The Greatest Writer of the 19th Century » Brownson's Writings » The Nature and Office of the Church

The Nature and Office of the Church

[from Brownson’s Quarterly Review for April, 1844]

We have received the following letter without name or date, but post-marked "Philadelphia, January 10." It probably was not intended for publication, but we insert it, because it affords us an opportunity to offer a few additional remarks, not uncalled for, on certain points touched upon in the article on The Church Question, and because it is only in this way that we can acknowledge its reception. Should the writer address us again, we hope he will give us his name, for he wants not the capacity to render it honorable, be it what it may.

"Sir:- I have been reading the first number of your Review with deep attention and admiring interest. You have the power of doing good or evil beyond most men of our age and country, and with it a fearful responsibility. God has blessed you with a fearless heart, and a tongue, as you rightly say, ‘trumpet-toned,’ and, what is better, true to your heart’s convictions. With those convictions mine harmonize, in many of the great points to which you call attention. But in some, to me, of all-absorbing interest, I believe you wrong, and think I see why you are wrong.

"Most truly do you set forth the rights and powers of the living Body of the Son of God. Of its nature and office you have yet to learn.

"How can you, who so powerfully appeal to the ‘fact of eighteen hundred years?’ set aside the historical view, by which, alone, you get at that fact? History teaches you and the world, that the church of God is, and has been, through eighteen centuries. To history I appeal, to show what it is, (in its external development – its shell, in which the meat must be, and without which there can be no meat) and where it has been. By the same evidence by which I know that God has ordained a man, in and by whom to redeem and judge the world, by that same evidence I know how this life has been perpetuated, and is to be, until his coming again. The inner life of the church no history can touch- it is a thing of experience, and experience only. But the organized life of the one Body has been seen, heard, looked upon, and handled, from the day of the apostles until now. Your own beautiful adaptation of the fable of the quest of Isis seems excellently to point out the… of your present view of the church you are so nobly disposed to serve. Why did not Isis succeed in revivifying the recollected fragments of the torn body of ‘the good Osiris?’ Because the reproductive organs had been lost. Typhon had whelmed them in the sea- that symbol of the storm-tossed, noisy multitude, who have no ear for history, no eye for the seal of God’s own signet. Were you right- which you most certainly are not- in supposing the sects to be the fragments, yet instinct with life, of Christ’s living body, some one of them must have, and develop, the reproductive power, before that body can be revivified by reuniting. You long for the [Greek]and the [Greek]. How is it that you have not seen that the latter must precede the former, and that it is the result of the… which is a thing of history. Whom has God commissioned to baptize men into the Body of his Son? And how is that commission known? Is the concerning question of our day. Settle that, and church authority can show itself, ay, and develop itself, too.

"But your theory of development is wrong. Most truly you assert a continuous inspiration. But of what kind? Of invention? Of addition? No; but of living breathe, of vocal utterance, of articulate expression of the ONE, unchangeable, changeless, Eternal Word. God changes not. Man changes not. The world changes not. Its phases are phases only; the one message which was from the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. With it the church came into the world, and goes on her way through it. Her progress is a progress toward eternity, not in time.

"Go on, Sir, in your outspoken zeal; but beware of speaking without searching further. You are yet but a ‘forscher’; you have grappled a fragment of the truth, and a precious one, but not the whole. You have vibrated from your ultra Protestant position at the beginning of your course, to the other extreme of the arc of oscillation. You have yet to find the centre. Believe all you do of the church’s life, and work; but neglect not her organization. You have but one half of the ‘mystery’ which Paul symbolized in human marriage. You know the church as the Body of Christ. You have yet to know her as his Bride, on whom he is ever begetting children, who are to her instead of fathers (Ps. 45.) the means of perpetuating herself in time and for eternity. You know the being and the power of the living Temple of the Almighty; do not, I entreat you, blind yourself and others to its mission."


Our anonymous friend and correspondent mistakes, entirely, the questions we were discussing, and the general bearing of our remarks. If he had paid more attention to the questions we ourselves raised, and less to those with which he himself is preoccupied, he would have spared us his objections. In what we said on the church question, we were not required to enter largely into the question of the nature and office of the church.

We raised the question indeed, stated it to be the great and paramount question of the day; but we did not undertake to answer it, for we had, at that time, another object in view. Our real purpose was to show, 1. That, throughout Christendom, there is a strong tendency to return to the unity and catholicity of the church; 2. That, to effect this return, it is necessary to take up the great question of the church itself; 3. That this question may be taken up and discussed in the freest and fullest manner, in any or all of our professedly Christian communions; 4. That the answer, the germs of which each sect may find in its present faith, so far as it believes in the church at all, once obtained, all particular communions will be destroyed, by being absorbed in the catholic communion.

Now, with what thought could we have written this? On what does our argument rest for its validity? And on what conditions could the means we suggested be adequate to the end we proposed? Supposing we understood ourselves, and were not merely sporting with our readers, we must have implied, what indeed we stated; 1. That men have broken away from the church because they have lost the sense of its profound significance; and, 2. That the recovery of this sense, that is, a full understanding of the true nature and office of the church, will bring them back to the one catholic communion, because, the moment they come to perceive the true nature and office of the church, will bring them back to the one catholic communion, because, the moment they come to perceive the true nature and office of the church, they must perceive that a church not one and catholic, can be no church at all? Does this imply ignorance of the nature and office of the church on our part?

We assure our friend that, if he supposed we are suggesting a plan for making up, creating, or reconstructing a catholic church, he did us great injustice. Our inquiry was not, How may the church recover its unity and catholicity? But, How may professedly Christian communions find their way back to the one catholic church? The church has never lost its unity and catholicity, for it cannot lose them without ceasing to be the church of God. The church never stands in need of reform. The censures we bestowed, in our remarks, were not bestowed on the church as an organization, but on the church, in the modern Protestant sense, as an assemblage of individuals; that is, upon churchmen. The church was as pure in the days of Luther and Calvin, as it was in the days of the apostles, though, doubtless, many of its members, and some of its dignitaries, even, were corrupt, and abused their powers and privileges. The reform we demand is never of the institution, but of the individuals. We believe in no church that can ever need reforming.

We do not overlook the church as an organization, for the church, in ant other sense, is to us no church at all. The church is an organic body, existing in time and space, under one visible as well as one invisible Head, with one common centre of life, out from which, through communion, flows the life to all its members. We may, indeed, recognize a holy brotherhood, the spiritual priesthood, the invisible church, as some call it, composed of all holy persons, whether in this world or the other,- the grand communion of the saints; but this is not what we mean by the catholic church. The catholic church is the divinely instituted body to prepare us for admission into this glorious company of the saints. Like that Gospel net, it gathers all, both good and bad; for we come into it, not because we are sanctified, but that, through its ministries, we may be sanctified. Through its ministries Christ, who is its head, its life, and its efficacy, works for our redemption from sin, and reconciliation with the Father, and our practical holiness.

We do not set aside, nor count of little consequence, the historical view of the church. If our correspondent had read what we said, with a little more attention, he would not have suspected us of doing so. The Christian world is broken up into particular communions. Whence the cause? In the fact that churchmen have lost the profound significance of the church. What is the remedy? To take up the question of the church itself, and ascertain what it is, what its nature, rights, duties, mean. Now, this question, we said, and we still say, cannot be answered by the historical method of the Oxford divines; for the very simple reason that it is not a question which relates to the history of the church, but to its philosophy. The historical method is the proper method, when the question is, which is the church? But not when the question is what is the church? And it was only in relation to this last question, that we asserted its insufficiency.

We do not agree with our correspondent as to the order in which the several problems, relating to the church, should be taken up. He wishes us to go, in the first place, into history, and ascertain which is the catholic church; and afterwards come to the question, what is the church. But, if we know not what the church is, before we go into history, how shall we know what to look for? Or how shall we know when we have or have not, found the catholic church? The great evil under which we suffer is not so much wrong-churchism, as it is no-churchism. The great mass of the people have no real, serious, earnest belief, in the church at all. They see no necessity for it, nor why they cannot just as well commune with Christ without, as with, union with his body. Nay; they look upon the church as something interposed between them and Christ, and as separating them from him who is the life of the soul, instead of uniting them to him. It is, in fact, to the great mass, either a stumbling-block, or foolishness. They have lost the sense of the profound mystery of the Incarnation, and will own no church but what they term holy principle, by virtue of which, every man is, or may be, his own priest, and his own church. A reaction has, doubtless, commenced against this no-churchism; but the great mass are still unbelievers in the necessity of the church as the instrument, in the hands of God, of bringing us to Christ. Here is the fact our correspondent overlooks. He supposes the age already ripe for the question, Which is the church? But the age demands first, to be shown that any church at all is necessary. Before you appeal to history to determine what body God hath commissioned to baptize, you must prove that baptism itself is necessary, and that an outward divine commission to baptize is essential. Before all, then, we repeat it, the great question is, the question of the church itself. What is the church here for? What is its nature? What is its mission? What are its rights? What is its authority? What the ground of its authority? What the principle of its operation, and efficiency? These are the questions which are to be answered, and these are not to be answered by appeals to history, but by profound meditation on the philosophy of the church, and on the nature and constitution of things in general. These are great questions, and not to be answered by a few quotations from the fathers.

Nor is this all. Broach the question of which is the church, before men are well grounded in what the church is, and you only provoke the wrath of rival communions, aggravate the evils of sectarianism, already so intolerable, and put still further off the day, which the wise man, however firmly persuaded in his own mind, will adjourn till they can be profitably discussed.

We accept what the writer of the letter says of the reproductive powers of the church, and should regard ourselves as having made but little proficiency in our knowledge of the mystery whereby children are begotten unto the Lord, if we had yet to learn the church as the mystic Bride of the Lamb, or to be told that without a spiritual mother there can be no spiritual births. The [Greek] of which he speaks, is the very mother falsehood into which we did not fall, and the very last we could possibly be guilty of, with our general doctrine concerning the genesis and transmission of life. It is not safe always to infer one’s ignorance from one’s silence.

We did not represent sects, which are so far removed as to have absolutely no intercommunion, and absolutely no access to the common centre of life, as living fragments of Christ’s body. We stated, that the church, understood as the great body of professed believers in Christ, exists, at present, in a broken and fragmentary state; and we contended that each fragment has some portion of Christian life. Can this be denied? Will any man with his eyes open, at least, with his heart open, contend that any Christian communion extant contains, within its own pale, all the Christian life now circulating in Christendom? Will Protestants deny that there is a Christian life within the pale of the Catholic communion? Not unless they are mad. Will Catholics say there is nothing of Christian life in any of our Protestant communions? They may say our life is feeble, and that the fruit that we bear is rich neither in abundance nor in flavor; but they will not say that we have no Christian life at all, that we are absolutely cut off from all communion with Christ. We contended, and we still contend, and pray God that we may ever contend, if it be necessary, that all sects, not as sects, but as professing Christians, however they got it, or get it, do exhibit somewhat of the Christian spirit, have, in some degree, partaken of the divine life which God in Christ has communicated to the world. Then, all these communions are, in some way, connected with Christ, and to be reckoned in our account of his body.

Yet, it does not follow from this, that we deny the church to be a single organic body, or that we reject apostolic succession and canonical appointment. By contending that there is a Christian life in each sect, we do not, necessarily, contend that each sect has a valid and sufficient ministry. All we have contended is, that the ministry of each sect is sufficiently valid to authorize it to labor, with all zeal and diligence, to bring its own communion into Christian fellowship with the one catholic communion. If you find yourself invested with authority in a revolted province, you have the right to exercise that authority for the maintenance of order and the restoration of the authority of the legitimate sovereign. More than this we did not contend for, because more than this was not required by our argument. Doubtless, a further question may be raised, but into that we do not enter.

Our correspondent is, unquestionably, a churchman. He ought, then, to comprehend us, and perceive, at once, what we were contending for, even though not explicitly stated. We were not discussing the question in its bearing on individuals, but on communions. We contended that the question, between the several particular communions and the catholic communion, should not be regarded as a question between the church and paganism or Mahometanism, nor as a question between the church and individuals not professing to be members of Christ’s body. It must be regarded as a question between communions, separated by what, in technical language, is called schism. The heresy, be there more or less of it, is abandoned, the moment we become willing to hear and obey the church. We will suppose, then, that the several communions have come to comprehend and believe the church, to own, and to be willing to come under, its authority; the question which now comes up concerns simply the schism. The schism is now to be healed; and we contend that it is to be healed without the particular communion being required to break up its religious order, or give up its ministry. Congregations may come into communion with the church, through their bishops or pastors. The question concerns, then, the conditions of canonical communion for the clergy of the several sects; and this question, which is of great importance in its practical bearings, we proposed should be settled, as it easily may be, on catholic principles, by a new council. Are we understood?

But we are told, in addition, that "some one of the sects must have and develop the reproductive power of the church." We believe we understand this. It means, we suppose, that only one of the existing communions has a truly apostolic ministry. As to this, much may be said, and we must be careful that analogies do not lead us away from the truth. We, however, willingly concede, that the reproductive power of the church is indivisible; for, if it could be divided, and become the property of distinct communions, no argument could be offered for unity and catholicity; in fact, the unity and catholicity of the church would be words without meaning. If, then, we assume that the church still exists, unmutilated, in all the fullness of its reproductive energy, we must, undoubtedly, assume that the reproductive power, and the reproductive organs, are possessed by one communion alone, and that the rest, if they could have life at all, can have it, only through communion with that one.

But, it is possible, that the reproductive energy, though still retained, is, by the disruption of Christendom, somewhat impaired in the communion which still retains it. We admit that there is still the one catholic apostolic communion, unbroken; but the power and efficiency of that communion, in generating and communicating life, though not destroyed, are yet greatly impaired, and, to no little extent, rendered inoperative by our sectarian divisions. The Evangelist says, Christ "did not many mighty works," in a certain place, "on account of their unbelief." The same thing happens to the church itself. Not merely they who are in a state of schism suffer, but the whole body suffers, and no longer performs, unimpeded, its proper functions. The whole church suffers by the distractions and divisions of the so-called Christian world. This is wherefore we speak of it as the torn and bleeding, though it be still the living, body of Christ. We say, then, the reproductive energy, though still retained by the Catholic church, is not possessed by even that church, at present, in all its vigor. A work I necessary to be done before it can resume its functions, and prosecute its labors with the requisite energy and success. It is not a reform within that it needs, but the removal of obstructions from without. It is the church, the Catholic Apostolic church, the spiritual mother of us all, but, alas! Not the church in full strength, full glory, and full operation. This is the ground we take, because it is obviously true, and involves no contradiction of Catholic principles.

But waiving this; we go further, and maintain, that all communion with the one Catholic church has never been entirely cut off. The regular channels may have been blocked up, and the communication become irregular, feeble, and insufficient; still, there has been, and is continued, some communion, through which, Christian life may, and does, find its way from the heart to the extremities. How this can be, we hold ourselves abundantly able to show, on some future occasion. We will only say now, that, while we contend earnestly for a regular apostolic ministry, as indispensable, essential, to the very being of the church, yet, we are not prepared to say, that Christian life can be communicated only by the laying on of the hands of the bishop. Apostolic succession and canonical appointment have a profounder significance than some formal, narrow-minded churchmen suspect. The Gospel is a system of realism, and everywhere acknowledges the Real Presence. The Holy Ghost dwells in the church not merely by way of promise and external appointment, but really, in the fullness of his life-giving energy. The divine life enters into every holy man, and every holy woman. Communion with the holy, even though they are not in orders, is a medium of life. A virtue goes out from every good and pious Christian. We cannot meet and converse with a saintly man or woman, for one half-hour, without receiving a divine influence, as well as impulse. A holy energy is imparted to us, and we never can be again what we were. In this way, ever true Christian becomes, in some sense, a priest, and diffuses the Christian life even beyond the sphere of the regular priesthood. Here is the significance of that promise, "I will make you priests and kings." We must not, in our laudable endeavors to sustain the outward priesthood, overlook this glorious and blessed spiritual priesthood. Doubtless, we should speak with great delicacy, and maintain great soberness in our views, lest we run into the errors, extravagances, and absurdities of the old Montanists. We must, undoubtedly, take care not to make our views of this priesthood a pretext for fanaticism, irregularity, and abuse of the regular ministry. It does not override, supercede, or oppose, the regular priesthood; but operates under it, in harmony with it,- continues and extends its influence. Within its legitimate sphere, the Catholic church has always asserted it, and it was only the abuse of it, condemned in the Montanistic heresy. Now, who can say how much of Christian life has been diffused by this spiritual priesthood, by the lives of holy men and women, far beyond the sphere of the direct operations of the regular ministry? Here is a subject deserving more consideration that it usually receives from churchmen.

Then, again, the sects have not yet exhausted all the life generated and communicated by the church, prior to the disruption of the Christian world in the sixteenth century, sustained to some degree, as it has been, by the Bible, the literature of the church, and numerous foundations and social institutions, all running back and having their root in the church, prior to that epoch. Moreover, all have, in various ways, participated in the life generated by the labors of the church since that epoch, which, though not equal to its previous labors, yet have not been altogether inefficacious. The church is the city of God, an illuminated city, set on a hill, and sends out its rays to enlighten many who dwell not within its walls.

We have no room to treat at length the theory of development, which our correspondent so positively condemns, nor to rebuke him, as he deserves, for his theory of pantheistic immobility. The church contains, 1. The Life; 2. The philosophy of the life. The Life is the principle, the law, the indwelling force, or energy, and is, strictly speaking, the Holy Ghost, the Paraclete. This changes not; but its assimilation to human nature, and practical realization in the life of men, is a progressive work, and involves development and growth.

The philosophy of the church, that is, its exposition, interpretation, and practical application of the law of life, must needs be subject to development and growth. In this mutable world, and changing life, new questions are perpetually coming up, or old questions in new forms, which are to be decided. The written Word, no doubt, contains the principle, the law applicable to each particular case; but the application itself demands an authoritative interpreter. The law does not change, but men’s views of it change, and so do the questions to which it needs to be applied. The outward form and discipline of the church, while the principles of each remain unaltered and unalterable, may often need modifying, to adapt them to the altered conditions of society. The church, we contend, has the inherent power to make such alterations in them, from time to time, as in her wisdom are necessary; and this power she has always claimed and exercised. No man will venture to say, that the outward form, the usages, and discipline of the Catholic church, have remained unvaried from the time of the apostles.

Similar remarks may be made in respect to general science and philosophy. Nothing that concerns fundamental principles can be altered; but the exposition of these principles is always affected more or less by the state of science, and the prevailing philosophy, at the time it is made. It may so happen, that the church may sanction an exposition, which, though true in substance, yet shall be faulty in form; for, while the truth is universal and eternal, the form, under which it is set forth, may be local and temporary. At the time of setting it forth, this form may be as necessary as the Greek language when speaking to the Greeks, or the Latin when addressing the Romans; but subsequently, when other modes of thought and expression have become current, it may prove inadequate, and become the occasion of misapprehension and error. Instances of this kind could be enumerated. The church, in all cases of this kind, needs the power to revise; and to adopt such new forms of expression as will better convey her exact sense. The church should also have the power to appropriate to herself all the solid improvements, or real discoveries, which may be made, from time to time, in general philosophy, physical science, or any department of human knowledge; for her office is to blend in one harmonious whole, in one person, so to speak, the human and divine, what is supernaturally derived and what is obtained by the natural exercise of our faculties.

Now, here, in short, is what we mean by the power of the church, to develop and apply to practical life, the great principles of life contained in the Gospel. In claiming this power for her, we have not gone beyond her own theory, though we contend that she has reluctantly submitted to practice always on this theory. But she may assert it, and fearlessly conform to it, for, as the church of God, she possesses a continuous inspiration, which gives her the right and the ability to interpret and apply the law. We did not imply that this inspiration revealed new principles, but merely stated that it authoritatively interprets and applies what is already contained in the Gospel. We are afraid our correspondent overlooks the fact, that Christ dwells, in the person of the Holy Ghost, in the church, and that he, therefore, sees in the church no ability but what is derived from external appointment and promise. If so, we tell him he has yet to learn what means the mystery of the Real Presence, without which, Christianity were a mere system of philosophy, and the church nothing but a collection of dead forms, arrogant pretensions, and senseless ceremonies.

That we are still a "Forscher," we own, but we hope we are sometimes, at least, a finder, as well as a seeker. Perhaps, we shall be able to satisfy our good friend, if he will wait patiently, that we have found more things that he is disposed to give us credit for. We have many things to say which we have not yet said. But all in good time. On this question of the church, we are sure of our ground, for we are attempting no innovation. We see very clearly the end to be reached, and the road that leads to it; but we must be allowed to proceed at our own pace. We cannot be tempted to turn aside, either to the right hand or to the left, to please, or to avoid displeasing, friend or foe; nor to engage in any discussion which we hold to be premature, or not likely to be profitable to the cause of unity and catholicity.

With regard to the personal fling at our supposed vibration from one extreme to the other, we can only say, that we are quite accustomed to such flings, or, if the writer prefers, such admonitions. But we have never been able to persuade ourselves, that the via media between truth and error, God and man, life and death, as much as we have heard said in its praise, is either the pleasantest or the safest road. A church, which is a mean between the two extremes, has no attraction for us. Death is to us none the less ghastly and repulsive for being decked out in festive robes, and surmounted with cap and plume. Truth is always an extreme view. Either there is life for us or there is not. If there is life for us, as we believe there is, it must be derived either from God or from man. Protestantism, pushed to its extreme principles, derives it from man, and puts man in the place of God, as we may see in all the political, economical, and philosophical theories to which it has given birth. If it is right, if man be sufficient for man, then let us say so, and be consistent with ourselves. But if man is not sufficient for man, and if life can come only from God, then let us take the other extreme, and seek life from God alone, through the only medium, so far as we know, that he has established.