12 October, 2009

Provisional Statement on Catholicity (Revised 23.10.09)

The following is a provisional statement on catholicity for the purposes of this blog that I am posting here for readers' comments and suggested improvements. I also posted it on my main blog, Glosses From An Old Manse (link at bottom of page); should the discussion be light here it may well be that it is happening over there.Thanks in anticipation for your input!

The word 'catholic' simply means universal or according to the whole
(Greek: kat'holikos). Catholicity is an attribute of the church in two senses. Primarily the church is catholic because its message, the Gospel, is intended for the whole human race. Secondly, the church is catholic because Christ, the Saviour of the whole world, is present with her, and from him the church has received the means of delivering his salvation to the world, the Gospel, which comes to human beings through the Word, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. Fundamentally, the Gospel is the Good News of what Christ has done for humankind in his life, death and, resurrection, but implicit in this Gospel message is Christian teaching or doctrine, which has universal testimony, validity and relevance, and it is this aspect of catholicity that this website will focus on. Early in the church's history, 'catholic' as a descriptor for the church came to refer to those who taught 'according to the whole' teaching of the church revealed by God to the prophets and apostles and recorded in the scriptures, as opposed to the heretics who represented factions who separated themselves from the church and its teaching.

The following is an attempt to define what is catholic for the purposes of this blog.

1. The Scripture Principle. To be catholic a statement or practise must be scriptural - "we believe, teach and confess that the sole rule and standard according to which all dogmas together with all teachers should be estimated and judged are the prophetic and apostolic scriptures of the Old and New Testaments alone, as it is written in Psalm 119:105 "Thy Word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path". And St Paul says in Galatians 1:8, "Even if an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." [Formula of Concord, Epitome, 1]

This does not mean that an explicit scriptural warrant is required for every statement or practise deemed catholic, since some aspects of doctrine are drawn by logical and necessary inference from scripture (e.g. infant baptism).

2. The Gospel Principle. To be catholic a statement or practise must be consonant with the basic message of the Gospel, that is, that our sins are forgiven and we are justified before God for the sake of Christ, who by his death made full and complete satisfaction for our sins(see Romans chs. 3 & 4; the Augsburg Confession, Art IV). Any statement or practise that contradicts God's Gospel by advocating justification by works in whole or in part can self-evidently not be catholic.

This does not mean that every statement or practise deemed catholic must give the most perfect expression possible to the Gospel, only that it is consonant with the Gospel.

3. The Historical Principle. The study of church history teaches us that, under God's mysterious providence, and for his own good purposes, the impact of the Gospel in the world appears to have waxed and waned at various times and in various places. At times, the light of the Gospel, even within Christendom, has been darkened, though never completely extinguished. Even in such times, people were saved by clinging to God's Gospel.

The study of church history also teaches us that, under God's providence, the church's understanding of Holy Scripture and the Gospel has unfolded over time, often as different crises within Christendom have engaged the church's attention. Such insights do not represent new doctrines, but rather the deeper understanding of the doctrine (teaching) set forth in the prophetic and apostolic scriptures. This doctrine runs through the church's history like a golden thread through a tapestry, always present, though with differing degrees of brilliance in different times and places. It is this thread which we term 'catholicity' in its doctrinal aspect and which we seek to trace.

This means that statements and practises under examination must be evaluated with due reference to the historical position and prevailing culture of the writer and his local church at the time, although the Scripture and Gospel principles must ultimately prevail.

We confess that the Lutheran Reformation brought forth a deeper and clearer appreciation for and understanding of the Gospel and its application to the Christian life than had hitherto existed (except among the Apostles), which appreciation finds doctrinal expression in the Lutheran confessional writings. However, it should not be expected that God's people who lived and wrote before the Reformation will use exactly the same language or terminology as the Reformation Fathers.
Also, many expressions of genuine catholicity can be found to have emanated from outside the Lutheran communion since the Reformation, sometimes through felicitous inconsistency, sometimes through a positive grasp of Gospel truth set forth in Scripture, and such are welcomed here as true evidences of catholicity of doctrine.
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