Of particular interest are the summary chapters of the dozens of varying Christian Denominations existing at the time of Hayward's 1860 writing (not to mention the thousands added since that time!) All claim the Bible as their source of faith and practice. Each draws its ecclesiolgocal distinctions from Scripture and sees everyone else as "missing the mark." How is it that believers professing the Ephesians 4 Pauline creed, "one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all" can have so many different--and often conflicting--ideas about the church?
After years of bewilderment, I recently stumbled upon a very simple explanation of how such a wide variety of beliefs can exist within the Body of Christ. Much to my surprise it was through reading Father Zachary J. Hayes explanation of the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory where he points out that our understanding of church doctrine and practice hinges upon our overarching view of Scripture itself:
"While the Protestant viewpoint looks for a pure form of doctrine at the beginning of Christian history and sees any deviation from that pure form as a corruption, the Catholic viewpoint sees the beginning more like a seed planted in history. It is the nature of a seed to grow and develop...
Catholic theologians have been inclined to think of the church as a community that grows through history like a living organism. The idea of a seed and the plant emerging from the seed became common metaphors to express this sense of growth. Like a seed, the revelation of God germinates in the ground of history and of human cultures and gives rise to a plant. While this plant is intrinsically related to the seed, it still looks quite different from the original seed, just as an oak tree looks very different from the acorn from which it grew...
In terms of doctrine, this has come to mean that, while the Scriptures have a normative and irreplaceable role to play in the faith life of the church, nevertheless, we ought not to expect any one-to-one relationship between the formultations of the Scriptures and the later formulations of church doctrines..."
--Father Zachary J. Hayes
Wow! If Scripture is merely the initial "seed" from which the plant--the church--matures and grows; then yes, we can have all kinds of beliefs, traditions, and church practices.
But is Scripture meant to be only the initial seed? Is God's Word meant to be only the starting point? Where in Scripture, itself, is the church referred to using a seed metaphor?
The predominant metaphor used for the church in the New Testament is "the body of Christ" found in multiple references (such as Rom.12:5), the "bride of Christ" in Revelation, "God's household" (Eph.2:19), "chosen race", "royal priesthood", "holy nation", "a people for God's own possession" (1 Peter 2:19), but I do not find the church referred to as something that grows out of a seed.
This might not seem like a big deal, but to me the seed metaphor has enormous implications. If Scripture is just an initial seed that grows and matures into something else down through history (as Hayes describes above) then everybody is right to nurture their "seed" and hopefully mature it into something they are comfortable with. Isn't this what we have done with the church? We have made church into our own image. We see Acts and the Epistles not as blueprints, but as "seeds" that need to be developed into what they were intended to become.
I believe it is not only the Catholics who have misunderstood the church, her doctrines and practices as deriving themselves from Scripture seeds, but Protestants and Evangelicals as well. All of us tend to justify what it is we believe (or want to believe) by copying/pasting favorite proof texts about the church and making them fit our current ecclesiology. We have taken the seed found in the Bible, sowed it into the soil of history, nurtured and watered it down through the ages, and think what we have today is an improvement over what Jesus and the apostles left for us. After all, why gather in a simple home to stimulate one another to love and good works, when we can meet in multi-million dollar complexes complete with state-of-the-art technology and artificial waterfalls cascading in the foyer?
Yes, the kingdom of heaven is referred to as a mustard seed in Matt. 13:31. Faith is likewise referred to a mustard seed in Matt.17:20, and the Gospel itself as "seed sown in a field." But does this give us the right to morph original NT teaching about the church into something that goes far beyond what we find in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles? Wasn't that Jesus primary objection to the Pharisees that they added to the Law of Moses and held people accountable for the additions? Aren't we doing the same thing today with our own church traditions and practices when we elevate them as being equal (or superior) to actual Scriptural teachings?
And that is how church doctrines get developed over time. What do you think?