Whenever I meet a Baptist or other Independent in a context where discussion of a slightly confrontational nature is permitted, I always ask, “how do you know you are part of the holy catholic church?”
So far, it has always stumped them.
To be fair, however, we have all been stumped, haven’t we, by questions out of the blue that we have never thought about before; then, at the hour of the wolf, an answer does occur, but too late for the discussion.
So let’s explore how an Independent might try to answer this.
1. Apostolic Doctrine
Ind: “We know we are because our doctrine is apostolic; we affirm the Apostles’ Creed, for example.”
Me: But so could the Arians!
Ind: “yes, but they were excommunicated for their heresy.”
Me: But as Independents, how could you possibly be excommunicated for heresy; and if that is not even possible, how, again, do you know you are in the Holy Catholic Church?
Moreover, what criterion do you have to know what is both essential and sufficient of “apostolic doctrine” to count? For example, how do you know whether not just the Apostle’s, but also the further clarifications of the Nicene creed are essential? What about justification by faith?
Does this not finally just boil down to an autonomous assertion by individuals?
2. Recognition by others
At this point, the Independent will I think be forced to appeal to “recognition by others.” Other churches recognize his church’s baptism, and so forth.
However, there is a problem with this. If his appeal is to recognition by other Independents, then there is some question-begging going on. How do we establish that those others are in the Holy Catholic Church so that their opinion on the matter even carries any weight?
On the other hand, if he appeals to non-independents (say, the Church of England) and if he admits that he must do so (based on the reductio of the last section), then he should give up the game. He is admitting that a non-independent, organically constituted church is needed in order to drag him into the fold. But this is cheating. There can’t be many ways to be the holy catholic church — that would certainly not be catholic, and probably not holy. It would simply be an arbitrary subterfuge to gain status through the back door.
Not only that, but how do you really know that that non-independent church recognizes you? Maybe one of your members transferred over to an Anglican church, and his baptism was recognized. But does this mean the Church of England would recognize your little church as legitimate if the question were posed explicitly?
Next, the Independent might fall back on his baptism. “I and the other members of my church are baptized; this is sufficient to show that we are part of the holy catholic church.”
There are two serious problems with this answer.
First, everyone on your softball team might be baptized also; that doesn’t make your softball team the church, as I hope all will agree without further argumentation. To this, the Independent will probably amend his definition, “baptized persons that have covenanted together as a church” or something. Let me defer analysis of the covenanting aspect to the next section.
But second, me: How do you know you are baptized?
Here (as above) the point is certainly not to press for an answer to some epistemological skepticism, as if one should doubt his parents’ testimony as unreliable, a baptismal certificate as illusion, or such. No, the point is to explore the necessary conditions for saying that a baptism is valid, and to see what this might imply for the question of the holy catholic church.
To bring the point home, let me borrow an illustration suggested by Greg Bahnsen in a conversation I once had with him.
Suppose some boys are out in the back yard “playing church” and one of them takes a hose and sprays a dog while pronouncing the formula he heard in church, “I baptize you in the name…”
We all recognize that something is wrong with this picture. So, by free variation let’s see what the illustration reveals.
We all agree, the dog is not in fact baptized. Problem: animals are not to be baptized.
Ok then, modify the picture so that one boy sprays another boy and pronounces the formula. Say the sprayed boy was previously unbaptized.
“But the boy didn’t make a credible profession of faith.”
Say he did. The other boys cross-examined him carefully as to whether he had a credible profession of faith.
Let me not belabor the point. Let each reader work through all the possibilities for himself.
At the very least, it is going to emerge that some sort of legitimate church context is required for a baptism to be valid.
But then, baptism cannot be given as a sufficient condition for defining a legitimate church. That would be circular!
As I alluded to above, the Independent might add some sort of mutual covenanting as a sufficient condition to constitute a valid congregation of the holy catholic church.
At the outset, we can already see that this won’t work, because undoubtedly the Independent will insist that only baptized persons can make such a covenant, and we have (I trust) seen that the principle already fails at that point.
But maybe someone will take the viewpoint that the covenanting members do not have to already be baptized; once the group is self-bootstrapped into its status as church through covenanting, then the body can do what is necessary to baptize themselves or the remaining members that are not yet baptized.
Here is a group of people that covenant together to form an Independent church, and over there is another group that covenants together and constitutes themselves, let us say, as a Christian Science congregation. How do we know that one is a part of the Holy Catholic Church, and the other is not?
The Independent is going to have to answer with something other than covenanting — probably one of the first three answers listed above will be tried.
But each of those failed. A fallacy does not become a valid argument by virtue of being repeated ten times!
Covenanting as the sole and sufficient origin of becoming a valid church simply plasters over, with pious jargon, a situation that at bottom is a raw assertion the autonomy of the individual.
I can’t imagine where else an Independent might go. Every attempt either begs the question or grants a principle for the constitution of the holy catholic church that is alien to his own model.
In my next HCC post, I will illustrate this dilemma with an example of an historical personage that wanted to be Independent and was also willing to bite the bullet on this with great honesty, but with (it seems to me at least) tragic outcome.