

It is not a violent assumption, then, but rather mere abstinence from the wanton admission of a principle which would necessarily lead to the most vexatious and preposterous scepticism, to take it for granted, before proof to the contrary, that the Christianity of the second, fourth, seventh, twelfth, sixteenth, and intermediate centuries is in its substance the very religion which Christ and His Apostles taught in the first, whatever may be the modifications for good or for evil which lapse of years, or the vicissitudes of human affairs, have impressed upon it.

Thus we have the spectacle of a Bryan Cross, for example, suggesting that Jesus’s statement about murder and anger in Matthew 5:22 “was fully compatible with the mortal/venial distinction”.

Bryan seemingly holds that Jesus had the [later] mortal/venial distinction in mind as he preached the Sermon on the Mount. [“And for you to say ‘he didn’t’ is an argument from silence, and thus a fallacy”.]

All of this, too, comes into the realm of the “Roman Catholic System”, or as Lane Keister puts it (following Anthony de Chirico), “getting at what makes Catholicism Catholicism”. Lane says, “Because the hermeneutical, systemic, presuppositional issues have not been dealt with yet, it is somewhat futile to argue about individual issues.”

That’s not quite true. Turretin noticed this need for a “systemic” argument in his “Institutes of Elenctic Theology” (1696). The question, for Turretin, as he introduces the concept of “church” is “whether the knowledge of the church ought to precede the knowledge of doctrine?”

He put it this way:

For although the controversies concerning the church are not among the first (which occasioned our secession from the Roman church), but only among the secondary (which sprung from the others); inasmuch as the Romanists (distrusting the goodness of their cause in other heads of doctrine) have betaken themselves to the authority of the church that they might be the more safely concealed under her shield, still in the progress of time they have become the principle matter in which our opponents seem to place the strength of their cause.

In other words, the primary Roman argument in Turretin’s day was “we are ‘the Church’, we are in authority, and it is our authority say what the doctrine is”. We’ve seen many Roman Catholics in our day that the Roman Catholic Church “has the authority to interpret Scripture”. This is tantamount to saying “only we have the authority to say what Scripture means”, the consequence of which is, “you don’t”.

The fact is that that, over the centuries, independent biblical scholars of all stripes have worked hard to, in the words of Martin Luther, “say what a thing is”, that is, to understand what the Scriptures are really saying – and the fact is that that we Protestants, in our day, have made amazing progress in reaching a consensus about what the message of the Scriptures actually is. It is further away from the Roman understanding than ever.

Thus this day the Romanists (although they are anything but the true church of Christ) still boast of their having alone the name of church and do not blush to display the standard of that which they oppose. In this manner, hiding themselves under the specious title of the antiquity and infallibility of the Catholic church, they think they can, as with one blow, beat down and settle the controversy waged against them concerning the various and most destructive errors [that they, the Romanists have] introduced into the heavenly doctrine.

Turretin goes on to say that “although the knowledge of the church is especially necessary to us, still it must not be supposed that it ought to precede the examination and knowledge of doctrine”.

The study of individual doctrines [building then up to the knowledge of the church] “is long, uncertain and dangerous,” he says, but the former, the Roman way, is “short and indubitable”.

Turretin cites contemporary authors who say that Roman Catholics “must follow the way of the authority of the church and not the way of discussion and examination of doctrine. For the latter is long, uncertain, and dangerous, but the former short and indubitable”.

For Turretin’s Roman contemporaries, the appeal to authority is the easy way out. The lazy man’s way to riches. No hint of a logical fallacy here.

Turretin then makes four arguments in favor of the fact, however, that an examination of doctrine should precede the mere acceptance of authority as the measure of an acceptance of the doctrines.

1. From the Scripture itself, “which is wont to premise the examination of faith and doctrine to the knowledge and communion of the church. Christ, sending the apostles to gather the church, supposes the necessity of a preceding instruction and knowledge of doctrine: ‘Go, teach all nations, baptizing them’ (Matt 28:19); they were added to the church who had been taught before by the apostles (Acts 2:41); the Samaritans who believed were baptized (Acts 8:12)”. Thus, he concludes “as adults in faith ought to precede baptism, so examination of faith and knowledge ought to precede knowledge of the church”.

2. From the nature of the thing: “a unified society (group) supposes some necessary principle in which the members themselves are united. The unity of the church supposes a preceding unity of faith in which believers are joined”.

3. From the sayings of the fathers. Jerome: “The church does not consist in buildings, but in true doctrine. The church is where true faith is”. Ambrose: “Therefore, the faith of the church is commanded to be sought first of all, in which if Christ dwells, it is undoubtedly to be chosen”. And Augustine: “Let us not hear, I say this, you say that; but the Lord says this. There are surely books of our Lord, whose authority we both assent to, believe and observe. There let us seek the church; there let us examine our cause”.

4. From reason: The way of authority (which thrusts forward the authority and infallibility of the church as the rule of faith) also rests upon a double hypothesis, but far more obscure and uncertain; nay, most false—assuredly that an infallible visible church is granted upon earth which teaches nothing but the truth and that church is none other than the Roman. To examine both of these, there is need of a long train of arguments and an accurate examination of histories [which is not forthcoming from the Roman side], since it supposes the truth of antiquity and of an uninterrupted succession. This cannot be ascertained without reading the whole of ecclesiastical history, councils and the fathers—a thing of immense labor (which very few of the learned can scarcely attain with diligent study; much less can it be perceived by the unlearned and the common people.)

Rome, of course, wants to have its cake and eat it too: it claims authority, it assumes authority, but it doesn’t lift a finger to prove that it has the authority. Because it simply can’t.

Of course, contra de Chirico, those theologians he examined as well as most of the anti-Roman apologists in our day are more than happy to undertake that “thing of immense labor”, to attempt to read the whole of ecclesiastical history, and to follow the path that seems “long, uncertain, and dangerous”.

It’s just simply ignored by someone like Bryan Cross, in favor of his argument from authority. It’s the Bryan Cross version of “the lazy man’s way to riches”.