I woke to a very interesting article in my feed this morning by an Eastern Orthodox Christian named Mark Meador. It is long, but it is well worth the read, and I applaud Mr. Meador for it. Meador is trying to engage with a very difficult set of challenges about how we are to understand the authority of the Church. I hope he will see what follows as friendly engagement and not as a rejection of what is quite valuable in what he has said. He does a particularly fine job in the first two thirds of the article of detailing the problems of hyper rationalism which lead us in circles when, as Christians, we start asking questions like, “Who or what authority should I place myself under?”
You Can’t Know (Except Apparently You Can)
However, about two thirds of the way in, he changes course rather dramatically and tries to show why Eastern Orthodoxy’s claim to authority is the best and only option for someone who wants to reason his or her way into the One True Church. Albeit, he does so with the enormous caveat that the only way to really and truly ascertain the Church’s authority is to live within the Church and come to know Christ there. Nevertheless, Meador believes that a kind of rational answer to the question “Where is the one true Church” can be found. He suggests that there are two premises upon which to find the answer (the links are his):
The first is that the Apostolic Faith is unchanged. Jesus Christ is the Truth and He “is the same yesterday and today and forever.” The True Church must hold the same faith today that the Apostles preached at Pentecost. Second, the Apostolic Faith must have been continuously preserved without interruption. Christ promised the Church that the Holy Spirit “will guide you into all truth” and “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” God has not and will not ever abandon the Church, Christ’s own Body, and this includes not letting her fall into error. While individual Christians, whether lay or clerical, may teach heresy, the Church catholic will never espouse false doctrine.
Thus, in order to be considered to possess the Apostolic Faith, the church we are looking for must hold the same faith as the Apostles and must have continuously done so since Pentecost.
There is a certain inescapable irony in that Meador grounds both of his premises, without caveat or further explanation, upon two isolated verses of Scripture (using the NIV no less!). Given that his argument against Protestantism in general–which, as I’ve recently argued, is not actually a thing–is based on the notion that blanket appeals to Scripture do not hold up to scrutiny because they rely so strongly on the interpretive whims of individuals, why then should anyone trust his claim that these two verses do what he says they do?
Anglicanism vs. Eastern Orthodoxy: Old Church Smackdown!
Having offered a set of premises that he believes lead inevitably to Orthodoxy, he proceeds to knock down the straw man by showing how only the Eastern Orthodox Church can satisfy these two requirements. His brief paragraph on Anglicanism is fairly gracious in its assessment of why he believes we fail to meet the mark:
I don’t consider Anglicans to be Protestants, properly speaking. They have a plausible claim to tactile Apostolic Succession, being able to trace their ordinations back to the early church through the Roman Catholic Church. However, since the Reformation any claims to Apostolicity on their part have been undercut by a doctrinal and liturgical diversity that was unknown to the Apostles, the Church Fathers, and the early church. Even for those remnants of Anglicanism that hold to a faith closely resembling that of the early church, they still part ways when it comes to ecclesiology. They embrace an “invisible church” theology that was unthinkable to the Apostles and the early church.
Certainly, not all Eastern Orthodox apologists would be willing to grant that Anglicans have a legitimate claim to tactile succession, so I appreciate the gesture. And there is a part of his critique here that I think is totally valid. The “doctrinal and liturgical diversity” that he speaks of is a major flaw in the way that modern Anglican churches have been living out their faith. But Meador suggests that this is a problem that goes back to the Reformation, as if it is an inherent flaw in Anglicanism, when in fact it is a modern problem borne of Anglican churches ignoring classical Anglicanism, particularly when it comes to authorized liturgy, which has only begun to become increasingly diverse in the last forty years. (For an interesting recent reflection on some of how that came to be, see this article by Fr. Matthew Olver.) Yet, despite the liturgical diversity, by and large, the Anglican Communion still abides under a form of liturgy very much the same as it received in the Reformation, and even the sometimes dreaded 1979 Book of Common Prayer in America does not take us so far off the beaten path as to be utterly lost to any notion of connection with the early Church. In fact, the prayer book tradition as a whole is what has kept Anglicanism as a whole from losing touch with the doctrine and practices of the apostles, despite the rather severely disturbing eccentric practices and teachings that have sprung up in some places.
Moreover, Anglicanism has never had an “invisible church” theology. It is one of the great points of contention between Anglicans and many of our Protestant brothers and sisters who we have great agreement with in other areas. We explicitly confess a visible Church. “The visible Church of Christ,” says Article XIX of the 39 Articles, “is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments be duly ministered according to Christ’s ordinance, in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same,” which includes, among other things, the proper elements, proper order, bishops and priests properly ordained, and a liturgical action that is grounded in an ongoing community of faith. Everyone, of course, acknowledges the invisibility of how faith is at work in the heart of the individual believer, but Anglicans agree with the Eastern Orthodox that the Church is visible, tangible, and grounded in the Sacraments, in the ongoing life of the community, and in history. There is no such thing as invisible communion. Anglicans confidently affirm the teaching of Saint Ignatius of Antioch, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude of the people also be; even as wherever Jesus Christ is, there is the Catholic Church.”
And Then There Were Two
So does that mean that Anglicanism should be considered a viable source of authority under the premises that Meador establishes? Well, it depends a bit on how one understands those premises, which is the problem with such an exercise in the first place, but at least by our own self-understanding, Anglicans would not have a problem meeting the bar he sets. At the time of the Reformation, the Church of England held and kept the faith once delivered to the saints. The Reformation removed some false teachings that had crept into the life of the Church and dusted off some old teachings that had become obscured because of those same false teachings. Nevertheless, the reformers and early Anglican divines were not attempting to establish a new, purer Church in England because the old one had disappeared but rather to rehabilitate the Church that was already there, to cure the sick not raise the dead.
Obviously, we have to admit that there were problems in the Church of England at the time of the Reformation because otherwise no reformation would have been necessary, but does the existence of problems and course corrections really indicate that there is no continuity in the life of the Church? If that is so, then Eastern Orthodoxy would fail to meet these standards just as surely as Anglicanism would. Why ROCOR? Why the Old Calendarists versus the new? Why the Chalcedonian split which many Orthodox today perceive to be a matter that need not divide the Church any longer going forward? Of course, one could simply say that in each of these cases, the matter under discussion is not about the heart of the faith, but rather about something of a lesser order, but nevertheless, these divisions were and are important enough that Orthodox Christians were willing to divide over them. Plus, saying that these divisions are less or more important than the types of division that have happened in the west forces us to wade once again into the waters of determining what is and what is not a true authority based on little more than our own personal beliefs.
Unquestionably, the Anglican Communion has an authority problem. A major authority problem. We acknowledge this and own it for all its sinfulness, just as many Orthodox are willing to acknowledge and own the sinfulness of the divided state of Orthodox jurisdictions in America and western Europe. And there are many ways in which Eastern Orthodoxy has been better able to preserve traditional Christian faith than Anglicanism has, in part because Orthodoxy has better structures of maintaining community than we do and in part because, for various historical reasons, Eastern Orthodoxy is only just now starting to face the same kind of secularism that western Christianity has come up against since the enlightenment. That being said, as I argued a few years ago, the Eastern Orthodox apologetic is weakened rather than strengthened by the notion that nothing ever changes in Orthodoxy and therefore the Church has never needed to reform. The premises that Meador offers for seeking out the authority of the One True Church are good premises, as far as they go, but they are incomplete in the way that he explains them. Yes, the faith has been once delivered to the saints and may not be added to or subtracted from. Yes, there must be continuity between the Church of the apostles and the Church of today if the Church of today is to claim to be the early Church’s legitimate heir. But there is no such thing as a church that never has to reform. That can only be achieved if we live in a vacuum, or if the Church becomes populated by something other than sinners. Scripture, reason, and the teaching of the Church over time are things that keep the Church grounded, but they also correct us over time when we go off course. The Eastern Orthodox Churches are not immune from this, and there are some things in their practice, even now, that a return to the sources of authority would help to correct. The Anglican Churches can and must do the same.
Ancient Authority vs. Postmodern Apologetics
So where is true Christian authority to be found? Not in any particular apologetic tactic, but in the Scripture first where God speaks plainly, then in the teaching of the Church about how Scripture is to be read and received, then in plain reason about how both Scripture and the natural world point unmistakably to the glory of God that is revealed in Jesus Christ. People come up with all sorts of strange things when they go off on their own with their Bibles, but that does not negate the fact that the Bible is a beacon of truth through which God speaks with a clear authority. Not because the Bible is magic, but because it contains the apostolic witness which lived in the earliest Christian communities even before the New Testament was written down. Yes, the community of faith is necessary to receive God’s Word and hear it properly, in its fulness, but that Word speaks to the Church, not the other way around.
There is something strangely postmodern about the notion that words on a page do not have real meaning, or that it is impossible for the Holy Spirit to speak to us through them. Yet both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox apologists seem to resort to this sort of postmodern critique over and over again in order to try to persuade Christians that another authority is necessary. As an Anglican, I do believe that another authority is necessary, but not because the Scripture is incomplete or incapable of holding that prime place of authority all on its own. Rather, it is because the Scripture itself directs us to the Church as the means by which the Holy Spirit comes to us, and the great saints of both the east and the west have always been willing to look to the Bible as their primary authority, even and especially when controversies have been tearing the Church apart. The Anglican critique of WeAreTheOneTrueChurchism ™ is not that the true Church is invisible and only in our hearts, but that the true Church is visible and visibly broken despite the oneness that Scripture assures us has been given to us by the Holy Spirit. And every minute we spend trying to convince the world that we are the One True Church in her entirety, rather than trying to reconcile the broken pieces of the Church into the one body that Jesus commands us to be, is a minute spent in sin rather than in building up the Body of Christ for the sake of the world.