Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Where in the World is the Church? - Part II: The Visible Church

In our last post we looked at the Protestant doctrine of the Invisible Church, noting that the Reformed understanding of ecclesiastical authority either gives rise to, or emerges from, its view that the church is primarily invisible.

Now if it is true of Geneva that church authority is bound up in whether that church is visible or invisible, it is even more profoundly true of Rome. You see, we Protestants could actually withstand a slight tweaking of our ecclesiology while still maintaining our view of authority, but the Catholic view of authority is so utterly and absolutely dependent on the visible nature of the church, together with its insistence upon unbroken, apostolic succession, that any modification would be a disaster of epic proportions.

Please do not miss this crucial point. Rome's entire case for why they alone have the authority to speak in Christ's Name hangs upon the single issue of apostolic succession, and, arguing in the opposite direction, if there is a single break in the chain of succession from Simon bar-Jonah to Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI), then any reason to give the slightest heed to anything the Catholic Church says, according to her own testimony, immediately vanishes (at which point she, like her separated brethren, must stand or fall on the faithfulness of her exegesis alone). Or to put it more simply, Sola Scriptura would be true....

In a word, the visibility of the church is for Rome the true articulus stantis et cadentis ecclesiae. And if on this point she stands, she truly may stand proudly. But if she falls, how great will be her fall!

Not being anything even remotely close to a patristics expert, I will defer to those here at De Regnis Duobus who, from either side, have weighed in on this issue. From the Catholic side we have heard it proclaimed with all certitude that the list of Roman Bishops, provided by St. Irenaeus of Lyons, is completely and historically accurate: Peter appointed Linus, who appointed Cletus, who appointed Clement, who appointed Evaristus, who appointed Alexander, who appointed Sixtus, who appointed Telesphorus, who appointed Hyginus, who appointed Pius, who appointed Anicetus, who appointed Soter, who appointed Eleutherius, who served as bishop of Rome at the time of Irenaeus's death.

But we have also heard from the Protestant side that the primacy of the Roman bishoprick was a matter of political and practical expediency that did not manifest itself until the latter half of the second century, meaning that no Christian in Rome in, say, 140 AD would have had a clue about the supposed sacred chair of Pope St. Peter. Furthermore, we have heard that the need for unbroken succession in order to establish Rome's control over the church was felt so accutely that the list of bishops was fabricated in order to secure such control.

So who's right?