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Are You Part of the Catholic Church?

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What do you think about the medieval church? Do you feel a sense of connection to it or see it as a time of apostasy? Do you think it’s vital for your church to be able to trace its history to the time of the apostles (called successionism), or do you believe God restored the church at some point in history (called restorationism)? Your answer will probably influence which church you consider home.

Several of my favorite theologians of grace are Anglican, so, curious person that I am, I started reading about why Evangelicals might stay Anglican or convert to Anglicanism (see here and here and here).

For example, Michael F. Bird explained his reasons for leaving the Baptists in “Why Be Anglican?” Although he had good things to say about the Baptist faith, in his opinion, a significant weakness was its negative judgment of the historical church:

“Biggest drawbacks were a big lack catholicity (as if everything before Luther was pure darkness and even Luther was a confused Christian)…”

By “a big lack of catholicity,” Bird means Baptists don’t feel connected to the historical church. Catholic means universal, i.e., the church in all ages. That’s often interpreted in terms of a visible institution. If Baptists are familiar with church history at all, they often reject the Medieval church as apostate, preferring to believe there must have been a succession of nonconformist churches throughout history, as popularized by James Milton Carroll’s pseudo-historical The Trail of Blood. Bird was not convinced by that wholly negative judgment and found that Anglicanism allowed him to be both Protestant and “broadly Catholic” so he could recover the “patristic sources for our theology.”

Are Baptists too harsh on the state of the Medieval church? If you think so, then consider a second quote, this one from David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian with an impeccable knowledge of church history:

“the entire way of life that was at one time the very essence of Christian existence, with its contempt for wealth and its civic dereliction and its hostility to the mechanisms of power by which societies and nations and empires thrive and survive and perpetuate themselves, is the very way of life to which most Christian culture throughout the centuries has proved implacably hostile…It would be no exaggeration to say that, viewed entirely in historical perspective, cultural and institutional ‘Christianity’ has, for most of its history, consisted in the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ, the apostles, and the earliest church” (Hart, Tradition and Apocalypse, pp. 34-35, emphasis added).

Read that last part again. According to Hart, Christendom was the systematic negation of the Christianity of Christ! That’s as strong a claim as you’ll hear from any fundamentalist Baptist. (To be fair, Hart would also say a great deal of good was happening in the church, too.)

What does this mean for Free Grace?

If Hart’s right that Christendom negated the Christian way of life, is it really so far-fetched to believe it also negated the gospel?

By that, I don’t mean the message of Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. The Medieval church preached those truths.

Instead, I mean the message of how Jesus gives us eternal salvation through simple faith in Him (e.g., John 3:15-18; Gal 2:16; 1 Tim 1:16). There’s no question in my mind that the Medieval church salvation by works, not salvation by grace, through faith, apart from works (Eph 2:8-9). The Reformation came about due to a rediscovery of the doctrine of justification by faith apart from works.

So what do you do with church history?

While I’m skeptical of the Baptist attempt to find a succession of faithful groups in history (Christendom was too good at exiling or killing “heretics”), I’m confident that God has always used His Word to save individuals in all ages.

The Medieval church read the Scriptures throughout the liturgical year, which included evangelistic verses such as John 3:16. Some people must have believed in Jesus for their salvation. And when the moment they did, they became permanent members of the universal Body of Christ. That’s the only meaning of “catholic” that really matters. Are you a member?

Send your questions or comments to Shawn.

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