True Church

Paul McCain quotes Hermann Sasse on Lutheran ecclesiology:

Lutheran theology […] lays great emphasis on the fact that the evangelical church is none other than the medieval Catholic Church purged of certain heresies and abuses. The Lutheran theologian acknowledges that he belongs to the same visible church to which Thomas Aquinas and Bernard of Clairvaux, Augustine and Tertullian, Athanasius and Irenaeus once belonged. The orthodox evangelical church is the legitimate continuation of the medieval Catholic Church, not the church of the Council of Trent and the [First] Vatican Council which renounced evangelical truth when it rejected the Reformation. For the orthodox evangelical church is really identical with the orthodox Catholic Church of all times.

We need have no fear of claiming the word catholic (I think it very silly to bend over backwards trying to avoid saying the word catholic in the creeds of the Church, but the practice seems ubiquitous). Sasse claims that, in contrast to the nature of the Lutheran church, ‘the very nature of the Reformed [c]hurch emphasizes its strong opposition to the medieval church’, but it seems that John Williamson Nevin at least thought otherwise:

The oak of a hundred years, and the acorn from which it has sprung, are the same life. All that we behold in the oak, lay hid originally in the acorn from the start. So too the human world all slept originally in the common root of the race. Adam was not simply a man, like others since born; but he as the man, who comprehended in himself all that has since appeared in other men. Humanity as a whole resided in his person. He was strictly and truly the world. Through all ages, man is organically one and the same. And parallel with this precisely is the constitution of the Church. The second Adam corresponds in all respects with the first. He is not a man merely, an individual belonging to the race; but he is the man, emphatically the Son of Man, comprising in his person the new creation, or humanity recovered and redeemed, as a whole. Whatever the Church becomes in the way of development, it can never be more in fact than it was in him from the beginning. Its life is not multiplied nor extended in quantity, by its growth. Christ is the root of the Church; and to the end of time it can include no more in its proper life, however widely distributed, than what is included in the root itself.[1]

As for the Anabaptists, I have no words for their iconoclastic ecclesiology. The true Church lives and has never fallen to the gates of Hell. Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by word, or our epistle. Thus, wrote Sasse, ‘It was no mere ecclesiastico-political diplomacy which dictated the emphatic assertion in the Augsburg Confession that the teachings of the Evangelicals were identical with those of the orthodox Catholic Church of all ages, and no more was it romanticism or false conservatism which made our church anxious to retain as much of the old canonical law as possible, and to cling tenaciously to the old forms of worship.’

History matters to the transmission and continuance and growth of life. To take only Acts as a model, rather than to look also to the Church as she grew in late antiquity and the Middle Ages, is to demand fully-formed maturity without growth, a tree instantly sprung from a seed, a mutant. They who try to fight while cut off from the root (by denying it themselves) are heartless hinds.[2] The ramifications (no bilingual pun intended, honest) extend to hymnody, to the Church of England’s claim of episcopal polity being to the well-being of the Church,[3] and to ritual and ceremonial being retained in the Church from elder days, among other things. In various areas of our theology and practice, the Church between the apostolic era and the Reformation has voices for us to hear.


[1] ‘Catholic Unity’, delivered 1844. For the sacramental aspect of the same idea, complete with acorn analogy, read Real Union or Legal Fiction?, on John Williamson Nevin’s controversy with Charles Hodge over mystical union and the imputation of Adam’s sin.

[2] From Romeo and Juliet 1.1.60. Heartless hinds: (a) ‘spiritless (or cowardly) menials’; (b) ‘hartless hinds’: female deer without a male.

[3] From the Preface to the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer (1662): ‘It is evident unto all men diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles’ time there have been these Orders of Ministers in Christ’s Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons. Which Offices were evermore had in such reverend Estimation, that no man might presume to execute any of them, except he were first called, tried, examined, and known to have such qualities as are requisite for the same; and also by publick Prayer, with Imposition of Hands, were approved and admitted thereunto by lawful Authority. And therefore, to the intent that these Orders may be continued, and reverently used and esteemed in the Church of England, no man shall be accounted or taken to be a lawful Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, in the Church of England, or suffered to execute any of the said Functions, except he be called, tried, examined, and admitted thereunto, according to the Form hereafter following, or hath had Episcopal Consecration, or Ordination.’


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