On the Being of the Church

As I have mentioned before, in order to effectively measure the changeable aspects of a Church, we will have to have some understanding of just what kind of changes we can expect in these areas, that is, how these things can and do grow. But in order to even identify the changeable characteristics of the Church, we will first have to know something about the unique nature of ecclesial being, which gives rise to these properties. And in order to understand that nature, we will need to know exactly how and as what the Church exists. So before we move on to the very practical task of actually measuring various details of the Church, let me beg the reader’s patience for one more somewhat theoretical, but definitely foundational post.

To begin with I think we can arrange everything or anything that could or does exist into a hierarchy of being that, in very general terms, distinguishes between universals and particulars. Universals can be divided into two fundamental categories: Property-universals which are borne by particular objects or which exist particularly as tropes, and substance-universals, which are instantiated as particular objects. Properties are conceived of as repeatable, that is, as something that can be borne by many different particulars at different times and in different places. The creedal marks of the Church can be considered property-universals. In a general sense oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity can be repeated and applied to multiple objects, however in a more restricted sense, only the Church can be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic. In other words, the Church exists as oneness, holiness, beauty, and integrity.The other category of universals, substance-universals, refers to objects that exist as particular instances of or actualization of some universal. In Christian thought these universals are referred to as thoughts or images in the mind of God. Thus, creation in general is seen as the realized will of God. According to Maximus the Confessor, each created entity is pre-existent as logos, i.e., word or thought in God all of which are summarized and unified by the Logos. So the Church, as it exists in this world, could be considered a concrete realization of a universal that has existed pre-eternal in the mind of God. However, the Church is not rooted in just any one of the many logoi, but rather the Logos himself, the second person of the Godhead which, as we shall see, adds a whole other personal dimension to the ideal of ecclesial being and the way in which it is objectified in space and time.

Particulars can also be divided into two categories: Objects which are property bearing and which are not themselves borne by anything, and tropes which are properties born uniquely by only one object. So a Church is a property-bearing particular, which is not borne by anything else, that is, it is not a characteristic or property of some other object, but is itself an individual substance. So an actualized universal exists as a particular, individual substance independent of its properties, that is, its being is not dependent on the properties it bears. Nevertheless, it is the combination of those properties that enable us to perceive, identify, or gain access to that concrete and particular substance. Since a Church exists as an instantiation of the pre-eternal Logos, its actualized substance would have to be generated for us as a combination of all the attributes of the second person of the Trinity. However, being the attributes of divine person, they are innumerable and thus beyond human apprehension. That is no doubt the reason why the early Fathers of the Church focused our attention on four primary qualifications when describing the Church.

Given this hierarchy of being we can conceive of Church as an entity existing both potentially in the mind and person of God and actually as individual substance, that is, as a concrete, as opposed to abstract object, not itself a property, but bearing properties, some uniquely. By ascribing being to the Church, we are insisting that there is such a thing as Church, that it is real, and that its existence is not determined by its properties, but rather by the will of God. A Church does not exist because it has a certain number of members or even because it exists as holiness. It exists as an idea eternally conceived of by the mind and the person of God to which He has given concrete expression. Here we can make a number of additional distinctions that will refine our understanding of just how the Church exists. Our minds are clearly able to distinguish, for example, between several types of being, infinite and finite, necessary and contingent, absolute and relative, personal and impersonal. In making these distinctions we are actually using the Trinity as a conceptual framework for the development of our ecclesiology, i.e., the Trinity provides the ontological categories for our ecclesiology. This ecclesial being, then, can be conceived of as integral being in which the infinite, necessary, and absolute subsist with the finite, contingent, and relative as personal being. The Church is a theanthropic entity. She has a kind of composite being that is analogous to both the creation of human beings and the incarnation. The nature of ecclesial being is obviously similar to that of human beings in general who bear the divine image even while being finite creatures. Since something of the divine has been deposited in them, they are persons of a divine-human nature. Although limited by time and space, the divine encircles and indwells them.

When dealing with the world of our experience, we can distinguish between the various modes in which we find real being expressed, determined, and actualized. This is often related to the difference between substance and accidents. So by substance I mean a thing existing in itself, undivided in itself, and distinct from other things. Thus, I can speak of the substance of the Church, being in itself. What I call accidents are the realities that make that substance known to us. We can also distinguish between what we can call proper accidents and common accidents. Proper accidents belong exclusively to classes of objects or kinds of substance. So in the case of the Church, these would be those properties that are always present in an actualized instance of the Church, namely the four marks: oneness, holiness, catholicity, apostolicity. In other words, any actual Church will be all of these things, at least, to some extent. Common accidents have no necessary connection with substance and can be thought of independently of the substance without thereby entailing the destruction of the latter’s essence, or of anything bound up by a necessity of thought with this essence.” So common ecclesial accidents would include things like size of membership, programs, and giving patterns, the presence, size, and change of which have no direct bearing on the substance of the Church.

We can also ask what kinds of changes to being we can conceive of? The most obvious changes are local changes to material things and quantitative changes to numbers, size, and extent. These types of change can be expressed and analyzed numerically. Another form of change is qualitative change. Even though qualitative change is accidental, it is difficult to grasp numerically. A Church can work to bring its worship into line with biblical and traditional forms and thus improve the quality of worship. With God’s help the members of a Church can, through true worship, bible study, and prayer, grow spiritually. By purifying themselves from the passions and replacing them with the virtues, they can mature in Christ. These kinds of changes in the finite members of a Church are actually steps along the path of deification, of becoming more godlike. But how do we measure this kind of change? Any numeric test we might think of would most likely violate the very nature of this type of change. Could you measure it by counting the hours spent in prayer and bible study, or the amount of scripture read during a service? Obviously not! However, this increasing quality can be captured in terms of an absence of impurities, beauty of function, increased function, integrity, and full accidental integration. So, in the case of a Church, we might expect the absence of properties at odds with the four tropes, with an elegance of worship in keeping with the Scriptures, the ability to draw non-believers into the presence of Christ, as well as a harmonious integration of all the common accidents into the four fundamental marks of the Church. Finally, there is substantial change, a change to the individual substance of an actualized entity. This is not accidental change and for that reason it cannot be counted. It does raise the possibility that a real instance of the Church could be transformed into a church or a church could become a Church. Church taken here in both its abstract, purely logical form and its actualization in the world of our experience. Church (logically speaking) cannot become something other than Church. However, as it exists in the world, Church can and does experience substantial change. Each of the four properties of oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity can be undermined by the actions and beliefs of sinful members. So can its holiness be lost? Ultimately, i.e., in the logical and abstract, it can never even fade. However, in the immediate concrete realm, it can definitely vanish. In that case it no longer participates in the divine holiness of Christ, loses one of its defining tropes, and as such is no longer a Church.

So far I have presented the Church as an entity existing both potentially in the mind and person of God and actually as an individual substance. I have distinguished between various types of being and concluded that an actualized Church will have a composite personal being in which the infinite, necessary, and absolute subsist with the finite, the contingent, and the relative. I have also established that in the realm of our experience, its substance as Church is made known to us through its accidents. The common accidents or ordinary properties and changes to them reveal the presence or absence of the four proper accidents without which an entity cannot be a Church, oneness, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity. Taken together these proper accidents, these tropes, give us a sure framework for distinguishing between a Church and those communities which are church in name only. This framework also provides a context in which we can meaningfully analyze the common accidents of a Church and thus discern the presence or absence of the transcendent attributes. So in our next post I will take up the property of oneness/unity and ask what it is, what its accidental indicators are, and how it might be measured.

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