In this series, According To The Whole, a major theme has been the unity of Christians, the theme of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 “that they may all be one.” If you’ve followed it from Part 1, you’ll recall that my jump-off point was a critique of that hazy, undefined trend among Western Christians called non-denominationalism and how it fails to unify anyone. I introduced the term catholic as a second-century (maybe first-century) description of the universally unified Church, which simply means “according to the whole” ( kata (according to) + holos (the whole) ). That term does not exclusively mean “Roman Catholic,” and that’s not how it’s used here.
In Part 2 I described how the principle of fullness, completeness, or wholeness was central to the idea of the Faith from the first to the 16th century, when Protestantism replaced it with a drive for purity as its central principle. With the diminution of the principle of wholeness came the diminution of the imperative for unity. The fruit of Protestantism, despite its honorable intentions at its beginning, has been a hideously divided Christian landscape.
In Part 3 I submitted that only a faith “according to the whole“ could unite all Christians. It would be a faith based on the fullness of the revelation of God to his people — from the ancient children of Israel to the early followers of Christ, to the Church of the first, second, and third centuries, and beyond. Every aspect of this divine revelation would be in line with the rest; nothing would contradict anything else, and of everything comprising this catholic faith it could be said, “it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
Last time, I laid out some very basic principles of this faith (communal identity, continuity with the past, preservation of the liturgy, and a sacramental worldview), a few of which might seem foreign to modern Protestantism. 1500 yeas of Christian agreement and the continued agreement of one and a half billion(ish) Christians in the world today about these principles, however, means that where modern Protestantism fails to recognize these principles, it actually stands outside the fullness of the inherited Christian Life. It may hold to a great deal of inherited Christian doctrine; it surely even knows God and interacts with God by his grace. But because it is out of accord with the fuller, revealed Christ-life, once delivered to the saints, it is impoverished. That’s not to say that it has no value, but in contrast to the fuller revelation and better method of life that the catholic faith offers, modern Protestantism and the method of life it offers is lacking.
I feel the retort coming on that many of us, if not all of us, know Protestant Christians who, in their humility, devotion, and zeal for evangelism, far outshine “Catholic Christians” that we also may know. This objection is built on the notion that the merits of a tradition are reflected in the lifestyle of its adherents. I fully agree that this should (and may) be so, but not in every single case; rather, one would have to consider the sum total of the whole assembly of practicing Protestant and Catholic Christians (including those throughout history) to determine which tradition bore more fruit — a task which I’m not sure could be quantified this side of the Parousia. And they would have to be practicing Christians, not Christians in name only. Comparing the best “representatives” of one to the worst of the other is meaningless. But comparing the method of living prescribed by each could be very meaningful to all of us, and I will endeavor to do that on this blog in the future.
Let me clarify something else, too. Regardless of our method of life, Protestant or Catholic, we are all impoverished people. Even the universally lauded Saints, by their own accounts, were wretches. Any salvation we have from wretchedness comes from God alone. But the catholic faith acknowledges that God has dignified us with the choice to be saved — not just from damnation at the end of everything, but from our own wretchedness right here and now. It starts right here and now, and continues into tomorrow, and the next day, and so on. And the catholic faith offers the means for us to go on choosing, very practically and tangibly, day after day, to be saved by God alone. These means were not invented by man, but were given directly by Christ and through his Holy Spirit.
So the purpose of this series has been to make others like me, who have been brought up squarely within our modern Protestant Christian reality, aware that there is more out there. There’s more out there that fills in voids that they may or may not have been aware existed in their experience of God and life in their Christian community. I wanted to show the shortcomings, limitations, and what I perceive to be the ultimately sad destination of Protestantism, that being an eventual disintegration into hyper-individualism. And I wanted to introduce a living tradition of Christianity that’s older, broader, and more solid than even the medieval Western Roman Catholicism that Martin Luther protested against five hundred years ago.
But this is only an introduction to the idea. In order to find it, I recommend doing a few things. First, start praying about the truth of the catholic faith. Simply ask God to guide you where you should be and lead you into all truth. Then, start doing research. I mentioned in a footnote in Part 3 that there are three main communions who have a claim to keeping alive the ancient catholic faith: the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church, and the Anglican Communion. Research the history, theology, and practice of each of these (by reading their own literature, not some polemical literature written against them), and then go visit their churches. [For various reasons that I’ll explore in the future, I’m personally convinced that the Orthodox Church has uniquely and solely maintained the fullness of the ancient Faith without subtraction or addition]. Remember, you’re looking for truth, not a familiar or palatable experience. Where is the truth of God made manifest and right worship practiced?
If there’s any hope for a unified Christian landscape, we have to stop ignoring the second part of “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” We need the whole truth. The faith kata holos is what the Apostles preached. That catholic faith took deep root in the first, second, and third centuries, blossomed in the fourth, fifth, and sixth, was fortified in the seventh, eighth, and ninth, and lives on in unbroken continuity even to this day. I charge you to seek it out and discern the faith according to the whole.
Go on to the epilogue.