Cirlot on Grace in and Outside the Church


The Anglican bishop Cirlot wrote a book on whether or not apostolic succesion is true (incidentally, its title is Apostolic Succession: Is It True?  Practical name for his book, eh?).  One of the objections he had to deal with to the Catholic position was that there seems to be a lot of Christians outside of of the visible Church.  The Catholic view (not Roman–just universally held by Christians across the centuries; this is the view shared by Anglicans, Orthodox, and Roman Catholics) is that the Church is an organization with visible criteria of membership, instituted directly by Christ with a heirarchical structure that has sacramental grace.  The Church is a polis, a city or nation of sorts–not an earthly one, surely, but a true polis none the less.

Cirlot mentions the arguments of the archbishop of Cantebury William Temple for the conclusion that Protestants are fully the Church in just as unqualified a way as the Catholics (which here designates Anglicans, Orthodox, and Romans).  The main argument is from the superabundance of grace that we see outside the Church.  The moral and spiritual character of Protestants is not excellent across the board; there are some bad apples.  But there are so many good Protestants that it makes the Catholic view of the Church improbable.  How could a Catholic possibly deny that a good Protestant is in the Church? 

We would expect that if the Catholic view is correct, then there would be less spiritual abundance outside the Church–even if there was some grace.  This argument might be formulated as follows:


Argument against the Catholic view of the scope of the Church

1. If Catholicism is true, then Protestants would not have the degree and kind of grace x (where x is some amount that is reckoned to be significant enough to imply someone is in the Church).

2. Protestants have the degree and kind of grace x.

Conclusion: Therefore Catholicism is false.


Cirlot’s answer to this argument is interesting.  He distinguishes between covenanted and uncovenanted grace–grace that is had by the channels divinely-ordained and revealed, and that grace which works outside those channels to accomodate invincible ignorance and sincere faith.  In order to object to the Catholic view, one has to hold to one of the following two options:


Two ways of affirming that Protestants are members of the New Covenant


There is no distinction between covenanted and uncovenanted grace.  This would imply that the Catholic view is false, and so anyone who is Christian in any sense is in an equally-valid place (or if they are not in an equally-valid place as other people, it isn’t because of some absence of conformity to the channels of grace designated as valid and authoritative by divine revelation).  There are two ways one could hold this view:

a. State that there is no new covenant, and there is grace.  This would be a denial of Christianity, which holds there is a new covenant.

b. State that there is only grace in the new covenant, and not outside.  Then affirm that Protestants have grace; hence they are in the new covenant.  This has two implications

Firstly, this would deny religious inclusivism, the thesis that people can be saved by Christ without explicitly believing in Him.  Because I believe in religious inclusivism, and it is favored by many Christians (most conservatives outside evangelicalism are inclusivists of some sort) neither I nor they would consider this to be a valid way out. 

Secondly, this would also imply that any group of people that claimed to be Christian but did not have all of the signs of the Church–which for the Reformers meant rightly dividing the word, rightly administering the sacraments, and rightly dealing out Church discipline–would in fact not be Christian or have salvation (because they would be outside the Church.  If one is not willing to say that people who don’t teach all the important parts of Christian doctrine correctly, and who don’t have the right view of the sacraments and how they should be done, and who don’t have the right Church structure and way of administering discipline are not Christian, then this is not acceptable.


2. State that Protestants are members of the New Covenant (and affirm that there is grace outside the New Covenant).  In order to do this, two things have to be argued for:

– First one must argue for a specific view about the breadth of the New Covenant.  There have to be definate signs that some group of people is the Church by which we can identify them.  Working from the Protestant definition of the visible Church, one could say that a person has to be initiated into a group that rightly divides the word, rightly administers the sacraments, and rightly disciplines.

– Secondly one must argue that Protestants have these signs of the visible Church.  Saying they have grace is not enough, because there is grace outside the New Covenant.  Church/Covenant membership is more than just


What results does this argument yield?  If we find option I unacceptable as a position (which most Christians would) then we must move to option II.  But affirming option II transforms the discussion from one about the fact that Protestants have grace to a discussion about the signs of membership in the visible Church.  After all, if we take option II, then there is some set of people who have grace but are not in the Church (called the invisible Church by Protestants generally).  The fact that Protestants have grace therefore does not necessarily imply Church membership if we take option II; it is compatible with option II but not required by it, and so must be argued for based on fulfilling the conditions for covenant membership.  So one may then argue as follows for moving to the subject of the marks of the Church to settle the issue of whether Protestants are in the Church:


Argument for moving to discussing the marks of the Church

1. If one is trying to defend the conclusion that Protestants are in the Church, then the only ways to affirm this is to either assent to option I or option II

2. Option I is untenable because both interpretations a (no new covenant) and b (there’s no grace outside the new covenant) seem false (the first denies Christianity; the second seems implausible because it implies that all people who don’t have the signs of the visible Church are unsaved).

C. Therefore if we are trying to defend the conclusion that Protestants are in the Church, then we must first designate the criteria for being a member of the new covenant, and second argue that Protestants meet these criteria.


By refocusing the discussion, the Catholic can point out to the objector that they need to actually talk about what the Church is.  If the Protestant view of the Church is true, then of course some Protestants will be part of the New Covenant; they will be in the Church because their groups will have the signs of New Covenant membership.  But if the Catholic view is true, then obviously Protestants will not be part of the New Covenant.  They may have grace, salvation, and it may be possible to call many of them Christians in a real but qualified way; but it would not be possible to say they are actually part of the heirarhical institution founded by Jesus.  This is because by definition Protestantism is not the visible heirarchical instituion founded by Jesus (if there is one).  It is a collection of more-or-less affiliated groups of people who identify themselves as Christians and believe that some subset of these groups are legitimate religious organizations permitted to exist by God.

Really what needs to be done, then, is to discuss whether the Catholic view of the Church or the Protestant view of the Church is true.  The fact that there is grace–even much grace–in Protestant groups does not by itself settle the question.  Obviously I wouldn’t agree with the exact way that Cirlot understands things.  For instance, I don’t think that Roman Catholics or Anglicans are the Church.  Nor do I distinguish between two Churches–the visible and the invisible (though honestly I’m not sure I remember if Cirlot used this language).  But the basic form of his argument is obviously salvageable for use by the Orthodox.  So, is the Church a visible heirarchical institution originating from Jesus?  This would actually settle the question of who is in the Church.  But that’s a subject for another time.


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