The Church is my mother…

But who exactly is my mother?

The following is what began as a comment on the Pontificator’s blog in response to some discussion about John Henry Cardinal Newman. As always, I welcome all edifying comments (via Haloscan or email).

The Pontificator on Newman:

The Church is constituted as one kingdom because she speaks with the voice of Christ to whom all may unconditionally submit in good conscience. … At some point Newman became convinced that since God had acted in history for the salvation of the world and had appointed Apostles to communicate this saving message to mankind, it is plausible, and indeed intrinsically probable, that he also would have created a divinely inspired and guided community that would faithfully, reliably, and authoritatively communicate this original revelation to subsequent generations. This would need to be a community that could speak and act in the name of Christ and with his authority. This would need to be a community that could rightly bind the consciences of her members. And therefore this would need to be a community that God would protect from grievous error in her dogmatic formulations of the divine revelation. Thus Newman’s famous dictum in Development of Doctrine: “A revelation is not given, if there be no authority to decide what it is that is given.”

It is considerations like these that make Newman’s views so interesting for me. I’m deeply impressed by (as Ian Ker explains it) Newman’s pious gravity towards the biblical notion of a messianic KINGDOM. One of Newman’s earliest and strongest intentions was that emphasizing the messianic, spiritual character of the Church hardly detracts from its royal structure. It is well and good to pray for the Kingdom of GOD, but Newman’s biblical view of the Church reminds me I am praying for the KINGDOM of God. And every kingdom but a chaos has a king, ranking princes, generals, laws and a living tribunal. As the Syrian Father, Aphraates the Sage (c. AD 330) said, “David handed over the Kingdom to Solomon and was gathered to his people; and Jesus handed over the Keys to Simon and ascended and returned to Him Who sent Him” (Aphraates, xxi, 13). Or as St. Macarius of Egypt (c. A.D. 371) said, “Moses was succeeded by Peter, who had committed to his hands the new Church of Christ, and the true priesthood” (Macarius, Hom. xxvi. n. 23, p. 101).

As this thread shows, Newman’s treatment of the patristic record (based on an astounding almost-encyclopedic knowledge of it) is constantly being disputed, by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants. Any way anyone reads him, though, should be willing to applaud him for approaching the Scriptures with a deeply patristic mind. And yet one, balancing factor I think it’s important to realize is how Newman’s dyed-in-the-wool Anglican instincts always led him to approach the Fathers with a deeply biblical mind. In this sense, I think Newman walks a peculiar line between the complaints of Orthodox about sola scriptura and Protestants about tradition. He suits the taste of every Orthodox by reading (or at least attempting to read) the Scriptures in, with, and under the Fathers (“patristic consubstantiation”?). And yet he also must tickle the fancy of any Protestant for daring to hold the Fathers themselves to the standard of the biblical, which is to say messianic, which is to say Davidic, vision of a true Kingdom established at Calvary, growing ever since like a body or a tree (cf. Eph 4:11ff. and Mth 13:31ff.), and capable of marshalling troops with one clear voice to the next battle on any section of the front. He simultaneously “subjects” the Scriptures to the Tradition and the Tradition to the Scriptures. In both cases, the submersion of one in the other actually draws out their deepest truths. In the case of Scripture-in/under-Tradition, Newman, like all catholic Christians, sought the continuous voice of God’s Word in the Church. In the case of Tradition-in/under-Scripture, however, Newman, like all biblical Christians, delivered the Tradition to its true messianic-regal telos in Christ the King and in His ranking apostolic princes.

Of course, as enchanting and invigorating as this would-be-précis of Newman is (for me, leastaways!), the cold reality is we must all stake our claim with the one true Church. And one of the issues I’ve been wrestling with for some time – all recent notorious debates about the patristic record aside – is which Christian body has the fullness, the unmitigated “biblicalness”, to walk and talk like a real KINGDOM waiting for its king to return? What Christian body has anything like a monarchial apostolic throne – let alone a royal capital city, a Christian Jerusalem, serving like a beacon for the coming of the Messiah’s New Jerusalem? What Christian body dips into the royal “treasury” (and so very “indulgently”) as if it truly were blessed “with every blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3; [Grk. eulogia, “bounty”])? What other Christian body has striven so arduously for so long in so many ways to put off the old nature, CHANGE into the new nature at both the devotional and structural levels, and be renewed into the image of its sovereign Creator (cf. Col. 3:9ff.)?

Believe me or not, these questions aren’t meant to have obvious knock-down answers. Maybe Orthodoxy really does say “Yes” to them better. Maybe Calvinism does. Maybe the Coptics do. But, as anyone familiar with my journey knows, it’s extremely hard for ME to see and say “Yes” to the biblical-royal nature of the Kingdom outside the Roman Catholic Church, with all its “bizarre” talk of the thesaurum meritorium, vicarius Christi, etc. Indeed, the Catholic Church is the only Church that, in my blinkered eyes, has the “balls” to dogmatize the fruit of that old saw, “Lex orendi, lex credendi.” On the one hand, why pray to and honor the Theotokos in worship as “immaculate” unless it is an apostolic truth? On the other hand, why anathematize the dogma if such an anathema has never been decreed by a council?

Indeed, if Aphraates and Macarius are right (and I myself hesitate to flout their word), how is a view of Peter as first among equals reconciled with a view of, say, Moses or David as a first among equals? If the OT people of God were (truly but dimly) led by Christ UNDER Moses and the Judges (cf. 1 Cor 10:1ff. and Jdg. 2:6ff.), how is it so hard to imagine that we, the NT people of God, follow Him (truly and now brightly) UNDER the bishops, as the new judges, and UNDER Peter as the new Moses? When did we, the popula peregrina Dei, cease to need an ordained earthly headship in the divine celestial Headship of Christ? This is Newman’s great vision, which in fact is the pulse of his supposedly “academic” theory of development.

Allow me to return to the images I alluded to in Matthew 13:31ff. I’m simply arrested by Jesus’ images of the Kingdom as a tree and as yeast. According to Him, the true Church of the kingdom of God – His called-out people – grows and changes to absorb and shelter the wild fullness of the natural world. According to Jesus, the Kingdom Church pervades the world and in fact only reaches its proper constellation – of yeast grain to yeast grain – AS and WITH the growth of the whole world (i.e., baked rising of the whole loaf). As renowned Evangelical-turned-Catholic Thomas Howard puts it, “Everyone is here.” There is an almost reckless, frenzied impulse toward incarnation in the Catholic Church. It is ridiculously culturally diverse and yet remarkably doctrinally unified. It is stupefyingly vast in its devotions and yet remarkably unified in its liturgy. It is breathtakingly abstract in its theology and yet almost embarrassingly simple in its local piety.

Ill be the first to admit I suffer from countless blind spots and errors about theology, soteriology, sacramentology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, patrology, history, philosophy and all the rest, but I have no illusions about how deplorable MANY Catholic believers, priests, bishops, parishes and even whole dioceses are. I’m not in it for the good co-workers and great staff, though. I’m simply trying to enter the Kingdom of God. I am not trying to be coy or brilliant or snide. I am just trying to be obedient. May God have mercy on me that the Roman Church (with all its many non-Roman rites!) is the only Christian outpost that even appears to combine “the four marks” of the Church AND the marks of a real kingdom.

In closing, I commend to you Henri de Lubac’s, SJ, superb meditation on the Church, “The Church: From Paradox to Mystery”. God bless you.

About The Codgitator (a cadgertator)

Catholic convert. Quasi-Zorbatic. Freelance interpreter, translator, and web marketer. Former ESL teacher in Taiwan (2003-2012) and former public high school teacher (2012-2014). Married father of three. Multilingual, would-be scholar, and fairly consistent fitness monkey. My research interests include: the interface of religion and science, the history and philosophy of science and technology, ancient and medieval philosophy, and cognitive neuroscience. Please pray for me.
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