Why does ecclesiology matter?

My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful.  This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.

Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is.  We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit.  Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people?  Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners?  Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee?  Or none of the above?  There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.

Do these ideas matter?  In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief.  Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.”  Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.”  The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection.  Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.

But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”

Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics.  And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.

But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”

Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity.  Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad.  In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations.  A number of examples will clarify the case.

John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century.  At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity.  According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy.  By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone.  (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.)  His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation.  But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing.  What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.

In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis.  The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass.  The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage.  A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers.  Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted.  His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead.  Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics?  Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed.  Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”?  Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points.  (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)

A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century.  His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches.  These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached.  Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves.  He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals.  These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church.  Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics.  If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation.  (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.)  But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.

Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations.  Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world.  (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.)  Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition.  Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments.  In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute.  May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.



  1. Good post. I agree with most of what you’ve written here, and particularly concur with the concern you have over differences in ecclesiology leading to back-stabbing, etc. This is indeed a tragedy.

    The only point at which I would differ really is that answers given to the question of whether ecclesiology is essential are already dependent on what one believes about ecclesiology. I know this isn’t strictly contrary to what you’ve written, but for some (e.g.; Catholics and Orthodox), the central message of Christianity is deeply bound up with what is believed about the Church.

    For example, given that God came to redeem the world, this then raises the question of whether this redemption (or at least the application of the fruits of this redemption to us) is an ongoing process and thus requires the Church to be intimately related to Christ in a sacramental sense – this will affect how one sees the Church and so one could say that on this view it is an essential issue.

    Similarly, as Christianity ‘first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and doing’, this then raises the question of how we can know all these things, and therefore how much authority the Church has to proclaim them – so again, if one believes Christ formed His Church in order to proclaim these things unambiguously, to be known and believed with confidence, then what the Church is (and where to find it) does become an essential question.

    1. There is certainly much ecclesiology implicit in the objection I anticipated which states that the churches have got along well enough without ecclesiological agreement. My point there was merely to say that even their narrow definition of “essential doctrine” can accommodate a significant position for ecclesiology.

      On the other hand, I do see plenty of evidence that Christianity ought to “first and foremost proclaim Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.” At a certain point in that message, or rather as people respond to that message, the question of Church necessarily occurs. But I have not found the Church proclaiming the necessity of the Church as part of the most basic message to be useful for communicating what Christianity is all about to non-Christians. But perhaps I simply haven’t seen it done well in an evangelistic mode.

      I know I would rather deal with someone who cares passionately and intelligently about Christ’s incarnation and redemption, though is fuzzy about the importance of ecclesiology, than someone who cares passionately and intelligently about their model of ecclesiology, but is fuzzy about the importance of the incarnation! Historically, the Church also thought it more urgent to clarify Christology than Ecclesiology, so I wonder whether that is a priority of doctrine with which the Holy Spirit agrees.

      1. Yes, I see what you mean, and I agree that the Church’s entire purpose is to proclaim the Gospel, not what the Church is – absolutely agree. My point is though, that we have to rely on the Church to know with confidence what the Gospel is, and so this raises the questions of how much authority it has to do so, what role it plays in salvation (by providing the sacraments, by writing, preserving and canonising Scripture, etc). I guess you could say then that ecclesiology is a secondary issue, but still an essential one! 🙂

        I also agree that I would rather deal with someone who cares more about the Incarnation and Atonement than matters of ecclesiology, but given what I’ve just written, I also see them as more deeply intertwined, not separate issues. The reason I think the Church thought it more urgent to clarify Christology (as opposed to ecclesiology) however, is, I think, because the fact that the Church was where one went to find out about Jesus, to receive the sacraments, etc, was a given – it was only really when fractures began to emerge that a proper doctrine of the Church had to be clarified with some urgency.

        But no doubt about it, when someone starts asking questions about Christianity, you introduce them to Jesus – questions about the Church come later. Am in fully agreement about that! 🙂

        1. Two points, first the easier (historical) point: it appears to me that in the pre-Constantine period, there were more fractures and rival churches than after, and therefore an alleged belated appearance of church division cannot be used to explain the late appearance of formal ecclesiology.

          Secondly, depending on which sense of “the Church” you are using here, I do not find your claim that “we have to rely on the Church to know with confidence what the Gospel is” convincing. I would presume that (and will respond as though) you are writing from the perspective that “the Church” is simply the Roman Catholic Church. In that case, I find this claim a surprising Roman Catholic analogue to the common evangelical systematic theologian’s claim that the doctrine of Scripture is logically prior to the doctrine of God and the doctrine of Christ, because “it is only on the basis of Scripture that we know about God.” This last claim is empirically false; in my own case, I came to believe in Christ without ascribing any special status to the Bible. Similarly, I’ve known plenty of Baptists who are very anti-Roman Catholic, yet who have no trouble preaching the gospel with confidence. So it appears that the claim that we can only learn the gospel through the Roman Catholic Church is equally empirically false.

          One may ask, “Where did they get that gospel?” The answers vary, but typically include the Bible as interpreted within their non-Roman-Catholic denominational tradition. One might respond, “Ah, but the gospel truth and even the Bible which they preach they took from the early Church, which is the Roman Catholic Church.” But as I argued here, Baptists and eastern Orthodox Christians have as much claim on the Bible and the early Church as Roman Catholics do.

          (Many Baptists of an anti-Catholic inclination would also regard as bizarre any attempt to argue that Luther derived his understanding of the gospel from the hierarchy who kicked him out of the Church for proclaiming that gospel, but I presume a Roman Catholic apologist would appeal to early authors, such as Augustine, who are in fact the common property of Protestants and Roman Catholics alike.)

          One might instead take the tack that the Baptists’ version of the gospel is only approximately correct, and the Roman magisterium’s pronouncements fill in the details. But those “filled-in details” are precisely the debated points, and so are not clearly true (and thus do not lend any weight to the argument that we must trust the Roman magisterium). Of course, a Roman Catholic apologist might respond that such details are obviously not clearly true apart from magisterial authority; that is why magisterial authority exists, to reassure us of their truth! If that is the case, then it appears (absent any special revelation to the contrary) that the Roman magisterium is failing in its purpose, given how much anguish and arguments I hear Roman Catholics exchanging about what the magisterium means and whether it’s current membership can be trusted. Most Roman Catholics I know, whether liberal or conservative, largely ignore the current magisterium and get on with their spiritual lives.

          I am not anti-Roman-Catholic myself, and do not wish to use this blog for anti-Roman polemics. I have a fair amount of respect for the current pope (more than some Catholics I know!), though I do not believe his teaching is infallible. I have many Roman Catholic friends, and cherish a few Roman Catholic authors. But I find the argument that we can’t know the gospel, unless the Roman Catholic Church tells us what it is, to be patently bizarre and empirically falsified.

          1. Thanks for your thorough reply!

            However, a lot of what you’ve written is, whilst important points in and of themselves, unwarranted – when I was talking about the Church, I wasn’t specifically talking about the Catholic Church, but just ‘the visible Church’ in general (hence why in my first reply I said that this was something both Catholics and Orthodox would see as being an essential issue).

            So, I did not mean that nowadays one has to go to the Catholic Church in order to receive the Gospel (although obviously I do believe that it contains the fullness of Truth therein) – that is clearly not the case. My point is rather that we only have the Gospel at all via the Church – Christ formed a Church, with the Apostles as its foundation, to proclaim the Gospel, to appoint successors, and to pass down His teaching (which they did both by writing Scripture and handing down extra-scriptural traditions). So I am not saying that the Church is logically prior to God and Christ – just the opposite. The Church is the instrument Christ founded to preserve and proclaim the truth about Him, and everything subsequent generations know about Him (including Scripture) comes from that Body.

            So, with regard to your first point, yes, noone would deny that there were fractures, but the idea of there being anything like the denominationalism we see today in post-Reformation Christianity is clearly not so. Even if different groups quarreled with one another, they all still saw the universal Church as being the source of the Rule of Faith, of Scripture, and of ultimate authority. The question of how this authority was exercised, and who had the final say, etc, is of course the issue that divides, but I think it’s hard to make a case that the various churches saw themselves as autonomous in the way that denominations do now. Hence the lack of a need to formally investigate and determine ecclesiology.

            Re rival churches (e.g.; Baptist, Catholic) claims to have a better approximation of the Gospel though, it seems clear that a.) these claims can’t all be right, and b.) some have better claims than others. To me, the early Church looks very un-Protestant – veneration of saints (and their relics) was extremely popular from the start, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was universally acknowledged, episcopal governance seems to have a very good pedigree, Scripture was never seen as the sole authority (though was indeed rightly revered as God’s word), etc – which leaves me with the Catholic and Orthodox claims.

            Lastly, that many Catholics ignore the teachings of the Church is, while sad, hardly surprising, and I don’t really see how it shows that the Magisterium is doing a bad job – it can only say what is to be believed, and in a highly individualistic culture, it is not surprising that many do not submit to those teachings. The apologist would probably say in reply to this point though, that at least they know what they are dissenting from! 🙂

          2. Thank you for clarifying that you will accept at least a conceptual distinction between the early Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I have heard far too many Roman Catholic apologists who deny any such distinction, or who (even worse) using such a distinction in their hearers dishonestly by asking them to agree to a statement using only the word “Church,” which a Protestant would readily agree to, and then retrojecting the adjectives “Roman Catholic” and asserting that there is no distinction of any kind. The more I interact with Roman Catholic apologists, the more I understand sixteenth-century critiques of the abuses of papal authority, even though (as my last post hopefully indicates), I am certainly not in the habit of referring to the papacy as the Whore of Babylon.

            Then in response to your statement that we only have the truth through the (early) Church, I think it true in a sense, provided the credit for the early Church handing down that truth is given where it belongs, to God and not to people today who would claim to be the heirs of the early Church. It is, of course, precisely the linkages between the early Church and the modern churches which are debated. And part of what makes me uneasy about saying simply that “we only have the Gospel at all via the Church” is that it imports a very modern abstraction about what the Church is. Christ referred to “my church” in Matt 16:18, but the concept (as opposed to the referent) he omnisciently intended by that phrase is not necessarily the same as what a modern Roman Catholic would mean.

            I think contemporary denominationalism owes a lot to the abstraction of thinking about institutional identity which, as far as I can see, developed primarily in medieval scholastic circles. In the first few centuries, fractures would rarely be expressed in institutional terms, because people did not necessarily think of the Church as an institution. And that is why I do not think it true to say that they thought of the Church as the “source” of the Rule of Faith; to whom within the Church would they ascribe such a thing? Instead, they often thought of the Apostles as the authors of the Rule of Faith. This may seem a subtle distinction, but it is historically necessary and ecclesiologically significant.

            What can you cite in favor of your assertions that “veneration of saints (and their relics) was extremely popular from the start, the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was universally acknowledged, episcopal governance seems to have a very good pedigree, Scripture was never seen as the sole authority”? As it turns out, I accept all of these practices in the present (I mentioned I’m not a very Protestant non-Catholic), but veneration of saints does not appear in the earliest Christian writings (the New Testament), although for the collection of relics I can cite the Martyrdom of Polycarp in the mid-2nd C. The “real presence” of Christ would, on my reading, be implicit in New Testament texts, but people of Zwinglian view read those same New Testament texts differently. I think their reading not as accurate, of course, but that does warn us against taking absence of evidence for evidence of absence in the earlier period. And that’s the rub: for pre-Constantinian Christianity, we have amazingly little evidence, and therefore it is hard enough to say “this is what it looked like” and even harder to say “it did not look like that.” On episcopal governance, while the term episkopos is used in the New Testament, different early churches seem to have interpreted it differently. Ignatius of Antioch argues for a model of one bishop per city, which seems to not have been the case for Philippi when Paul wrote to the Christians there (Phil 1:1, as Jerome already noticed), and a Benedictine monk who teaches at Oxford told me that Alexandria was governed by a council of priests (presbyteroi) until c.200 (like the Presbyterians?), although I don’t recall what evidence he cited. If you can cite additional sources, they would be most welcome.

          3. ‘Christ referred to “my church” in Matt 16:18, but the concept (as opposed to the referent) he omnisciently intended by that phrase is not necessarily the same as what a modern Roman Catholic would mean.’

            Yes, this is true, but I think that what He says there (and also what Saint Paul says in his writings about the Church) have to refer to something that is visible. This ties in with what you say about institutionalism being a modern abstraction, because I have to say I find it hard to imagine a visible Church which isn’t, in some sense, institutional – i.e.; it has to definably be found in some places, and identifiably be the Church in some ways and not others. Or another way of putting it is that when you say that early Christians saw the Apostles as the authors of the Rule of Faith, this is true, but there must have been some identifiable means of that Rule being passed down and preserved, which it is hard to see being done on a model that doesn’t include some representative figures who are able to state authoritatively that this has been done.

            As for the veneration of saints (and relics) being commonplace, I would recommend Peter Brown’s book ‘The Cult of the Saints’ which traces the growth of Christianity by the growth in devotion to holy people, martyrs, relics. There is of course the instance of Saint Polycarp, as you’ve already mentioned, and actually in Acts 19:11-12 we have the following:

            ‘God did extraordinary miracles through Paul, so that when the handkerchiefs or aprons that had touched his skin were brought to the sick, their diseases left them, and the evil spirits came out of them’

            I’d also recommend J. N. D. Kelly’s ‘Early Christian Doctrines’ for a good overall picture, as well as the SPCK Church History series (‘A New Eusebius’ etc). There is also a good treatise on the intercession of saints (as well as some quotations from people in the early Church – though perhaps not as early as you’d like!) here:


            And tracts on the authority of Tradition and the scriptural argument against sola scriptura here:



            On episcopal governance, yes, there is a discrepancy between what Saint Paul writes (also witness Acts 20:17, 28) and what Saint Ignatius experienced, but Paul was writing at a time when the Apostles were still alive, and so we can I think allow for the fact that there was development in this area after they died. This, and the issue of the Real Presence, as well as many other ambiguous aspects of early Church history, of course begs the question – were we left with this ambiguity to figure it out for ourselves, waiting for the next scholarly discovery to help us along, or did Christ put in place a system wherein the truth of the matter might be known with confidence, and traditions passed down faithfully. Hence the importance of ecclesiology again! 🙂

          4. You have interesting intuitions about what is necessary for the Church (namely that it be visible in an unambiguously institutional way). On the apostolic source of the Rule of Faith, you say, “there must have been some identifiable means of that Rule being passed down and preserved, which it is hard to see being done on a model that doesn’t include some representative figures who are able to state authoritatively that this has been done.” What strikes me, looking at earliest Christianity, is precisely the contrary: many Christian authors cite the Rule of Faith without bothering to identify the means by which it was passed down from the apostles. True, a few did trace the intermediaries (such as Hegesippus, whose work does not survive, or Irenaeus, who only traces the lineage of Roman bishops, for a reason which, depending on how one interprets his Latin, is either a strongest early defense of Roman universal jurisdiction or a very clear rejection of it). But even among those who did, they give different lists of intermediaries by which the tradition passed, so evidently the early Christians did not share your sense that “there must have been some identifiable means of that Rule being passed down and preserved.” But perhaps that is what the Roman pope was for in the presence, even if his list of predecessors could not be determined precisely.

            I have read Brown’s Cult of the Saints and discussed these very matters with him. Rather than whole books, I was asking for page numbers. Brown himself argues (as does, I think, Kelly, though I have not read his book) that these phenomena developed at a post-apostolic period, rather than, as you asserted when I asked for citations “from the start.” I agree that Acts 19 shows a use of a material object which would later become commonplace in relic practices (and far removed from Erasmus’s suspicion of all matter, which Calvin inherited to a degree, though Luther did not). I also point to 2 Kings 13:21 to demonstrate that the bones of dead saints can be used by God to perform miracles, and I was pleased to discover that the non-canonical 3 Corinthians cites the same passage. But neither of these passages gives evidence that the material object in question was preserved and venerated as a relic, which I first see in the Martyrdom of Polycarp, which, while really early by our standards now, is still not ‘from the start.”

            Episcopal governance, if my Benedictine teacher was correct, continued to develop long after the apostles’ deaths. Perhaps the most accurate thing to say is that the earliest Christians practiced a variety of different church structures.

            Your comments have given me an idea for another blog post, regarding the common “argument from similarity” to identify which (contemporary) denomination is the “true Church.”

            But my responding to your comments is making my wife nervous (about whether I’ll get done all that I need to during the day), so off I go.

          5. What I was getting at was not that successors of the Apostles had to be listed every time one referred to the Rule of Faith, but rather that there was a general confidence that ‘the Church’ had indeed done so, and that one could also be confident of going to a local church knowing that it was part of this wider, identifiable institution (for want of a better word) and it being continuous with the Church of the Apostles. Which is why, as you say, many cite the Rule of Faith without providing lists of corroboration – it is simply assumed that ‘the Church’ has preserved it.

            Amazing that you got to meet Peter Brown! Are/were you a colleague of his? I’m sorry, I didn’t know you meant actual page references – that might take some time for me to look up! But yes, most of the examples are post-apostolic, and even that data is often scanty, which is why I say it is important that we have some other means to know what the ‘real deal’ is – i.e.; a Church that can speak authoritatively as to whether such and such a tradition has pedigree or not, or whether a given teaching is consonant with the Rule of Faith. From a purely historical point of view, we just can’t know, so we have to ask ourselves whether Jesus left us some other means of knowing.

            I look forward to the follow-up post. The argument from similarity is one that I’ve always found pretty convincing – the image that Newman used is one I’ve always found particularly helpful; he said that he looked at the Catholic Church as it was in his day, and at the early Church, and it seemed as if he were looking at two pictures, one of a man as an old man, and the other as a child (i.e.; they don’t look exactly the same, but there is a definite organic similarity between the two).

            Anyway, I shall leave off now, and my apologies to your wife! 🙂

          6. What strikes me about the “Rule of Faith” passages is that, on the whole, they do not credit this faith to “the Church,” but rather to an authority received by the Church. Tertullian credits the content of the Rule of Faith repeatedly to Christ, without once mentioning the Church in the context around where he used the phrase “Rule of Faith” in Prescription Against Heretics 13. Earlier, Irenaeus in Against Heresies I.10.1-2 described the universal Church as receiving this faith (and then holding onto it faithfully and continuing to proclaim it). Instead, the source of the Rule of Faith is described by Irenaeus at Against Heresies III.1 as the Holy Spirit through the apostles’ preaching, first, and subsequently their writings. Irenaeus does appeal to the succession of priests at AH III.2 and of bishops at AH III.3, and of course AH III.3.2 contains the much contested phrase about the necessity of agreement with the Church of Rome. But let us not lose sight that the point of these successions is to say that the gnostics’ claims of a secret apostolic tradition are spurious, because foreign to the leaders of the churches “throughout the whole world” (AH III.3.1). Irenaeus perhaps comes close to your statement “one could also be confident of going to a local church knowing that it was part of this wider, identifiable institution (for want of a better word) and it being continuous with the Church of the Apostles” at AH III.4.1, where he advises calling in the churches which knew the apostles personally whenever there is a point of significant disagreement, and which he says would be necessary if the apostles had left no writings (but, of course, they did, which seems implicitly to make this advice of Irenaeus beneficial, not necessary). But I find it interesting that his argument against the gnostics immediately again (III.4.2) appeals to the “Christian barbarians” who without scriptures in their own languages hold to the traditional faith they received from the apostles. I do not think this appeal implies that one must find Christians without a translation of the Scripture and ascribe doctrinal authority to them!

            No, not a colleague, just one of many who had benefited from his gracious generosity.

            Here again you bring up the issue of how, since the Ascension, Christ provided for his truth to be known. I do hope to provide my answer to that question at some point, though not today.

            But I would be very grateful for the reference to where in Newman’s writings you refer to! I was thinking I would cite Newman in my post regarding the similarity argument, and that would be a useful passage of Newman to read and reflect upon before I write it.

      2. Yes, I fully agree with what you say about the Rule of Faith as being something the Church receives – I certainly didn’t mean to imply that the Church IS the Rule of Faith itself, merely that it is the Body which, as you say, receives the Apostolic teaching. The only point at which I would differ I suppose is that, given that the Apostles are themselves the foundation of the Church, we do not have to imagine the Rule of Faith they provided being given to something (i.e.; the Church) that is separate from those foundations – the Church is not identical to the Rule of Faith, but the Rule of Faith does come from within the Church. The Church is not only the receptor of the Rule of Faith, but also its birthplace.

        Another passage in Adv.Heresies (III.38.I) should hopefully illustrate (and support) what I mean:

        ‘…through the entire dispensation of God, and that well-founded system which tends to man’s salvation, namely our faith; which, having been received from the Church, we do preserve…For the gift of God has been entrusted to the Church, as breath was to the first created man, for this purpose, that all the members receiving it may be vivified…For in the Church, it is said, God hath set apostles, prophets, teachers, and all the other means through which the Spirit works; of which all those are not partakers who do not join themselves to the Church, but defraud themselves of life through their perverse opinions and infamous behaviour.’

        Obviously, as you say, we must keep in mind that he is writing against the gnostics, but what he has written surely also emphasises the necessity of recognising the Church as a visible Body (and joining oneself to it) in general.

        What Saint Irenaeus says about the ‘Christian barbarians’ receiving the apostolic faith though without the Scriptures is interesting, but personally I do think it implies that the people they received that faith from had to have had some sort of authoritative weight behind them – they couldn’t have just turned up in a place, said what they said, and pointed to themselves as the authority for it – they would have to have referred to where they themselves got the teaching – i.e.; the Church – and presumably invoked its having some sort of authority. Like Saint Augustine said later on, ‘I would not have believed the Gospel myself if the authority of the Catholic Church did not move me to do so.’

        I’m terribly sorry, but I can’t for the life of me find a reference for that Newman quotation. It definitely exists somewhere (and I think in the Apologia, possibly the Essay on Development of Christian Doctrine) as I remember reading it, but I have searched through my copies and online, and cannot locate it. The best I could come up with was this, which makes a similar point:

        ‘I am not sure that I did not also at this time feel the force of another consideration. The idea of the Blessed Virgin was as it were magnified in the Church of Rome, as time went on – but so were all the Christian ideas; as that of the Blessed Eucharist. The whole scene of pale, faint, distant Apostolic Christianity is seen in Rome, as through a telescope or magnifier. The harmony of the whole, however, is of course what it was. It is unfair then to take on Roman idea, that of the Blessed Virgin, out of what may be called its context.’

        This is from the Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1994), pp.180-181, Penguin Classics. He develops these points more later on in the chapter, so if you want to look it up online via the Newman Reader, it is in the section entitled ‘History of My Religious Opinions from 1841 to 1845’.

        Re your next post on the means Christ provided to preserve Truth, I would add that I (though I am not 100% sure whether I am correctly presenting Catholic teaching here) would consider those means to have been put in place in the choosing of the Twelve, and more particularly the promises made to them that we have already discussed. The Ascension and Pentecost are the fulfillment and realisation of those promises, but I would see the foundation of the Church (which I see as the means of preservation) as the election of the Twelve Apostles themselves.

        I look forward to the post! 🙂

        1. Thank you for these passages. It appears that the numbering of chapters in your version of Irenaeus is different from the version I’m using (the online Ante-Nicene Fathers), where I found the passage you cited at III.24.1. Sometimes I wish scholars had adopted a consistent system and then just stuck with it…

          I’m especially grateful for the Irenaeus citation because it also just directed my eye, in the same section, to his famous dictum, “For where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church.” I had seen this attributed to him, but hadn’t seen the citation, and I was anticipating needing this when I explained the patristic basis for my model of ecclesiology later.

          I am no expert on Irenaeus, and perhaps what I’m seeing is an artifact of the translation I’m using, but in perusing these passages of Irenaeus he seems to speak of the Church as a present phenomenon (which we interact with in the present). He certainly doesn’t assert that the apostles were outside the Church, nor would he, but he asserts the order is that the Church(es) received the faith from the apostles so that we can receive it from the Church(es), and he frequently uses the plural instead of the singular. The apparent exception in the passage you quote is because he is quoting the apostle Paul (1 Cor 12:28).

          Oh, I don’t think we need to quibble about foundation dates. A good old-school Calvinist would say Christ founded the Church with Adam, and would speak of the “Old Testament Church.” I don’t think Calvin invented the language, though I don’t have precise citations. But surely, before the Ascension, the apostles were kept in the truth by Christ himself, as he says (John 17:12), so the interesting question is what afterward.

      3. Yes, it would be helpful wouldn’t it! But actually, I have just looked back at the book from which I got the passage, and it provides both citations (the ANCL, which you are using, and Harvey, which reference I just provided) – if I’d paid more attention, there’d have been no problem!

        That Saint Irenaeus often uses the plural ‘churches’ as well I don’t see as an issue really – it is perfectly natural, as there existed (as there exists now) many local churches within the one Church, and it is clear that any given person would have to go to their local church in order to receive the Faith, just for practical reasons (again, as one would today). Just as a clarification though, he is only quoting 1 Corinthians 12 towards the end of the passage – the other uses of the word ‘Church’ are his own. He also refers to it in the singular in I.10,1-2 and III.3,4 – both quite significant passages I think.

        As for the foundation of the Church issue, I only mentioned it just in case it might be relevant for your upcoming post – i.e.; it might perhaps make a difference to one’s ecclesiology if they see the foundation of the Church in the election of the Twelve rather than at Pentecost. But yes, in general, it is not that much of an issue.

        1. Yes, Irenaeus often uses the Church in the singular on his own initiative; what I meant to say was that the only place he mentioned the apostles being part of the Church, among the quotes I’ve looked at, was a quotation from St. Paul. This does not mean he would say the apostles were not part of the Church, but may perhaps indicate that his concept of the Church is primarily present, rather than historical.

      4. Ah okay, I see what you mean. Re Irenaeus not explicitly saying that the Apostles were in the Church apart from that instance, that may well be true, but no I certainly don’t think this means he saw them as being somehow separate from it either – especially given that most times he argues for/describes the Rule of Faith it is with reference to Apostolic Tradition (c.f.; III.3,4). It is almost always implied that the Church, the Apostolic Tradition, and the Rule of Faith are deeply intertwined

        As for his seeing the Church as something present rather than historical, firstly as I’ve just said he often refers back to its roots, and uses the historical dimension to validate its existence in the present. Secondly, I’m not sure what relevance his focusing on the Church as a present reality has – of course he would refer to it is a present reality, but that by no means excludes the historical aspect; rather it presupposes it. I don’t think one needs to be set up over against the other.

        1. In both cases I’m not arguing for antithesis. I’m just trying to pay very close attention to his language, so that we might get at what he means before imposing our own 21st century understandings on a 2nd century author. If he distinguishes (but does not separate) the apostles and the Church, typically using “the Church” to refer to the present reality, then he would be unlikely to say that the Church is the source of the Rule of Faith, even if it is “now” (in his day as in ours) where one turns to learn it. This is an important distinction precisely at the point where Protestants and Roman Catholics disagree, regarding the relationship between apostolic revelation and subsequent ecclesiastical tradition, and that is why I am noting very small details of the use of language. I’m not saying that Protestants are right and Roman Catholics are wrong on this point; I think both sides have understood certain aspects of the early Christian tradition, and I understand the early Christian tradition better when I listen to both sides (in addition to the perspectives of eastern Christianity, of course). My goals are mostly limited and self-seeking, on the whole. 🙂

      5. I see what you are trying to do here yes, but it still does seem to me like the distinction you are making leads to a separation between the Church in its foundations and the Church in the time Saint Irenaeus was writing. For instance, when you say:

        ‘If he distinguishes (but does not separate) the apostles and the Church, typically using “the Church” to refer to the present reality, then he would be unlikely to say that the Church is the source of the Rule of Faith, even if it is “now” (in his day as in ours) where one turns to learn it.’

        I don’t think Saint Irenaeus (or any other of the Church Fathers for that matter) would see the distinction you are making, or if they did, they would see it as a denial of the reality that the present Church (which preserves and passes on the Rule of Faith) is the same thing, the same Body, as its foundations. In fact, the corporeal language Saint Paul uses to describe the Church is I think highly suggestive of this continuous relationship.

        This, I would submit, is perhaps the central difference between Catholic and Protestant conceptions of the Church – Catholics see apostolic tradition and subsequent ecclesiastical tradition as part of the same organism, and thus tend to see attempts to distinguish between ‘the apostolic faith’ and ‘the Church’ as a bit strange 🙂

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