Just reading through The Catholicity of the Reformation, edited by Carl E. Braaten and Robert W. Jenson. In their introduction, Braaten and Jenson remind us that the word “Catholic” was first used to refer to Christians by St. Ignatius of Antioch, when he wrote to the church in Smyrna that “Wherever the bishop appears there let the congregation be, just as wherever Jesus Christ is there is the Catholic Church.”
It’s a good reminder to us all that the catholicity of the church depends ultimately on Christ’s presence. “The church is catholic when the living Christ is present,” as Braaten and Jenson rightly interpret. And that catholicity manifests itself in visible ways. Braaten and Jenson again: “The catholicity of the church includes many things: the Scriptures, apostolic tradition, sacraments, ecumenical creeds, worship, and the ministry.”
Sadly, we do not experience this catholicity in its full glory this side of eternity. “There manifestly are degrees of catholicity,” the editors write. “The full catholicity of the church—its completed integrity and comprehensiveness, its wholeness—is finally an eschatological reality in which the pilgrim church now participates through God’s word and the sacraments but which she does not yet fully possess.”
We yearn for that day. We are the catholic church, for Jesus Christ is present among us, as St. Ignatius writes. But His presence among us awakes in us a desire for unity with our separated brethren. For indeed, Christ Himself tells us that His presence in us goes hand in hand with His desire that we would be one. “The glory that you have given me I have given to them,” He says, “that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may be perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me” (John 17:22-23).
But we know this unity is not to be accomplished by the sacrifice of truth. For in this prayer, Christ also tells us that He prays we would be made unified not only in words or actions but in truth. “Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth,” he prays (John 17: 17). We are to be one in Christ and in the Truth of His Word.
May Christ, present and working in us, draw us at last to that glorious unity. And may His prayer—that we might be One—be ever our prayer too.
“The Lamb hath alone died for us, the Lamb only hath shed his blood for us: the Lamb only hath redeemed us; these things hath he done alone; now, if these be sufficient, then hath he alone made satisfaction, and is alone worthy to be our Redeemer and Justifier.” – Only Faith Justifieth Before God (Robert Barnes, English martyr)
On this day, we remember the Rev. Dr. Robert Barnes, martyred for the faith July 30, 1540. Barnes, Prior of the Augustinian monastery in Cambridge, preached a Christmas Eve sermon in 1526 which expressed criticism of ecclesiastical abuses. This sermon is often credited as the beginning in earnest of the English Reformation. Not coincidentally, Barnes is also considered one of England’s first Lutherans. He was a member of the group which met at the White Horse Inn.
Barnes was not executed alone. Reflecting the politically-charged nature of the Reformation in England, he was executed along with five others: two of them Evangelicals (ie, Protestants) and three of them conservatives (ie, Roman Catholics). All were executed without the benefit of a trial. Shortly before the execution, the three Protestants (Barnes, William Jerome, and Thomas Garrett) had been invited to preach at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The three Catholics (Thomas Abel, Richard Fetherston, and Edward Powell) had all supported Queen Catherine when Henry VIII sought to have the marriage annulled. The Protestants were executed for heresy; the Catholics for treason.
While we thank God for the faithful witness of Robert Barnes, we also pray for the day when Christian division would cease, according to the prayer of Jesus. “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one—I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17: 20-23).
In a justly famous passage from the preface to Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis pictures the Church universal as a great hall. In this hall are many rooms, he says, and the rooms represent the various denominations which can rightly be called “orthodox” Christianity. This hall “is a place to wait in,” he writes, “a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.” “But it is in the rooms,” he explains, “not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals.” That’s not to say all such rooms are equal, but any is better than wandering aimlessly in the hall, unattached from the benefits which come from the Christian community found inside the rooms. And yet, despite their (often substantial) differences, these rooms share some thing or some things in common and this, Lewis argues, is “mere Christianity.”
Lewis is, by his own admission, borrowing the terminology of Richard Baxter in his use of the term “mere Christianity.” But I wonder whether he might also be channeling another 17th century theologian as well, consciously or no. Back in 1625, John Donne preached a sermon which beat Lewis to the punch. In this sermon, Donne describes the Church as if it were a great house—a house in which one can find differences of theological opinion (differences between the rooms, we might say), but which nevertheless shares a common foundation. “The Church is a House, it is Gods house,” Donne writes, “and in that House, wee are of the household of the faithfull.” And its foundation, Donne is clear, “is Christ himselfe in his Word; his Scriptures.”
What is the Church?
The text for the sermon comes from the Psalms: “If the foundations be destroyed, what can the righteous doe?” (Psalm 11:3). And while he talks about a number of different “houses” that Christians inhabit (namely, the family, the state, and the individual soul), the one on which he dwells most at length is that of the Church. In Donne’s time, the Church had been fractured: the Church of England was not the Church of Wittenberg was not the Church of Rome. Given that reality, Donne’s sermon asks us a question of practical theological importance: what is the Church? Is it a visible institution? Is it reserved to those who subscribe to the 39 Articles? The Council of Trent? The Augsburg Confession? Or is there, perhaps, something deeper still, a foundation on which all these churches might be understood to be part of the universal Church, despite their very real theological differences?
For Donne, the answer is obvious: the foundation of the house we call the Church cannot be equated with any particular church body in the world; the Church transcends such boundaries. And Christians should strive to maintain peace in the larger household of the Church. The righteous, Donne says, should keep silence unless the foundations of the faith are themselves under attack. But that does not mean we pretend theological differences were a thing of no matter. Donne explains: “Now this should not prepare, this should not incline any man, to such an indifferencie, as that it should bee all one to him, what become of all things; all one, whether wee had one, or two, or tenne, or no Religioun; or that hee should not bee awake, and active, and diligent, in assisting trueth, and resisting all approaches of Errour.”
No, God’s people are to seek out and defend truth. But in many cases Christians make spectacle of themselves by backbiting and devouring one another over small things. They fling accusations over “matters not Doctrinall, or if Doctrinall, yet not Fundamentall.” And—as Donne has said before and will say again—until the foundations be destroyed, the righteous should keep quiet. They should keep peace. Instead, Donne laments, a “Torrent of uncharitableness” is at work, even among Christians of the same church bodies. They pour forth “such Exasperations, such Exacerbations, such Vociferations, such Ejulations, such Defamations of one another, as if all Foundations were destroyed.”1
Bearing with one another in charity
“Who would not tremble,” Donne asks, “to heare those Infernall words, spoken by men, to men… when God in heaven knowes, if their own uncharitablenesse did not exclude him, there were roome enough for the Holy Ghost, on both, and on either side, in those Fundamentall things, which are unanimely professed by both.” Instead, “wee see more Bookes written by these men against one another,” Donne reflects sharply, “then by them both, for Christ.”
We see more Bookes written by these men against one another than by them both for Christ.
And it is on Christ that this House—the Church—truly finds its foundation. It is in our joint faith in Christ as the Son of God, as the one whose death and resurrection brings salvation to sinners that we find ourselves united. We confess the Scriptures to be the very Word of God, and we each believe the creeds. We must start from that very basic position and attempt, in the hallways of the house, to make progress in resolving our differences.
Indeed, as members of the same house, we must resolve to treat each other well, earnestly meaning good and not harm to one another. We cannot, as Donne describes above, give in to the “Torrent of uncharitableness” so common between Christians who disagree. All Christians—of whatever room they be—are required, Donne says, to be faithful one to another. “You see there is a faithfulnesse required in every man, in all the house of God, not in any one roome,” he writes, “a disposition required to doe good to the whole Church of God every where, and not onely at home.” We must not attack each other as heretics when the issue at stake is not Christ, the foundation Himself. “Bee not apt to call Super-Edifications, Foundations,” Donne warns. “And doe not call the cracking of a pane of glasse, a Destroying of foundations.”
Christians against Christians today
Alas, we are apt to accuse one another of overturning foundations merely on the basis of the bad decorating and cheap furniture we see in another’s room. The fact is, Christians can and (regrettably) often do build shoddy constructions on the firm foundation of Christ. But those broken buildings do not themselves mean the foundation itself has been uprooted. St. Paul declares this in his own letter to a divided church: “No one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
How we build our rooms in the household of Christ matters. “Each one should be careful how he builds” (1 Corinthians 3:10). But we must remember that, while a room itself may be built of hay or straw, its inhabitants do not for that reason fall off the foundation of Christ. God is merciful; He saves people on the basis of the foundation, not the buildings they erect on it.
Catholics vs Protestants
For Donne, it is the greatest hubris to insist that what is on top of the foundation is of equal importance to the foundation itself. It is incredibly important, of course, but as St. Paul has stated, it is not necessary for salvation. For this reason, Donne in this sermon takes great exception with the Church of Rome in his day. In his assessment, the Roman Church was declaring the decor of one room of equal importance to the foundation on which the whole house stood. His frustration boils over here and he calls the “uncharitablenesse of the Church of Rome toward us all” not merely “a Torrent” nor even “a Sea,” but instead “a generall Flood, an universall Deluge, that swallowes all the world.” They “will not allowe possibilitie of Salvation to the whole Arke, the whole Christian Church,” Donne laments, “but to one Cabin in that Arke, the Church of Rome.”
Their great error is in condensing the whole House to one Room, Donne says. And “not because wee affirme any thing, that they denie, but because wee denie some things, which they in their afternoone are come to affirme.” They saw the difference in furnishings between rooms, and declared the other rooms outside the House—even though, if they had looked, they would have found a common foundation beneath each.
If they had looked, they would have found a common foundation beneath each.
“In a word,” Donne says, “wee charge [the Roman Church] with uncharitablenesse, that they will so peremptorily exclude us from Heaven, for matters that doe not appertaine to Foundations. For, if they will call all Foundations, that which the Church hath, or doth, or shall decree, we must learne our Catechisme upon our Death-bedd, and inquire for the Articles of our Faith, when wee are going out of the world, for they may have decreed something that Morning.” There was a time when trusting in the creedal faith handed down by the Church through the centuries was enough; this faith in Christ was a firm foundation; now, no more. “All things are growen deare in our times,” Donne sighs, “for they have made Salvation deare; Threescore yeares agoe, he might have been saved for beleeving the Apostles Creed; now it will cost him the Trent Creed too.”
The Case of Melanchthon
To be fair, it is worth noting that what Donne accuses the Roman Church of is something many Protestants (both in his day and ours ) could also be accused of: teaching that salvation is available only to members of our own specific, visible church body. But in Donne’s time in particular, the Roman Church had closed the doors to discussion. The Lutherans, for example, tried desparately to make the case that they were still Catholic—still teaching doctrine within the pale of historic Christianity. And so in their profession of faith, The Augsburg Confession, they attempted to clarify their concerns “in order that it might be understood that in doctrine and ceremonies nothing has been received on our part against Scripture or the Church Catholic.”
“For it is manifest,” the author Philipp Melanchthon continues, “that we have taken most diligent care that no new and ungodly doctrine should creep into our churches.” Their hope was that “dissensions in the matter of our holy religion and Christian Faith” could be explored together in a spirit of respect and love—“that in this matter of religion the opinions and judgments of the parties might be heard in each other’s presence; and considered and weighed among ourselves in mutual charity, leniency, and kindness.” By talking freely and openly, correcting error on both sides, they might be brought “to live in unity and concord in the one Christian Church.”
That opinions might be weighed among ourselves in mutual charity, leniency, and kindness.
The attempt at peace-making was firmly rejected. Melanchthon writes in the Apology to the Augsburg Confession: “It has always been my custom in these controversies to retain, so far as I was at all able, the form of the customarily received doctrine, in order that at some time concord could be reached the more readily.” But this approach, while he would employ it throughout his life, was unsuccessful: “The adversaires are treating the case in such a way as to show that they are seeking neither truth nor concord,” he laments, “but to drain our blood.”
That sentiment was common among non-Roman Christians in the days before Donne. For his part, Melanchthon continued (fruitlessly) to try to repair relations between the broken churches—calling loud and often for a free council to hammer things out together, “as iron sharpens iron.” But the only council that came was that of Trent, in which salvation by faith alone was rejected as heresy whole-sale. There was no common hall for Christians to meet in; the Roman Catholics had declared the whole house theirs and theirs alone.
Re-entering the hall
In this sermon, Donne is trying to reverse some of that damage by calling his hearers to more charitably approach the subject of theological disagreement. Not that it is wrong to challenge and question one another; we must do so. “In Heresie,” Donne warns, “there is nothing to bee called little, nothing to bee suffered.” The Arians, after all, were heretics by virtue of “one letter.”2
But among fellow Christians, among those who those with whom we share a solid, firm foundation in Christ, surely we can disagree charitably. And when another should defend an opinion we consider wrong, but which is not so errant as to destroy the foundation, we ought to treat them kindly: “wee forebeare, and wee are quiet.”
God grant that we should all approach theological disagreement in this way.
1 Compare this complaint to the still brilliant “Sermon against contention and brawling from Thomas Cranmer’s 1547 Book of Homilies. “St. Paul could not abide to hear among the Corinthians these words of discord or dissension: I hold of Paul, I of Cephas, and I of Apollo. What would he then say, if he heard these words of contention, which be now almost in every man’s mouth: He is a Pharisee, He is a Gospeller, He is of the new sort, He is of the old faith, He is a new-broached brother, He is a good catholic father, He is a papist, He is an heretic? O how the Church is divided!… We cannot be jointed to Christ our Head, except we be glued with concord and charity one to another. For he that is not in this unity is not of the Church of Christ.”
2 The difference between homoousios and homoiousios: one little “i.”
Note on the text: the sermon framing the discussion in this paper is “The First Sermon Preached to King Charles, at Saint James: 3, April 1625.” You can read it online here. It’s also available (along with other excellent sermons) in an attractive little volume entitled “John Donne’s Sermons on the Psalms and Gospels,” edited by Evelyn M. Simpson.