Project Canterbury


By the Rt. Rev. Frank E. Wilson, D.D.
Bishop of Eau Claire

Reprinted from The Living Church, April 14, 1934..

CHRISTIANITY is essentially biological. It may be decked out in forms and doctrines but these are merely the clothing which covers the thing itself. Christianity has to do with life and therefore can be expressed only in biological terms.

"This is true even back through the Old Testament preparation. The accounts of the Creation given in Genesis are pictures rather than scientific treatises, but the important point about them is that they are stories of life personified in a couple of individuals. The truest features about the Creation stories are Adam and Eve—or John and Mary—if the ancient writer had been familiar with such names. Similarly with the much disputed account of the Fall of Man. It is a parable of moral freedom, far more convincing and inherently reliable as a story of life than it would be in the form of a philosophical disquisition. Critically-minded people often object that this story is puerile and unreasonable and therefore to be disregarded. It seems to me much more . . . unreasonable to subject such an account to critical analysis and then throw it out of court. An inspiring picture of a sunset may be closer to the truth of human experience than the weather man's description of atmospheric conditions." [Cf. Foreword, by the author, to Agnes E. Van Kirk's God's Gift of Life.]

The Hebrews were God's "chosen people," not because God arbitrarily chose them but because, out of their genius for religion, they, above all other peoples, chose God. The Old Testament is the record of God dealing biologically with the human race through the "chosen people." The Hebrews were the "children of Abraham." They were led, not by a form of teaching, but by God-inspired men—the judges, the kings, the prophets. The Aaronic priesthood, biologically preserved, was the central nerve of their religious life. It was not until after, the return from the Captivity (about 538 B. C.) that the Written Law superseded personal leadership and the living witness of men. For four centuries before the time of Christ, Israel had no prophet. It was a period of spiritual decadence when legalism prevailed and religion degenerated into a set of rules. In a word, as soon as the biological factor was obscured, spiritual vitality went into a decline.

Then "when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son." The Incarnation is the re-assertion of the biological principle.

"If God were interested only in human intellect, He might have sent us a system of philosophy. As it is, He has sent us a Way of Life, expressed not in an argument but in His Incarnate Son: 'I am come that they might have life.' Birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—these are the touchstones of the Christian religion; rather than logic, reason, science, theory, or organization." [Ibid., pp. vi and vii.]

In presenting His Gospel, Christ consistently adhered to this principle. He set forth no system of regulations, no code of doctrine, no book of particulars. He declined to be embroiled in the legalistic debates of the Scribes. He told them the Kingdom of God was like leaven, like a seed, like a man. He taught them out of life as they knew it in order to lead them into the more abundant life which they did not know. And He centered it all about Himself personally. He did not ask: How do you like this doctrine; or How does this theory appeal to you? He asked: "What think ye of Christ?" He Himself is His own Gospel. The Christian religion does not consist in an intellectual assent to an idea but in personal loyalty to a Person.

In view of all this, we might naturally expect that Christ would have made some provision for perpetuating His Gospel biologically. In this expectation we are not disappointed. He did not leave a system or a book. He left people. We call them Apostles, whom He trained, taught, and inspired to carry forward His mission. And He gave them just two things—a Commission and Sacraments. This constitutes the nucleus of the Church which St. Paul described as the Body of Christ—a spiritual organism prepared to receive and transmit the benefits of His redemptive life.

Now life comes only from life. It takes animal life to produce animal life. It takes human life to produce human life. Biologically speaking, it does not seem unreasonable that Christians should expect spiritual life to be derived normally in a similar fashion—namely from the Body of Christ which we call the Church. But if the center of all things Christian is Christ in person, then the Church as the conveyor of His spiritual gifts is only a secondary source. The Church itself must have received its own spiritual life from Him who is the primary Source of it all. That is the reason that the bulk of Christendom has always laid such great stress on the historic continuity of the Church as the hall-mark of organic relationship with Christ who is the Head.

All this has a profound bearing on the practical question of Christian reunion. Many people, impatiently demanding action, would achieve Church unity by declaring a moratorium on all differences and sliding the various Churches all together. This may appear very attractive but its desirability will depend on what it is you are after. I can make a tree by setting a pole in the ground and tying on branches. If I am clever I can produce a highly artistic decoration. But if I want a living thing which can grow, bear foliage, and reproduce itself, I will plant a seed, nourish it, and give some attention to the unseen roots. A synthetic Church is always a possibility but many of us feel scarcely warranted in revamping the biological character of the Christian religion by substituting "something just as good" for Christ's original planting. It is really rather important that we should know what we mean when we talk about a united Church. If we mean some sort of Christian club composed of like-minded people who are already good enough to qualify, then all we have to do is to agree on the terms of admission and go about our united business. But if we mean the family of God, the extension of Christ's spiritual Body, then it is quite a different matter. In the latter case, we are born into the family, we grow in grace through a process of spiritual nurture which is the common possession of the family, and we do not reach spiritual maturity except as a part of the whole Body. The exclusive club idea, with its multiplicity of by-laws, was the very issue on which Christ broke with the Scribes and Pharisees. He revived the neglected biological principle and preferred to plant the living seed of a growing organism rather than to erect a detailed organization.

Let us see how this applies to the four points of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral which was put forth by the Anglican Church nearly fifty years ago as a working basis for Christian reunion:

1. The Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments. It is often held as a scandal against Christian people that they can interpret the Scriptures to any purpose they may desire. This is particularly true of our Fundamentalist brethren who insist upon a literal acceptance of the Bible as the criterion of Christian discipleship. Yet our Lord never wrote a single word in His whole ministry, except once when He wrote with His finger in the dust and that writing soon disappeared. "The Word was made flesh"—not a printed page. Indeed there was not even an Old Testament, as we know it, at the beginning of the Christian era. The canon of the Old Testament was not settled until the Jewish Council of Jamnia 60 years after the Crucifixion. The New Testament did not begin to be written until 20 years after the conclusion of our Lord's ministry and was not finished until the end of the first century—perhaps later. For the next three hundred years the books of the New Testament were passed around, together with other documents, as separate Christian writings. The canon of the New Testament was not settled until the Third Council of Carthage in 397 A. D. Up to that time there was no such thing as a formal Christian Bible. Therefore to predicate discipleship on a literal acceptance of the Bible is to excommunicate all the Apostles and to repudiate the heroism of all the Christian martyrs in the notable days of imperial persecution. But during all that time the Church was at work preaching the Gospel and making Christians. Up to the year SO A. D. the Church was diligently exercising its commission without a scrap of Christian writing. Then portions of the New Testament began to appear and it was the Church that produced them. There can be only one answer, then, to divergent interpretations of the Holy Scriptures—what was the Church doing about it? Acting under the express instructions of our Lord, the Church would not have put into writing something directly contradictory to its own practice. For instance, the Salvation Army, though claiming the Bible as its final authority, explains away Holy Baptism and substitutes the signing of the "Articles of War" for its members. Scoffers will say, "There you are—you both appeal to the same Bible and you can't both be right." Quite true. How can one tell? By baptism does the Bible mean a subjective spiritual experience or a sacramental rite? In 397 A. D. the Church formally approved these writings about baptism and we know that the Church then (and for centuries previous) was actually administering sacramental washing in the name of the Holy Trinity. Surely that ought to settle the matter. This is in no sense to depreciate the Holy Scriptures but to put them in their proper position. The Church, as the living Body of Christ, comes first. The Christian writings are the Church's record. To say "the Bible and the Bible only" is to invite spiritual confusion. It is far more reasonable and truer to the facts to say: the Bible in the Church.

2. The Apostles' Creed and the Nicene Creed. At the present time there is a popular tendency in some quarters to disparage creeds. People say they believe in Christianity but not in creeds. One might almost as well say that one believes in mathematics but not in the multiplication tables. The trouble is, there is some confusion of mind about creeds and theology. Particularly since the Reformation many theological statements have been put out as creeds, which they are not. Theology is the study of God, and it is always growing and developing—not that God changes but that our comprehension of Him increases. Christian theology is our attempt to systematize and explain what we mean by the Christian religion. It is constantly being re-written. The more we learn of nature and of human life, the more accurately we can interpret God's revelation of Himself. We have learned a great deal in the past four centuries. Therefore most of the theological definitions of the Reformation period are out of date and ought to be re-cast.

But the historic creeds are quite another matter. They are a condensed statement of the simple facts of the Christian religion, without theological elaboration. They are concerned mainly with the person of Christ, and their chief purpose is to protect the biological integrity of the Incarnation. Very early in Christian history contentious persons were bent on re-conditioning Christ to fit their own peculiar fancies. Simple loyalty demanded that the Church should declare itself. So these two historic creeds began to take shape in refutation of certain distortions about Christ. Around them theological disputations have waxed and waned (as they still do today) but the historic Church has clung to the historic creeds as a body clings to its skeleton. They are not religious theories but are plain, positive declarations of the facts in the life, ministry, and mission of our Lord as the Church received them. In a sense, they are the source material for theological discussion.

At this point two observations might well be made. Every now and then someone conies forth with a modern creed which is really a compilation of precepts for Christian living. They may be excellent precepts but they cannot take the place of the creeds any more than a prize essay can take the place of class-room records. The most common example is the ubiquitous person who announces his Christian convictions by stating, "My creed is the Golden Rule." It is like asking the candidate for naturalization if he will "support and maintain the Constitution of the United States" and having him reply by singing the Star Spangled Banner. It may be a good enough national anthem but it doesn't answer the question.

In the second place, there are always some persons who shrink from the historic creeds because, they say, they cannot honestly go on record as believing some of the articles which they do not satisfactorily understand. Such a difficulty arises because these people have overlooked the biological character of the Church. They have torn the creed from its living context and have separated themselves from the Body of Christ so that they may severally scrutinize an isolated document as though it were a contract specifically drawn for each one of them individually. It is like a man's questioning his family relationship because he cannot understand some of his father's peculiarities. No one can wrap his little human mind around God. When a man says the creed, he is not proclaiming that he understands everything in it. He is pledging his allegiance to Christ and his confidence in the Church of which he is just one member. If some article causes him intellectual difficulties, he carries it in suspension, just as we do with many other things which we do not understand. Creeds by themselves may well become stumbling blocks. There is no need for the same difficulty with the historic creeds in the Church.

3. The two sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion. These are two special points in the great sacramental principle which runs through all life. They are, of course, peculiarly sacred to Christian people because our Lord Himself selected them and ordained their use. If what we have said about the biological character of Christianity be true, then there is no possible argument about the importance of Christian sacraments—outward expressions of life within. The Incarnation is the greatest sacrament of all—the life of God expressed in human terms. The Church is also a sacrament—the visible expression of Christ's continuous presence in the world. As the body is the instrument through which man as a spiritual being functions in a human world, so is the Church, the Body of Christ, the instrument through which Christ continues to exercise His redemptive mission. These two major sacraments are the main arteries in that Body, channels of His spiritual grace. By Holy Baptism we are born again. In Holy Communion we receive spiritual nourishment.

Sacraments are not bits of magic, neither are they casual ceremonies to be taken or left at one's Christian discretion. They are normal biological functions of the Body of Christ. They not only convey spiritual gifts to the individual members but they are the circulating media for the whole Body. The Church is something more than the aggregate of so many human beings. It is a corporate reality of which we become parts by a process of spiritual birth. Therefore the sacraments are more than personal privileges for individual Christians. They are sustaining factors in the life of the Church itself. The Church needs the sacraments as well as the individual members thereof. Christian people in partaking of them are, of course, receiving spiritual strengthening for themselves, but in addition they are vitalizing the whole Body by keeping open the channels of spiritual circulation. It is not biologically sufficient to consider the sacraments as separated rites. One must consider the sacraments in the Church.

4. The Historic Episcopate. True to the biological principle Christ worked through people whom He selected, trained, and commissioned. At the beginning these Apostles were the acknowledged leaders of the Christian community. In the aggressive and rapidly expanding movement upon which the Church quickly entered it is not surprising that there should have been divergent types of leadership appearing in some quarters. But such abnormalities soon resolved themselves and the bishops carried on the apostolic leadership as recognized recipients of the apostolic commission.

"Whatever variety of system may have existed in addition (to the episcopate) in the earlier age, it is universally agreed that by the end of the second century episcopacy had no effective rival. Among all the controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries the episcopal ministry was never a subject of dispute. We may therefore reasonably claim that it is 'historic' in a sense in which no other now can ever be." [Report of the Lambeth Conference, 1930, pp. 114-115.]

It is quite parallel to the settling process of the canon of New Testament Scriptures.

The head-shakings over this question of apostolic succession might be much less severe if it were remembered that it means the apostolic ministry in the Church. Bishops are not possessed of magical properties which qualify them as a distinctive class to convey holy orders at their own whim and fancy. It is the Church that confers orders acting through the bishops as its accredited representatives. The original commission given by our Lord to the Apostles was not in the nature of a personal prerogative to be employed by them without regard for the welfare of the whole Body. The commission was to the Church through the Apostles who were specially prepared to receive it. The commission was perpetuated through conferring of holy orders by the bishops acting not as separate individuals but acting as agents for the Church to whom that particular function was committed.

"What we uphold is the episcopate, maintained in successive generations by continuity of succession and consecration, as it has been throughout the history of the Church from the earliest times, and discharging those functions which from the earliest times it has discharged."

Or as St. Paul puts it:

"Now are they many members, yet but one body." "And God hath set some in the Church, first Apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers."

The biological parallel is a nerve in a human body designed for specific functions which no other member is qualified to perform and which would lose their purpose outside the body. That's why a bishop who has been separated from the Church and whose faculties have been withdrawn is not at liberty to confer holy orders indiscriminately and expect them to be recognized by the Church.

The practical question boils itself down to something like this: Unless the Christian religion is to be anybody's plaything, there must be some authoritative standard to give it character and currency. What shall that standard be? Shall it be the Holy Scriptures alone? Then what about the Christians of the first four centuries? Shall it be a system of doctrine? But Christ erected no such system. Shall it be a code of rules? Christ enunciated principles of Christian living but He compiled no set of specified regulations. It seems as though the only thing which actually links us up with Christ as the Supreme Authority is the apostolic ministry in the Church out of which all of these other standards arise. Moreover it is quite consonant with the biological principle which pervades the Gospel. Apostolic succession is neither a fetish nor a prejudice and it needs to be better understood.

What shall we say, then, of those who justify sectarian divisions because they promote healthy rivalry between various denominations and because people, being different, must have different means of expressing their religious life? It is as difficult for us today to contemplate the Body of Christ in fragments as it was for St. Paul when he asked the Corinthians: "Is Christ divided?'"

And our Lord must have meant something when He prayed "that they all may be one."

Or what shall we think of those who are satisfied with a federating of Church activities for purposes of better efficiency and greater economy? Federation may have its uses but it is quite a different matter from organic unity wherein the spiritual life of Christ flows freely throughout the Body. It is Church Unity short-circuited.

Or what shall we make of those who demand complete submission and absorption into an organization rather than reception into an organism?

Unity achieved on the voracious principle of devouring one's neighbors is a reversion to the law of the jungle which should have been outgrown these many centuries ago.

It would appear to be far more in accord with the mind of Christ for scattered groups of Christian believers to resolve themselves into an organic fellowship bound to Christ by an historic ministry bearing His own commission; obedient to Christ in administering the sacraments which He ordained as channels of grace for the whole Body; loyal to Christ in the uncompromising presentation of Him in His integrity to all men everywhere; and instructed in Christ through the record of His life as interpreted by those who knew Him best. Within such a unity would be generous latitude for differences in race, culture, language, and tradition. A truly Catholic Church has no need to ask more. A truly Catholic Church could hardly ask less.

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