Related Content

The Church is Visible and One

A Critique of Protestant Ecclesiology

by Patrick Barnes

This article is approx. 40 pages and still in an early form; but it is quite readable. I welcome any and all feedback. For those who wish only to read the Introduction I have included this below. Download the essay in PDF format.


There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. Ephesians 4:6

And I believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church ... The Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed

And if ever you are sojourning in cities, inquire not simply where the Lord’s House is (for the other sects of the profane also attempt to call their own dens houses of the Lord), nor merely where the church is, but where is the Catholic* Church. St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XVIII

Protestant Christians around the world are steadily becoming more aware of the reality of the Church. This century has especially seen a tremendous reawakening to this aspect of Christianity. “What is the Church?” is often the question that drives Protestants to either Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. Many Protestants who begin reading the the writings of the early Church—especially works like Tertullian’s Prescription Against the Heretics, St. Cyprian’s Unity of the Catholic Church, or St. Irenaeus’s Against the Heresies—, or who begin to ponder the implications of 1 Timothy 3:15, [1] soon begin to realize that the concept of unity with the One Visible Church is central to Christianity. All other doctrinal issues and disagreements are downstream of the issue of the Church, for She is the “pillar and ground of the Truth.” Find the Church and one finds the fullness of Truth. [2]

The question of the Church was certainly the catalyst in my own journey, especially after reading the Ignatius Press edition of Thomas Howard’s delightful book Evangelical Is Not Enough. In the Postscript he reflects upon the steps that took him from Canterbury to Rome by saying that it was “the same old story which one finds in Newman, Knox, Chesterton, and all others who have made this move. The question, What is the Church? becomes, finally, intractable; and one finds oneself unable to offer any compelling reasons why the phrase ‘one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,’ which we all say in the Creed, is to be understood in any way other than the way in which it was understood for 1500 years.” If Howard introduced the question to me, the hammer that drove home the nails came, ironically, from yet another encounter with a Roman Catholic book. To this day Yves Congar’s monumental Tradition and Traditions remains one of the most important books I have ever read besides the Bible; for it thoroughly convinced me that the Bible, Tradition, and the Church are one majestic tapestry woven and preserved by the Holy Spirit. When I finally became aware of the reality of this undivided, historical and visible Church I knew I could no longer remain separate from Her. I was not in the Church, and I needed to be.

Most of what will I will say below assumes that the concept of an ancient consensus fidelium carries some weight with the reader. For those who are of the opinion that the God-enlightened Fathers of the Church are not important, or who are under the sway of liberal scholars who champion theological relativism, there is probably not much common ground for discussion. One Protestant I have corresponded with, a doctoral candidate studying under Thomas Oden at Drew University, is probably representative of many when he said:

“As for the ‘proper interpretation’ of Nicea being, by definition, that interpretation which the Church has given it: First, that assertion so clearly begs the question that it leaves one suspecting whether there is any room left for dialogue at all. But second, and more importantly, I would contend with your assumption about the nature of Tradition. The Creed is itself an aspect of Tradition and, as such, leaves room for a spectrum of interpretations. For you to demand that there is only one possible interpretation of the Creed is certainly counter to the way [in] which that same Tradition has interacted with itself. The whole methodology of the Councils permits a breadth of freedom within certain conceptual parameters. We are not all required to affirm the same interpretation of the Creed, just the same Creed.”

Is there any common ground for discussion? It is difficult to say.

Another way of stating my position is that I unapologetically presuppose that the Church is indeed “the pillar and ground of the Truth,” that the Mind of the Church (the consensus fidelium) has something authoritative to say to us today, that what She says is clearly discernible, and that Her Tradition is timeless and unchanging.

Now, by “unchanging” we Orthodox do not mean “static” or “institutionalized,” as those misinformed about the Church’s understanding of Tradition often think. What is meant is that there can be no doctrinal changes to the Apostolic deposit. Only new expressions of the “faith once delivered to the saints,” expressions typically formulated in response to attacks on the Church’s beliefs, are even considered, let alone adopted.[3] St. Vincent of Lérins, in his masterful fifth century treatise entitled The Commonitory, perfectly expresses the platform from which I make my presentation:

I have often then inquired earnestly and attentively of very many men eminent for sanctity and learning, how and by what sure and so to speak universal rule I may be able to distinguish the truth of Catholic faith from the falsehood of heretical pravity; and I have always, and in almost every instance, received an answer to this effect: That whether I or any one else should wish to detect the frauds and avoid the snares of heretics as they rise, and to continue sound and complete in the Catholic faith, we must, the Lord helping, fortify our own belief in two ways; first, by the authority of the Divine Law, and then, by the Tradition of the Catholic Church.

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason—because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation.

Moreover, in the Catholic Church itself, all possible care must be taken, that we hold that faith which has been believed everywhere, always, by all. For that is truly and in the strictest sense “Catholic,” which, as the name itself and the reason of the thing declare, comprehends all universally. This rule we shall observe if we follow universality, antiquity, consent. We shall follow universality if we confess that one faith to be true, which the whole Church throughout the world confesses; antiquity, if we in no wise depart from those interpretations which it is manifest were notoriously held by our holy ancestors and fathers; consent, in like manner, if in antiquity itself we adhere to the consentient definitions and determinations of all, or at the least of almost all priests and doctors.

What then will a Catholic Christian do, if a small portion of the Church have cut itself off from the communion of the universal faith? What, surely, but prefer the soundness of the whole body to the unsoundness of a pestilent and corrupt member? What, if some novel contagion seek to infect not merely an insignificant portion of the Church, but the whole? Then it will be his care to cleave to antiquity, which at this day cannot possibly be seduced by any fraud of novelty.

But what, if in antiquity itself there be found error on the part of two or three men, or at any rate of a city or even of a province? Then it will be his care by all means, to prefer the decrees, if such there be, of an ancient General Council to the rashness and ignorance of a few. But what, if some error should spring up on which no such decree is found to bear? Then he must collate and consult and interrogate the opinions of the ancients, of those, namely, who, though living in divers times and places, yet continuing in the communion and faith of the one Catholic Church, stand forth acknowledged and approved authorities: and whatsoever he shall ascertain to have been held, written, taught, not by one or two of these only, but by all, equally, with one consent, openly, frequently, persistently, that he must understand that he himself also is to believe without any doubt or hesitation. [4]

In this same vein, and echoing 1 Timothy 3:15, St. Irenaeus wrote:

But, again, when we refer them to that tradition which originates from the apostles, [and] which is preserved by means of the succession of presbyters in the Churches, they object to tradition, saying that they themselves are wiser not merely than the presbyters, but even than the apostles, because they have discovered the unadulterated truth...

It is within the power of all, therefore, in every Church, who may wish to see the truth, to contemplate clearly the tradition of the apostles manifested throughout the whole world; and we are in a position to reckon up those who were by the apostles instituted bishops in the Churches, and [to demonstrate] the succession of these men to our own times; those who neither taught nor knew of anything like what these [heretics] rave about....

In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. [5]

In short, accusations of “begging the question” will fall on deaf ears. The Church—as it has been historically expressed and understood in the Nicene Creed—is an object of faith. In this sense, belief in the Church is no different than belief in God. The Church as an infallible “pillar and ground of the Truth” cannot be proven empirically. We are simply to believe in it. [6] Thus, my appeal to those men who have been hailed throughout the centuries by countless Christians as Doctors and Teachers of the Faith par excellence ultimately stems from my belief, or faith in, an indefectible Church—a Church that has an authoritative Mind and Tradition which has been formed and preserved by the activity of the Holy Spirit. My platform is in principle no different than a Protestant’s belief in an “infallible Bible” interpreted through the unbiblical lens of “sola Scriptura.” [7]

At the outset, then, I wish to challenge Protestants to “Question Authority,” as the popular slogan goes. That is, I want them to see that their views do not rest on what the Church has always believed and confessed, but rather upon their own modern post-enlightenment understanding of things. This modern mindset is an inheritance from the well-intentioned Reformers who—in their attempt to bring the Church back to true Christianity, “pure and undefiled”—unfortunately became unwitting victims of the collapsing framework of late-medieval scholastic nominalism.[8] Shackled in a corrupt mindset that is alien to the Fathers of the Church, they developed a litany of doctrines that are nowhere to be found in the “Mind of the Church.”


*Catholic does not mean Roman Catholic, but denotes both wholeness (literally, “according to the whole”—fullness of the apostolic faith) and secondarily, universality (i.e., St. Vincent’s canon—'what is believed always, everywhere, and by all”). The Orthodox Church is often called The Holy Catholic Orthodox Church.

1. But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth (KJV, emphasis mine).

2. For the Orthodox,

Christianity is precisely the Church, in the fullness of her life and ‘existence.’ One may even ask, should a systematic exposition of the Christian Faith not start precisely with at least a preliminary ‘essay’ on the Church, because it is in the Church that the ‘deposit of Faith’ has been kept until now through all the ages of her historical existence, and it is by the authority of the Church that all Christian doctrines and beliefs have been, and still are, handed down and commended from generation to generation,and are again received precisely in obedience to the Church and in loyalty to her continuous and identical Tradition. Protestant theologians usually preface their systems with a treatise on the Word of God, i.e. on Scripture, and it seems to be a very logical move for them. “Catholics” sometimes follow the same plan, only, they would of course add “Tradition” to “Scripture.” In actual fact, it is nothing but a “treatise on the Church” in disguise, offered as an indispensable “Prolegomenon” to the theological system as such. (Richard Haugh, ed., The Collected Works of Georges Florovsky, vol. 14, Ecumenism II: A Historical Approach (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1972-79, p. 10).

See also the superb little book by Archbishop and Holy New Martyr Ilarion (Troitsky), Christianity or the Church? (Jordanville, NY: Holy Trinity Monastery, 1985).

3. The Orthodox always regarded the unchanging persistance of the Orthodox Church in Sacred Tradition as her boast. On the contrary, the heterodox—with exceptions, especially in recent times—regarded this persistance as a sign of decline, as a sign of deficiency in her inner life. In particular, the Protestants hurled the reproof that the Orthodox Church is “dead” and likened her to a “petrified mummy.” This demonstrates the ignorance which the heterodox customarily have about the true essence of Christianity, and shows to what degree they confuse the revealed faith with the different worldly systems, with the different human contrivances and creations. Since in the crafts and the sciences there is a continuous development and perfection, they think the same thing ought to happen in the Christian religion, that here too there should be a continuous revision, change, and replacement of the old by the new—in a word, “modernization.” Looking at Christianity rationalistically, they misunderstand its revelatory character and demote it to the level of the systems which the mind of man has formed on the basis of reason and observations of the five senses.” Constantine Cavarnos, Orthodox Tradition and Modernism (Etna, CA: The Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1992), 15.

Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of this paper to explain the Orthodox view of Tradition or the development of dogma. A recommended starting point is Archimandrite [now Archbishop] Chrysostomos and Archimandrite [now Bishop] Auxentios, Scripture and Tradition (Etna, CA: Center for Traditionalist Orthodox Studies, 1994). See also Florovsky’s Collected Works, Vol. 1, Bible, Church, Tradition, and Bishop KALLISTOS Ware’s The Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Press, 1994 (1990)), Ch. 10 “Holy Tradition: The Source of the Orthodox Faith.”

4. The Commonitory: For Antiquity and Universality of the Catholic Faith Against the Profane Novelties of All Heresies, Ch. II-III, emphases mine. All Patristic citations are henceforth taken from A Select Library of the Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, and the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, 1st and 2nd series, ed. Philip Schaff (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1994 [1886]). These collections are readily available from a number of sources, including the Internet. Because of this, I will cite only the Chapter and verse for each passage, and not the page number.

5. Against All Heresies, Book III, 2:2, 3:1, 3:3, emphases mine.

6. As Innocent (Clark) Carlton shows, “The Greek text of the Creed makes this clear. ‘We believe (pisteuomen)’ is followed by ‘in (eis)’ four times: eis hena theon, eis hena kyrion, eis to pneuma to Hagion, and eis mian ... Ekklesian. The remaining articles of the Creed are clearly distinguished from the above by the introduction of new verbs: Homologoumen (We confess) and Prosdokomen (We look for). The Way: What Every Protestant Should Know About the Orthodox Church (Salisbury, MA: Regina Press, 1997), 202. Carlton is a convert to Orthodoxy from the Southern Baptist tradition.

7. Oddly enough, this Reformation “pillar” is found nowhere in Holy Scripture. For a thorough critique of this Protestant doctrine see Fr. John Whiteford, Sola Scriptura: An Orthodox Analysis of the Cornerstone of Reformed Theology (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 1996). Not surprisingly, none of the Creeds prior to the Reformation make any statements about the “infallibility” of Scripture, or necessary belief therein.

8. On this thesis, see Bouyer, Louis, The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1961) and Mascall, E. L., The Recovery of Unity: A Theological Approach (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1958), esp. Ch. 4.