Thursday, May 29, 2008

The nature of apostasy

It has been argued that Anglicanism must have an evil root, since some of its fruit in modern times is heresy. And, this may seem to agree with the words of our Lord Jesus Christ himself: "Either make the tree good, and his fruit good; or else make the tree corrupt, and his fruit corrupt: for the tree is known by his fruit." (Matt. 12:33) That is, the argument may appear to harmonize with his words until we look at the context of this verse, and until we see that this and other such statements find their correct interpretation by what unfolds in the words that follow:

"O generation of vipers, how can ye, being evil, speak good things? for out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh. A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things: and an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things. But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment. For by thy words thou shalt be justified, and by thy words thou shalt be condemned." (Vs. 34-37)

The context makes it clear that when the Lord spoke of the evil tree and evil fruit, and the good tree and good fruit (such as Matt. 7:15f), he warns us to pay careful attention to the words men speak when they put themselves forward as religious teachers. It may seem odd that he does not draw our attention as much to their way of life, as to their words. This is because they may hide the one for quite a long time, but cannot avoid giving evidence of the second. For, whereas they do not invite the church to witness what they do in their bedrooms, or what they practice in secret, they do reveal themselves by what comes out of their mouths. The fruit of evil teaching reveals an evil tree. But that root and tree is in the individual, and what is in his heart; it is not in keeping with these passages from the Gospels to extend their meaning to anything beyond the heart of an individual. It is necessary to stay within the boundaries of the actual text of scripture in order to interpret it correctly.

The historical argument

For, as I wrote at the beginning of this essay, the modern heresies embraced by many Anglicans are put forth as evidence that the root of Anglicanism is to blame. This appears, at first glance, to be logical. After all, where else could reasoning come from that allows for women's "ordination," liberal opinions about abortion, divorce and remarriage, and the promotion of homosexuality as a good, acceptable and even sacramental way of life? The Anglican Communion is not unique in embracing these errors, since numerous Protestant denominations have embraced them as well. But, only the Anglican Communion and, in recent times, the Old Catholic Churches of Utrecht (with which, to its credit and benefit, the Polish National Catholic Church has broken all ties), among churches professing themselves to be Traditional Catholic sacramental churches,1 have accepted these things.

First, does this really prove anything about the Anglican root? Some Roman Catholics think that it verifies their specific claims against Anglicanism. If we are to accept the logic of their argument, however, we find ourselves in a dilemma, since it follows that these things would also indict their roots. Protestantism, in its endless variety of forms, began with at least four major strands in the 16th century: Lutheranism, Calvinism, Zwinglianism, and then that rather odd case of the English Reformation. But, the root of Protestantism is Roman Catholicism; it is the fruit of that tree. In fact, every major idea of the Reformers, except for Zwingli's innovation about Communion, was acceptable within debates that took place in previous centuries among Catholic scholars, without fear of excommunication or a charge of heresy. So, if Protestantism is an evil fruit, what does this say about the Papal Church of the West? Does it verify the Orthodox claims?

Well, if we proceed with the same logic, the Papal or Western Church was the fruit of the first millennium Church with its seven Ecumenical Councils. So, is that tree, then, corrupt? If so, our dilemma is huge indeed. To go further with this line of reasoning, its logic should be applied to every heresy that the Councils addressed. For all of them, whether we think of the Arian heresy, or Pelagianism, or Pneumatomachianism, Iconoclasm, or Monothelitism, etc., arose within the community of the church. This logic would show just how wrong St. Paul was: "For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you." (I Cor. 11:19) Heresies inevitable? Should they not rather be seen as evidence that the Jews were right all along about the tree of Christianity itself?

The actual nature of apostasy

The root argument from history should yield to the simple fact that our Lord did not use his tree and fruit analogy to speak of wide ramifications in history, but to speak instead about the heart of individuals. It is a warning to each person as an individual to walk rightly with God, and it is a warning about false prophets with a measure for discerning them.

"The word of the LORD came unto me again, saying, What mean ye, that ye use this proverb concerning the land of Israel, saying, The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge? As I live, saith the Lord GOD, ye shall not have occasion any more to use this proverb in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine; as the soul of the father, so also the soul of the son is mine: the soul that sinneth, it shall die." (Ezekiel 18:1-4)

These words open the eighteenth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, in which we learn some terrifying facts. We learn that a man may be righteous before God, and his son may not, and that the reverse also may be true. We learn that a man may himself turn away from God after years of living a righteous life, and walk in sin. But, we learn also that a sinner may repent, walk righteously before God, and his past life will be forgotten.

Each generation, indeed, each individual, makes his choice for good or evil. And, that choice may not be a reflection on previous generations at all. This is a kind of freedom that no government has power to restrain, the freewill given to each individual either to repent and try to walk with God, or to turn from him, perhaps so completely as to prophesy lies and turn to other gods, if only in the secret place of the heart. The nature of apostasy is a personal thing deep down within, in the hidden chambers of motivation. The expression of apostasy is manifestation of hatred for God, a rebellion that discloses malice toward our Father in heaven.

The expression of apostasy as it continues out from its source may be more innocent, in that many people may be deceived in all sincerity, believing the lies that are taught to them. But, even here, there can be a measure of culpability, a hardness of heart against hearing the word of the Lord. Nonetheless, before it can be taught and spread, apostasy must rebel against the very church in which the apostate resides. Apostasy becomes heresy when the apostate manages to stay within his church community and spread his ideas as a new doctrine.

The method

How this applies to Anglicanism should be obvious to Continuing Anglicans. In order for a new version of Christianity to thrive, there must be first a rebellion against the Tradition. Anglicanism itself did not change; its nature did not undergo any kind of transformation. Instead, what really happened brings to mind what G.K. Chesterton remarked about Christianity: "Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and not tried." A variation of this became true in some of the churches of the Anglican Communion. Anglicanism has not been tried and found wanting, it has been rejected. And, with it has been rejected the whole Christian faith.

This apostasy became heresy because it did not reject the outward form of religion, but instead conquered it, acquired its worldly assets, lost most of the old crowd, and replaced them with "converts." As a business, this new religion has been a success in the United States, even though its numbers do not begin to compare with past generations of the Episcopal Church, in either membership or attendance, just as they do not begin to compare with such churches as the Anglican Church in Nigeria where all the clergy are men, and the doctrine of the Church has never changed.

But, the new religion has money, and it has enough of the old form to provide comforts and false assurance. This proves true, also, another quotation 2 of G.K. Chesterton: "All conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change." Some are content with the new religion, because they were so conservative that they left the faith and practice of the Church alone. It is enough for them to live within the fantasy of its structures.

But (and this is more to the point) the new religion is not Anglican at all. It rejected Anglicanism, even rejecting the most authentic expression of Anglicanism, the Book of Common Prayer. Without the Book of Common Prayer, there is no Anglicanism. That is what expresses it and gives it a life with common expression, the doctrine of the Bible true to the earliest generations of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

It is obvious from any reading of the Affirmation of St. Louis that Anglicanism is not a tree with bad fruit, but rather a part of that same Church that remained faithful when the Emperor favored the Arians, and drove St. Athanasius into exile. True Anglicanism, in countries where the Continuing Churches are needed, is the Christian Faith in exile.

1. Some may think to add the national Churches of Sweden and Norway to such a list.
2. I make no apologies for quoting a great Roman Catholic thinker in my defense of Anglicanism.
3. The danger that II Tim. 3:5 may apply, is no small problem: "Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away."


Fr Matthew Kirby said...

Another major problem with this common argument is that it fails to notice historically similar defections and their antecedents. Does what happened to the Church in North Africa, Egypt or Assyria prove that those jurisdictions who went into schism and heresy (whether it was Eutychian or Nestorian in character) were in fact never really Catholic in the first place?

Now, it is fair to note deficiencies that may have existed in a particular Church that eventually led to great problems or even heresy and schism. The deep reliance of the West on St Augustine might be an example. His lapse into trusting the arm of flesh (the civil power) to "compel" people into Church was followed by the approval by the Western Mediaeval Church of torture to discover and root out "heresy". And his formulation of Original Guilt and assertion of the absolute necessity of baptism for infant salvation led to the unedifying speculation on Limbo, in order to escape his belief unbaptised infants were tormented by fire for eternity.

Similarly, Anglican "comprehensiveness", when taken to mean doctrinal indifference, bears the fruit we now see. But comprehensiveness in this sense was not reflected in official teaching for centuries, unlike the concept of a Via Media between papal absolutism, with its associated corruptions, and Puritan, "discontinuant" Protestantism. This latter concept is evidenced, for example, in the 1549 and 1662 Prefaces to the BCP. Much of what has happened to the Anglican Communion can be laid at the feet of those who ignored key aspects of their own proper tradition and formularies and invented a new "faith" using the concept of comprehensiveness to accept whatever the World had to offer ideologically.

Anonymous said...

Fr. Kirby,

You said:

"Much of what has happened to the Anglican Communion can be laid at the feet of those who ignored key aspects of their own proper tradition and formularies and invented a new "faith" using the concept of comprehensiveness to accept whatever the World had to offer ideologically."

I'm curious specifically about this line, "... those who ignored key aspects of their own proper tradition and formulariesand invented a new "faith"..." Is there a Principal of Unity that prevents this from happening. IOW, what exactly prevents you here at the Continuum or those who adhere to the Affirmations of St. Louis from deviating from proper tradition and formularies? and perhaps lead to inventing,"...a new "faith." What do you have that they did not?

I am actually asking these questions precisely because I agree with the post by Fr. Hart. As a Roman Catholic I do not like this argument against Anglicanism for much the same reasons as Fr. Hart noted. However, realizing this does not necessarily mean that something real lies at the heart underneath. This is true for Anglicanism, Roman Catholicism or Orthodoxy. To me- no expert in any way, mind you- different arguments come in to play with regard to looking for the True Church. Or, maybe the way to say it is, "Looking for the One True Divinely Constituted Ecclesiology."


Fr. Robert Hart said...

When comprehensiveness is invoked properly it means only that Anglicanism has room for both High and Low Church practices. A truly educated Anglican is able to take part in services that are High or Low, recognizing the same essential Catholic theology in either setting.

Fr. Robert Hart said...


I don'tknow what Fr. Kirby's answer will be. But, I believe that apostasy and heresy have sinful motivation at the root. An honest heart will receive true teaching. Our safety comes from the Holy Spirit.

St. John writes:
"They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us. But ye have an unction from the Holy One, and ye know all things." I John 2:19,20

Does this mean everybody in the Church will be a theoloigan or teacher? Does it mean everybody will always agree and be right? Does it really mean we don't need anyone to teach us?

The answer is no to all these questions. It means that when antichrists teach heresy, the Holy Spirit makes us know something is wrong, even if we are not well versed.

For example, a man told me howterribly uncomfortable he was when presented with a woman "priest" (i.e. a man in my congregation who wised up and left the Episcopal "Church"). He assumed he must be prejudiced. So, I have asked, "would you feel that way about a woman doctor? or lawyer? or mayor?" he said, quite honestly, "no, I would not." I told him that it was the Holy Spirit who made him aware that this was wrong, and he was not prejudiced at all, even though the spirit of the age conditioned him to make that assumption.

This probably will not answer your question fully.

Fr Matthew Kirby said...


You asked: "I'm curious specifically about this line, "... those who ignored key aspects of their own proper tradition and formulariesand invented a new "faith"..." Is there a Principal of Unity that prevents this from happening. IOW, what exactly prevents you here at the Continuum or those who adhere to the Affirmations of St. Louis from deviating from proper tradition and formularies? and perhaps lead to inventing,"...a new "faith." What do you have that they did not?"

There is no Principle of Unity, whether a piece of canon law, a present doctrinal formulation, or a merely institutional characteristic, that gurantees that any particular Church or individual will never lapse from Holy Tradition in the future. After all, as I said, people in a Church can always disobey the written principles as they stand and rebelliously re-write them. There are promises to the Church as a whole, however. That is why Christians are obliged to prefer the Catholic consensus to any localised defection from it, even if it exists in the jurisdiction to which they have, up till now, belonged. Then they are obliged to leave that jurisdiction and resort to orthodox hierarchs. Which was precisely why and how the Continuing Church came into being.