Ecclesial Deism

Over at Called to Communion, Bryan Cross writes about Ecclesial Deism. Here’s a short extract:

. . .
Of course ecclesial deists typically do not describe their own position as a form of deism, nor do they see it as such. One very significant factor preventing ecclesial deists from seeing their own ecclesial deism as such is an implicit Gnosticism (anti-sacramentalism) regarding the nature of the Church. The Church, according to this conception, is not a unified body with a visible hierarchy, but something in itself purely spiritual in nature, visible only in the sense that one can see and touch embodied Christians (and their children) who are, by their faith alone, presently joined to it.11 Conceiving of the Church as in itself spiritual and invisible allows a person to believe that Christ has always faithfully preserved His [invisible] Church, even while allowing the leaders of the Catholic Church to fall into heresy, apostasy, or perversion of the Gospel.12

This conception of the Church makes it conceptually impossible for the gates of Hades to prevail over the Church, no matter what happens to the visible hierarchy of the Church. According to this notion, even if at some point in history there were no [embodied] believers, this would not entail that the gates of Hades had prevailed over the Church, because the Church is a spiritual entity existing in the spiritual realm. Yet most people holding this conception of the Church as invisible believe that there has always been at least some remnant of Christians who believed the true faith, the true faith that was rediscovered by some later figure such as Martin Luther 1,500 years later or Joseph Smith 1,800 years later.

Given the Gnostic (anti-sacramental) conception of the Church, none of the biblical promises concerning the Church apply to the Catholic Church. These include not only Christ’s aforementioned promise that the gates of Hades will not prevail against the Church,13 but also that He will be with her even to the end of the age,14 that the Holy Spirit will guide her into all truth,15 and that the Church is built upon a rock and cannot be washed away.16. In the Old Testament the prophets looked forward to the Church age. From their writings we see that the Church enjoys an everlasting covenant that cannot be revoked,17 that the Church is everlasting and indestructible,18 and that David’s throne will exist for all time.19 For all these reasons, the Apostle Paul teaches that the Church is “the pillar and bulwark of the truth.”20 But given the gnostic conception of the Church, these promises do not apply to the Church in relation to her visible unified hierarchy; they apply instead to some invisible entity to which all Christians are spiritually joined through faith.

Furthermore, given this conception of the Church as something in itself invisible, being excommunicated from the Catholic Church is no more reason to believe that you have been separated from the Church Christ founded than it is to believe that you are the continuation of the Church Christ founded, and that the Catholic Church is the apostate ’schism from’ the Church Christ founded. This is why heresies and schisms must either maintain that the Church Christ founded is invisible, or, if they acknowledge that the Church is essentially a visibly unified hierarchical body, they must claim to have more ecclesial authority than does the episcopal successor of St. Peter.

Ecclesial deism tends to see the changes over the first fifteen hundred years of Church history as corruptions, not developments. That is why it seeks to jettison all these ‘accretions’ and return to the “purity of the Scriptures.” In combination with a sola scriptura approach, it is inclined to view anything in the Christian tradition that is not explicitly stated in Scripture or does not necessarily follow from it as a corruption or paganization of the Church. In that respect it is fundamentally pessimistic, skeptical of the possibility of a providentially-guided deepening of the Church’s understanding of the deposit of faith, until some later restoration is initiated. We find this notion of ecclesial deism quite clearly in the Restorationist movement that arose in nineteenth century North America. This includes the Churches of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh-day Adventists, and the Latter Day Saints.21 The Restorationists are unequivocal about what they believe to have been an early apostasy and a long spiritual ‘dark age’ followed by a restoration to the true and primitive Christian faith in their own group in the nineteenth century. That idea epitomizes ecclesial deism. . . .

As Bryan says later in the article, for the Catholic, “faith in Christ necessarily involves trusting the Church, because Christ cannot fail to guide and protect the development of His Church.”

To quote one more snippet:

The Church Christ founded can never be defeated, because the unconquerable Christ is Her Cornerstone; He is the Head of this Body. Members of His Mystical Body may commit grave sins or fall away into heresy or even apostasy. But the Church Christ founded can never apostatize or fall into heresy, because the Truth Himself is the Life in which the Church lives. The whole history of the Church is God’s providential preparation of a Bride for His Son, formed from the water and blood that flowed from His side while ‘asleep’ on the cross. Through His Mystical Body Christ remains here with us, as He promised. Just as men looked upon Christ’s physical body and doubted that this physical body was truly God, so throughout the history of the Church men have looked upon the Catholic Church and doubted that this is truly the Mystical Body of Christ. And then, having construed Her as a mere human society, their lack of faith begot further doubt, and they succumbed to ecclesial deism, and the confusion and blindness that is the result of not recognizing the Church.

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