The One True Church?

Pope Benedict XVI the other day reasserted the universal primacy of the Church of Rome, as he approved a document entitled “Dominus Iesus” that says, among many other things, that: (1) there is only one true church, the Roman Church, and (2) other Christian denominations are not “true churches.” This document was issued in 2000 by the “Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith” of which Benedict was a prefect. (By the way, this “Congregation” descended from the medieval Inquisition which put the 17th century astronomer Galileo under house arrest during the last years of his life for asserting that the earth revolved around the sun. In 1992, Pope John Paul II finally apologized for Rome’s error; so much for Papal infallibility.)

On the Roman Church as the only true church, “Dominus Iesus” states:

The Catholic faithful are required to profess that there is an historical continuity – rooted in the apostolic succession – between the Church founded by Christ and the Catholic Church…. Therefore, there exists a single Church of Christ, which subsists in the Catholic Church, governed by the Successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him…. [T]he ecclesial communities which have not preserved the valid Episcopate and the genuine and integral substance of the Eucharistic mystery, are not Churches in the proper sense; however, those who are baptized in these communities are, by Baptism, incorporated in Christ and thus are in a certain communion, albeit imperfect, with the Church (Articles 16 and 17).

Thus, others, especially Protestants, cannot be called “churches” “in the proper sense” because they do not have apostolic succession – tracing their ministers back to the original apostles of Christ. John Calvin called this doctrine of apostolic succession “frivolous and plainly ludicrous.” Which early church bishop could meet the requirements of being an Apostle? A man who had: (1) personally been with Jesus during his days on earth; and (2) seen the risen Lord (Acts 1:21-22). No other men after the apostles could meet these two requirements. The Apostle Paul himself said that he was the last Apostle (1 Cor. 15:7-9).

The apostolicity of the church is not because of an apostolic succession of men, but because of its apostolic teaching, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3), handed down to believers through Scripture. The office of the apostles was unique and unrepeatable – they laid the foundation and the foundational doctrines of the church (Eph. 2:20), and no other foundation could be laid (1 Cor. 3:10-11), not even by the Pope.

What consists a true church?

The Protestant doctrine of a true church is exemplified in Article 29 of the 1561 Belgic Confession of Faith:

The marks, by which the true Church is known, are these: if the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if she maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin.

These three marks are related to the threefold office of Christ: Prophet (preaching the gospel), Priest (administering the sacraments), and King (exercising discipline). They are also connected to the Great Commission (Matt. 28:19-20): “make disciples” (discipline), “baptizing” (sacraments), and “teaching” (preaching).

Does the Roman church exhibit any of these three marks? Maybe some, maybe sometimes. For sure, the true gospel of justification by faith alone in Christ alone by grace alone is not preached. In fact, the Roman Church still, at this very moment, affirms that “If any one says, that by faith alone the impious is justified…. let him be anathema” (Canon 9, Council of Trent). Does the Roman church properly administer the sacraments in believing the doctrine of transubstantiation and baptismal regeneration? No. Does the Roman church exercise discipline among its clergy and people? We know it certainly does not.

But what about evangelical Protestant churches: do they exhibit any of these three marks? Maybe some, maybe sometimes. Many are in no better shape than the Roman Church in professing these three marks. In fact, there has been a great movement in the evangelical churches towards the Roman Church in the doctrine of justification, e.g., “Regensburg and Regenburg II: Trying to Reconcile Irreconcilable Differences on Justification,” and the “Federal Vision.” Some other examples of evangelicals’ sleeping with Catholics and other strangers are Promise Keepers pep rallies, Passion of the Christ hysteria, Purpose-Driven chaff, and Emergent mishmash. In all of these movements, was there a “halfway” meeting point between Catholics and Protestants? No, only the Protestants have moved towards Catholic doctrines, especially on the doctrine of justification by faith alone, the article on which the church stands or falls. The Roman Church has never budged, and probably never will, from their doctrine and worship a remarkable “not-of-this-world-ness,” in contrast to evangelicals’ pitiful “of-this-world-ness.”

Federal Vision: Towards Catholicism

And among the heirs of the Reformation, a movement called “Federal Vision,” with striking resemblances to the Roman church, is gaining adherents (“federal” from foedus, Latin for “covenant”).

In short order, here are their beliefs. First, works and grace are mixed, so that God’s grace and human works cooperate together for salvation, i.e., justification by faith and works. Second, justification is by “union with Christ” through membership in the covenant community. Third, the result of this belief in justification by membership in the covenant community is the belief in some sort of baptismal regeneration. Lastly, believing in “entrance through the covenant,” they also believe in “staying in by obedience,” rejecting the Reformed doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. (Canon 13 of the Council of Trent: “lf any one says, that a man once justified can…. [not] lose grace…. let him be anathema.”) All of these doctrines walk, smell and sound Roman Catholic, if not outright Roman Catholic.

It is not surprising then that Federal Visionists are in a slow procession towards the City of Seven Hills. A former Presbyterian, then Federal Visionist, and now Roman Catholic, says of this “homecoming”:

Many will discover that the Catholic Church is their true home, and many will discover her in a great moment of joy. This Federal Vision is really only a peek into the keyhole of the Catholic Church. The Federal Visionist has a vision of the beautiful things inside, but they have not yet appreciated the warmth of a true home.

But is this “true home” a “true church”?

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