He who learns must suffer, and, even in our sleep, pain that we cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God. - Aeschylus

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Unfair Questions: What is your denomination?

Tonight, I attended an event for fostering understanding between people of different beliefs.  It was a panel discussion, and the panelists were members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, a self-identified liberal Methodist church, and a member of a local Independent Baptist church.

The discussion was polite and useful, and there were no surprises for me from the panelists.  I was really hoping there would be some surprises for me, but unfortunately it wasn't from the designated speakers.  A kindly retired gentleman in the row in front of me did ask a very interesting question, which is, "Have you studied any ways of interpreting the Bible that came before the 19th century?"

Unsurprisingly, it turned out that none of them had.  Not one of them could name Origen of Alexandria or Saint Jerome, for example (just as I wouldn't have been able to before my 20s).  Not to mention any of the other early Christian thinkers who compiled, translated, or interpreted the Bible.  I could tell that the gentleman in front of me was a bit disappointed when he asked the question twice and received non-answers both times.

At the end of the panel discussion, I introduced myself to him and mentioned that I had actually read earlier Christian scholars of the Bible and talked about his work with a campus ministry group.  At one point, he asked me, "What's your denomination?"  I replied, "I don't have a denomination."

That was the end of that discussion, and we bid each other a good evening.  But those who know me might wonder why I would have told him that.  After all, I do go to church regularly.  And the church I attend has a name and clearly defined doctrines.  I'm a Roman rite Catholic.  So why do I not consider myself part of a denomination?

I don't consider the Eastern Orthodox intercommunion, the Oriental Orthodox churches, or the Assyrian Church of the East to be denominations either, and for the same reason I don't consider the Catholic communion to be a denomination.  The ecclesiology in light of which denominations make sense didn't exist before the Reformation; the ancient churches use a completely different frame of reference for understanding their relationships with one another.

If I were to ask a post-Reformation Christian, "Under which Patriarch's jurisdiction are you?" they would probably have no idea what I was asking. They (and my younger self) would not understand the question because their ecclesiology doesn't function even partially based on patriarchates, apostolic sees, or popes. But if I ask my Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, or Catholic friends, they have a frame of reference that allows them to answer the question.  My Antiochian Orthodox friends can mention John X of Antioch, my Coptic Orthodox friends can mention Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria, and my Catholic friends can mention the Patriarch of the West, Pope Francis of Rome.

Of course, I never ask a post-Reformation Christian, "Under which Patriarch's jurisdiction are you?" They don't have a Patriarch any more than I have a denomination.  Nor do I ask a pre-Reformation Christian, "What's your denomination?"  That would be the wrong question to ask, which is why I generally just ask, "What church do you go to?" when someone indicates that they are a church-going Christian.

It has the benefit of politely revealing the information I seek while not assuming that everyone shares the same ecclesiology I do.  I completely understand why someone who has no significant familiarity with any form of Christianity older than the 1600s would ask this question, because they really have no way of knowing why it's not a good question.

I'm not offended when asked my denomination, but it is a good opportunity to discuss older forms of Christianity and their very different understanding of what it means to be part of the Church.


  1. Your observations clarify a lot regarding the schism between Catholics/Orthodox (read: those with Apostolic Succession) and Protestants (the vast majority, if not all, of whom have no Apostolic Succession. Conservative Protestants in the United States (Fundamentalists and Evangelicals) typically frame the differences between themselves and Catholics in terms of individual doctrines of soteriology (Justification by faith alone?) or sacramentology (does Baptism effect our salvation? Is Jesus really physically present in the Eucharist), rather than in terms of ecclesiology. I think this goes back to an Anti-Catholic bias in the American conscious, which has been by and large formed by Protestant Christianity. Protestant ways of thinking about the church are pretty much assumed by default. The problem is not that they are assumed by default, but that they assumed by default but never analyzed. Everyone just assumes that any person can form whatever church he/she wants, but no one ever asks about Apostolic Succession & the like. Neither did I, until the last 6 months-1 year of my life.

    1. by the way, I am your friend Jack D. Sorry no name got attached to my post.

    2. Thanks, Jack. Good points. What would you say the biggest dividing issue is between pre-Reformation churches and post-Reformation churches? Is it ecclesiology, soteriology, or something else?

  2. I think that depends on whom you ask. As for me, it depends on when you ask me. about 10-15 years ago, I would have said that Sola Fide vs. both works and faith playing a part in our salvation was the biggest dividing issue. Now, I have come to realize that, while Catholics and Protestants still don't agree 100% on that issue, most of the major arguments on the subject come about because the two sides define the terms differently (e.g. Protestants generally understand "justification" as all-or-nothing, pass or fail, A or F, while the Catholic Church teaches that one can increase in justification--they see it as on more of a continuum, A+ to D-. When Catholics speak of their post-Baptismal works increasing their justification, this is complete gobbledygook to Protestants, because the latter define the term differently).

    Now, having worshipped alongside my Catholic brothers and sisters for the past six months or so, I have a different perspective. While I could frame the issue in a number of ways, I think it really boils down to ecclesiology and the issue of authority: "Do the magisterium of the Catholic Church and the Bishop of Rome really have the authority to make infallible declarations about Christian doctrine?"

    In the Gospel of Matthew, right after Jesus delivers the Sermon on the Mount, you will see these telling words: "When Jesus finished these words, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, not as their scribes."-Matt. 7:28-29. How did Jesus teach with authority? He quoted Old Testament Scripture and then issued not mere intellectual interpretations, but binding commandments that may or may not have been apparent from the original text (for example, "Do not hate your brother" is a rational corollary to the commandment, "You shall not murder," but "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery" is not easily follow from "whoever divorces his wife must give her a bill of divorce").

  3. The Catholic Church does the same thing. It takes Jesus' statement "This is my body" and then declares that the faithful must therefore believe in the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist. It takes His Statement "You are Peter, and on this Rock I will build my Church," and proclaims infallibly that the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Christian Church on Earth, the vicar of Christ. The Catholic Church teaches with authority, like Jesus. It teaches that it alone has the fullness of Christian truth, not necessarily in a narrow-minded or bigoted way, but that other Churches or ecclesial communities only have truth insofar as they cling to parts of orthodox doctrine that are upheld by the Church.

    Few Protestant denominations that I am aware of make this claim. Baptists believe that they are right and that everyone else is wrong, but they don't believe that their own pronouncements are infallible or binding on anyone else. They believe their own pronouncements are more accurate than those of all other denominations because they best approximate what Scripture teaches. They would state that the Bible itself is what is binding, infallible, authoritative. I think most Protestant denominations probably frame doctrine in this fashion, based on the assumption of Sola Scripture. Even 10-15 years ago, when I was very unwavering in my Protestant Evangelical views, I realized that Sola Scriptura was an untenable doctrine. The reason that it is untenable is that you have to get scripture from somewhere. The New Testament doesn't tell you which books are inspired and should be included in the canon (and even if it did, it would be circular reasoning to argue that a work is divinely inspired just because it claims to be divinely inspired). The New Testament (and the rest of the Bible) didn't just fall out of the sky one day, it had to be written, copied, re-copied, and compiled over the course of hundreds of years. During those years, the bishops and teachers of the early church debated about which books should make it in. In the end, some favorites didn't make it in the New Testament Canon (e.g. Didache and Shepherd of Hermas, despite their being close in time to the apostles) and some books were nearly excluded but ended up making it in (e.g. Revelation).


  4. Based on this, I realized that even Protestants have to hold to some traditions--you have to have tradition to get to the Bible. Many of them greatly respect the Nicene Creed, for example, and probably several other of the ecumenical councils of the first millennium. I think that where most Protestants jump off the train of Church tradition is around the 4th-5th century A.D. For example, many of our Fundamentalist brethren teach that, after the council of Nicaea, the Church committed apostasy once Constantine made it the official religion of the Roman Empire and incorporated a lot of paganism into it (I personally think that this theory is bunk, I just offer it as an example). For it is in the 4th centuries and following that many of the distinctive Catholic doctrines that make Protestants cringe (such as the Real Presence in the Eucharist, devotion to Mary) were defined.

    DIGRESSION ALERT: Interestingly, you also have certain Catholic groups jumping off of the Tradition Train at relatively late (to us, at least) points in history. For example, SSPX and probably most of the sedevacantists believe that Vatican I was the last authoritative Council and they basically throw Vatican II in the garbage can, claiming that the Church erred by departing from previously revealed tradition on certain matters.

    The problem I have with those groups is that, once you admit that an ecumenical council can teach doctrinal error, there then becomes no non-arbitrary point at which it is not at least theoretically possible that the Church went astray. If the Church was in grave error in many of pronouncements in Vatican II, then how can one know that Vatican I or Trent didn't also make errors? More fundamentally, what happens to your living magisterium once an ecumenical council perpetuates grave doctrinal errors? How is the average Catholic to form correct doctrine? Perhaps by praying and reading his/her Bible and 27-volume-set of the Church Fathers? (DIGRESSION ENDED)

    1. Good points. I've written before about Sacred Tradition having been the source for Sacred Scripture rather than the other way around. I've also written before about the relationship between the Church and the Empire. I'm not sure you've read those posts yet, but I look forward to your thoughts.

      Also, I think your digression brings up many good questions that sedevacantists must wrestle with as they work through the consequences of their decision to make the case for the See of Peter being empty. Some sedevacantists have better answers to those questions than others, but all of them face some of the consequences you mention regardless of the quality of their answers.

  5. s a Christian coming from a completely different tradition, with completely different assumptions, it is difficult to test some of the authoritative pronouncements of the Catholic Church. For example, the doctrine regarding the Assumption of the Virgin Mary was not declared infallibly until the 1950's by Pope Pius XII. Now, the doctrine probably existed in various forms in the church for centuries prior to that. However, you have nothing like the good textual evidence that you have for, say, the Resurrection of Christ, for which you have documents written within 25-60 years of the event in question. In fact, at least a century or more intervened before Mariology got off the ground, at least in recorded form. How can I know that this event is historical and not a legend? I really can't, at least not through historical investigation. I would have to arrive at it from another direction.

    Investigating the validity of the Catholic Faith is fruitless if you break it down into individual doctrines and then attempt to determine the validity of each doctrine independently, simply because many of the doctrines regard events which are forever locked in the annals of scantly attested history (such as the Assumption of Mary or her Immaculate Conception) or are not empirically observable in a scientific sense (like the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist).

    I say none of this to make light of any of the aforementioned doctrines. I regard them as real possibilities to consider. If they can be known as true, this can only be done through a sense of faith. If one regards the pronouncements of the Magisterium on matters of faith as binding, then the doctrines naturally follow.
    Ecclesiology is, therefore, the key issue to me. Catholics hold to a very high ecclesiology--the Church is Christ's body, the instrument by which he effects the salvation of people. In many Protestant circles, the Church does Christ's work, but Church membership is a secondary "bonus": First, believe in Christ and be saved, then get baptized an join the Church (although some Protestants hold to baptismal regeneration, probably most don't).

    I didn't even get into Apostolic Succession, which I touched on in my first post. It is, I think, one of the most convincing arguments that can be given for the authority of the Catholic Church (and all Orthodox dioceses as well, since they have Apostolic Succession). Paul wrote to Timothy about the gift that was in him by the laying on of hands. I will close my post as it is getting late, I've been perusing your blog with delight the past few days, I plan to become a regular commenter, so be prepared!

    Peace of Christ,


    1. Thanks for the fair warning, Jack. I've really enjoyed your comments. They're very thoughtful and well articulated. I will try to respond to each of them, though there may well be delays in my responses because of how much time I put into my writing here (as I'm sure you have noticed).

      I tend to agree with you that many of the traditional Christian beliefs handed on to us from the ancient churches can't be tested in the same way that other propositions are tested. As you pointed out, the way to rationally arrive at the conclusion that those traditional beliefs are correct is to accept that the ancient churches have teaching authority through Apostolic Succession in the episcopal sees which together comprise the Magisterium. I also think that ecclesiology is the linchpin issue, and I've discussed that with some of my Protestant friends before.

      That said, I have a second way of thinking about it that comes out of my studies of other religions. If I accept the teaching authority of the ancient Sangha, which is to say that I think the Sangha has correctly preserved and continues to interpret accurately the Dharma as taught by the Buddha (which I do), then I really have no grounds for insisting that the ancient Christian churches have NOT done so. The historical evidence that the ancient Christian churches have preserved the teachings of Christ and His Apostles is no worse (and is arguably better) than the historical evidence that the ancient Sangha has preserved the teachings of the Buddha. So for me to reject the authority of the ancient Christian churches, I would also need to reject the authority of the ancient Sangha to be consistent in my standard of evidence. I can reject the authority of both and accept the authority of both, but I can't reject the authority of one and reject the authority of the other while remaining consistent.