Sunday, February 16, 2020

How to define catholicity. . .

Over at another forum there is an ongoing discussion of evangelical catholicity, a topic of which I have some interest.  What I found most interesting in this discussion is that one of the marks of such evangelical catholicity is listed is a church open to the integration of all peoples.  In other words, one of the marks of catholicity, evangelical or otherwise, is the diversity of the people within the community (from ethnicity to race).  Now while it would be hard to argue against a multiplicity of races and ethnic backgrounds in any church that truly seeks to be a church, I am not at all sure that this is historically what catholic meant or should mean.

Truth be told, I write this from the vantage point of a church body nearly 95% white and (mostly northern) European.  Perhaps the only major Lutheran Church in the US more white than my own Synod is the ELCA, a denomination which has the most organized effort to be multi-ethnic and diverse.  I am not unaware of the difficulty of this in a nation in which the white majority has given way to the white minority.  I am also not without sympathy for the cause of reaching beyond those like me in seeking to grow the church.  All of this is important and with merit as an intentional act of any church but particularly one like mine.  It should be noted, however, that the mission efforts of the LCMS have manifested themselves in partner churches independent of this church body and that this statistic would look radically different if we had, like the United Methodists, remained as one church body instead of many.  I say this only to show that the lily white face of the Missouri Synod in America has not been without significant mission work, and successful mission work, among those who do not look like us or share our ethnic heritage.

Back to my main point, the catholicity of any church is less about the diversity of the peoples who are members of that church than it does the apostolicity of that church's creed, confession, and liturgy.  Catholicity flows from the consistent Scriptural witness lived out within a liturgical shape that values tradition over innovation.  Universality and wholeness will certainly include a diversity of people, races and ethnicities included, but it does not flow from that.  It flows from what is believed, confessed, and lived out before the Lord and in the world.  So καθολικότητα της εκκλησίας, "catholicity of the church," pertains to beliefs and practices.  It can be a lily white church or a black church or any color in between but those churches will have in common the Scriptures and tradition, means of grace and liturgy.  Catholicity has more to do with the hermeneutic of continuity than it does with the results or fruits of its evangelical mission.  This does not at all diminish the value of a racial and ethnic diversity but presumes that this will, indeed, be the fruit of a church that lives in harmony with her past and consistent in doctrine and liturgy with that past. 

This is in part related to the position of the churches toward the first and great ecumenical councils of the church, to be sure, but in an even greater sense to the creeds that have come to define the boundaries of orthodox belief about God.  This is also the fruit of taking seriously the Scriptures as the living Word and voice of God still speaking, yesterday, today, and forever, the same Gospel that is eternal.  Evangelical as a modifier of catholicity will certainly suggest the focus of this catholicity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen by which sinners are reconciled to the Father and restored to their place as the children of God destined for the future He has prepared.  But evangelical does not restrict catholicity for there is no catholicity at all that is not evangelical in the classic sense of that word.

It seems that some churches have forgotten this.  They presume that to be catholic is to be open and tolerant to all people more so than to be faithful to His Word and the living tradition of the faith and faithful that live because of that Word and the Spirit working through it.  So there is the strange circumstance of churches that never intend to be catholic in the sense of doctrine who wish to be catholic in the sense of diversity, churches that refuse to use the word catholic that nonetheless are more catholic that those who use the term freely, and churches that insist they are both evangelical and catholic but openly admit to departing from the faith of their fathers and rejecting both the Scriptures and the tradition that does not agree with the culture of the moment.  Even though this is most certainly true, it must not be allowed to rob catholicity of it first and foremost meaning -- a unity of belief from the earliest of Christian times that both honors the Scriptures as the unique Word of God that endures forever and affirms the apostolic tradition that both guards and witnesses to this once and eternal faith.

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