The Church is OneHome > Belief & History, Christian Education > The Church is One
by Alexei Khomiakov
The Unity of the Church follows of necessity from the unity of God; for the Church is not a multitude of persons in their separate individuality, but a unity of the grace of God, living in a multitude of rational creatures, submitting themselves willingly to grace. Grace, indeed, is also given to those who resist it, and to those who do not make use of it (who hide their talent in the earth), but these are not in the Church. In fact, the unity of the Church is not imaginary or allegorical, but a true and substantial unity, such as is the unity of many members in a living body.
The Church is one, notwithstanding her division as it appears to a man who is still alive on earth. It is only in relation to man that it is possible to recognize a division of the Church into visible and invisible; her unity is, in reality, true and absolute. Those who are alive on earth, those who have finished their earthly course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God; for the creation of God which has not yet been manifested is manifest to Him; and God hears the prayers and knows the faith of those whom He has not yet called out of non-existence into existence. Indeed the Church, the Body of Christ, is manifesting forth and fulfilling herself in time, without changing her essential unity or inward life of grace. And therefore, when we speak of “the Church visible and invisible,” we so speak only in relation to man.
The Visible and Invisible Church
The Church visible, or upon earth, lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church, of which Christ is the Head. She has abiding within her Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit in all their living fullness, but not in the fullness of their manifestation, for she acts and knows not fully, but only so far as it pleases God.
Inasmuch as the earthly and visible Church is not the fullness and completeness of the whole Church which the Lord has appointed to appear at the final judgment of all creation, she acts and knows only within her own limits; and (according to the words of Paul the Apostle, to the Corinthians, 1 Cor. 5. 12) does not judge the rest of mankind, and only looks upon those as excluded, that is to say, not belonging to her, who exclude themselves. The rest of mankind, whether alien from the Church, or united to her by ties which God has not willed to reveal to her, she leaves to the judgment of the great day. The Church on earth judges for herself only, according to the grace of the Spirit, and the freedom granted her through Christ, inviting also the rest of mankind to the unity and adoption of God in Christ; but upon those who do not hear her appeal she pronounces no sentence, knowing the command of her Saviour and Head, “not to judge another man’s servant” (Rom. 14. 4).
The Church on Earth
From the creation of the world the earthly Church has continued uninterruptedly upon the earth, and will continue until the accomplishment of all the works of God, according to the promise given her by God Himself. And her signs are: inward holiness, which does not allow for any admixture of error, for the spirit of truth and outward unchangeableness lives within her as Christ, her Preserver and Head does not change.
All the signs of the Church, whether inward or outward, are recognized only by herself, and by those whom grace calls to be members of her. To those, indeed, who are alien from her, and are not called to her, they are unintelligible; for to such as these, outward change of rite appears to be a change of the Spirit itself, which is glorified in the rite (as, for instance, in the transition from the Church of the Old Testament to that of the New, or in the change of ecclesiastical rites and ordinances since Apostolic times). The Church and her members know, by the inward knowledge of faith, the unity and unchangeableness of her spirit, which is the spirit of God. But those who are outside and not called to belong to her, behold and know the changes in the external rite by an external knowledge, which does not comprehend the inward [knowledge], just as also the unchangeableness of God appears to them to be changeable in the changes of His creations.
Wherefore the Church has not been, nor could she be, changed or obscured, nor could she have fallen away, for then she would have been deprived of the spirit of truth. It is impossible that there should have been a time when she could have received error into her bosom, or when the laity, presbyters, and bishops had submitted to instructions or teaching inconsistent with the teaching and spirit of Christ. The man who should say that such a weakening of the spirit of Christ could possibly come to pass within her knows nothing of the Church, and is altogether alien to her. Moreover, a partial revolt against false doctrines, together with the retention or acceptance of other false doctrines, neither is, nor could be, the work of the Church; for within her, according to her very essence, there must always have been preachers and teachers and martyrs confessing, not partial truth with an admixture of error, but the full and unadulterated truth. The Church knows nothing of partial truth and partial error, but only the whole truth without admixture of error. And the man who is living within the Church does not submit to false teaching or receive the Sacraments from a false teacher; he will not, knowing him to be false, follow his false rites. And the Church herself does not err, for she is the truth, she is incapable of cunning or cowardice, for she is holy. And of course, the Church, by her very unchangeableness, does not acknowledge that to be error, which she has at any previous time acknowledged as truth; and having proclaimed by a General Council and common consent, that it is possible for any private individual, or any bishop or patriarch, to err in his teaching, she cannot acknowledge that such or such private individual, or bishop, or patriarch, or successor of theirs, is incapable of falling into error in teaching; or that they are preserved from going astray by any special grace. By what would the earth be sanctified, if the Church were to lose her sanctity? And where would there be truth, if her judgments of to-day were contrary to those of yesterday? Within the Church, that is to say, within her members, false doctrines may be engendered, but then the infected members fall away, constituting a heresy or schism, and no longer defile the sanctity of the Church.
One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic
The Church is called One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic; because she is one, and holy; because she belongs to the whole world, and not to any particular locality; because by her all mankind and all the earth, and not any particular nation or country, are sanctified; because her very essence consists in the agreement and unity of the spirit and life of all the members who acknowledge her, throughout the world; lastly, because in the writings and doctrines of the Apostles is contained all the fullness of her faith, her hope, and her love.
From this it follows that when any society is called the Church of Christ, with the addition of a local name, such as the Greek, Russian, or Syrian Church, this appellation signifies nothing more than the congregation of members of the Church living in that particular locality, that is, Greece, Russia, or Syria; and does not involve any such idea as that any single community of Christians is able to formulate the doctrine of the Church, or to give a dogmatic interpretation to the teaching of the Church without the concurrence therewith of the other communities; still less is it implied that any one particular community, or the pastor thereof, can prescribe its own interpretation to the others. The grace of faith is not to be separated from holiness of life, nor can any single community or any single pastor be acknowledged to be the custodian of the whole faith of the Church, any more than any single community or any single pastor can be looked upon as the representative of the whole of her sanctity. Nevertheless, every Christian community, without assuming to itself the right of dogmatic explanation or teaching, has a full right to change its forms and ceremonies, and to introduce new ones, so long as it does not cause offense to the other communities. Rather than do this, it ought to abandon its own opinion, and submit to that of the others, lest that which to one might seem harmless or even praiseworthy should seem blameworthy to another; or that brother should lead brother into the sin of doubt and discord. Every Christian ought to set a high value upon unity in the rites of the Church: for thereby is manifested, even for the unenlightened, unity of spirit and doctrine, while for the enlightened man it becomes a source of lively Christian joy. Love is the crown and glory of the Church.
Scripture and Tradition
The Spirit of God, who lives in the Church, ruling her and making her wise, manifests Himself within her in divers manners; in Scripture, in Tradition, and in Works; for the. Church, which does the works of God, is the same Church, which preserves tradition and which has written the Scriptures. Neither individuals, nor a multitude of individuals within the Church, preserve tradition or write the Scriptures; but the Spirit of God, which lives in the whole body of the Church. Therefore it is neither right nor possible to Look for the grounds of tradition in the Scripture, nor for the proof of Scripture in tradition, nor for the warrant of Scripture or tradition in works. To a man living outside the Church neither her scripture nor her tradition nor her works are comprehensible. But to the man who lives within the Church and is united to the spirit of the Church, their unity is manifest by the grace which lives within her.
Do not works precede Scripture and tradition? Does not tradition precede Scripture? Were not the works of Noah, Abraham, the forefathers and representatives of the Church of the Old Testament, pleasing to God? And did not tradition exist amongst the patriarchs, beginning with Adam, the forefathers of all? Did not Christ give liberty to men and teaching by word of mouth, before the Apostles by their writings bore witness to the work of redemption and the law of liberty? Wherefore, between tradition, works, and scripture there is no contradiction, but, on the contrary, complete agreement. A man understands the Scriptures, so far as he preserves tradition, and does works agreeable to the wisdom that lives within him. But the wisdom that lives within him is not given to him individually, but as a member of the Church, and it is given to him in part, without altogether annulling his individual error; but to the Church it is given in the fullness of truth and without any admixture of error. Wherefore he must not judge the Church, but submit to her, that wisdom be not taken from him.
Every one that seeks for proof of the truth of the Church, by that very act either shows his doubt, and excludes himself from the Church, or assumes the appearance of one who doubts and at the same time preserves a hope of proving the truth, and arriving at it by his own power of reason: but the powers of reason do not attain to the truth of God, and the weakness of man is made manifest by the weakness of his proofs. The man who takes Scripture only, and founds the Church on it alone, is in reality rejecting the Church, and is hoping to found her afresh by his own powers: the man who takes tradition and works only, and depreciates the importance of Scripture, is likewise in reality rejecting the Church, and constituting himself a judge of the Spirit of God, who spoke by the Scripture. For Christian knowledge is a matter, not of intellectual investigation, but of a living faith, which is a gift of grace. Scripture is external, an outward thing, and tradition is external, and works are external: that which is inward in them is the one Spirit of God. From tradition taken alone, or from scripture or from works, a man can but derive an external and incomplete knowledge, which may indeed in itself contain truth, for it starts from truth, but at the same time must of necessity be erroneous, inasmuch as it is incomplete. A believer knows the Truth, but an unbeliever does not know it, or at least only knows it with an external and imperfect knowledge. The Church does not prove herself either as Scripture or as tradition or as works, but bears witness to herself, just as the Spirit of God, dwelling in her, bears witness to Himself in the Scriptures. The Church does not ask: Which Scripture is true, which tradition is true, which Council is true, or what works are pleasing to God: for Christ knows His own inheritance, and the Church in which He lives knows by inward knowledge, and cannot help knowing, her own manifestations. The collection of Old and New Testament books, which the Church acknowledges as hers, are called by the name of Holy Scripture. But there are no limits to Scripture; for every writing which the Church acknowledges as hers is Holy Scripture. Such pre-eminently are the Creeds of the General Councils, and especially the Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed. Wherefore, the writing of Holy Scripture has gone on up to our day, and, if God pleases, yet more will be written. But in the Church there has not been, nor ever will be, any contradictions, either in Scripture, or in tradition, or in works; for in all three is Christ, one and unchangeable.