Volume 12, Issue 1: Thema
A Severed Branch
The modern evangelical church
is in an embarrassed condition, and this embarrassment is made
excruciatingly evident whenever Roman Catholic apologists pose
certain difficult questions. Even Reformed defenders of certain
essential doctrines such as sola Scriptura have done little better.
Without a coherent doctrine of history and the place of the Church
within history, the Bible necessarily becomes a book that is suspended,
in a good arbitrary fashion, in mid air. And thus a collection
of books about the meaning of history, given within history, by
various historical means, including the historical Church, have
come to be revered by a group of evangelical saints with virtually
no historical sense.
But when we open our Bibles, before we come to the Word of God
at Genesis 1:1, we come to the word of the Church at the Table
of Contents. No one holds that the Table of Contents is part of
inspired Scripture; rather it points to inspired Scripture. However,
it is necessary for us to see that the Table of Contents page
is important, and that on that page someone or something is authoritatively
identifying the boundaries of Scripture. The Westminster Confession
teaches that the Holy Spirit gives full persuasion and assurance
concerning Scripture to converted persons. These converted persons
are in turn enabled to see the other abundant evidences, which
include the testimony of the Church (WCF I, iv.).
The problem with contemporary Protestants is that they have no
doctrine of the Table of Contents. With the approach that is popular
in conservative evangelical circles, one simply comes to the Bible
by means of an epistemological lurch. The Bible just is,
and any questions about how it got here are dismissed as a nuisance.
But time passes, the questions remain unanswered, the silence
becomes awkward, and conversions of thoughtful evangelicals to
Rome proceed apace.
But this is an inconsistency among modern Protestants and is
not at all an inconsistency within the historic Protestant position1.
Of course, this should not surprise us; if Protestants do not
understand the history of the Bible, how can we expect them to
understand their own history as Protestants? The problem here
is with modernity in the Church, and not with classical Protestantism.
Now all this is just to set the stage; the point of this article
is not to lament current evangelical inconsistencies, but rather
to point out that the Roman Catholic Church shares those inconsistencies
in remarkably similar ways. I think part of the reason many evangelicals
are attracted to Rome is that they have discovered they have so
much in common. When men go over to Rome, they believe they have
answered these great historical questions; but what has actually
happened is they have joined a communion which is old enough for
them to assume that the answers have to be around here somewhere.
But if we investigate, we soon discover the same embarrassed silence
so characteristic of evangelicalism.
Those who have submitted to the Roman magisterium, the teaching
office of the Church, have actually submitted to an historical
abstraction. The magisterium is the doctrinal application of the
depositum fidei, itself revealed in both Scripture and Tradition.
The Church, according to her doctrine, is guaranteed infallibility
as the bishops, in concert with the bishop of Rome, teach the
faith. According to this position, the Church has been performing
this service for two thousand years. So the question is this:
where is the Table of Contents? Put another way, what are the
precise boundaries of the magisterium? Conservative evangelicals
know what they are submitting to, but they do not know why. Roman
Catholics know why they are submitting, but they do not know what
they are submitting to. Evangelicals should be asked, regarding
the Bible, Why is your Table of Contents? Roman Catholics
should be asked, regarding the magisterium, Where is your
Table of Contents? Why has the Church not performed for
the magisterium the same service she performed when testifying
to the canon of Scripture? Does the magisterium have canonical
boundaries, and if so, what are they? Anything with an imprimatur?
This is why debates on church infallibility between Protesting
Catholics and Roman Catholics are debates about the issue in the
abstract. We do not have a complete list of infallible pronouncements
anywhere which we can discuss in concrete terms. In this area,
the Roman church has been specific about this or that doctrine,
but has not been specific about the historical boundaries. Mark
the point well. The magisterium as it is being exercised today
may be clear enough to some, but I am raising an historical question,
and on this question of history, the Roman church is just as blurry
as the modern evangelicals are. Put simply, my challenge contains
two questions: Has the Roman Catholic Church made infallible pronouncements
throughout her history? And may we have an infallible and complete
list of them?
Given the nature of history, and what the Bible teaches about
the nature of historical growth and development, this problem
is not surprising. All these issues revolve around genuine church
authority, and this leads to the second great question, one prompted
by a much neglected warning delivered by the apostle Paul.
The Roman church teaches that her lampstand cannot be removed.
Among other things, this is maintained on the strength of the
promises made to Peter in Matthew 16:13-20. Now it is quite true
that Christ promised to establish His Church, and to build it,
and we believe that nothing can ever stop this process. At the
same time, precisely because this promise to the true Catholic
church stands firm, the Bible is clear that particular churches
may be removed from that Catholic church. This is done by Him
as a very important means of fulfilling His promise to the universal
and apostolic church.
For example, the church at Ephesus is no moreher lampstand
was removedbut this in no way nullifies Gods commitment
to the greater Church. Rather, this was done in fulfillment of
His promise. A gardener prunes in order to save, not destroy.
The tree remains; not every branch remains. The true Church of
which Ephesus was once a part continues to this day. And because
of this, true saints today maintain complete communion with the
true saints who were in Ephesus in the first century. But in history,
the tree has been pruned. A lampstand has been removed from a
Such discipline of particular churches is a wonderful example
of Gods faithfulness to the greater Church. God will not
tolerate gross immorality or doctrinal corruption indefinitelyalthough
in His great mercy He often tolerates it for a season. The illustration
of the Jewish church is apropos at this point. Caiphas was a true
high priest, despite his wickedness and unbelief, and even prophesied
concerning the Christ (John 11:49-51). And yet, just a few years
after Caiphas held that office, the apostle John writes off some
of the gatherings of the Jews as synagogues of Satan.
So while we agree that corruption is not the same thing as apostasy,
the Bible is very clear that complete apostasy of particular churches
is a very real possibility.
This pattern is given to us in the New Testament in the form
of a very stern warning. Paul used the illustration of the olive
tree in Romans 11 to show that Gentiles can be removed from the
covenant in just the same way that unbelieving Jews were removed.
The olive tree is the Catholic Church, the true Israel of God,
and the Lord Jesus Christ is the root. That tree will never be
chopped down; we have Gods word on it. Moreover, we have
His word that the tree will grow and flourish, as a visible Church,
until the earth is filled with its fruit.
Does it then follow that no branches can ever be removed? As
Paul might say, may it never be! This sin of covenantal presumption
was exactly the sin that was the downfall of the Jews, and Paul
warns the Gentiles not to think that what happened to the Jews
was impossible for them. The church at Rome has many ancient glories,
but what does it have that Jerusalem did not have? It was the
Lord Jesus Himself who told the Church at Jerusalem that not one
stone would be left on another. And again, Paul: Well; because
of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith.
Be not highminded, but fear: For if God spared not the natural
branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. Behold therefore
the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity;
but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise
thou also shalt be cut off (Rom. 11:20-22). To join a particular
church which maintains, as a point of dogma, that it cannot be
cut off, appears to be a very perilous course of action.
Now in response to this, Rome would maintain that she is far
more than just a particular church in a particular city, that
she is not just a branch on the tree, but rather that she is the
tree. This is internally consistent with their theology, but this
is not what Paul tells them. These words are not just being applied
by me to the Church at Rome, they were written by Paul to the
Church at Rome. Paul expressly warns the Gentiles at Rome (Rom.
1:7; 11:13) that their removal from the Catholic Church was a
very real possibility. Boast not against the branches. But
if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee
(v. 18). What we have here is a letter from Paul the apostle to
the Church at Rome, telling her that she is not the root, but
simply another branch on the tree. He states further that if she
becomes haughty and proud, she could be removed as completely
as previous branches were removed.
The point here is not to attack the insolence and wickedness
of some of the Renaissance popes, Alexander VI, for a good example.
Good men in every communion know wickedness when they see it.
The question rather is what such wickedness potentially means.
The issue is whether or not the apostle Paul warned Rome of what
could happen to her status as an ancient church when she began
to produce men who looked more like Caiphas than Peter. Do not
be haughty, he said, but fear. Fear what? the question
comes back. The apostle told Rome to fear removal.
But as a point of doctrine, Rome says she has nothing of this
nature to fear. She could produce a hundred Alexanders and a thousand
more just like Caiphas, and she would nonetheless remain permanently
on the tree. The doctrine of the apostle was a little different,
and the doctrine was given first in a letter to Rome, a lesson
that was first neglected, then forgotten, and now formally denied.
Now all this leaves us still with the question of the identity
and location of the true Catholic church, a question that will
have to be developed at length another time. But in the meantime,
it was Irenaeus who said, and said well, that where the
Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of
God is, there is the Church. Where is the olive tree? The
answer of Scripture is plain: Where there are olives.