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The Logic of Institutional Perdurance

Brad has a post up responding the rash of discussion about the latest development between Rome and Canterbury regarding the future of Anglo-Catholics. The question he raises is whether or not Protestants have good reasons for desiring the perpetual existence of their denominational and institutional structures at all.

Certainly a worthy point. However, I think all of this hints towards a bigger ecclesiological question: Is the desire for perpetual institutional perdurance something that is theologically acceptable for any ecclesial tradition?

As Brad notes, the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox communions make the strongest claims for the necessity of their own institutional perdurance, but I don’t think that matters too much in regard to the actual theological question. Clearly any institutional structure will find its own perpetuation supremely important, so we should expect this, especially from institutions that have a very long history. It should come as no surprise to us that the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are the most vocal proponents of the absolute theological necessity of their institutional propagation. However, the theological question is if this survivalist and protectionist mentality is what the gospel calls out and seeks to create in the scope God’s own work, in Christ and the Spirit, of transforming the world into the kingdom of God.

Obviously one could make the argument that simply by virtue of their prolonged existence, God has validated the claims of churches that make such arguments, but clearly that rests on major historiographical assumptions about the nature of God’s work in the world. This argument simply proceeds by identifying God’s work with the historical outcomes that have led to things as they currently are. In short, it rests on the assumption that God is behind the survival of a given institution simply by virtue of the fact that it has historically come to exist and remain in existence. Clearly there are some ideological problems that inhere in such a historiography, at least from my own perspective on the issue.

None of this is meant to argue that Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox are simply a bunch of survival-obsessed ecclesial bureaucrats (a very different argument would be needed to substantiate that notion). Rather it is just to say that any argument for the necessity of ecclesial institutional perdurance ought to be made from within the logic of the gospel itself, indeed, if one cannot show how the gospel requires a specific form institutional self-propagation to be required by the gospel, it seems to me that we should view all such claims with suspicion given the way in which all institutions inevitably seek self-propagation and survival.

11 Comments

  1. Bobby Grow wrote:

    Halden said:

    Obviously one could make the argument that simply by virtue of their prolonged existence, God has validated the claims of churches that make such arguments, but clearly that rests on major historiographical assumptions about the nature of God’s work in the world.

    One could use this same logic for King James Only as well.

    I agree with you on the primacy of the Gospel; and “self”-preservation certainly seems at odds with said Gospel, unless of course the “self” believes itself to be the embodiement of the Gospel — and thus justified in its “self”-preserving moves.

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 1:02 pm | Permalink
  2. Skip wrote:

    Halden,
    have you read “The Weakness of God” by John D Caputo? He addresses this issue as well as many others regarding “Being” and “Is” of entities, ecclesial and otherwise.
    See you soon, Skip.

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 2:55 pm | Permalink
  3. Devin Rose wrote:

    I would re-phrase the question: Did Christ found a visible Church?

    Or is the Church purely spiritual and invisible–the loosely connected set of all believers around the world at any given moment?

    There was a post at Called to Communion on this subject a few months ago: http://www.calledtocommunion.com/2009/06/christ-founded-a-visible-church/

    If Christ did not found a visible, unified Church and give it his divine authority, then I agree that no institution should be looked to as the one that Christ founded: Find the local church that most closely corresponds with your own beliefs and go there.

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 4:54 pm | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    No, visibility is not the issue. Any number of church forms of self-organization can easily qualify as visible, in fact finding one that would realistically qualify as invisible would be much more difficult.

    The problem is the leap in logic from “Christ founded a visible church” to “the church is a specific managerial framework that must exist forever in perpetuity.”

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    I haven’t Skip, but I’ll check it out since you mentioned it. Good to hear from you again!

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 4:59 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    To put it differently, you’re not really re-phrasing the question. You’re changing the question substantially and tilting it in a particular direction. The question, at least the one I’m asking here — maybe its the wrong one, but I’d have to hear why — is does the Gospel call us to expect the church of Jesus Christ to be a centralized, self-propogating entity that will persist forever in one specific institutional form that must be protected?

    The one verse about “on this Rock” really doesn’t incline me to an obvious positive answer to this question, nor does the rest of the NT or the first few centuries of the church’s history.

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 5:12 pm | Permalink
  7. To be honest I started to reply without really knowing what the heck ‘perdurance’ actually meant. I could not find a def. on my Mac or any other dicts. I had. I googled around a bit and became quite engaged with this interesting word. Well, it all seems so obvious now, sort of a combo of persist and endure…right. Still, it may be a little more complex than that. Let me cut and paste some insights. First, this: “It is now usual to say that something persists if it is located at more than one time. This neutral term gives us a means of framing the question, how does a thing persist? One answer is to say that a thing’s persistence involves its perduring. What is it for a thing to perdure? …perdurance involves persisting in virtue of having temporal, as well as spatial, parts. And what is it for a thing to endure? Often, this is put in terms of a thing’s being wholly present at all times at which it exists. Again, sometimes the endurance/perdurance distinction is put in terms of the difference between strict identity and a looser unity relation sometimes labelled ‘genidentity’. On this understanding, a persisting thing endures if for any time at which the persisting thing is located, there is something which is identical to that thing. A persisting thing perdures if for any pair of times at which it is located, it has different temporal parts at those times which stand in the genidentity relation to each other.” Whew! Well, I also found a simpler shorthand schema for all that highfalooten talk above: “Necessarily, x is a part of y at t if x and y are each located at t, and x’s temporal part located at t is part of y’s temporal part located at t, and, x is a temporal part of y at t, if, x is a part of y at t, x exists at, but only at, t, and x overlaps at t everything that is part of y at t [!!!]” Now, I think this schema also works quite nicely for this discussion, if, t = temporality, y = the church, x = God/god (and that word ‘genidentity’ above seems usefull, it’s no ‘vaginocentrism’ but still worth engaging). Obliged

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 6:43 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    perdure: to remain in existence

    http://www.aolsvc.merriam-webster.aol.com/dictionary/perdure

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 6:46 pm | Permalink
  9. Oh, thanks, well maybe it is just that simple. Now you know how we (Catholics?) got from a few believers in a small, dingy, ‘upper room’ all the way to Vatican City!! (for the complete essay on ‘perdurance’ see: “http://www.geocities.com/trolleylauncher/Distinction.html” ) Obliged

    Monday, October 26, 2009 at 8:16 pm | Permalink
  10. Devin Rose wrote:

    Fair enough. I do think ultimately you arrive at the question I put forth, but going off of your response here, I would ask in regard to the gospel indicating a “centralized, self-propagating entity”: Is Apostolic Succession true or is Apostolicity?

    If Apostolic Succession is true, then a centralized, self-propagating entity is going to have to be the case, though schisms could still occur, as the Orthodox schism demonstrates (they have valid Apostolic Succession). Why? Because it takes a bishop to ordain a bishop, and it took an Apostle to ordain the first apostolic successors (i.e. the first bishops other than the Apostles themselves).

    If Apostolicity is true, then no centralized authority is needed, no lasting entity, anyone who “teaches the gospel truly” can be an authority, if only a local one.

    So, does the Gospel (as found in the entire New Testament) indicate Apostolic Succession or Apostolicity? Which one does the historical evidence of the Church in the early centuries affirm?

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 9:01 am | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Obviously we won’t agree on this, and that’s fine. I would just say that while, to be sure you have mentions of a succession of bishops from the Apostles in some second and third century sources, that doesn’t necessarily tell us anything normative about the theological constitution of the church. In other words, it makes perfect sense for the Apostles to set up church leaders, anyone starting a movement like Christianity would do that. The question is whether they understood themselves to be doing something unchangeable, eternal, ordained by God for all times and places.

    So its ultimately not really a question of “is Apostolic succession true.” Clearly it is “true” in the sense that some bishops claim descent from the Apostles and that the Apostles discipled people who became leaders of the earliest churches (though the historical evidence for an unbroken chain of succession is of course non-existent in a strict sense, as most Catholic scholars I’ve come across tend to admit). The question is whether this is descriptive or normative. It totally makes sense to me that the church would find a form of self-organization over the course of its life. What I don’t see evidence of is how the Gospel then mandates a sort of institutional immutability. The extreme diversity of ecclesial practice in the first few centuries of the church and in the NT Scriptures seems to me to prima facie suggest otherwise.

    Wednesday, October 28, 2009 at 9:18 am | Permalink

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