Project Canterbury





The Significance of the Church Idea in the Teaching
of Our Lord and in the History of Christianity.


Bishop of Tennessee



Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2010


I shall not apologize for accepting the invitation of your Bishop to speak to you concerning great matters, with which you are all familiar, and which some of you can treat with more learning and eloquence than I can. There is, however, a just claim of age and experience to be accorded a respectful hearing.

We are all Christians. As Dr. Streeter says: "By His Life and character Christ has compelled us to make the choice between a practical atheism and a thought of God, as being at least as good as Christ Himself;" and we may say, that that Christ-thought of God, with its implication of the Divine purpose for man, is the heart and core of our religion.

In this age of aggressive doubt and of vague uncertainty as to the historical foundation of our Christian faith and hope, men may differ in their valuation of the facts of history and experience, which have combined to create the confidence they have attained; and each man has a right to prefer the course of reasoning, which has helped him to reach a definite conviction.

It is therefore, with all due respect to the opinions held by others, that I venture to give the interpretation of one great factor in the history of Christianity, which has helped my own life and thought.

Following, I believe, is a brief but accurate account of what Our Lord is said to have taught according to the Gospels.

I. St. Mark tells us (1: 14), that Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom of God; So also St. Matthew (IV: 17). This Kingdom is not a territorial empire, but the rule and sway of God over the hearts and lives of all men everywhere.

II. The God of this Kingdom is "Our Father,"--not simply the Covenant God of Israel and the Author and Creator of all men,--but a [3/4] Father, Whose very nature is love--a love, which embraces all, whether good or bad, in its universal tenderness and compassion.

III. The relation of Jesus to the Father is unique. It differs from the sonship of believers, not in degree, but in kind. He is the "Only-Begotten Son." His Sonship is pre-existent. It involves essential oneness with the Father. Therefore He speaks of His Cross and Passion as bound up in some way with the salvation of mankind. His Life is given "as a Ransom for many," and Jesus, "if lifted up from the earth will draw all men unto Him."

IV. Jesus gives us a new conception of the Holy Spirit. The Father will give the Spirit to all who ask, and the Spirit is the "Paraclete," the "Comforter" and Strengthener, Whom Jesus will send, and Who will perpetuate the Presence of the Son; for the Gift of the Spirit is the Gift of the Son; as He said: "He will take of Mine and show it unto you."

V. So. St. Luke tells us (VI: 13), as we also read in St. Matthew and St. Mark, "Jesus called unto Him His disciples, and of them He chose twelve, whom He also called Apostles;" and St. John tells us, that He said unto them (St. John, XIV: 17), "The Spirit of Truth dwelleth with you and shall be in you."

Thus the dwelling place of the Spirit is the organized Church. As Dr. Swete says: "Jesus regarded Himself as the Founder of a New Israel, a Divine Society upon earth. It was evidently in His thought from the first, when He gathered His disciples round Him, and out of them chose twelve, to be His Ministers and the nucleus of the Ecclesia, the Church. A whole series of parables deal with this conception,--describing the process of its growth, its adulteration and ultimate purification,--the relation of individual disciples to the Body." The Church itself is not the Kingdom; but is the concrete form in which the spiritual principle of the Kingdom is expressed.

The Church is no mere accident of the Divine Kingdom, but its greatest result in the present time. It is a world-wide corporation, spiritual in its nature, assured of an indestructible vitality, against which the Gates of Hell cannot, and will not prevail. As we read in St. Luke's account of the first converts on the Day of Pentecost, the Church was the School, in which they were to learn and practise "The Apostles' doctrine and the Fellowship, and the Breaking of Bread, and the Prayers."

It cannot be too often or too strongly emphasized, as a plain fact of history, that the very existence of the New Testament writings presupposes the prior existence and activity of the Church. Perhaps, as a recent writer has said, we should not speak of Our Lord as the Founder of the Church, but as its Creator. There is a difference between what is [4/5] machine-made and what grows by Divine creative act. So the Church emerged. It came into being by the power of the Holy Spirit. It is organic. It is a living thing; and, like a living thing, it took on shape, it developed its organization; and no man can say at what moment, in what year, it began to be. All that we know is, that, about twenty-five years after Our Lord's Resurrection, St. Paul speaks in glowing terms, in his letter to the Ephesians, of the ONE BODY and the ONE SPIRIT,--the joints and bands, the organs and functions, of a visible, tangible, organized Church, the medium and instrument of the Spirit's operation. Yes, the Church, which is intended to be before the world the sacrament and symbol, the outward visible sign of God's immanence in humanity, the promise and prophecy of God's ultimate incarnation in the race of man.

Therefore it is not simply, that we believe that Christianity, to be effective, must have organization. We all see that. But there is a fundamental difference between the recognition of the work done by voluntary societies, organized at various times for the propagation of some phase of Christian truth, and the devout belief in the continuous life of a sacramental organism perpetuated from Apostolic times. Consequently we cannot help being impatient with the efforts of some partisan scholars to fix attention upon certain technical details of incipient organization in the case of individual Christian communities and so build up arguments against the fully developed constitution of the Catholic Church in the second century. For, without doubt, from the time of Irenaeus in the middle of that century, the Episcopal organization was the rule everywhere; and, as late as Pope Gregory I in 596 A.D. the Pope himself disclaimed any universal supremacy.

The Church, as I have said, emerged as a live thing, a growing thing,--the acting working agent of the Spirit of Christ,--human indeed in its administration, and subject in large degree to the defects and errors of human judgment and prejudice, but endowed with a central power of Divine indwelling, which has preserved its continuous existence and activity through the social changes and political revolutions of more than eighteen hundred years.

In fact it is the oldest existing organized institution in the world. As M. Renan said: "The originality of Jesus is to be found in the Society He created."

St. Augustine of Hippo has been called by Prof. Huxley the keenest intellect that the Western world has yet produced. He was human and not infallible; but his almost unrivalled familiarity with the theories and philosophies of the fourth century makes him an important witness. "It was the authority of the Church," he said, "which brought me to believe the Gospel." And again he says: "We shall not hesitate to hide ourselves in the bosom of the Church, which, through the succession of the [5/6] Bishops, holds the summit of authority" (Treatises, p. 616). And, "The custom and practice of the Church have authority in matters, not explicitly mentioned in Scripture" (p. 519).

There is a brilliant passage in Harnack's History of Dogma to the same effect; viz: (vol. 2, p. 126) .

"Amidst the general disorganization of all relationships and from amongst the ruins of a shattered fabric, a new structure, founded on belief in One God, in a sure revelation, and in eternal life, was being laboriously raised. It gathered within itself more and more all the elements, still capable of continued existence; it readmitted the old world, cleansed of its grossest impurities, and raised holy barriers to secure its conquests against all attacks. Within this edifice (the Church) burned two mighty flames,--the assurance of Eternal Life guaranteed by Christ, and the practice of mercy. He who knows history is aware that that structure prolonged the life of a dying world, and brought strength from the Holy One to another world, struggling into existence. The Church in the Middle Ages became the Holy Mother, and her house a House of Prayer for the Germanic peoples, who were really the children of the Church, tho they themselves had not helped to rear the house in which they worshipped."

So the poet Coleridge in his "Aids to Reflection," p. 295, says: "My fixed principle is, that a Christianity, without a Church exercising spiritual authority, is vanity and delusion."

And the historian Guizot calls attention to the fact (History of Civilization) that what saved European civilization from utter destruction in the flood of barbarism in the fifth and sixth centuries was the organized Christian Church.

And finally, as Dr. R. C. Moberly says ("Belief in the Holy Ghost," p. 115) "I believe in the Holy Ghost. I believe in His Presence, His working. But where and how? My belief in Him is an unreality, except it include the sphere, the method, the channels, the effects; for these are the things that constitute the true life of the Church on earth. Belief in the Holy Ghost carries with it belief in the Holy Catholic Church. Belief in the Church is an interpretation of belief in the Holy Ghost. There is One Body and One Spirit,--one Body whose meaning is spirit; One Spirit, the Life of the Body, and in One Spirit were we all baptized into One Body. Only through the Church's life and work are the effects of the Incarnation and Atonement wrought out into the lives of individuals. By the life of the Church we live."

The vital fact in the whole discussion is, that Christianity is a sacramental religion, that is, a religion organized to convey grace as well as [6/7] to maintain and proclaim truth; and the real question about the ministry of the Church is not whether it has been continuous in one legal form, but whether it is a priesthood or a merely prophetical office. Its character as a priesthood is involved in the conception of the meaning and significance of the sacrament of the Holy Communion. Therefore it has been well said, that, "The two main lines of spiritual advance in our generation seem to be the re-discovery of the historical Jesus and the worship of the ever-present Christ in the Holy Communion." Not that the Presence is limited by its Sacramental expression; but in Miss Underhill's words: "It is the taper in the window that tells us, that the Master of the House is at home."

St. Peter, in the fifth verse of the second chapter of his first Epistle (cf. the Book of the Revelation 1: 6) expressly calls the company of believers--i.e., the Church,--a Holy Priesthood (Hirerateuma-Hierous--); and the corporate priestliness of the Church requires the priesthood of the ministry. See also Harnack, "Constitution and Law," p. 118.

I have dwelt at length upon this idea of the Catholic Church, as a great spiritual society, extending through all the Christian ages, living by its own truth and life, and having its own laws and rites and usages; because this fact has a special significance and importance for us in dealing with the problems of our time.

Christianity has always included three elements,--three forms of its expression. It has always been a corporate society; it has always had its intellectual interpretation of the truth; and it has always encouraged the individual consciousness of mystical union with God. Each of these phases of our religion has from time to time been given an exaggerated emphasis by individuals or parties in the Church, encouraging absoluteism in government at one time, or antinomianism or lawlessness, or dogmatic narrowness and bigotry at other times. Today I think we must restore the institution to its proper place in our reasoning and judgment, according to the true meaning of what St. Paul said: That the Church is the bulwark and mainstay, the pillar and ground of the truth, as it was revealed in Christ. This, of course, is not intended to depreciate the importance of the doctrinal and mystical elements in Christianity, but only to suggest the value of emphasis upon the continuity of the institution in dealing with present day questions.

1. In the first place then; The Church, the Institution, the Fellowship, represents the importance of life as compared with doctrine. The creed has its proper and indispensable place as the intellectual interpretation of the Life,--but it makes a real difference whether creeds, that is the intellectual expression of religion, are given the first or second place. The medieval Roman Church, under the influence of the Schoolmen, [7/8] of whom St. Thomas Aquinas was the outstanding exponent, developed a vast system of theological definitions, and the Protestant Reformers, with John Calvin, the lawyer, in the lead, followed St. Thomas' example and made conformity to doctrinal definition the test of Christian discipleship.

It is to the everlasting credit of the Reformation leaders of the Church of England, that they seemed to regard doctrinal opinion as of less importance than the preservation and maintenance of the continuity and integrity of the Institution. Consequently the Prayer Book and constitution put emphasis upon the apostolical succession of the ministry and the orderly and reverent administration of the sacraments, and that very emphasis has encouraged large freedom of thought and opinion, with regard to many questions, relating to mere doctrinal interpretation. According to the XXXIX Articles of Religion, "The Church hath authority in controversies of faith, subject always to the teaching of Holy Scripture;" but the only exercise of that authority by the Catholic Church has been the authorization of the two Catholic Creeds; and beyond these creeds we are not bound by the definitions of the XXXIX Articles, or the Westminster Confession, or the decrees of the Fourth Lateran Council or of the Council of Trent or the Vatican Council of 1870.

This recognition of the fact, that doctrine represents only one phase of the Church's life ought to help us in dealing with the questions of our time.

Today we are having difficulty in re-interpreting the doctrines of Christianity in the light of modern knowledge, and many consciences of those, who are loyal to the essential truth of Christianity, are troubled, because they seem to be compelled, or think that they are compelled, to twist the words of the Creed into a non-natural sense. Therefore, Miss Gardner says, in her "History of Sacrament;" "Would it not be well to reverse the process of the mediaeval theologians, who turned the sacramental forms into dogmas and turn our dogmatic forms into sacraments?"

2. The outstanding characteristic of Our Lord's ministry was His interest in and care for, those of His brethren, who were in affliction and adversity. "Go tell John," He said, "what things ye have seen and heard; how the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and to the poor the Gospel is preached." And it is the corporate organization and the organic continuity of the Church, that conserves and emphasizes this truth, that we are members one of another; that Christianity is a social religion and a democratic religion; a spiritual force to bind into one brotherhood those who are [8/9] now divided by rank or sex or station or race, and all other barriers, against which the sacraments are a perpetual protest. And surely there is no truth, that needs to be brought home more urgently to all Christians today, than this social responsibility of mutual service, which rests upon every member of the Church.

3. We are not committed,--the Catholic Church has never committed herself,--to any definition of the meaning of the inspiration of the Bible, or what it implies. We know that the Bible is not a magical book, let down from heaven, with every word and phrase dictated by God; but we accept it, as "The Divine Library," as the Christian fathers called it,--the collection of Sacred Books, containing, as it says itself, "in divers portions and in divers manners," a revelation of God's truth; a collection of books, which the Church preserved and handed down to us, to be her charter and constitution, to which she makes her appeal for the truth of what she teaches; as the phrase goes; "The Bible to prove and the Church to teach." The proper understanding of this relation of the Church to the Bible will save us on the one hand from a fanatical refusal to accept the assured results of modern criticism and on the other hand it will save us from disregarding the plain teaching of the New Testament. Without any doubt the Church existed before the New Testament, and there is a legitimate and helpful ecclesiastical tradition, which supplements and interprets the New Testament; but that tradition becomes an encouragement to error and superstition when it is accepted as independent of and even contradictory of, the New Testament record. The modern cultus of the Blessed Virgin is a case in point. Let us believe with St. Paul, that the Church is the support and buttress of the truth. Then our faith in the historic Catholic Church, as a whole, will safeguard our intelligent loyalty to the Bible as well as our freedom of thought and our sympathetic acceptance of the results of modern science.

4. I shall not attempt to discuss at length the extent of the authority, which should be conceded to the Church. I recall a striking passage in Newman's "Grammar of Assent," where he says: "Life is too short for a religion of inferences. Resolve to believe nothing, and you must prove your proofs and analyze your elements, sinking farther and farther, finding in the lowest depth a lower deep, until you land on the broad bosom of scepticism." And I venture to say, that every sensible and thoughtful person, who recognizes the limitations of the human mind and the restricted extent of human knowledge, must admit, that we are all largely dependent upon authority for the convictions and standards, that influence and shape our daily life. As a matter of fact, as Ruskin said, the real problem of life,--intellectual as well as moral,--is not how to be free, but how to discover our true master and try to obey him. We Christians have accepted Our Master, the Lord Jesus Christ, [9/10] and what we know about Him and His teaching, has been preserved and handed down to us by His Church; and our obligation is that of St. Paul, who said (II Corinthians X: 5) "Casting down imaginations and every high thing, that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ."

The position, that is apparently taken by some of the brethren, that each man must rely upon his own spiritual intuition, and start out for himself to discover what he can about God and human destiny--this may satisfy a man's vanity, but it will get him nowhere. It is this kind of thinking, that separates the Jesus of the Gospels from the Christ of history and experience, and would reduce all religion to a mere subjective emotion. But it has been well said; "The power of mental initiative, the power of original contribution, which each individual has in him and which it is the function of education to liberate, is strengthened, not weakened, by reverent teachableness at the start." Hegel was right in saying to his pupils, that they would injure their capacity for original thinking by indulging in premature criticism.

As for the nature of the Church's authority, it is not the authority of an infallible autocrat, dictating new truth as occasion offers, but it is the authority of the corporate witness, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, to the Truth, as it was accepted and taught, to quote Vincent of Lerins--Ubique, semper et ab omnibus--everywhere, always, and by all. This is our stand against any individual dogmatizer, whether he be a Roman Pope or a Protestant Pope. Our Lord was speaking to all His disciples, when He said; "Ye shall be witnesses unto Me."

5. Once more: Christianity makes a universal claim to guide and control the conduct of men and women through the whole of life. It does not legislate for particular cases; but it furnishes principles to govern moral action. Therefore, as Dr. Strong says in his Bampton Lectures: This principle of moral behavior relates not merely to the individual, but is definitely embodied in a Christian society. In other words, the Christian idea should take shape in individual lives and at the same time it should be embodied as a society of persons, holding the same faith and guided in action by the same principles. Therefore the Church idea must be quickened, and the function of discipline must be exercised. We may not leave the ideals of moral action to the varying judgment and preference of individuals.

Today the responsibility resting upon the Church is not so much the protection and maintenance of her system of doctrine (that is the intellectual expression of her faith), but upon the preservation of the moral standards, which, from the first age have been the distinguishing feature and safe-guards of the Church's existence.

[11] Christian men and women in the early centuries were known as "people of the Way;" and Christianity was regarded as primarily a system and mode of life. Its doctrine was only the necessary background of the Life.

What saved and strengthened the Church, in the long centuries, when the Christian profession and loyalty was a dangerous venture, was the fact, that she maintained in her legislation, accepted by her members, her moral standards, her moral ideals, of Christian brotherhood and Christian self control.

There is an impressive statement in an essay of Dr. Antonio Aliotta, Professor of Philosophy in the University of Naples, where he says: "The man, who follows faithfully the voice of moral conscience, and who finds himself face to face with a Church like the Christian Church, feels that it is the voice of God Himself, ordering him to accept its truths. The Nicene Creed appears to him as the portrait, of which the moral conscience was but a rough sketch."

Finally; it seems to me, that we do not help the cause of Christian unity by ignoring the importance of the sacramental order of the Church. Indeed, I think, that the tendency in some quarters to make light of the value and significance of the historic continuity of the Church, and the sacramental succession of its ministry, is a tendency to deny the objective reality of Our Lord's continuing Presence; and yet that objective, continuing Presence is the very core and centre of our Christian faith. When King Agrippa (Acts XXV) asked Festus what was the subject of Paul's preaching, Festus replied, that the main issue in the controversy, was about "one Jesus, who was dead, and whom Paul affirmed to be alive;" and from that day to this the objective continuing Presence of Christ in the Church and sacrament has been the invigorating, sustaining vital power in the life of the Christian Church; and the continuity of the order of the Church is the continuity of that sacrament. Moreover, I believe, that only through the visible society, with its frame-work of permanent organization and unchanging tradition, have we any sure guarantee of the continuity of the revelation of truth and the ideal of human conduct, manifested in the life and teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ.

There is only too much evidence today of the disintegration of Christian faith and Christian moral standards; and therefore, with heartiest sympathy and good will towards those brethren, who prefer the assurance of individual subjective experience to the witness of the Catholic Church, we must refuse to change the preface to the ordinal and abandon our vantage ground of historical continuity, in an effort to achieve a semblance of organic union with certain sections of the Protestant world.

[12] Finally, as we have often heard it said; Our Lord Jesus Christ did not build Himself a monument like the pyramids. He did not found a political empire. He did not inaugurate a system of philosophy. But He did create a Church, in order that those who claim to be His followers might prove their love for Him by showing their love for one another; and, if we sinners, who profess to believe, that He is the Redeemer and Saviour of our souls, could only live up to that ideal of brotherhood, for which the Church stands and which the Church was intended to exemplify, we could convince the gainsayers. Yes; we know that if all mankind today could be made to accept and try to practice that ideal of fellowship, of brotherhood, all our distressing social and industrial problems would be solved. Let us pray therefore, as we are assembled here to take counsel and meditate on the meaning and progress of His Kingdom, that His Spirit may quicken our faith, and enlighten our minds and deepen our love; in order that, as St. Paul said (Ephesians III: 10), through and by means of the Church, of which we are unworthy representatives, may be made known the manifold wisdom and eternal love of the Lord Our God.

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