On the peccability of the Church

On the peccability of the Church

A. Lesslie Newbigin

The Catholic is right in insisting that the continuity of the Church is God’s will. He is wrong when he suggests that the doing of that will is the condition of our standing in His grace. As for the individual, so also for the Church, there is only one way to be justified, and it is to say, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’

from The Household of God, (SCM, 1957), 86.

B. Bruce Marshall

The unity of the church is a unity among sinners; the continuing reality of sin in the lives of all the church’s members has no bearing on the church’s unity. The currently much-debated question whether the church itself, like all the individuals in it, can be regarded as simul iustus et peccator should also, I think, be answered in the negative. That is, the church as a whole, as a community, cannot be conceived of as a sinful individual (or perhaps several such individuals) over against Christ. What makes the church to be, and so to be one (that is, to be an individual) is the very unity of being, knowledge, and love by which the triune God is one, into which human beings are drawn by the missions of the Son and the Spirit, so creating the church. Apart from the missions of Christ and the Spirit and the divine unity that is their gift to the church, the church is not an individual at all, and a fortiori not an individual “over against” Christ and the Spirit. Thus, it seems that while everyone in the church is an individual “over against” Christ, the church itself is not. Apart from or over against the missions of Christ and the Spirit, the church lacks that unity specific to it and constitutive of its reality as church; it is simply a collection of individuals and not the community for which Jesus prays in John 17. So if the church turns out, visibly and empirically, to be divided, this does not show (according to the stringent logic of John 17) that the church is a sinful individual over against Christ—it shows rather that the bond uniting Christ to the Father is broken, and thus that the triune God does not exist.

from “The Disunity of the Church and the Credibility of the Gospel,” Theology Today, vol. 50, (1993): 85-6.

C. Robert Jenson

Can simul iustus et peccator apply to the church? Luther called the church magna peccatrix, the “greatest sinner” and some Lutherans have taken this as a cue to apply the simul not only to the believers who make up the church, individually or all together, but to the church as she is a singular agent. The ecumenical protest this generates is surely justified. The church as the mother of all believers is not personally sinful nor has she ever been, however many sins may have been committed by her members in her name. Ecclesia iusta et peccatrix just does not fit the situation. The peccator I still am after baptism is precisely my “old man,” my pre-baptismal self, reaching from that past needing to be thrust back again and again. There was a time, however brief, between my birth and my new birth at baptism, and this fact remains as the base of the old man’s excursions. But the church had no such time antecedent to her birth as the body of Christ. There never was an “old church” which might emerge and need to be killed again. What then of Luther’s magna peccatrix? Whatever Luther may have had in mind, the phrase can serve if taken as a christological slogan. The church is the great communal sinner in that she is the body of that Christ who “was made to be sin for us.” Christ is the magnus peccator, not because he was once a sinner but because precisely as one “without sin” he could take all history’s sin as his burden. Just so his church as his body, his available presence in the world, is the world’s great sinner not because she has any sins of her personal own but because Christ’s body of course is laden with his burden.

from Lutheran Slogans: Use and Abuse, (ALPB, 2011): 73-4.

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