The primitive unity

[Chapter 1 of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.11-17]

[11] It is inevitable that in trying to understand the problems which arise from our divisions we should look back to the primitive unity created by our Lord, and ask what sort of unity this was. It consisted not only in unity of organisation or in the promise of a world-wide universality, nor yet in the bond of charity: it consisted rather in a whole via vitae which included belief, worship and morals. It is often remembered that in the seventeenth chapter of St John our Lord prayed for the unity of His disciples: it is sometimes forgotten, however, in our modern discussions that this prayer for their unity was linked with His prayer for their sanctification in the truth: ‘Sanctify them in Thy truth; Thy word is truth’. The unity of Christians, coming as it does from the unity of the Father and the Son, is interwoven with their sanctification in the truth which our Lord delivers.

The unity, in all its aspects, has sprung directly out of the entrance of God into human history in the eschatological event of Redemption. This event includes the age-long preparation of Israel for the Messiah. It has its centre in His birth, life, death and resurrection. It includes no less the Church which is His Body, and the Spirit who through this Body brings into the world the powers of the age to come. It is vital in our belief that the Church is a part of the eschatological event, and a Divine fact. For the essence of the Church is our Lord, who is both the summing-up of the old Israel, and the head of the new Israel. Thus the members of the Church do not constitute the unity themselves: rather they are brought into a unity which is there already. In the words of Archbishop Frederick Temple:

Men speak as if Christians came first and the Church after: as if the origin of the Church was in the wills of the individuals who composed it. But, on the contrary, throughout the teaching of the Apostles, we see it is the Church that comes first and the members of it afterwards … In the New Testament … the Kingdom of Heaven is already in existence, and men are invited into it. The Church takes its origin, not in the will of man, but in the will of the Lord Jesus Christ … Everywhere men are called in: they do not come in and make the Church by coming. They are called into that which already exists: they are recognised as members when they are within; but [11/12] their membership depends on their admission, and not upon their constituting themselves into a body in the sight of the Lord’. (from the Sermon: Catholicity and Individualism, preached at the consecration of Truro Cathedral.)

This unity is complex, and shows itself on many levels:

(i) The ‘wholeness’ which reaches its full expression in the New Testament is apparent already in the Old. The Old Testament is not one-sidedly prophetic or priestly; it is both these, and is also deeply concerned with the king, being interested in the whole of the national life, and not only with its religious aspect. Hence the Law deals with agricultural, sanitary, legal and social matters as well as with ethics, external religion, and the spiritual service of God; prophets denounce the oppression of the poor as well as idolatry. God is the Creator of the whole world, as well as the Redeemer of Israel. Hence also, all created things are called upon to join with man in praising God who made them; and when the doctrine of a true future life appears, it is a doctrine of the resurrection of the body, not of an immortality of the soul apart from the body.

This many-sidedness is preserved when the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New, and it is in part for this reason that the Old Testament has been retained and used by the Church; thus, for instance, the duality of Creation and Redemption, learnt by Israel under the Old Covenant, becomes applicable in the Church to all nations. This many-sidedness, immensely deepened when the Old Testament is thus fulfilled in the Church, gives rise, as we shall see a little later, to a number of violent tensions.

(ii) The ‘wholeness’ manifests itself in this world in a visible Church. In the Old Testament Israel is a visible society–unworthy, often disobedient, provoking God’s judgment, yet still God’s chosen people. In the New Testament the Church, which is the new Israel, is equally a visible society. Membership in the Church is indeed no guarantee of ultimate salvation: many who are now within the Church may be lost, and many now outside it may be saved. Yet the apostolic writers cling to the paradox that the Church both is the Body of Christ, and also consists of sinful and fallible members. However corrupt the Christians may be, St Paul does not tell them that on account of their sins they do not belong to the ‘real’ Church composed only of the truly faithful. The Corinthians are desperately unworthy, and yet are ‘elect saints’ and members of the Body of Christ.

In the New Testament there is a looking-forward to the glorious Church of the future. But it and the imperfect Church of the present are one thing. The heavenly Church of the Age to Come will not take the place of the present visible Church. It is the Church that now is, [12/13] that then will be. Then the Christians will have fully become what already they are. We are partakers of Christ, provided that we hold fast the beginning of our confidence firm unto the end (Hebrews, iii, 14). The unity of the Church and the sanctification of the individual are already given: their context is that of eschatology not of evolution, of growth and not of progress. Hence it is a distortion of the apostolic doctrine to say that men are first united to Christ, through faith, within an invisible society of the truly faithful, and then find admission to the visible Church. The right order is not: Christ–faithful individuals–the Church; but: Christ–the Church–faithful individuals. It is Christ-in-His-Body who justifies men, and their justification is their deliverance into His Body. The visible Church is a part of the Gospel: there is no Scriptural sanction for the view that the Gospel is something that is complete without the Church, and that the Church is a further stage that follows after the acceptance of the Gospel.

(iii) The ‘wholeness’ of the visible Church manifests itself in its outward order. In more ways than one the apostolic theology indicates this. The modern tendency is to make a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the bodily: this is alien to Biblical thought. To receive the Spirit is to belong to the Body, whose several organs are a very part of it, representing diversities of office amongst its members. Further, the frequent emphasis laid by the apostolic writers upon the principle of subordination is significant: the mutual submission of the members of the Church one to another in respect of their diverse offices is a part of their submission to the rule of God in the pattern of the new Creation.

Among the diversities of office the apostolate is unique. The apostles were commissioned by our Lord, and had authority to rule, to teach and to ordain in the new Israel–representing Him who is King, Shepherd and High-priest. They were integral to the existence of the new Israel. They were the authorised eye-witnesses of the original events of the Gospel; but otherwise their functions remain in their successors–namely to teach, to rule, and to ordain in the name of Christ and of the whole Church.

(iv) This many-sided ‘wholeness’ of the primitive Church embodies itself no less plainly in the Christian rite of Initiation. In the Church there are no ‘grades’ of advancing spiritual knowledge and privilege, as in the Greek ‘Mysteries’. A single rite (combining two momenta of salvation, later distinguished as ‘Baptism’ and ‘Confirmation’, but originally regarded as normally inseparable) brought the Catechumen by one and the same Divine action to the Fatherhood of God and the Body of Christ and the vivification by the Spirit and the fellowship of the earthly Church. It refashioned him by regeneration and inaugurated in him that ‘eternal life’ by which the Christian [13/14] already lives even in this world. It elicited and expressed his response to the offer of Redemption by the wholehearted act of faith involved in the renunciation of the devil and the pagan world and the acceptance of the Creed. It was the ‘New Creation’ of the son of fallen Adam afresh in the Image of God according to the Second Adam, bestowing at once remission of sins, illumination, and the moral power to lead the new life. In itself and by itself it made the Christian one of the laos or ‘People of God’, with all the high privileges and the eternal destiny which that involves, opening to him the whole offer of Christian salvation on precisely the same terms as to the Apostles themselves. In whatever local Church it was received, by whatever local variety of orthodox rite, it admitted him at once, not merely to that local society, but to the whole world-wide communion of the Great Church: indeed, to a living participation in the whole heavenly congregation and Church of the First-born, which knows no limitation of space or time.

(v) No less striking is the fulness and richness to be seen in the primitive conception of the central act of primitive Christian worship, the Eucharist. This combines in itself all the conceptions of sacrifice, communion and fellowship meal. It is at once a sacerdotal oblation and a corporate action of the whole body. It expresses with equal intensity adoration as the supreme duty of man, and petition and intercession for the living and departed, and commemoration of the saints and martyrs already reigning with Christ. It offers thanksgiving alike for the material blessings of this life, and for Christian salvation into eternity. It expresses the intimate communion of the soul with its Lord and the corporate essence of the whole Church as the fruit of the Passion and Resurrection; and also both the fellowship of the particular local Church as a self-contained society, and its entire dependence as a whole and as individuals on the Catholic Church. It is at once a historical memorial of the concrete facts of Redemption, and their immediate and present application to and apprehension by every individual Christian. The whole action of the whole Church towards God and Man was as it were contained in the action of every local Church in the offering of every Eucharist.

(vi) Out of this complex of Christian life, lived and embodied in dogma, worship and institutions, proceeded the Scriptures of the New Testament, which presuppose and interpret the faith and ‘the Way’ from within which they are written. To abstract them from the setting and life and belief which produced them (in other words, to oppose ‘Scripture’ and ‘Tradition’) is wholly artificial and arbitrary. The apostolic ‘writings’ reflect and presuppose at every point the abundant many-sidedness and tension of the life of the Apostolic Church, and its ‘Tradition’ of kerugma and practice: indeed, they are themselves [14/15] first received and valued as one important part of it. Historically speaking, they are ultimately ‘canonised’ in the second century, as ‘inspired Scriptures’ beside and above the Jewish Old Testament Scriptures, which were the only Bible of the primitive Church: canonised rather as an authoritative witness to and standard for the maintenance of ‘Tradition’, than as an independent theological authority in themselves. (This is not to deny their supreme theological authority for us, but to insist on the original and true nature of that authority.) Though the late date at which their canonisation was effected (in comparison with the aboriginal continuity of doctrine, ministry and worship) is reflected in the long-continued doubts in particular Churches of the canonicity of certain Books, the continuing ability of the Church of the early centuries to contain the many-sided fulness of Apostolic truth is revealed by its eventual acceptance of so diverse a collection, as all alike and equally authoritative and ‘inspired’. Only a Church which was not afraid of ‘tensions’ and which was able to discern without prejudice the ‘wholeness’ of the revelation in Christ, would have dared to set side by side four differing Gospels, the Epistles of St Paul and St James, the apostolic history of Acts and the eschatology of the Apocalypse, and to acclaim them all as normative.

Such is the many-sided unity of the apostolic Tradition. It is a unity upon so many levels, that we may speak of it as the primitive ‘totality’ or ‘wholeness’. So far from involving a cast-iron uniformity, it included the many varieties of function, practice, and theological emphasis which appear in the apostolic age. But there was a ‘wholeness’. To be a Christian was to belong to the one Body, to hold the one apostolic faith, to share in the one visible series of sacramental rites, to be under the rule of one apostolate, to know the unity of the two covenants, and of God as Father, Saviour and Creator. The unity of the Church is a part of this greater ‘wholeness’, and cannot be understood apart from it. If theologians are not agreed from the outset in believing the Church to be a Divine fact prior to the individuals who compose its membership, in believing its outward order to be a part of its being, in affirming the unity of the faith, in recognising the authority of ‘Tradition’ together with that of Scripture, then they have not reached agreement about the first principles of the unity they are seeking.

Within the primitive ‘wholeness’ there are inevitable tensions, as we have said. Originally these tensions are held within the apostolic unity: in later history they lead to disastrous fissures.

(i) There is first the tension between the eternal and the temporal, or more strictly, between the participation of the Church in the historical once-for-all-ness of God’s redemptive acts, and the growth [15/16] of the Church in an abiding union with the Divine life. The existence of this tension exposes the Church to the pull of unilateral tendencies. Thus for example, it is possible for Christians so to dwell upon the immediate and contemporary operations of God the Holy Ghost, as to forget their one-ness with the stream of life in the Church down the ages. And it is possible so to dwell upon the Tradition as to forget that only the present action of the Holy Ghost gives life to the Church’s form. Here many of the later distortions and antagonisms of Christian history come into sight: traditionalism and modernism, ecclesiasticism and sectarianism. The only cure for such one-sidedness is the recovery of the authentic perspectives of apostolic Christianity.

(ii) There is also the tension between the Church’s apartness from the world and the Church’s mission to ensoul the world, a tension bound up with the duality of Creation and Redemption. On the one hand the Church preaches repentance and judgment to a world enwrapped in original sin. On the other hand the Church appeals to the light that lighteth every man, and affirms the natural Law, the Divine function of the ruler, and the positive significance of human civilisation and culture, embracing the hope that the kingdoms of this world will become the Kingdom of our God. On either side, the danger of distortion lurks around the corner. It is possible to preach Redemption in vacuo, without the doctrine of Creation as its groundwork. It is equally possible to entangle the life and thought of the Church in secular statecraft and philosophy, in such a way as to imperil the distinction between the Church and the kingdoms of the world. Secular ideas of sovereignty, whether derived from imperial Rome or from modern liberal democracy, can invade the Church and oust the true conception of the sovereignty of Christ in His Kingdom. Here, too, the only cure for lop-sided theories and antagonisms is a recovery of the primitive ‘wholeness’, that ‘wholeness’ wherein the Gospel of Redemption rests upon the groundwork of Creation, and the supernatural Church stands over against the order of Nature, which, no less than the Church, is of God.

(iii) There is also the tension between the Divine nature of the Church and the sinfulness of its members. This tension was as acute in the first age of the Church (for instance at Corinth), as it has ever been since. Yet St Paul did not cut the knot by anticipating later doctrines of the ‘invisible Church’. In later ages the knot has been cut, sometimes by the violence of perfectionist, sectarian and invisibilist doctrines, and sometimes by recourse to moralising about what the Church ought to do, instead of plainly declaring what the Church is. Here, too, the cure can only come from a recovery of the primitive ‘wholeness’, wherein the strain of the Church’s paradox does not weaken the Christian’s belief in what the Church is.

[17] In all its aspects, the primitive ‘wholeness’ is the ‘wholeness’, not of an ideal but of something that is, and the pragmatism that can speak of this or that element as being of the bene esse has no place. The ‘is-ness’ of the visible Church has too widely become the missing element in the belief of Christians about their common salvation.

The main burden of our Report is that the problem of re-union is that of the recovery of the ‘wholeness’ of Tradition. Of course, there is a sense in which ‘wholeness’ cannot apply to a national Church, or the Church of any particular generation. There must be Jew and Greek: the outlook of the tenth century differs from that of the twentieth: there are diversities of cultures as there are diversities of gifts. But there is one Spirit; and it is possible for there to be in diverse Churches and cultures the same wholeness or integrity of the Christian Tradition as is exemplified in the apostolic age. It is this wholeness that has become damaged in our divisions, and re-union means the recovery of it. The movement for the restoration of visible unity is at present endangered by the advocacy of patchwork remedies, on the part of those who have hardly seen what the problem really is. The immediate duty of Christians, therefore, is to become aware of the loss of ‘wholeness’ which characterises the present state of Christendom.

[Next: Chapter 2: The background of the Western schisms ]