26 February 2007

The Wrong Kind of Unity

by Phil Johnson

he unity Christ prayed for in the church is not, to begin with, an organizational unity.

When Jesus prayed that we all might be one, He was describing a spiritual unity. In John 17:11, He prayed "that they may be one, even as We are." Verse 21 continues: "that they may all be one; even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us."

That describes a very specific kind of spiritual unity that proceeds from our union with Christ. Christ Himself likens it to the unity between Father and Son. It is certainly not something as mundane and superficial as the homogenization of all churches under one earthly hierarchy of bishops in Rome or Constantinople.

Organizational unity cannot guarantee true spiritual unity, and the proof is seen in the Church of Rome herself. Despite all the Catholic finger-wagging about the lack of unity reflected in Protestant denominationalism, there may well be more disharmony within the Roman Catholic Church than there is in the typical Protestant denomination.

Take, for example, Catholic Answers, the apologetics organization headed by Karl Keating. Although Keating and Catholic Answers did not invent the argument that Protestant denominationalism disproves sola fide, they certainly have perfected and popularized it. Staff apologists from Catholic Answers are the chief ones who brought this issue to the forefront of the Catholic-Protestant debate.

Catholic Answers published the tract cited in the first post in this series. And Keating himself personally trained a number of pro-Catholic debaters to employ this argument in their dialogues with Protestants.

Catholic Answers has hammered this same theme for years. According to them, an infallible, magisterial interpretation of Scripture is the only thing that can assure true unity, and the continuing proliferation and fragmentation of Protestant denominations is living proof that there can be no unity under the principle of sola scriptura.

Suppose for the sake of argument we grant their premises and measure the Catholic apologists themselves by their own standard? Keating is arguably the most prominent of dozens of Catholic apologists on the Internet. All of them claim they have an infallible interpretation of Scripture, given to them through the magisterium of Rome. So how has the principle of "unity" fared in the Roman Catholic apologetics community?

Not very well, it turns out. To cite one well-known example, Keating has disavowed and waged war on the Internet for several years against one of his best-known former lieutenants, Gerry Matatics, a convert from Protestantism who now heads an organization of his own. The trouble began, it seems, when Matatics declared his preference for traditional Catholicism with a Latin Mass, while Keating is staunchly in favor of the innovations instituted by the Vatican II Council—including the new Mass in the vernacular.

In 1995, Keating said he considered Matatics "a sad example of how schism leads very quickly to heresy." [The Wanderer, February 16, 1995 p. 7.] Keating has published a number of articles over the years in This Rock magazine warning other Catholics against his former associate's influence. [e.g., Karl Keating, "Habemus Papam?" This Rock (July/August 1995).] Both sides took their case to the World Wide Web, posting articles and open letters, debating whether Keating or Matatics best represents the "Catholic" position. [See, for example, "An Open Letter to Mr. Gerry Wells in Defense of Gerry Matatics"]

The battle raged for several years while Matatics remained in full communion with Rome. Then in early 2005, Matatics embraced a view known as sedevacantism, which is the opinion that no legitimate pope has occupied the Holy See since the death of Pius XII. Ostensibly, this involves a kind of auto-excommunication. According to Dave Armstrong (himself a lay Catholic apologist), when Matatics renounced the current pope,
he incurred latae sententiae (automatic excommunication), based on cc. 751 and 1364 of the Code of Canon Law. The first states: the aforesaid canons defines schism as "refusal of subjection to the Roman Pontiff, or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him". The second states that the penalty for is automatic excommunication.

Matatics, of course, still considers himself a Roman Catholic—a truer Catholic than those who accept Vatican II. The ironic thing is that virtually every pope for the 450 years before Vatican II would have much more in common with Matatics than with Keating in their respective opinions about the Mass. (So much for semper eadem.)

And Matatics is not the only Roman Catholic apologist to wage a public feud with Keating. Robert A. Sungenis is still at it.

Such feuds are symptomatic of several larger conflicts within the Catholic Church. Keating is a "conservative Catholic," whereas Sungenis is a "traditionalist." The Roman Catholic Church is home to vast differences of opinion about the Marian doctrines, confusion about supposed Marian prophecies, disputes over canon law, and other deep-seated disagreements about important doctrines. Various factions and sects operate within the walls of the Catholic Church, waging polemic battles as lively and intense as any that ever took place between Protestant denominations.

Add into that mix the scores of radical or liberal priests who blend their peculiar doctrinal and political preferences into the Catholic system, and you have a chaos of varying opinions that is at least equal to that of even the most variegated Protestant denomination.

The simple fact is that there is really no more unity of agreement among Roman Catholics than there is among Protestants. Even with an "infallible interpretation" of Scripture, it seems, the Roman Catholic track record on true spiritual unity is as bad as, or worse than, that of the Protestants.

How much "unity" can there be, for example, between, say, Father Andrew Greely and Mother Angelica (to name two of America's best-known Catholics)? Greely is a liberal priest and novelist, who once said on "Larry King Live" that he believes the Catholic Church eventually will not only ordain women as priests, but also elect a woman as pope. Mother Angelica is a traditionalist Franciscan nun who has used her televised talk show to criticize other Catholic leaders, including Cardinal Richard Mahoney, for their non-traditionalist stance on liturgical matters.

Do Catholic critics of Protestant denominationalism seriously imagine that their Church embodies a pure, visible, organizational, and spiritual unity comparable in any way to the unity within the Trinity?

In fact, with so many who profess loyalty to Peter's chair waging battle amongst themselves over church politics and key points of truth, it should be painfully obvious to all that Roman Catholics are really no better able to agree on their own Church's "infallible interpretation" than Protestants have been able to agree in exhaustive detail on the meaning of Scripture itself.

Clearly, an external, organizational unity cannot guarantee the kind spiritual unity Christ was praying for. It would be a serious mistake, and a serious blow to real unity, to imagine that the answer to our denominational division is the abandonment of denominations altogether, and the union of all who profess Christ into one massive worldwide organization where we affirm only what we all agree on. No real agreement whatsoever would be achieved through such means, and thus we would have no more true unity than we already enjoy. Meanwhile, the cause of truth would suffer a severe blow, and that would ultimately prove fatal to all genuine unity.

But the unity Scripture calls us to is a unity in truth. Paul wrote, "Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). He did not counsel the Corinthians to grasp for a superficial unity by setting truth aside and embracing an organizational unity without regard to sound doctrine. Nor did Paul order them to abandon their differences and simply place a blind and implicit trust in his apostolic magisterium. He was urging them to work through their differences and strive to achieve unity in both heart and mind. Such unity is possible only when people are themselves in union with Christ. "For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he will instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ" (1 Cor. 2:16).

That is precisely the kind of unity Christ was praying for. There is nothing superficial about it. It is a unity of spirit. It is a unity in truth. And that is why, in the context of his prayer for unity, Christ also prayed, "Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth" (John 17:17).

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Colin Maxwell said...

Last year I had the chance to debate a RC priest from the Latin Mass crowd in our local University. He charged Protestantism with being splintered. I quoted back from one of their own websites:

"Moreover, with the prolongation of his reign and the prolificacy of his writings and discourses, however, it has become ever more clear that Pope John Paul II is preaching a new religion, a humanism, a gospel of the intrinsic goodness of man, thanks to God's becoming man, with the implied consequence of the salvation of all men. His starting point is Vatican II (Gaudium et Spes, §22):"

If that isn't a fracture of their supposed unity, then nothing is.

FX Turk said...

My favorite response to those kinds of objections is that those Popes weren't relly teaching, V-II isn't binding, and even the Catechsm isn't infallible.

You can't win this argument.

Jon from Bucksport said...

Phil thanks for the interesting article. It has been a long time since I ran into a Romanist (I refuse to use the term Catholic for them!) who was committed enough to discuss any of this with.

My first response to any of this kind of unity drivel would be to ask them about the schism of Rome from the other 4 patriarchs over filioque and Petrine supremacy. It sure sounds to me like they gave up unity over much more trivial doctrine than the supremacy of scripture!

James Scott Bell said...

Game, set and match on supposed Catholic unity. One could mention Mel Gibson's wing of the church, a like group founded by a French Archbishop named Lefebvre, which I believe has been officially deemed "schismatic," breakaway priests in the other direction, like Matthew Fox, and I guess we could go on and on.

DJP said...

What a powerhouse of a post, Phil. Excellent work, thanks. You've really provided a resource.

I like to say that RCC "unity" is just the 30,000 denominations under one massive, swollen, depraved organizational heading.

Or, "Which RCC? John Kerry's RCC? 'Mother' Teresa's RCC? Teddy Kennedy's RCC? Rudy Giuliani's RCC?"

JackW said...

Could it be said that unity is a product and not a purpose?

Anonymous said...

I have heard the common saying that "doctrine divides." My response: yes, it does, and it is intended to. Doctrine is intended to divide the true from the false, the correct and orthodox from the incorrect and heretical. Doctrine does divide, but truth unifies. It is the truth of right doctrines that provides the only basis for unity, over and against the wrong doctrines. Shared truth is the only foundation for real spiritual unity.

Even So... said...

The language of koinonia, does not speak to how people feel (which is the way evangelicals typically use it—“we had great fellowship last night!”), but to what is held in COMMON. It is used, for example, of a commonly owned business or property. The joint owners do not need to have warm feelings about each other in order to be joined in a common enterprise. And though warm feelings are good in the church, they are actually not at its center—I know that that is a shocking thing to say! At its center, though, is the reality of God, whose redeeming action in Christ on the Cross is what both unites believers and diminishes the importance of their private circumstances, social experiences, generational location, and personal preferences.

David Wells

Solameanie said...

"How can two walk together unless they be agreed?"

I think it still all boils down to the nature of the Gospel and justification itself. Faith plus works is a false Gospel. Can we consider anyone a brother or sister in Christ if they embrace a false Gospel. The modern Catholic church likes to consider us as "separated brethren." I can't consider them brothers or sisters at all, separated or unseparated, recognizing that there could well be true brothers or sisters in the Catholic Church. But they are brethren in spite of the RC, not because of it.

Kent Brandenburg said...

So are you saying that Scripture teaches no organizational unity?

FX Turk said...

No Kent: he is not saying that.

Joe said...

Oh, when will we learn to collectively focus on, and only on, Christ, Himself?

Kent Brandenburg said...

Frank, I knew that "no," was the answer, but the question was of the nature that I would have wanted to hear a statement with a reference. I believe the Bible teaches organizational unity, but I was looking for a statement backed by some references.

A spiritual unity in Christ, and I mean this sincerely, is wonderful. I do believe Christ would have 100% answers to His prayers. But I think we've established that the spiritual is what Phil believes about John 17. Should I expect another installment that describes what organizational unity Scripture teaches?

Andy B. said...

Thank you, Pyromaniacs, for working so hard to fight for godly, Biblical truth in all that you do, say, and write. You are all worthy generals to follow.

siril444 said...

This blog reminded me of the comment by 20th Century German Lutheran theologian Hermann Sasse, who wrote:

“The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, is never present where lies are told. And there is actually more unity of the church present where Christians of differing confession honorably determine that they do not have the same understanding of the Gospel than where the painful fact of confessional splintering is hidden behind a pious lie.”

(From “Union and Confession”, in The Lonely Way Vol. 1, Tr. M.C. Harrison. CPH, 2001, p 272.)

Anonymous said...

One of your best posts Mr. Phil Johnson and a welcome breath of fresh air in the smothering cloud of smog of desire for external unity at the expense of sound doctrine.

J♥Yce Burrows said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
J♥Yce Burrows said...

Of the faith of Rome... or of the faith dating in time to the Garden of Eden(Genesis 3:15) and in eternity to before the foundation of the world(1 Peter 1:17-21)? The Author of the faith has me in the grip of His grace, gratefully.

Awesome article! (Apologies for the previous post delete...needed to adjust Bible references). :-)