If, for example, we were to agree with John Locke’s definition of the church, we would find ourselves in territory foreign to the mainstream of the historic faith. According to Locke, “A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls” (emphasis mine). While there are undoubtedly many Christians, especially protestants in the free-church tradition, who would implicitly agree with Locke’s definition, the mainstream of the Christian tradition has viewed the church as the covenant community of those who belong to Jesus Christ, who is its Saviour and head.
Moreover, the gathered church, as distinct from the corpus Christi which is more encompassing, has been generally recognized to be an authoritative institution with the power to bind and loose on earth (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). As such it is more than the aggregate of its members but is a divinely-ordained vessel bearing the gospel to the world and especially to the church’s members.
Throughout the last two millennia, ecclesiastical councils have been convened on occasion to decide authoritatively on difficult doctrinal issues threatening to divide the church. These have yielded creeds and confessions considered binding on the faithful, such as the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, deemed authoritative for the major Christian traditions in both east and west. The (Pseudo-)Athanasian Creed is most direct in its claims: “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith; Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled, without doubt he shall perish everlastingly.” It is, in short, the church, and not individual Christians, that defines the content of the faith.
It would be difficult to imagine an account of the faith and the church more inconsistent with the voluntaristic ecclesiology of Locke, who asserted that “everyone is orthodox to himself.” By contrast, from the earliest centuries the church as an institution has claimed the authority to determine what is and is not orthodox. Those Christians professing to be orthodox are in effect acknowledging that the terms for their membership in the church are not theirs to set as individuals. Beginning already with the Jerusalem council recorded in Acts 15, the church as a body asserted its authority, under the direction of the Holy Spirit, to resolve potentially divisive issues in binding fashion. To dissent from such decisions was regarded as schismatic and thus sinful.
In past centuries political authorities assumed that ecclesiastical schism was a danger to public order and thus sought to uphold the church’s authority in such matters to protect the unity of the realm. Although some observers like to describe this as a Constantinian settlement, it might better be labelled Theodosian, because it was the Emperor Theodosius who officially established Christianity as the favoured religion of the Roman Empire near the end of the fourth century.
It need hardly be emphasized that, two millennia into the Christian era, most of us live in polities characterized by a diversity of sincerely- and not-so-sincerely-held faiths. We in the west have become concerned, not with the presence of multiple faiths in our own societies, but with the lack of toleration of such multiplicity elsewhere, especially in the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, where ancient Christian communities are increasingly besieged by the forces of radical Islam.
Nevertheless, the presence of faith communities adhering to a variety of ultimate beliefs is not without potentially troublesome political implications. This is something that our pre-modern forebears may have understood better than we do. Is law given by God or by the gods? And if by God, the God of Muhammad or the God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ? Few Christians would wish to live under Sharia law, but increasing numbers of devout Muslims believe they are called to establish Sharia as the law of the land, whether in Pakistan, Iraq, Nigeria or Great Britain. In the face of such evidently divisive efforts, how are we to go about living with each other? How can we come up with political principles enabling us to strike a modus vivendi with citizens of other faiths?
For several centuries now professed liberals have come up with what they believe to be the answer to this vexing question, and they think it sufficient to command the loyalties of all citizens irrespective of the “thick” comprehensive doctrines or worldviews to which they otherwise adhere. This liberal solution has profound implications for both directional diversity and societal pluriformity, and it amounts to this: every community and claimed communal obligation must be reduced to its component parts, namely, the wills of the individual members. To the extent that communal obligations exist, they can be justified only in so far as they conform to the voluntary principle. Communities, with all of their supposed differences, must be recast as mere voluntary associations.
We have seen how Locke did this with the gathered church institution, but he more famously did this with political community and even with marriage. In Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau, a social contract among individuals comes to be deemed the source of all political obligation, as graphically illustrated in the famous frontispiece to the first edition of Hobbes Leviathan. Any authority that the state might claim over the individual can be legitimated only with reference to this originating contract.
In the later liberalism of Immanuel Kant and John Rawls, we see a certain level of abstraction added to the social contract, which is reworked such that individuals now use their common reason, ostensibly disconnected from their thicker worldview commitments, to articulate principles of right agreeable to all. Sounds good in theory, but, because it is based on a faulty understanding of human nature and ignores the role ultimate beliefs inevitably play in life, it is unworkable in practice.
Part 3: What Liberalism Implies for the Two Pluralisms