“Divine Revelation” Part 3: Methodological Considerations When Discussing “the Church” and “the mind of the Church”

Andrew, I wanted to get back to your comment from February 7, 2014 at 2:06 pm. You were kind enough to put some thought into summarizing a response there to questions I had asked, and I believe here that we are really close to being able to identify the heart of the issues between Roman Catholics and Protestants.

You said:

In response to your first comment, I have tried to highlight (1) the difference between the deliverances of historical-critical scholarship and divine revelation and (2) how the Church is intrinsic to divine revelation as the bearer of that revelation. I now want to briefly consider (3) the nature of the Church, particularly what it is for the Church to be the bearer of divine revelation, and what Apostolic Succession has to do with this.

(There were larger questions following this summary, but I believe that I answered (1) in my two part response below, Part 1 and Part 2).

Now I’d like to begin to touch on (2) and (3). I’m sorry for being so delayed with these responses, but there is a lot of ground to cover, there are a lot of “clarification” questions that could be asked, almost at every point, and life has generally been busy for me.

You said, first, “is misleading to talk about the Church apart from divine revelation” and you clarified further here:

sometimes when debating the nature of the Church she can seem, like those debates, to take on a life of her own, in isolation from more fundamental things. My point, however, is that, for the Catholic, the Church does not have a life of her own. Her life depends entirely upon the Holy Spirit, as the life of the body depends upon the soul. And this is of course the Holy Spirit of revelation, “who has spoken by the prophets”. The past tense indicates the once and for all, unchanging, nature of the faith delivered to the saints. The next phrase in the Creed (“in One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”), still under the aegis of “I believe in the Holy Spirit” (the creed is trinitarian from beginning to end), indicates, to revert to Cardinal Ratzinger’s words, “the living organism of the faith of all ages”.

At this point, you have something different in mind when you say “the Church” or “the nature of the Church” than I do.

And the reason that you have a different concept is because you are operating with a definition that was pretty much written at Vatican II, although it sometimes uses language and concepts that appeared in earlier definitions of “church”. Let’s look at the article on Ecclesiology by Alexander Schmeman that you provided, which you said “helps to explain what I was getting at by claiming that the Church is a mystical, i.e., sacramental, kingdom.”

(It’s a long article, but I’d like here to pull in some of the more applicable points):

In our own “sources”– the Fathers, the Councils, the Liturgy – we do not find any formal definition of the Church. This is not because of any lack of ecclesiological interest and consciousness, but because the Church (in the Orthodox approach to her) does not exist, and therefore cannot be defined, apart from the very content of her life. The Church, in other terms, is not an “essence” or “being” distinct, as such, from God, man, and the world, but is the very reality of Christ in us and us in Christ, a new mode of God’s presence and action in His creation, of creation’s life in God.

I think it is very important here to understand what Schmeman is saying. “We do not find any formal definition of the Church [with “the Church” not in quotes]. This is not because of any lack of ecclesiological interest and consciousness, but because the Church (in the Orthodox approach to her) does not exist, and therefore cannot be defined, apart from the very content of her life..

So here you have Schmeman speaking of “her life” even though “her” represents “she, the Church” which “does not exist”.

The Reformed certainly can comport with the phrase “the content of her life” – especially insofar as “her life” [even though “she” does not exist] speaks of “the very reality of Christ in us and us in Christ, a new mode of God’s presence and action in His creation, of creation’s life in God.”

I think this is a point at which we need to look at the Biblical terms “the Kingdom of God” and (in Matthew especially) “the Kingdom of Heaven”.

But we must do so without creating an icon, especially before at least some definitions are forthcoming, because the New Testament definitely speaks of “the Kingdom”, and because there is definite meaning that is attributable to that phrase, even if it isn’t “quick and easy” to identify.

[And a point that I would make is that the theory that the church can be represented by an icon really, as you would say at CTC, “begs the question” – but I don’t hold that against you; rather, I see it as an opportunity to look more deeply and more precisely at what is being said.]

Here’s the heart of the problem as I see it. Very many writers skip over the first three centuries of the church – with McGrath, they look at those first three centuries and describe something as “somewhat confused” (terminology he uses in reference to “the emerging patristic understanding of matters such as predestination, grace, and free will”, and he says, probably following Newman’s idea far more than is justified here, “and [these matters would remain somewhat confused] until controversy forced a full discussion of the issue upon the church] “Iustitia Dei, Third Edition, pg 33).

There are two problems with this:

1. It ignores the Biblical account of things, deferring to “a full discussion of the issue[s].”

2. It assumes that that “full discussion” got things right.

Jaroslav Pelikan does the same thing in his “The Christian Tradition”, Volume 1. He skims over “the completeness of the victory over Jewish thought (20) and “the loss of contact with Jewish thought” (22) and goes right into “the Christian dispute with Classical thought (27), while almost totally failing to engage with the phenomenon of “Jewish thought”.

In your initial comments, you reference a Ratzinger phrase, “the living organism of the faith of all ages”, and you also somewhere reference “the mind of the Church”, failing to take into account a critical portion of thinking.

It’s not true to say that the New Testament writers were “somewhat confused”. I will grant that some patristic writers of the first three centuries were very much confused. Writers especially of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions just simply ignore this confusion – the thinking holds something like “these early writers were closer to the time of the Apostles, therefore they must have had the best understanding” – however, this does not follow at all. In the link that I provided here in this paragraph, I’ve cited many instances of this “confusion”, and many others could be provided.

For instance, you are relying very heavily on the writings of Ignatius, as if his writings were normative for what a “bishop” was in the first or second century church. However, this makes a number of assumptions and fails to take into account a number factors that argue against the notion that Ignatius was normative for Christian understandings of “church government” at the dawn of the second century.

Ignatius borrows quite heavily not upon Pauline concepts and imagery, but rather he relies heavily on terminology used in the largely pagan culture around him. He was not from Jerusalem, and so he did not rely heavily on Jewish or New Testament ideas, but rather, he imported his pagan understandings into New Testament terminologies. Allen Brent shows this quite extensively, tracing the various words that Ignatius uses extensively (i.e., he identifies himself in many of his letters as “Theosophorus”, or “God Bearer”. This is not a New Testament word or concept – but it has “thick and rich” meaning in the broader Greek culture. This is a notion that writers like McGrath and Pelikan just skim over, if not outright ignoring it.

Another thing to consider, with respect to Ignatius, is his rhetoric. His rhetoric “reflects a stream of popular rhetoric that may be conveniently (though loosely) referred to as ‘Asianism.’ The purists of antiquity saw in the tendency ‘a scholastic and perversely ingenious mannerism.’ Its aim was the expression of pathos. Consequently it was characterized by unusual diction and poetic color.”

“Figures of speech of all kinds were popular, metaphors, comparisons, oxymorons, paronomasia, hyperbole, etc.). … Most of these features are abundantly illustrated in the letters of Ignatius. Indeed, they seem exaggerated under the impact of the bishop’s religious fervor and his impassioned reflections on the significance of his impending martyrdom”.


The images used by Ignatius deserve special attention in this connection. As Riesenfeld pointed out, Ignatius reflects especially the Hellenistic world in this regard.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about Ignatius at this point, except to note that his language often will reflect neither the Apostolic concepts in the New Testament (though he frequently uses the same words, imbued with different meanings), and nor did later writers necessarily mean what Ignatius meant, while using those same words. So, for example, while Ignatius did write quite a bit about “bishops”, and he was the first Christian writer to apply the word “catholic” to “the church”, it takes quite a bit more investigation to understand just what he was talking about.

The kind of “skipping over” that writers like McGrath and Pelikan (and many others, as well), have led to bold pronouncements from Roman Catholic apologists that “Ignatius used the words ‘catholic’ and ‘bishop’, therefore we can easily see the ‘seed form’ of Roman Catholic meanings in his writings”.

This does not follow at all, and in the discussions of “burden of proof”, Roman Catholics definitely leave a lot of work undone here.

On the flip side of this coin, (“what was the mind of the church thinking about in the first century?”), we have the recent studies by writers in the “New Testament Use of the Old Testament” project. Briefly, this study looks not only at “direct quotations”, but far more deeply, to “allusions”, which the writer G.K. Beale defines as “a brief expression consciously intended by [a New Testament author] to be dependent on an Old Testament passage.”

While allowing that different writers operate under different definitions, these numbers give some sense of proportion, as to just how heavily the New Testament writers relied on the Old Testament (not just words, but concepts as well):

“One writer has counted 295 separate quotations of the OT in the NT (including quotations with and without formulas). These make up about 4.5% of the entire NT, about 354 verses. Thus 1 out of 22.5 verses in the NT incorporates a quotation.”

But aside from “direct quotation”, there are also innumerable “allusions” to the Old Testament in the New. … The key to discerning an allusion, he says, “is that of recognizing an incomparable or unique parallel in wording, syntax, concept, or cluster of motifs in the same order or structure.”

[By these standards], there may be more than 4,000 “allusions” or “echoes” of the Old Testament found within the New. Given that there are 7956 verses in the New Testament, more than half the New Testament can be seen as bearing at least some form of “echo of” or “allusion to” some Old Testament concept or idea.

When you talk about things such as “the living organism of the faith of all ages”, without discussing the actual “content” of the faith (i.e., “what they knew, and when they knew it”), and indeed, when looking at “the mind of ‘the Church’”, without considering, in detail, how this “mind” “changed” in the first three centuries, and then when you jump to the fourth century, and start picking up terms like “sacramental” or even such words as “one”, “holy”, “catholic”, and “apostolic”, with respect to church, well, then, you are really “begging the question” in a huge way.

When you consider your own phrase, again, “the Holy Spirit of revelation, ‘who has spoken through the prophets’,” and when you fail to consider that the early church, of the first three centuries basically lost the sense of “what those prophets actually have said”, you are being outright contradictory.

I hope to show some concrete examples of this next time.


Published by John Bugay

"We are His workmanship," His poiema, His "poetry." If you've ever studied poetry, or struggled to write a poem, you understand the care God takes to "work all things together for good" in our lives. For this reason, and many others, I believe in the Sovereignty of God. I have seen His hand working in my life, and I submit myself to His merciful will, with all my being.

9 replies on ““Divine Revelation” Part 3: Methodological Considerations When Discussing “the Church” and “the mind of the Church””

  1. With reference to John Bugays discussion, it may also be fruitful to try and penetrate to the actual meaning of “church” as kuriake, kuriakon, that which, those who belongs to the Lord. In my view this is limited to the kainai ktiseis (new creatures) who were born from above according to the teaching of Y’shua to Nicodemus–they truly belong to Him. They are born into his schema. These new creatures speak in heavenly languages.They are specially designed to advance to the maximum in the Kingdom. Other interpretations of what “church” is, may be part of this avoidance of His teaching, and incorporating people into a false kingdom of the “church”‘s own making. They have been”reprogrammed” to live in a certain sense like Christ who is God and also lived a life as a human being, as heavenly and simultaneously normal human beings. This position will be very seriously contested by the false part of the church. They cannot stand the Spirit of Christ from whom they were born from above. They detest the very thought of it. Watch this space – it will meet with either a stance of sharply attacking this position or ignoring it.


  2. Hi again Dr van den Berg: My hope is to get into the Greek and Hebrew concepts in future blog posts — to discuss and make an attempt to define such terms as “church” and the “ekklesia” and the “new creations” that we are, “already and not yet”. — as they existed in the Old and New Testaments, and as well as they came to mean in later church usage.


  3. John,

    Thanks for the continued engagement with my comments. I have read this third part of your response, and will read and consider it again before offering my thoughts.



    1. Hi Andrew – I am interested in continuing to carry on a discussion about these things, and if you’d rather do it privately, I’m good with that — I’ve been very busy with work and other things, (mostly good), and I don’t have much time to tend to this sort of public discussion any more. But I’d still go back to some of the original things I’ve said.

      Having grown up Roman Catholic, and having believed the sort of things that you now believe (strenuously, I might add), I can safely say that I’ve had more than satisfactory responses on every single question I had, every single objection that I made (and that others made to me) to leaving the Roman Catholic Church.

      Keep in mind that I did so under the papacy of Pope John Paul II — who was undeniably one of the reasons I came back in the first place. (I left in my late teen years, and came back in my early 20’s, and even had thoughts about entering the priesthood. I had in fact applied to and was accepted at a local seminary here).

      Not long ago, I took my son to a Catholic Mass. I have six kids, and he was #4, probably the oldest among my “second” family, all of whom grew up attending a PCA church. He said, “Dad, knowing what you know, I don’t see any reason why someone would remain Roman Catholic”.

      It’s true that Roman Catholicism has set up a thought-system within which virtually everything can said to be “non-contradictory”. But that thought system falls apart in the face of history. Knowing as we do, how things “developed” in the second and third and fourth centuries, especially respecting the authority system in the church, really causes Roman claims to authority to ring hollow for me — especially given that such authority claims were the underpinning of virtually everything rotten we know about the Medieval church.


      1. John,

        Thanks for the note. I still intend to make some comments in response to this post, but have lately been otherwise occupied, particularly with preparation for and the beginning of Great Lent. I don’t suppose that you observe this time of fasting any more, but may it nevertheless be an occasion for repentance and reconciliation for all concerned in the tragic and ongoing estrangement between Christians.



  4. Hello Andrew my name is Vincent. I am a frequent visitor of both this site and the CTC. I would like to discuss some things via email with you if that is possible? I have some questions and I prefer not to do them via blog form. My email is vincentvdweerden@gmail.com. Hope to here from you.


  5. John,

    Its been almost a month, but I just wanted to touch base to say that I have read your post. Your over-riding point seems to be summarized in your concluding paragraph:

    When you consider your own phrase, again, “the Holy Spirit of revelation, ‘who has spoken through the prophets’,” and when you fail to consider that the early church, of the first three centuries basically lost the sense of “what those prophets actually have said”, you are being outright contradictory.

    It seems that you are responding to my idea that the Church is intrinsic to divine revelation by claiming that the Church “basically lost the sense of” divine revelation, and so is in principle dispensable in relation thereto. This cuts against the grain of the historical relation of the people of God, Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament, to divine revelation, in the writing, reading, preserving, remembering, celebrating of that revelation. To cut the Church out of the picture and try to work one’s way to divine revelation by empirical sciences apart from the supernatural community of grace, the Church, is to be cut off, historically and theologically, from divine revelation in its fullest expression, namely, Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and died and rose again and ascended to heaven in around 30 AD, having established the Apostolic Church and endowed her with authority, a universal mission, and the promise of his presence until the end of age (Matthew 28:18-20).


  6. Andrew – I realize it has been a long time since we’ve responded. I’ve been busy with work and other things, and I’m sure that’s the case for you as well. But I’d like to continue here, because at least we are both knowledgeable enough to touch on some fundamental things. I’ve always been interested in talking with Roman Catholics who don’t, in the end, resort to demagoguery. I rarely have found a Roman Catholic who can take the discussion to its end [or to some conclusion] without making a retreat into the presuppositions (as Bryan does, when he follows his policy that “apparent contradictions” are not [could not be] “genuine contradictions”.

    I have arrived at where I am because I am willing to call a thing what it is. And I am willing to challenge the presuppositions, my own, and those of others.

    With that said, I’m sure you recognize that you make certain assumptions in your most recent comment here, such as, what is “the Church”? About what “intrinsic to” means? About what “divine revelation” is? You CTC guys seem to be able to recognize “begging the question” from a mile away.

    In my paragraph here that you cited, that “the early church, of the first three centuries, basically lost the sense of ‘what those [Old Testament] prophets actually have said’”, I was referring to something I had elaborated in this very thread, that is (as cited by G.K. Beale):

    “there may be more than 4,000 “allusions” or “echoes” of the Old Testament found within the New. Given that there are 7956 verses in the New Testament, more than half the New Testament can be seen as bearing at least some form of “echo of” or “allusion to” some Old Testament concept or idea.”

    I’m referring to a phenomenon that is well-known and described somewhat loosely as “the parting of the ways”, the notion that “Judaism and Christianity soon separated”, through a series of events by which “may have removed a substantial Jewish-Christian presence from the Christian movement”.

    This is not an unknown phenomenon. Pelikan even wrote about this: “the “de-Judaization of Christianity” was not expressed only by the place accorded to Judaism by Christian theologians. A more subtle and more pervasive effect of this process is evident in the development of various Christian doctrines themselves” (Pelikan Vol 1, pgs 21-22).”

    This is one of the very important ways that the “church fathers” essentially lost what the Apostles had quite consciously placed into “the Christian tradition”. And in the process, they adopted other things. Some of those things may have been helpful or useful at times, but they weren’t “divine revelation”. I think that’s the heart of what I’d say.

    So for a writer like Irenaeus – I can accept that such a concept as “succession” was useful for sorting out the gnostics of his day. But the phrase that Vatican II tacked on to his statement – “to be preserved in a continuous line of succession until the end of time” – there is no warrant for that in what Irenaeus said, and the notion that “succession” was to be carried on “until the end of time” is, frankly, to be challenged vigorously, especially in the light of what we know about the character of God in the Old Testament (given the character of “The Church” as it came to exist during the dark and middle ages).

    2000 years of history is a long time, and in our own lives, we can see that changes that 100 years or 200 years can bring. It’s not hard to follow the line of thinking by which Vatican II came up with that “until the end of time” language.

    The thread of thinking that Brandon has described around Lampe’s work is significant, but it is not the only challenge to Roman Catholicism. There are many others, and they get to the heart and soul of what Roman Catholicism claims that it is.

    There have been articles at CTC about “one holy catholic and apostolic church”, for example. While we are talking about a line from the Nicene/Constantinople creed, we have to realize that it is a line from the late fourth century, and each of those “marks of the church” has a history, and we can trace the meaning of it.

    Here are just a few examples:

    Yes, Jesus prayed “may they all be one”, but given the Character of God as presented in the OT-thinking of the Apostles, and given (again) the character of the Roman Catholic hierarchy over the centuries, it is impossible to believe that Christ was setting into place the ontological structure described in Lumen Gentium (or as it has been described to suggest that the “seed” of the “petrine ministry” was somehow “there” without anyone recognizing it.) If you want actually to apply such a notion, you must argue in favor of it, and not simply assume that it is there.

    The notion of “catholic” as a descriptor, therefore of the earliest church is not something that Jesus would have prayed for in John 17 (for example). Now, Roman Catholicism needs a thought like that to be in place to claim what it does for itself. But that notion is not, and cannot be found in the text. In truth, the word, the concept “catholic” was a Greek political concept; in fact, it was a political movement among some factions in the Greek city-states known as “the Second Sophistic”. These young and idealistic Greeks wanted to retain for those city-states now conquered by Rome, some sense of their Greek identity. To suggest that Jesus had that kind of concept in mind must be argued for, and not merely assumed. Especially in the light of God’s character, as compared with the character of the later church hierarchy.

    The notion of “The Church” being “the sacrament of salvation”, or that ordination was somehow “sacramental” – or even that the Lord’s Supper and Baptism of the earliest centuries were “sacramental” is anachronistic. [And “anachronism” is not a good thing, by any stretch].

    Given that Tertullian first adopted that term in the early third century – it was primarily a Roman military oath – such a concept may have been useful for instruction, but that it meant then what Rome later said it means is something that is anachronistic and if it is the case, the argument needs to be made of how it actually came to have the meaning that is attributed to it now. Just to assume it is so is to equivocate on the word [and “equivocation” is not a good thing either].

    These are just a few examples – and the anachronism and equivocation that are actually relied upon by Rome to make its case are glaring.

    All of this is taken together is why I reject, too, the notion that the Apostles set up [in some “seed” or “essential” way], the Roman Catholic Church, and Roman Catholicism. They had an agenda, to be sure, and we see it, thickly, in every New Testament book: Jesus is the promised Messiah. The God of the Old Testament has kept his long-promised word.

    It is why I especially and explicitly reject the notion that Bryan describes in his article “Tradition and the Lexicon”, as being particularly partisan, particularly misleading, and yes, particularly dishonest, in the sense that he knows that the things I’m writing about here, in the sense that I’m writing about them, are true, and yet he continues to repeat the line that all of these things are “fully consistent with” the meaning and history that are being reported.

    At some point, the sheer weight of the inconsistencies (even though some particular things may be on small, particular points, consistent in some way, the overall accumulation of all of these historical veracities must overwhelm the notion that Roman Catholicism has any resemblance at all with the actual history of the actual church of first four centuries.

    So, given that kind of record, no, I don’t believe that “the Roman Catholic Church” is “intrinsic to” “divine Revelation”. God’s own revelation, while being important to “the church” [as it is], and frequently being observed and recognized by “the church” [as it is]. Your one small sentence, “the Church is intrinsic to divine revelation”, is loaded with assumptions that simply do not bear scrutiny.

    It is ironic, in our age, that when we have the means to exercise the kinds of scrutiny that need to be brought to bear, that so few people have the ability or even the interest to pay attention to it – the “news media” are showing off a character like “pope Francis”, thinking erroneously as they do that he is some kind of great prophet of God who is going to legalize homosexuality (etc.), when in reality, it is the misconception itself that gains popular traction – and thus based on another misconception Roman Catholicism gains some appearance of legitimacy and thus it gains converts.


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