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Volume 12, Issue 1: Thema

A Severed Branch

Douglas Wilson

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 more—her lampstand was removed—but this in no way nullifies God’s 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 particular place.
Such discipline of particular churches is a wonderful example of God’s faithfulness to the greater Church. God will not tolerate gross immorality or doctrinal corruption indefinitely—although 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 God’s 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.

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