The study of the centuries-old struggle between Rome and the Reformation raises an important and inescapable problem: the question of authority. In our own time of confusion and chaos the problem of authority attracts much attention. Since the downfall of national socialism and fascism efforts are being made to find an authority capable of checking chaos and of protecting life from the desperation of nihilism Papal encyclicals issued during the last hundred years often warn against the threat of anarchy. The one and only stronghold of civilization and culture is proclaimed to be the church of Jesus Christ, in its absolute supra-temporal origin. The church is “the only haven of refuge,” ignored by those “who scorn the light of Christian Wisdom and who—sad to say—want to go back to the doctrines, customs, and institutions of pagan antiquity”1 The chief cause of human woe is to be sought in the contempt and the rejection of the exalted authority of the church For it is the church which governs mankind in the name of God, and which maintains and protects every legitimate authority.2 There is a close connection between the legitimate authority of the church, as the only haven of refuge, and Rome s criticism of the Reformation. A standard is lifted up for the modern world, with all its chaotic aspects of unbelief, revolution and dictatorship, a standard that has been raised for centuries in opposition to the Reformation: the authority of the church as a rock in the surging Waves.
To the mind of Rome there is a causal relation between the Reformation of the sixteenth century and the tensions of modern times. At bottom they are the result of one and the same revolution: that of the subject against the legitimate authority given by God. The moment this revolution was proclaimed the tensions arose that were ultimately discharged in the chaos of the modern world.
The problem thus posited ought to alarm every Protestant if it is really possible to demonstrate convincingly that Rome accepts the authority of the church and the Reformation does not. The conflict has often been defined in such a way both by Roman Catholics and by Protestants. Rome looked upon the Reformation as a total dislocation of any authority in the church, whereas the new Protestantism frequently described the Reformation as the birth of individual freedom and of the sovereignty and autonomy of the individual conscience, ultimately rooted in the depth of the human mind which can not be bound by any exterior and objective authority.
Such a description does not at all correspond to the actual situation. It is diametrically opposed to the repeatedly expressed tendencies of the Reformers, and gives only a caricature of the real struggle of the sixteenth century. For if it were true, the Reformation would have to be characterized as the defense of subjectivism against Rome’s ‘objectivity.’ Such a defense would be equal to fighting a losing battle. During the last two centuries we have seen too much of the rising tide of subjectivism to enter into a struggle with Rome from this particular position. If no other alternative exists than that of an unlimited protest against all objectivity and authority, there would be every reason to desist from giving battle. Such a protest would not even have a suspicion of Christianity about it.
But the situation is quite different. The Reformation did recognize and accept authority. In reaction to an objectivistic conception of authority the Reformation did not reject all authority. But it did oppose the absolute ecclesiastical authority claimed by Rome. The position of the Reformation bears a peculiar character of its own. To contend that the Reformation could retain only a relative authority, and that such an authority is in the church, is a contradiction in terms which demonstrates the impossibility of the Reformed protest. This is to oversimplify the Reformed view and to ignore entirely the deep meaning of the Reformation. Such oversimplification is no doubt connected with our instinctive reaction to the sound of the word ‘relative,’ which reminds us of the word ‘relativism.’ It is in this sense that the contrast between the ‘absoluteness’ and the ‘relativity’ of Christianity is spoken of. The rejection of Rome’s absolute ecclesiastical authority by the Reformation was interpreted so that the word ‘relative’ suggested the idea of less firm,’ and ‘less reliable,’ a ‘relative’ kind of authority. But when the Reformation had to determine its position in the church of all ages it was not led by a confused subjectivism to prefer relativism to absolutism, but it had a conception of the church entirely different from the Roman view. When the Reformers called the authority of the church ‘relative,’ they understood its original sense, ‘in relation to.’
The Reformation refused to detach the structure of the church from the revelation transcending it. Ecclesiastical authority was relative, i.e., it stood in an absolutely dependent relation to the Word of God which alone made it possible for the church to exist.
On this point the Reformation denied the Roman view. The struggle of the Reformers was not directed against authority and stability. It was not a revolution of individualism, but the establishment of the life of the church in the Word of the living God. The issue was the truly free and liberating authority of God. The Reformation did not aim at a devaluation of all so-called secondary causes, in favor of the sole causality of God, depriving human activity and human agencies of any function. The Reformation is often viewed as a revolution originating from an exaggerated conception of God, in annihilation of what is human by the overwhelming power and activity of God. But from such a perspective it is impossible to have a proper understanding of the Reformed conception of the church or of its doctrine of office-bearing and the sacraments. The salient point is the effort of the Reformation to gain a real recognition of God as exercising authority in his church on earth. Such was the issue in the Reformation conflict concerning the nature of ‘authority’ in the church.
These questions of the nature of the ultimate authority in the church came very sharply to the fore in a publication of Karl Adam’s, with the suggestive title “Causa finita est.” The article deals with a pronouncement made by Augustine about the Pelagian heresy. In a sermon delivered in 417 A.D. Augustine exhorted his hearers to bring to him all secret obstinate Pelagians. For—and this is Karl Adam’s interpretation of Augustine’s pronouncement—the Apostolic See has given its verdict.
Causa finita est—the matter is settled. Adam believes that Augustine became an unmistakably clear witness of the absolute authority of the church especially after the difficulties with the Pelagians.3 Augustine’s words do not prove with certainty that he taught the infallibility of the pope. But the latter follows logically from Augustine’s doctrine of the church. Our present concern is not to deal with the ecclesiastical and dogma-historical questions surrounding Augustine; it is to define the problem under discussion: Causa finita est: the decision has been reached, an irrevocable decision in the verdict of the church. In this Causa finita est there is not the faintest echo of a doubt.4 Doubt has become superfluous since the decisions are made on the firm ground of, “thus says the church”; which to all intents and purposes is equal to the prophet’s words, “Thus saith the Lord.” According to Rome the serious weakness of the Protestant churches is their lack of a power that dares to speak with real authority—Causa finita est. The Reformation lacks the definitive word, the absolute, final word which banishes all doubt.
Rome believes that the absolute and final word can no longer be said since, at an evil hour, we have cut ourselves off from such security. Since the desperate deed of the Reformation it is perhaps still possible to take refuge in the ‘absolute’ authority of the Word, of Holy Scripture, of the Sola Scriptura, as the end of all argument. We may be willing to bring all our thoughts into captivity to the obedience of Christ, but this Word and this Christ are no longer concrete realities, they vanish in the mists of individual subjectivity. And since 1517, one Protestant says to the other: “You are of a different mind from us,” who shall speak the liberating word in such an impasse?
I shall probably meet with little opposition when I say that it is especially from this seemingly unshakable certainty that the Roman church has rejected the Reformation. The breach with the absolute authority of the church is looked upon as affecting the heart; and the entire organism of the Reformation shows the unmistakable signs of this malady. There are fragments, partial truths, but the vital bond with the whole truth has been severed. Protestantism still has the Bible, but in a ‘Diaspora,’5 the bond with tradition, community, and authority has been broken, and the sacred book has been removed from the holy temple. What fruit can there be from a dialogue between the Word of God and individual subjectivity? To Rome it is simply a ‘tragedy’ that the Reformation did not see the threat of the invasion of subjectivism.
In a message from Roman Catholics to Protestants we read: “The Bible alone appears to offer an insufficient anchorage.”6 Does not Protestantism see that the Bible grows “in the vital sphere of the church”?7 And does not the Bible from the Protestant standpoint become the “plaything of different tendencies”?8 Is it not something of an enigma how the church can be rejected while the Bible is accepted, seeing that the Bible is a gift of the church?9 Is the Bible not as inseparable from the church as the law was from the temple? Did the Reformation not sink into the abyss of ‘sole-ism’ in the sad adage: “the Bible alone, grace alone, conscience alone, the individual alone”?10 And is it not like a flower cut off from the stem and laid between the leaves of a book to dry? In short: are we not face to face with a kind of ‘suicidal absolutism;11 that has degenerated into such one-sidedness, exactly on account of the loss of the absolute authority of the church?
In this manner and in similar ways we are continually reminded of the persuasive character of the adage: Causa finita est. The irrevocability of the church’s decisions constitutes the stability, the riches, the power of testimony of the church, and its blessing for our confused and uncertain world. In this irrevocable decision the Scriptures also find their firm ground. And they do not sink away in the dispersion of subjectivity but remain with us as the voice of Lord. Such a view does not place the church above the Scriptures, for the church does not bestow authority on the Scriptures; they have been given authority by God The church only declares that there is a Scripture with divine authority”12 Thus our stability is anchored the church.
Except for this authority everything will become vague. To examine, test, and doubt, will sap all certainty. The way back is blocked; revocation is impossible.13 Rome’s position may seem to result in rigidity and to be harmful to a real living faith, but in actuality it is a protection and security from the menace of individualistic subjectivity.
Even to natural reason, reflecting on the grounds of ultimate certainty and seeking for a guarantee which will remove all doubt, Rome’s position has the appearance of being strong and unshakable. Has not the ‘crisis of certainties’ been overcome forever here?14 And did not the Reformation disrupt the ground of this certitude? Did it not stake everything on one throw at an hour of world-wide importance in the history of mankind? Did it not make the wrong choice? Of what significance can a church be that goes back on its word, or at least that may do so? Does it not undermine the faith that it wants to arouse and protect in its members by recognizing such a possibility, such relativity of its authority? Will such a procedure not weaken, or even cancel, the power of its testimony — “Thus saith the Lord” — if not only systems, movements, and ideas but also the Ecclesia lack any a priori sanction? Does Christ’s command: “But let your communication be Yea, yea; Nay nay,” especially hold for the church? Is a church conceivable in principle if it cannot say: Causa finita est? The problem is serious enough to be worthy of consideration. We are faced with an exceptional pretention seemingly transcending any doubt and uncertainty. Is this claim not in harmony with a natural longing of the human heart to seek the ground of ultimate certitude in a concrete and tangible point, which possesses the power to conquer any doubt even in times of the deepest depression?
When we try to reach the depths implied in Rome’s solution, we are brought in contact with a closely related perspective of decisive importance to all Roman Catholic thought and action: the fundamental idea of the living Christ within the church. And this idea is the foundation of the Causa finita est. The church is not merely the human organization in which the radiant light of the divine revelation is caught and reflected—though in a human and defective way—but the church is “the continued incarnation of the divine word”; the visible Christ, living and working in time and space. “It is in and through the church’s holy humanity that the incarnate Word makes the new law, the new doctrine, the new life to shine in ever new forms, rendering them accessible to men.15 Christ himself speaks in and through the church—through the outward doctrinal organization of his mystical body—and so: Causa finita est. Who—in the church—would want to oppose him?
Allured by the promise of ultimate certainty, by absolute objectivity, and frightened by the seemingly inevitable problems of a divided Protestantism, some have returned to the safety and the comforting stability of the Mother Church. Due to the discovery that the concrete outlines of the Una Sancta were obscured since the Reformation by a multitude of convictions, Rome’s certainty became a temptation, and its originally repulsive pretention turned into a light burden. In Dr. de Vogel’s account of her conversion to the Roman Catholic church we find in her testimony a prayer: “Thou who art the Lord of my life, thou speakest to me through the controlling power of the Catholic church. Thou also speakest to me through the forms of fixed dogma”16 She adds: “The deeper one’s heart is penetrated by this the more one becomes a Catholic to the very core of one’s being.”
And after his conversion Newman describes his state of mind as a "Coming into port after a rough sea,” and adds, “and my happiness on that score remains to this day without interruption.” Before his conversion Newman did not believe in transubstantiation, but—“I had no difficulty in believing it as soon as I believed that the Catholic Roman church was the oracle of God, and that she had declared this doctrine to be part of the original revelation.”18 Everything was henceforth seen in a new light including the cognitive relation between subject and object. Inhibitions were removed, tensions annihilated, doors thrown open. The revolt of subjectivity was called off. The church became the mysterium tremendum and fascinosum. It is necessary to reflect on this mysterium.
This mysterium may be represented as a miraculous divinely rich identity. The concept of identity might be too easily passed by if taken to mean ‘communion.’ Even Calvin emphasized a communion between Christ and his church. Have we therefore really grasped in the idea of identity an important point of difference between and the Reformation? The Reformation joyfully professed a profound communion, and did not hesitate to use the bold expression unio mystica. “For, if we are not united with all the other members under Christ, our Head, there is no hope of a future inheritance. The church is called Catholic or Universal, because there cannot be two or three churches without Christ being divided. God’s elect are all so closely united in Christ, that bound up with one Head, they grow together into one body . . .”19
Calvin did not hesitate to call this intimate communion between Christ and his members a mystica communicatio.20 And in Calvin’s doctrine of Holy Communion (as also in that of the Reformed churches) the unio cum Christo occupies a very important place. This fact was strikingly revealed when the Swiss churches requested the Nation Synod of La Rochelle to modify the thirty-sixth article of the Confessio Gallicana, which states that Christ “feeds and vivifies us with the substance of his body and his blood.” The request for alteration was concerned with the expression ‘substance.’
It is remarkable to see the synod’s reaction to this request, and to learn why it could not be complied with. The answer shows that the synod did not intend to provide a particular philosophical term with the sanction of the church. The synod simply wanted to give expression to a truth of faith in a special way. The synod stated that it rejected “the opinion of those who refuse to accept the word substance,” and added: “That is why we reject the sentiment of those who say that we exclusively share in His merits and gifts, which He communicates by His Spirit, without Himself being made ours.”21 Neither Calvin22 nor the Reformed churches felt any hesitation about speaking of Communion with Christ himself; and the Dutch Confession of Faith, as well as its Order of Holy Communion, has known and described this communion as very profound.23 And although concerned with the specific gift of communion, through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, its description clearly shows that their eyes were wide open to the fulness of the communion implied in the salvation brought about by Christ. Indeed the Scriptures so clearly and emphatically speak of this unio cum Christo that only the spiritually blind would not notice it.24 The emphasis on the communion of the church with its Lord is not a Roman Catholic idea. It has indeed been suggested that Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians is characterized by ‘Catholic tendencies.’ We are not surprised at Roman Catholic attempts to give shape to their views of the communio by means of an appeal to some of the epistles in the New Testament. The Reformers did this too. For they also listened to Paul’s message about Christ as the Head of his church.
God has raised him from the dead and given him to be the Head over all things to the church which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all.25 He is the Head in whom the faithful grow up, and from whom the whole body is closely joined and knit together.26 And from Christ as Head of the church all the gifts and powers flow to his members in the abundance of the divine grace.27 Such passages in Scripture, to which Albert Schweitzer refers in his book on Paul’s mysticism,28 are innumerable. And we can understand a Roman Catholic comment on Ephesians 1:23 saying: ‘“The church is Christ’s mystical body, which from him, its Head, receives every spiritual perfection and supernatural grace.29
Roman Catholics do not agree with Albert Schweitzer’s assertion that Christ’s mystical body is a natural entity (eine naturhafte Grösze). To a Roman Catholic the supernatural is the essence of the church.30 In the Roman Catholic church and theology various expressions refer to the actuality, stability, and continuity of the corpus mysticum. according to Brom here is the secret of Roman Catholicism.31
Continual appeal is made to Paul’s epistles to show that the divine truth has been embodied in the church, and that wisdom has built its house here. The characterization of the church as the mystical body of Christ expresses the deepest essence of the church.32 The communion between Christ and his church is pictured in such a way that need not be surprised when the identity between Christ and the church is spoken of without hesitation. For in the analysis of the one church the apostle Paul may have started from a common metaphor (the members of one body),33 but he gradually attains to a more comprehensive and penetrating insight into this mystery and discovers the church as the pneumatic community centering in Christ and in some way identifiable with Him.34 The church “as the flesh of Christ, is one with Him, and necessarily fed and cherished by Him.35 It is like “the continued incarnation of the heavenly Lord.”36
This notion is frequently elaborated in recent times, e.g., by Brom in his statement: “More than once in the New Testament the church is identified with Christ, and simply called Christ.”37 He goes on to draw the conclusion: “The church has the same mission and the same authority”38 It is certainly not doing the Roman Catholics an injustice this idea of identity is considered to be very important to their total view, or even to be the essence of all other views of the church. Even when the dogma about the church is not explicitly formulated—as at the Council of Trent—this insight forms the silent background of all considerations. The existence of the Catholica is at stake here. The pretention of the Roman Catholic church, its ultimate doctrinal authority, and its claim to be the light of the world, stand and fall with this view of identity. A great many expressions are applied to the church: Body of Christ, Bride, Mother, House, City, Ship;39 but all these phrases are based on a mysterious identity. That is why the metaphor “the Lord’s Body” is a favorite with Paul; and he calls up the image contained in it so graphically and with such an open mind, that it is difficult to say what can be inferred from it and what cannot: we can once again taste the abundance of God’s mysteries in it.40
In recent Roman Catholic theology a very lively debate has started about the so-called Corpus Christi theology. Serious warnings are given against overestimating the idea of the Corpus mysticum Christi.41 But in all such discussions there is in principle no doubt about the identity-view, as such, being the foundation of the authority of the church. The song in praise of the church is connected with this view of identity. On all sides vistas of security and unassailability are opened. We see Christ as the Head of the church, his body, while the picture may shift to Mary as the image of the church in whom its unassailability also finds expression. “God was in her midst, how could she ever be shaken?” the faithful asked in the words of the psalmist. And thus is depicted the unshakability of the church, so often seemingly deserted and in peril.
Peter’s image is also called up among the multitude of images elevating the riches of the church. Peter’s cry in the storm on the sea: “Lord save us, we perish!” was answered by Christ’s word staying the storm. And the ship was owned by the man whom later on he appointed steersman of the ship, i.e., the church. Thus the images are numerous, and so are the analogies and songs of praise. But there is one reality which will remain when everything else is shaken, the reality of the Catholica.
With respect to this question of identity, the very existence of the Roman Catholic church is at stake; it is really a matter of “to be or not to be” for Rome. But it is no less a matter of “to be or not to be for the Reformation to protest against such a view. The Reformed protest was constantly answered with the Roman reproach that the Reformation relinquished the communion with Christ in rejecting the Roman conception of the identity of Christ and the church. It was true that the Reformers attempted to attain to this communion, but they never succeeded, because this communion had been cut off from its root. Here we are confronted with one of the deepest controversies between the Reformation and Rome. It may be truthfully summarized in the words ‘identity’ versus ‘communion through the Word and the Spirit.’
In the first place we would observe that in this continual reference to this mysterious identity between Christ and the church it is certainly necessary to circumscribe the term ‘identity’ a little more closely. For of course even for Roman Catholics there can be no question of total identity and equality. The question is therefore in what sense this identity is to be taken, and in how far it is still possible to continue to speak of ‘distance’ in the identity. The word ‘distance’ is not meant here as a devaluation of the rich communion with Christ. To many readers the concept of ‘distance’ suggests separateness, aloofness. But although we do not mean such aloofness at all, we certainly hold that there can be real communion with Christ only if at the same time the distinction between Christ and his church is fully recognized. This is the constant presupposition of all that the Scriptures tell us about the relation between God and man. In the eschatological promises this harmony between communion and distinction is fully maintained. When at the end of the world John sees the Holy City coming down from God out of heaven, he hears a great voice from heaven accompanying this spectacular event, and saying: “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God “42 It is important to take serious account of this. Distance and distinction are not a threat to communion, but its indispensable presupposition.43
Mysticism, in all its forms, has not given this truth its due. When mystics talk of “being merged into God,” they make true communion impossible because of their erroneous view of identity. For the merciful presence of God and our communion with him is a miracle. In it the eternal God and Father of Jesus Christ enters into communion with us; not in any kind of fusion resulting from it, but in his inextinguishable glory and divinity, as the High and Lofty One. In this distance lies our salvation and the basis of communion. By reason of this simple but very important datum of Holy Scripture every Roman Catholic theologian finds himself compelled to account for the nature of this mysterious identity. It would certainly be incorrect to say that in recent times such reflection has been neglected. But at this point there are tensions which make it extremely difficult to find a somewhat satisfactory solution. On the one hand excessive conclusions have been drawn about “Der Christ als Christus,”44 and the merging with Christ into one mystical person. But the above-mentioned title has caused alarm among Roman Catholic theologians.45 However, all theories of the Corpus Christi mysticism46 (i.e., the church) and of the relation between the church and the Corpus Eucharisticum contain one communis opinio, the absolute authority following from this variously interpreted identity. Apart from the elaboration of the Corpus Christi idea, this fact is clear from the official words of Pope Pius XII in his encyclical, On the mystical Body of Jesus Christ and on the union with Christ that we possess in it.47
One of the most important points concerning the problem of identity and communion is the relation between the Roman Catholic view of identity and the Scriptural notion of Christ as the Head of the church. It is absolutely out of the question for Roman Catholic pronouncement to ignore consciously Christ’s being the Head.48 The aforementioned Papal encyclical opens by reminding the readers of Christ’s Headship of the church. “Christ is the Head keeping the entire body together in its proper organization so that it increases and grows to its own perfection.49 He is called thus “on account of His special loftiness.”50 It is he, therefore, who guides and governs the church. He is at the helm of the entire community of Christians.51 For he rules their minds and hearts, and even “bends and compels their refractory will to His good pleasure.”52 By means of this ‘inner guidance’ he takes care of the whole church. He does so not only by invisible guidance, but he also governs his mystical body by means of his vicar on earth.53 It is true, such a statement raises the question of the relation between the Christ as the Head and the visible head54 that in his Supreme wisdom he has left behind on earth.
In refutation it is often argued that by the institution of the primacy of jurisdiction in the church the “mystical Body has received a double Head.” But the Pope rejects such a conclusion. For, as Peter is “nothing but a deputy, there is only one primary Head of this Body, namely, Christ,”55 Who, not only personally governs the church in secret, but also rules through his visible vicar. This thought is expressed in another way by saying that “Christ and His Vicar only form one Head.”56 In any case—for we shall not deal with the relation between Christ and Peter here—Pius XII ascribes the headship to Christ on the ground of Colossians 1:18, and he connects with it several high and solemn activities, such as taking care of the church, its government, administration, guidance and rule.
These thoughts are implied almost as a matter of course. But the remarkable thing in this conception is that, immediately after, Christ’s headship is included in a peculiar context. According to the words of the encyclical it should not be thought that since Christ, the Head, has been placed in such a lofty seat, he could do without the aid of the body.57 The impossibility mentioned by Paul to the effect that the Head would say to the feet: I do not want you,58 also applies to the mystical body. We should abide by this truth, however strange it may seem, namely, that Christ needs his members.59
The encyclical clearly implies that the pope is aware of touching upon an extremely wonderful reality: a correlative coherence which to a certain extent is mutually dependent. This interdependent relation has its foundation in a divine decree, not in any weakness or insufficiency on the part of the Redeemer. For Christ has given the immeasurable treasure of redemption to the church ‘without its cooperation.’60 But in the distribution of this treasure he not only asks the cooperation of his spotless bride in the work of sanctification, but he even wants her action to be in some measure the origin of her own sanctication,61 and in this connection the pope even speaks of an ’awe-inspiring’ secret. It is from such a context that the burning problem arises whether this is doing justice to Christ’s headship. It can hardly be denied that notwithstanding such a formal acknowledgment the danger of an insufficient realization of Christ’s headship is far from imaginary. The utmost care is needed if we are to see and to recognize Christ as the Head of his church. In this context I remember the words of K. L. Schmidt: “Christ is the ecclesia itself insofar as the latter is the Body of Christ. . . . But on the other hand Christ is also elevated above the church whose Head He is.”62
Perhaps everything depends on the correct insight of faith into these revealed truths. At any rate it is necessary to confront every tendency towards an identity-view with the whole testimony of Scripture, and to take due account of Christ’s headship, in its full meaning. With regard to the idea of the body and the Head of the church formulated in the Epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians, W. Schmidt makes the remark: “The metaphors do not seem to be logical.63 We can accept such a statement only if it is understood in accordance with the following utterance, viz., that “the eyes of man are here gazing at a mystery.” It is a mystery of salvation in Christ bestowed on the church. We are not confronted here with an illogical combination, but with the abundance of grace in a wonderful harmony between the rich communion with Christ and our subjection to him as the Head. This is why Paul now stresses one aspect, now the other. He would affirm the deep communion with Christ, and at the same time write about the subjection of the church to Christ.64 Here we are faced with a correlation whose importance is decisive for a proper understanding of the Reformation. The latter’s opposition to the Roman Catholic conception of the church was not directed against the idea of communion, as such, but against the rigidity to which the living correlation between communion and faith had been reduced, in a one-sided view of the body of Christ. Quite correctly Schmidt makes the remark that Paul’s metaphor should not be “exaggerated and misunderstood, as if there were question of a higher kind of growth, here in the sense of a natural growth”;65 and he adds: “there is no isolated Christology and Ecclesiology in the sense of a mysticism of Christ and the church.” At this point we approach the fundamental protest made by the Reformation against Rome. It is certainly no accident that the term ‘identity’ has gained such a dominating position in Roman Catholic literature.
The word ‘identity’ is not meant in a speculative pantheistic sense, but it indicates the heart of the Roman view, so that the subjection of the church is relegated to the background. In spite of all glorification of Christ as the Head (and as the King of the church,66 the full and predominating significance of this truth is not understood.67
Viering correctly remarks: “The element of obedience is the sharp impassable boundary-line against any church speculation.”68 This recognition is certainly not a question of a legalistic relation but of the insight that the communion with Christ is never a communion apart from faith and outside of the correlation between faith and the Word of God. It is a misrepresentation of the thoughts on the church, contained in the Epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians, if even for a moment this living relation is reduced to the rigidity of identity.69 If the thought that the church is the body of Christ and at the same time subjected to him is constantly kept in view, Brom’s seemingly logical conclusion70 from their ontical identity to their identical authority71 will never be subscribed to. Such a conclusion is an impermissible objectification of the correlation referred to, and is the source of a corpus Christi theology making use of dynamic, vitalistic, and sometimes even of biological categories for the illustration of Christ’s rule of his church.72
The impression is often given that Rome is hardly aware of the problems involved, and for this reason turns so strongly and with such an alarming certainty against the Reformation. It is the certainty of its own uninterrupted subjection of the naturalness of the static fact of a fundamental obedience, proceeding from the mysterious identity of Christ and his church. In this light the many warning words in the New Testament have a merely individual admonitory importance, but they have no ecclesiastical meaning. Any other solution except that of identity is looked upon by Rome as an exploded view. The interrelation between the body of Christ and the subjection to him has an actual meaning only for the individual members of the church who are still liable to be subordinated to the ‘old Adam,’ and may even fall away from grace—the Roman Church rejects the doctrine of the final perseverance of the saints. But in the regions of the church we are confronted with an unprecedented anticipation of the state of glory; and the voice of the church is a priori held to be far elevated above any temptation and threat on the part of the craftiness of our hearts.73 Only on the basis of this anticipation is Rome able to proclaim to the world the authoritative foundation of its doctrine, with its semblance of absolute stability, unshakability, and objectivity.74
Such an authoritative foundation is found in the living actuality of true faith according to the Scripture (and through their influence also in the Reformation), in the subjection of the hearts to the Lord of the church, and by ceaseless prayer and listening to his Word. But here in Rome it is abstracted from this correlation and ascribed to the church as a static a priori datum.
This difference between Rome and the Reformation is of such nicety that we always have to feel our way to formulate it properly. The Reformation did not intend to deny the truth of the various words employed to delineate the image of the church, such as Mother, Body of Christ, House of God, Temple, etc It listened in awe and reverence to all such words of the divine revelation, and translated them in its confession of faith. But in all this it did not use dynamic and vitalistic categories. It saw the church in earthly life as being under The Word, and in living subjection to the gracious authority of its Lord, in communion with Christ.
In this respect—i.e., without a priori sanction, and only with the promise and its appeal to faith—the Reformation seemed to be poorer than Rome, and less ‘certain’ and ‘absolute.’ But such poverty need not cause any alarm. Did not the Reformation have fewer possessions? Was not its voice a great deal less sure in the opinion of many people and did not its word lack the guarantees to which they had become accustomed? The problem of poverty occupied a central place in the sixteenth century and it has done so up to our own time. The question of poverty and riches suggests itself when we think of the radical ‘simplification’ of the Reformation in comparison with the many Roman sacraments encompassing the whole of life from the baptismal font to the shadows of approaching death. This is suggested by the images that Rome uses as ‘books for the laity’ and by the splendor of Roman liturgy. But from the beginning the problem of poverty and riches was important in connection with the authority of the church. Did not the controversy concentrate on whether or not there was an absolute authority in the midst of the uncertainty of the world, on the one hand, and on the presence or lack of the power of the absolute Word, on the other? Was the Reformation perhaps ‘poorer,’ not only in its outward appearance, in the austerity of its liturgy, and in the ‘spaciousness’ of its churches, but also in its communion with the Lord and the joyful confession of its faith, which was contained in this communion as a pearl in its setting? Could the Reformation take the risk—without the loss of authority—to distinguish between the perfection that was to come and listening to the voice of the Lord of the church here and now, in the continuity of the confessions? The Reformers took the ‘risk’ and their wondering eyes caught from the old Word the new light of the unity and harmony of Ephesus and Colossae.
Opinions may differ as to whether it is permissible to speak of ‘tension’ when dealing with the subjection of the church to Christ, as the Head of the body. If not taken in a one-sided psychological sense, the term may denote the harmony of communion with Christ, in the continuous daily subjection to the Word of his grace. Such a tension of faith is lacking in the Roman Catholic view of the church. Such tension was discharged once and for all in the dynamic life of the church of Christ, in its divine-human life, led on and driven through the ages by divine ‘impulses,’ along a fixed road. That is why Roman Catholics are apt to talk in such a rectilinear way about Christ in the church, without any salutary perturbation. The idea of the church as an organism was so fascinating that, especially in the nineteenth century, it was more and more elaborated, with the result that the evangelical-critical function of the headship of Christ was all but lost in the history of the church. Also the possibility of understanding anything at all of the religious revolution had been lost in the basic categories of the understanding of both revelation and the church, and in Luther’s passionate protest. For, in opposition to the pope, Luther was willing to recognize only Christ as the Head of the church.75
Closely related to the identity-view is the fact that Rome is prepared to grant the Word of God its ‘significance’ in the church, but in a special way. In spite of the fact that Rome has retained the Scriptures in the church as the ‘source’ of revelation, all the emphasis has been laid on the assertion that the actual drawing of water from this ‘source’ is at an end. What is now being done is no more than ‘evolution’ and ‘unfolding,’ in connection with the other—and equivalent—‘source’ of revelation: tradition, which—as the word of the church outside of the Scriptures—in a special sense represents and manifests the seething life of the church.76
A similar menace is known in Protestantism in ‘confessionalism,’ with its inability to listen to the Word of the divine revelation coming to us now. The confession of faith replaces the Scriptures as an extract replaces a primary source. Confessionalism in effect takes the position that the Scriptures have been given their final form in the confession. The Bible lies behind; ahead of us is the ‘extract.’ The Scriptures have no longer any actuality. They may live on as a respectable entity in our mind and may even have a function in our Biblical research, but only to enable us to base our findings on a deeper foundation and to defend them in our apologetics. In spite of all the differences there is a surprising agreement between such confessionalism and the Roman Catholic view, insofar as the Scriptures are gated to the background of all that happens in the church. Our charge against Rome that it has relegated the Scriptures to the background in no way entitles us to a haughty attitude. I do not refer merely to some tendency within Protestantism, but I am mindful of all our sins with regard to God’s powerful sovereign Word. Every believer is ever in danger of misconceiving the relation between the Scriptures and his confession, and of devaluating the Scriptures to an inactive background, and thus of being left in the loneliness of his own religious thoughts, sterile, and without any blessing. We are alive to the fact that in itself the purest theory of inspiration we may possibly be able to elaborate is by no means a guarantee that in every-day life we actually submit to the word of Christ, and that we have really seen him in “the garb of the Scriptures.” But precisely in connection with the official acceptance of the infallibility of the Scriptures at the Councils of Trent and of the Vatican, our objection is that Rome is no longer fully aware of this serious danger and no longer proclaims it from the housetops. In spite of every ‘favorable appreciation’ of the Scriptures this danger is apparent in all kinds of Words clearly revealing the view of the Bible to be only a background. Thus we are quietly told “that according to the Roman Catholic doctrine the reading of the Scriptures is not necessary but useful, because for the believers the preaching of the church is the nearest and final rule of faith.”77 Or, dearer still is C. Brom’s remark: “Just as a man need not learn the civil code by heart in order to be a good citizen, because he leaves the maintenance of law and order to the lawful authorities, in the same way a man can do without the study of the Scriptures, and be a good subject in God’s Kingdom, if he accepts the entire revelation that the church guarantees.”78
There is something deeply moving in Brom’s statement that "Protestantism at large is really losing the Bible.”79 We need not add that this opinion is a direct conclusion from Rome’s view of a so-called individualism; however, we are willing to admit that such a danger is a real and constant threat to all believers. I still vividly remember the words of a speaker at a congress of undergraduates in 1922 saying that the decrease in the personal reading of the Bible might mean the cracking and creaking of the beam predicting the fall of Western Christianity.80
But when Brom exclaims that perhaps the time is not far away that the children of the Reformation “will again have to find the divine contents of the Scriptures in our missal and breviary,”81 we do not feel alarmed merely because of the contents of these missals and breviaries, but especially because in such words we hear something about a particular quantity (the divine contents of the Scriptures), and cannot recognize the living and divine words of the Scriptures. Such pronouncements reveal a view of the Scriptures, as a ‘background,’ which is the fundamental cause of the protest against a supposed Reformed ‘sole-ism.’
And, neither Trent, nor the Vatican, with their ‘favorable appreciation’ of the Scriptures can dispel the shadows which Rome casts over the Word of God. These shadows not only affect individual lives but influence the entire life of the church. In former times Roman Catholic pronouncements more than once showed a certain concern to base the words of the church, if not exclusively, at any rate in real earnest, on the Scriptures, and to derive the ecclesiastical words from the Bible.82 But I think I am not wrong when I say that especially later—and not the least so in our own day—the tendency has increased to lay less and less stress on this necessity. The a priori character of the infallibility of the pronouncements of the church has more and more come to the fore, although of course it still remains possible for theology to ‘prove’ their conformity to Holy Scripture a posteriori. Consonant with this view is the assertion that the knowledge of the truth professed by the church, through the medium of the latter, and not on the basis of a personal study of the Bible, has a particular advantage. For we at least know what numerous Biblical passages that are difficult to understand cannot mean, and thus we are safe-guarded against at least one way of misconceiving them.83
We cannot possibly discover the outlines of the New Testament light on the written Word. The objectionable character of the causa finita est is made all the more conspicuous by it, and with increasing clarity we understand the meaning of Rome’s reproach that we give up the fundamental doctrine that “the Word lives in the flesh, the Spirit lives in the church.”84 In this reproach Rome’s existence is at stake. But for the identity view all the words of the Scriptures: body, members, head, mother, subjection, faith, would be understood differently and the stabilization which forms the ultimate resting-point of the Roman idea of the church would be abolished. With the Reformers we combat this stabilization, but not from a modern aversion to any kind of security. One of the catechisms of the Reformation dealt with our being Christ’s property, in the answer to a question about the one and only consolation in life and death. And at the same time the Reformation—as we shall see in a later context—professed the assurance of salvation and the final perseverance of the saints, which roused Rome’s opposition. So it is not a question of ‘security or risk,’ ‘stability or venture.’
The question is concerned with the a priori character of this stability. In Rome’s view this stability is lifted out of the full coherence of the church. When the Reformation cut this authority at the root and began to understand the original sounds of the gospel anew, a tremendous conflict had broken out in the history of the church. Insofar as one is inclined to speak at all of a venture, it is only the venture of leaving the Bible open in the church, where it can be read, listened to, and preached. The church again became an ecclesia audiens in the full sense of the word.
At least such was the mighty plea of Luther and Calvin. The listening church—thus might the aim of the Reformation be summarized. Such may seem to be an oversimplification, but in reality it comprises everything fundamental that can be said. For this listening is not opposed to the teaching (ecclesia docens) of the church but is indissolubly bound up with it. In such listening everything is set in motion. The time of the Reformation reminds us of the dark times of Israel when the young Samuel stood intently listening to the Eternal: Speak, oh Lord, for thy servant heareth.” Thus he became an immeasurable blessing for his people, and presently the doors of the sacred place were opened and the divine light shone in the dark night of Israel. In Reformation times it was again discovered, right across a tradition of many centuries, what it meant to be under the Word of grace and to bring one’s thoughts into captivity to Christ. We should guard against immediately placing this tremendous event in the twilight of the dissensions. In spite of all differences and even in them we can speak, and we ought to continue to speak, of the fundamental structure of the Reformation. A comparison of Luther’s exegesis of the Epistle to the Romans, which he published before 1517, and Calvin’s Institutes will immediately reveal the profound communion of the new ‘discovery.’ This discovery owed its immense importance, not merely to the common insight into the authority of the Scriptures, but to the hold their contents had on the heart: Jesus Christ and his grace. Between the Reformed attitude towards the Scriptures and the sola fide there is no tension or separation but the profoundest harmony. A new religious reflection, a new authority asserted itself and conquered thousands of hearts when the good tidings were proclaimed as the liberating signal in the listening church. That is why the Reformation has never admitted that it did not ascribe any authority to the church.
But it is true that there was a keen sense of the need to keep such authority ‘within certain limits’ so that it should not be drawn hither and thither according to the whims of men.85. With rare acumen Calvin touched the essential point when he wrote that all authority and dignity given by the Spirit to men “is properly speaking not at all given to these men themselves, but to the office conferred upon them; or (to speak more plainly), to the Word whose ministry has been entrusted to them.”86 Calvin carries this viewpoint through with great consistency. The boundary line for the authority of the church is not fixed on the basis of an individualistic conception, but from the divine Word entrusted to the church. “Let the church, therefore, not be wise in itself and invent something on its own account, but let it fix the boundary line for its wisdom at the point where He stops speaking.”87 Thus—while recognizing this boundary-line—the church will have sufficient reason to base its faith on the comprehensiveness of the promises, so that it need not have any doubt that the Holy Spirit, the best guide to the right way, will always support it.88 It is extremely important that Calvin’s words are found in the same context in which he rejects the Roman foundation that the church cannot err, and that wherever it goes it cannot mean or speak anything but that which is true89 because it is led by the Holy Ghost. Calvin’s reference to the ‘comprehensiveness of the promises,’ in this very same context, as the firm ground of the church, is due to the fact that in his conception the issue is not subjectivism versus objectivism. The issue is the relation between the Holy Ghost, the church, and the divine Word, as compared with the Roman view of the relation between Christ and the church. This is the decisive point in the debate. It renders the appeal and the reference to the promises of the Holy Ghost, in the case of Rome, and in that of the Reformation, into something of a different quality. The difference might be worded thus: In Roman Catholicism the promise (of the leading of the Holy Ghost) falls outside of the relation of faith, as an a priori gift; but with the Reformation that promise is inside this relation.90
This is not in the least a subjectivization of salvation, but the recognition of the way of faith as the way of the church; the only way in which it can speak with authority in the world. We are confronted here with a quite different view of the empirical reality of the church. The coherence between Spirit, Word, and church is essential to the church. It prevents the latter from becoming a church which seeks its security outside of the faith that clings to the word of the gospel. What Rome considers an abyss of uncertainty in the Reformation has nothing to do with uncertainty. But, in the present dispensation, standing fast in the faith always makes us defenseless against anybody who wants mathematical proofs and an unassailable guarantee. There are no guarantees that can make the church acceptable to natural reason. And there are no miracles to establish its claim in the eyes of the whole world.
The authority in the church cannot start by proving its legitimacy—and go on to demand faith on the basis of this proof. The authority of the church can only manifest itself in the message and the confession of the church. A priori sanctions are excluded. In the history of the church decisions are made only in the action and the life of the church, in its subjection to the gospel of grace and its recognition of the sovereign grace of the Lord of the church. This is the only ‘guarantee’ in the listening and, therefore, in the teaching church. It is not a question of the ‘background’ of the Reformation, as constructed by Przywara, in which the sole activity of God is supposed to be a reason to hold all human action in contempt. Neither is it a question of philosophical insight into the relation between first and second causes.91 The issue is a religious protest against the stabilization of the guarantee of the church, so that the subjection to the gospel and the evangelical test are obfuscated by an idea of the safety of the church, guaranteed once for all. We do not in the least want to contrast the static to the dynamic views of the church. The Reformation did not dissolve the life of the church into a number of disconnected moments of tension. It recognizes the great significance of God’s promise, and could not conceive of the fellowship of the church outside of the covenant. The riches of the church were seen to lie in God’s mercy and faithfulness, from generation to generation, to all who fear him. But it made confession of all these things in the firm conviction that it could be a concrete and joyful reality, only if our faith is watchful and always subjected to the sovereign activity of God, through his Word and his Spirit.
For this reason the Scriptures could never become a ‘background.’ The Confessio Belgica speaks of God’s faith in the twenty-seventh article. This faith is manifest in the preservation of the church. And in the twenty-eighth article this Creed goes on—while respecting the fundamental correlation—with the following words: “maintaining the unity of the church, submitting to her teaching and discipline, bending our necks under the yoke of Jesus Christ.” The Reformation dealt with the marks of the true church. It was impossible for the Reformation to accept a dualism in which the ‘higher’ regions of church authority were elevated above this correlation. From this living faith the Reformers spoke of the church and of the faithful. In faith the believer submitted to the Head of the church, and thus joined the true church. The Reformers characterized Rome as a false church because of its refusal to submit to the yoke of Christ.92
The Word is a constant reminder of the duty of the church not to forget its origin. It is a consolation and an admonition of the church that the Word of God is the sword of the Spirit over the church. It suggests not only the protection of the church from dangers outside of the church but also from the ‘fierce rage of the whole world.’93 The Epistle to the Hebrews, written about the Word of God, says that this Word “is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword.”94 It touches and divides the heart and urges to inescapable decisions. I will again quote a Roman Catholic translation: “For the Word of God is alive and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, a judge also of the inclinations and intentions of the heart.”95 And in the Epistle to the Ephesians—the epistle on the Head, Christ, and his members—the Word of God is called “the sword of the Spirit.”96 This sword is mentioned in the description of the armor of God: “Take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” This description is a summons to activity, and a reference to the “armor of God.”97 This Word is his Word, the sword that must be taken and by which the church can stand fast. In the community with the Word, the church will stand under the leading of the Holy Spirit.98 To Paul there is no tension or contrast between the church, as the body of Christ, and its taking the sword employed by the Holy Spirit. The taking of this sword means the struggle with the outside world—in the evil day—but it is also our submission in faith and expectation. Rarely has the dependence of the church on the Redeemer been set in such a clear light and shown to the church in all its glorious riches. Its life should be surrounded with prayers “with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance and supplication for all saints.”99
In all these coherences of the church as the body of Christ, of prayer and intercession,100 and of the Word as the sword of the Spirit, lies the sole ‘guarantee’ of the church in the midst of the world. And this dependence is the origin of the solemn and humble song of praise: “Unto him be the glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen.”101
The well-known Reformed theologian Dr. Gerrit C. Berkouwer passed away on January 25, 1996, at the age of 92. He had retired as professor at the Free University of Amsterdam. Berkouwer also played a critical role in modern Dutch church history, since he was the president of the [Gereformeerde Kerken in Nederland] general synod of 1943-1945, whose decisions occasioned the church split of 1944 known as the Liberation (Vrijmaking). While he was still living, both friend and foe described Berkouwer as captivating, well-read, influential and cosmopolitan.
Almost everybody agrees as well that Berkouwer's thinking underwent a shift. Observers committed to Reformed orthodoxy indicate that, especially during the 1950's, Berkouwer departed from the classic Reformed viewpoint on several issues. For example, a comparison between his earlier and later writings shows a shift of viewpoint regarding matters like the authority of Scripture and original sin.
This particular article was taken from Berkouwer's work, The Conflict with Rome, published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., (1957).