The Trinity and Us

Now that I have written five thousand words about why I think the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is a true and biblical description of the One God, someone might wish to ask me, “What difference does it make?”  Sure, traditional Christian orthodoxy (held today by evangelical and conservative Protestants of all denominations, traditional Roman Catholics, and most Eastern and Oriental Orthodox) believes in the Trinity, while Oneness Pentecostals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Unitarians, liberals (both Protestant and Roman Catholic), and Muslims do not.  But is that just an interesting and incidental detail, along the lines of different traditions of church decoration?  Or is it relevant to how Christians live out their faith in practice?  Does this Trinitarian theology matter?

I think it does matter, and it matters a lot.  Now, I will readily grant up front that it does not seem to matter to many Christians, who live out their lives with scarcely a thought regarding Trinitarian vs. Unitarian doctrine.  But I think it does matter, and ought to matter a great deal to Christian life and faith. (more…)

Basic Ecclesiology: Unity and Plurality

As I have argued that ecclesiology matters, we might then ask what we ought to believe about the Church.  So I thought I might lay out a few basic ecclesiological ideas in a series of short(er) posts.  Of course, our ideas about the Church tend first to be informed by our experience of actual churches, and what we like or dislike about them, and only secondarily (or tertiarily) consult the Bible or any reputable theological source.  But God’s revelation is always there to challenge us, just as Apollos was challenged by Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26, to think better about the subject.

The first point is that there are multiple churches, and yet there is one Church.  The Church is simultaneously singular and plural. (more…)

Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)

Fighting Truth Decay

This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?”  Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven.  So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.

Clarifying the Problem

What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”?  In what ways is Truth not preserved?  Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies.  Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted.  Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people.  A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs.  Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief.  And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger.  But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths.  And thus true beliefs need to be preserved.  The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth.  The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption.  In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)

Obligatory Ecumenism

A friend at another blog linked to an important article about ecumenism, which I wanted to discuss here.

(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it.  Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)

I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6).  Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew.  After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish?  At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians.  The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real).  The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us.  I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer).  And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people.  (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.)  Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being.  And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you.  Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.

But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7.  Ecumenism is not optional.  In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).   Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we?  This was exactly my experience.  Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?”  But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!).  I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have.  But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe.  Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact.  Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.


Most people assume that they know what the word “Catholic” means, but in fact, it means several different things.  Some of the more common meanings are:

1. “Not Protestant.”  The Anglophone world has been dominated by Protestant varieties of Christianity for almost half a millennium, and for much of that time “Catholic” has been used as a denominational label, on a par with “Lutheran” and “Baptist.”  Of course, there are many Christians who are neither Protestant nor Catholic (I’m not thinking of Anglican proponents of a via media here, but rather thinking of Greek and Russian Orthodox, as well as Arab, Syrian, Coptic, and Assyrian branches of Christianity).

2. “Christians who like sacraments, candles, high liturgy with colorful vestments, incense, praying to saints, ecclesiastical hierarchy, and medieval theologians.”  The advantage of this definition is that it is at least positive instead of simply a rejection of Protestantism.  This is the meaning of “Catholic” in the phrase “Anglo-Catholic,” which refers to Anglicans with a fondness for “smells & bells.”  But again, many of these elements (with a different selection of medieval theologians) would characterize varieties of Eastern Christianity.

3. “Part of the Christian denomination presided over by the Roman Pope.”  This excludes both Anglo-Catholics and sede vacantists, the latter being traditionalist Roman Catholics who feel that the recent popes have deviated from traditional Catholic teaching and therefore are not valid popes.  (The name comes from the Latin sede vacante, meaning “while the [papal] throne is vacant.”)  Although a narrower definition than the preceding two, it is not necessarily that much more precise, as there are a variety of ways to define membership in the Roman Catholic Church.  The church hierarchy itself reports membership numbers which include all those baptized into the denomination, regardless of whether they still attend mass or profess to believe any aspect of doctrine, although some rigorists would exclude such nominal Catholics from their definition.

4. “The true Christian Church founded by Christ, present wherever true Christians are.”  This sense of “Catholic” opposes it to “schismatic,” people in a particular locale or region who break away from all Christians elsewhere.  This is the sense in which Augustine used the term in his writings in the 4th and 5th centuries (he certainly didn’t use the term to mean “non-Protestant”!), and is the sense in which Protestants and Orthodox as well as Catholics recite the Nicene Creed’s confession of “one holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.”  It would be strange indeed for non-Roman Catholics to recite a creed saying, “I believe there is one true Church over there, and I am not part of it.”

5. In the phrases “Catholic truth” or “Catholic teaching,” it refers to teaching that is universally held among Christians, as opposed to distinctive beliefs of Christians in one area or one group.  Vincent of Lérins offered what has become the most widely accepted definition of “Catholic” in this sense: “What is believed everywhere, always, and by all.”  Of course, universals always require a scope, which Vincent does not make explicit, but “everywhere” and “always” should of course be taken to mean wherever and whenever there were Christians.  “By all” is trickier, because Vincent would presumably not have included heretics such as gnostics or schismatics such as Novatianists in his category of “all,” but if one narrows the category too much then “by all” becomes tautological: any belief is believed by all who believe it.

The contentious question, then, is what these different senses of the term “Catholic” refer to.  Basically everyone agrees that senses #1 and #2 are larger than #3 (this is empirically verifiable).  Between the Council of Trent (the Roman papacy’s answer to the Protestant Reformation) and the First Vatican Council (1868-1870), the Roman Catholic party line was that senses #3-5 simply refer to the same group of people.  They interpreted the patristic doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus (“outside of the Church no one is saved”) as referring to the Roman Catholic Church specifically, in keeping with the teaching of Pope Boniface VIII (d. 1303) in his bull Unam Sanctam that submission to the Pope was absolutely necessary for salvation.  On this view, all true Christians were within the Roman Catholic Church (although the converse did not hold: those within the Roman Catholic Church were not necessarily true Christians), and “Catholic truth” was that body of doctrine taught by “all” the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church, i.e. the magisterium.  Protestants were ipso facto condemned.

Meanwhile Protestants took a few different lines.  Protestant theologians all (or almost all) asserted that they were part of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church,” which required explaining “catholic” differently than loyalty to the pope.  Since the papacy rejected almost all of the reforms proposed by Protestants, many Protestants viewed senses #3 and #4 above as mutually exclusive, although some followed Luther in allowing for a little overlap.  The lack of a unified anti-papal organization distinguished the notion of a “Catholic Church” in this sense from an institutional unity, so that shared doctrine as indicated in sense #5 became more important as a definition of Christian unity and the key to recognizing good Christians who belong to other denominations.

Eastern Orthodox (and Oriental Orthodox and the Church of the East) had long earlier concluded that submission to the Roman pope was not the defining character of the Church of Christ, and they too continue to confess into their creed that they are part of the Catholic Church.  There are different self-governing ecclesiastical hierarchies among both the Eastern Orthodox (Greek, Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Rum Orthodox, Georgian, etc.)  and Oriental Orthodox (Armenian, Syrian, Coptic, Ethiopic), so they too concluded that one or another hierarchy was not as important as orthodox doctrine and sacramental unity (shared communion), although they do emphasize the visible unity of the church and the apostolic succession of the bishops to a greater degree than Protestants.  It is obvious to anyone who knows Greek that the term “catholic” comes from καθ’ ὅλην ἐκκλήσιαν (“according to the whole church”) or ἡ καθ’ ὅλην γῆν ἐκκλήσια (“the church in all the land”), and makes no mention of the pope or hierarchy; “catholic doctrine” in sense #5 was understood to refer to “ecumenical councils,” that is, councils which (at least notionally) involved the entirety of the Church and whose decisions were accepted by the Church.

With the modern ecumenical movement, many Protestants dropped the requirement of shared doctrine from their definition of the Catholic (i.e. universal) Church, and have recognized other Christians with whom they have larger theological disagreements.  On this model, sense #3 of “Catholic” describes a part of the group indicated by sense #4.  On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church at Vatican II adopted as dogma the negation of Pope Boniface VIII’s requirement: it is not absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pontiff.  (This has caused conservative Catholic sources I have looked at to resolve the tension by arguing one of the following: (1) Unam Sanctam does not in fact fulfill the requirements of the Vatican I definition of papal infallibility, (2) Unam Sanctam does not mean that it is absolutely necessary for salvation to be in submission to the Roman pope, or (3) Vatican II and subsequent popes are apostates and not true Catholics).  Instead, Christians and even non-Christians of good will can be saved.  The doctrine extra ecclesia nulla salus has been reinterpreted to mean that all who are saved are in some sense (without knowing it) spiritually connected to and dependent upon the Roman Catholic Church, even if they reject and repudiate the Roman Catholic Church they know (although perhaps they can’t be virtuous enough for salvation if they reject it too vociferously).  On this view, the Roman Catholic Church (sense #3 of “Catholic”) is still the one and only universal Church (sense #4 of “Catholic”), but now both definitions have significant footnotes: the Roman Catholic Church is held to have this non-visible wing of people who are evidently outside of it but mystically inside of it, and some of them are probably Christians of other denominations (which are not therefore, as denominations, other churches or other parts of the sense #4 “Catholic” Church).  Sense #5 is still understood to be the teaching of the Roman Magisterium, although it is progressively more difficult to interpret all the various teachings throughout the ages consistently, and so some, such as Pope Boniface VIII’s Unam Sanctam, get quietly neglected.

“Ecumenical” is still a dirty word among many Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Christians, although their participation in the World Council of Churches has helped them see commonalities across Christological divisions.

Is the Roman Catholic Church the Catholic Church?  Is the Pope Catholic?  Depending upon whom you ask, the answers will vary.  But in light of varying meanings of the term “Catholic,” it is important in our ecumenical discussions not to equivocate, but to distinguish the different senses of the term, even for those of us who believe there is a common referent.