A Genuinely Protestant-evangelical Ecclesiology as Corrective to the Current Resourcement Movement in the North American evangelical and Reformed Churches

I just recently attended a theology conference sponsored by the Davenant Institute. The Davenant Institute is an institute that seeks to provide resources, from the classically Reformed tradition, for the renewal of the church. Attending the conference they put on here in Portland, OR reminded me once again of how important ecclesiological consideration is; and how significant it is in regard to how we think of God’s relation to people in general. It made me think about issues having to do with authority; in other words, what is the place of the church in the economy of God? Does the church serve a mediatory role between God and humanity, or is that reserved for Christ alone (I Tim. 2.5-6)? Indeed, this issue of authority, and definition of the church seem pretty important for understanding what the renewal of the church might look like. If we don’t have a proper doctrine of the church we might be renewing something that should be discarded instead; and I’m referring to our respective concepts of the church, not the church itself.

What this conference reminded me of, as well, is that there is a whole movement among younger evangelical and reformed types who are attempting to resource the past found in the Protestant development of Reformed theology in the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to renew the 21st century Protestant Reformed and evangelical churches. But something of concern, to me, is that in this resourcement there seems to be a heavy emphasis upon a very ecclesiocentric approach; something we see prevalent in the work of someone like Peter Leithart and his Reformed Catholic move. In other words, even though these folks are Protestant and Reformed, they appear to give the church more of an absolute authority when it comes to the way Scripture is not only interpreted but applied. For some this means a turn back to Rome itself, and for others a turn to a more Anglican or Anglo-Catholic approach; and for a large bulk it simply means a turn to the confessional Protestant Reformed church, and seeing the confessions and catechisms, therein, as magisterial compendia that help to not only articulate the most faithful interpretation of Scripture; but as we see in the three forms of unity, these folks see the confessional web providing an ecclesial and authoritative structure wherein a catholic identity can be founded for the Protestant mind and church. These folks, in my view, end up imbuing certain structures of the church (whether that is formal or material structures or doctrines) with divine ordinance, such that the church itself is seen as a mediator and means of grace between God and humanity. Someone I have been interacting with on Facebook on this issue wrote this (this person was actually at the conference I mentioned, and is representative of the young evangelicals I have in mind):

Yes, but as her Founder, the Church inevitably draws her authority from Christ. Since He has instituted it, it is not a natural body but a supernatural one. Those who submit to Christ, therefore, will do so through His Body, and, in fact, have few means to exercise such submission or any true devotion EXCEPT through His Body, the Church. Point being, you’re [sic] statement is technically accurate, but far from slighting the authority of the Church, it serves only to further solidify it.[1]

He is responding to a post I put up on Facebook where I merely stated that: “Jesus is Lord, not the church.” But maybe his response helps to illustrate what I am describing in regard to the way many of these younger evangelical/reformed think of the church. Keith Johnson summarizes all of this this way:

In The Younger Evangelicals, Robert Webber provides and often surprising account of the changing commitments of the most recent generation of evangelical scholars and church leaders. One shift that he notes among these younger evangelicals is their desire for “a more visible concept of the church.” This desire stems, in part, from their reaction against what they perceive as the overly individualistic tendencies of modern evangelicalism. They believe that these tendencies lead to the same kind of “ahistoricism and spiritual subjectivism” that Philip Schaff called “the great disease which has fastened itself upon the heart of Protestantism.” Younger evangelicals have dedicated themselves to fighting this disease. Right doctrine and a commitment to evangelism are no longer enough; they want, in Webber’s words, “an embodied presence of God’s reign in an earthed community.” To find it, they are turning to high forms of liturgy, ancient spiritual practices, sacramental worship, and a renewed engagement with the historic faith through catechisms and confessions. They are, in other words, looking beyond the evangelical tradition for resources that supply new and more concrete forms for their faith and ministry of their churches.[2]

In and of itself there doesn’t seem to be anything problematic about this; i.e. a desire to find more depth, both doctrinally and ecclesially, among the younger (and even older) evangelicals. But the concern, for me anyway, is that as these folks are looking into the depth dimension that stands behind evangelical and reformed theology is what we have already noticed previously. There is this abiding desire to have substance, but when folks look back what they find is not only a catholic tradition in the church, at a doctrinal level, but they also start to see how this type of catholic tradition comes with an almost inextricable linkage to a certain theory of both the church and authority therein (or at least that’s what they think); viz. there is an association with the development of orthodox doctrine with a church government that comes to be the place wherein such development necessarily and absolutely inheres. With this realization the church—whether Catholic or Protestant—comes to have a prevalence and authority such that it is the means by which God’s grace and proper understanding of him necessarily is mediated to the seeking humanity. In other words, the church becomes conflated with the Lord of the church, such that the church necessarily speaks for the Lord with the result that the Lord and the church are no longer distinguishable in any meaningful sense. Yes, these folks, after gaining understanding, will attempt to make principled or localized distinctions between Christ and his church, nevertheless, de facto, the church comes to be the space wherein God speaks without remainder, and the church practices become the means by which God’s grace is mean[ingfully] mediated; my unnamed Facebook interlocutor illustrates this type of sensibility in some ways.

Johnson summarizes all of this further as he reflects upon Karl Barth’s concerns with this approach to the church:

The ecclesiological cost of this type of solution, however, proves to be too high, and this is especially evident when we consider this solution’s effect on the form of the church’s vocation. To see the nature of this problem, we turn to Barth’s worry that an ecclesiology which focuses upon the mediation of God’s grace through church practices inevitably makes the reception and possession of this grace the primary end of human action in the church. In his view, when the telos of the church is the facilitation of the ongoing reception, preservation, and cultivation of Christ’s benefits in our lives, then the distribution of these benefits through ecclesial practices becomes the church’s primary vocation. This is the action that “counts” in the church. The task of witnessing and proclaiming God’s Word to those outside the church become secondary to the task of cultivating God’s grace in the lives of those inside the church. As a result, Barth argues, the “being and act of the church [becomes] a circle closed in on itself”: the church’s reason for existing resides in the reception of the gift of God’s grace, and the church witnesses to God precisely in its reception of this gift. This description sounds very much like Webber’s account of the vision many younger evangelicals have for the church. For them, “The church does not ‘have’ a mission. It is mission, by its very existence in the world.” The inevitable result of this kind of ecclesiology, Barth contends, is that the “Church becomes an end in itself in its existence as the community and institution of salvation.” I never needs to look outside its own walls to realize its true vocation.[3]

As an evangelical, and as someone who wants depth in my relationship with God in Jesus Christ, as someone who wants a deep understanding of what the church is; what we have been sketching thus far is very dissatisfying for me. Not only that, I think at a purely theological level, at least for an evangelical Protestant this understanding of the church does not jive with the evangelical sensibility of seeing Jesus as Lord of the church in distinction from the church, and yet as its always already constituting voice and reality; and with seeing the evangel as the primary point of the church’s reality. This is where Barth’s critique of the classical Protestant and Catholic turn, and the ecclesiology therein, offers a helpful alternative; indeed, an alternative outwith I would feel a real sense of loss, and lack of intelligibility when attempting to think a genuinely (in the spirit) Protestant understanding of who and what the church is. Johnson provides some very helpful description of Barth’s understanding, and indeed corrective of what I think is a faulty way forward for Protestants (what we have been engaging with thus far, in regard to what many evangelicals and Protestant Reformed are resourcing as the way forward for the evangelical/reformed churches). At length Johnson writes (if these images aren’t clear enough click on them to enlarge):

.[4]

I hope some of this resonates with you, and allows you to see the vision I have when it comes to who and what the church is. It is a church that flows from the Missio Dei of God’s life for the world; for all of humanity. The church’s reality is founded not in an ongoing quest to instantiate and mediate God’s life for the elect, but instead it is found in the life and history of God’s life for us in Christ; it is found in his finished work of redemption, and in that completed reality the church has the freedom to be who she was intended to be for the other.

As we can see, at least according to Johnson’s treatment of Barth, the church was never intended to be a terminus in and for itself; instead it is intended to be the people of God who by this relationship are those who freed up to bear witness to the Lord of the church. The church in the Barthian account is opened upward and outward, it is freed up to look away from herself, and to listen to and hear the voice of her Lord; and then bear witness to that voice by proclaiming the goodness of his life to each other (in fellowship and discipleship), and the other who is found in the world. I am afraid that this reality of the church will be lost if the trend that we are seeing take place in the church continues; there is an inherent inward turn to the resourcement movement we are seeing in the church. And in this turn there is an elevation of the church as an absolute voice and means of God’s grace that the church was never intended to bear; her capacity instead is a witness bearing one.

 

[1] Unnamed Facebook Source, accessed 01-15-2018.

[2] Keith L. Johnson, “The Being and Act of the Church: Barth and the Future of Evangelical Ecclesiology,” in Bruce L. McCormack and Clifford B. Anderson eds., Karl Barth and American Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: WM.B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 201-02.

[3] Ibid., 224.

[4] Ibid., 224-26.

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25 comments

  1. Thanks, Bobby, very helpful. Have you had a chance to think through the two books by John Flett: “Witness to God” and “Apostolicity”? John’s style can be cumbersome, but (IMHO) his main points worth mining.

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  2. Hi Dan, I’m friends with John. But no, I haven’t read those as of yet; they’re on my list. Thank you!

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  3. I resonate with your resonance in the most resonating way on this one Bobby. I’m starting to lock horns with Barth on Romans (whod’ve thunk reading the guy would be more interesting than reading about the guy) and I wonder if there isn’t something of a Barthian KRISIS in your post, which is thoroughly refreshing. Is this whole Christianity thing about Jesus or is it about the Church? This is the stumbling block we keep tripping over and can’t get past…Him. Kind of makes you wonder if we are the church of Jacob or the church of Esau or both (to riff off of Barth in his Romans Commentary chs.9-11).

    With that, I’ll get back to TS Eliot and Barth and Torrance and David Bentley Hart and a few of my Patristic buddies to see if I can’t squeeze something poetical out of them. But, thanks for tossing up this gem, my sense is you have your finger on the pulse of some of the most important questions facing the church today.

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  4. Jedidiah, personally that’s how I feel when it comes to all this; a total sense of crisis. Yeah, that’s the question indeed (all about Jesus or the church?) The Holy Spirit seems to think it’s about Jesus, but many in the church can’t help but think Jesus without the church; but then it becomes hard to distinguish the church’s voice from the Lord of the church and his voice. I do feel a burden or heaviness when I get around Reformed folks who are dripping w/ the church and its happenings more than Jesus. I grew up and still am low church so some of perspective definitely comes from there.

    Thanks, man!

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  5. The “low” ecclesiology expressed here is music to my ears. I always wonder what is the point of having the church be the mediator of grace (via the sacraments) if we have already received that grace in Christ through faith. But then again, I grew up and remain in a low church tradition.

    This post is also making me think about how such an ecclesiology affects our understanding of Scripture, preaching, and the sacraments. Scripture would be the means through which we hear Christ’s voice while preaching would be our proclamation of what we have heard from Christ. So would that mean the sacraments mainly serve as a proclamation of our faith in Christ as opposed to an encounter with God’s grace?

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  6. Ivan,

    For me, as a Baptist, the “sacraments” have always been more Zwinglian for me (another reason I like Barth). Although I will say I have adopted a Calvinian view when it comes to communion, rather than the Zwinglian perspective alone. But primarily I see taking the sacraments as bearing witness to the coming of Christ, and fellowshipping with the church catholic around the broken body and shed blood of Jesus Christ. I think communion time is the most ecumenical thing any local church can do, as we all eat of the flesh and drink of the blood of the Lamb slain before the foundations of the world.

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  7. Yeah, I don’t really see any way around a Zwinglian view of the sacraments when it is Christ and not the sacraments which is the source of our salvation and the assurance of it. That of course goes back to the question of whether grace is mediated through Christ alone or if it is mediated from Christ through the church. At the same time, Paul’s words in 1 Cor 10:16-17 also make me lean towards viewing Christ’s flesh and blood as being present during Communion. Glad to see there might be a way to lean towards Zwingli and also adopt a view of Christ’s real presence. And I do think Calvin provides the most compelling framework.

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  8. Julie Canlis in her book *Calvin’s Ladder* convinced me of Calvin’s view.

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  9. Hey Bobby,

    it is all well and good to point to an “evangelical sensibility”, but I’d be interested to know how you explain the language of Scripture?

    Among many ‘high-ecclesiology’ texts:

    “Head over all things to the church, which is his body. The *fullness of him* who fills all in all” Eph 1:22-23

    “The Church of the living God, the ground and pillar of truth” 1 Tim 3:15

    The Church will share in Christ’s ministry at the judgement. Of course she has his authority to judge on right and wrong in the here and now (1 Cor 6:3). And her ministers are stewards of the mysteries, commanded to bind and loose sin in Christ’s name. Call that a “mediator of grace” if you want – I’d prefer to call it the body of Christ being the body of Christ.

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  10. Those are only “high ecclesiology” texts if you think in a circle. Your referral to Mt 16—17 are referring actually to the power of the Gospel not the church, per se; that’s just an illustration of participation in the Gospel reality and in the Greek it’s a “power” that all the disciples of Christ have not some hierarchical chain of authority (do your homework). Other than that all your other references are circular and don’t even engage with the content of my post, nor the presentation that comes through the Johnson quotes.

    And beyond this comment I don’t engage w/ people who want to press me, and at the same to remain anonymous “Mike.” If you want to engage with me further you’ll make yourself known; what your ecclesial background is etc.

    I actually do read the Bible—quite a bit actually—so your references have always been present for me. Not only that, the issue I’m referring to ultimately has less to do with high church/low church (even tho I’ve mentioned that in my comments), and more to do with theory of authority theory of revelation theory of history. I’m also not downing the place or ontology of the church, I’m noting its role in God’s economy (its relative role).

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  11. We do know one another 🙂

    Certainly the authority of the Church is relative and derived. And certainly the Church is able to err in the concrete exercise of her authority. I don’t know any Protestants who say otherwise. But it is the Lord of the Church who has given her the authority to care for and transmit his life to the world. In other words, Christ exercises *certain aspects* of his mediatorial role through his Spirit-filled body. If faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by the word of Christ, what else is preaching if not being the ordinary mouthpiece of Christ through which people are saved? That’s Christ there using his body mediatorially to bring sinful human beings to the Father.

    Perhaps this in and of itself is an argument against Barth’s unmediated “subjective actualisation” of salvation. It is simply not true that all are salvifically included, until they are salvifically included –> through the ministry of Word and Sacrament. The Church *is* a “telos” because the creation of a bride and its exaltation with her groom is the telos of Scripture and God’s purposes. Barth obscures this and relegates the Church to passive observer rather than living organ of God’s glory on earth.

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  12. The power is in the Gospel, which has been entrusted to the saints. Our Mother, the Church, is given ministers who are “stewards of the mysteries of God” and “stewards of the manifold grace of God”. It’s quite clear to me that the way God saves sinners is through the ministry of the Church, and she is only able to fulfil this role *because* Christ has given her a share in his mediatorship.

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  13. Mike, again, you’re not engaging w/ what was presented; and, indeed, just asserting contra points w/o any engagement with Barth’s actual theology (indeed, an apparent misunderstanding of it). You also aren’t understanding the critique of collapsing the incarnation itself into the church as if the church is a qualitative extension of the incarnation; it clearly is not.

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  14. No, we participate in his mediatorship; we don’t possess anything in that regard. We receive that gift of participation over and again minute by minute. He upholds all things by the word of his power; as such the church is contingent upon God’s grace, the esse and church’s reality is non-contingent grounded in God’s triune inner life. We bear witness to that reality as we participate in that reality and demonstrate the resurrection power of that reality as we are one in his love. But the baseline critique is that the church inherently possesses nothing, but instead, as gift, is given her life over and over again, moment by moment, day by day by the grace of God; she possesses nothing in that sense (but is possessed instead), and she extends nothing except by way of witness to the reality that she participates in. She has no inherent authority: Christ is the key, the church is not.

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  15. That’s quite a complicating reading of those passages. Nothing in there about minute-by-minute participation. Just the very simple statement that they Church is the body in which Christ’s grace is encountered in the world.

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  16. Well, we are referring to complex things. We are referring to inner-theologic not just prima facie readings of Scripture. That’s why my post should at the very least indicate. The reality is that you and I are operating from a fundamentally different “metaphysic” and subsequent theologic. If you don’t think that has serious ramifications for exegetical conclusions then I think you may need to re-think that.

    There is also nothing, in this passage, about the church being the “mediator” or “means” of grace per se (not even your “Christ’s grace … encountered in the world”). We are always involved in interpretation, and your supposed prima facie reading of scripture actually illustrates this just the same (as my getting back into the theology behind things is doing).

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  17. By ‘complicating’ I mean unnecessarily strained. Of course our metaphysical presuppositions affect our exegesis. My whole point is that Barth’s metaphysic/theology is a strained attempt to filter the Christian tradition through German Romanticism, with the effect of a strained hermeneutic. One that cannot account for the clear significance of the Church in God’s application of the saving benefits of Christ.

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  18. It’s unnecessarily strained for you, Mike, not me; that’s a matter of perspective! I know what your whole point is. It’s not an attempt to “filter” anything, it’s an attempt to reimagine what a hermeneutic might look like constrained not by a mostly Hellenic metaphysic but based upon a hermeneutic of a different sort. One that cannot account for the clear significance of the church in your view Lol (that’s quite presumptuous of you to make an assertion like that!). You keep making assertions about Barth’s theology, throwing out tried and true caricature, but in the process demonstrate no actual knowledge of Barth’s actual theology. Not only that, you still haven’t interacted with what was communicated itself in the quotes I shared from Keith Johnson. So I don’t really find this interaction fruitful at all. Okay okay, you don’t like the Germans … so what! I do.

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  19. But I have interacted with the quotes, by observing that Barth’s presupposition is a non-starter. Subjective actualisation of the gospel *is* necessary, and the Church is instrumental in applying this aspect of Christ’s work. There is not a single theological system in all of Christian reflection that has ever said that the subjective actualisation of the gospel is is already complete in Christ (and that it has no contingency on baptism, on the decision of faith etc.). The reason for that absence is that it’s a preposterous assertion; one that is so incredibly out of sync with Scripture as to render the subsequent argument irrelevant.

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  20. Bleh. Move on, Mike.

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  21. You can continue making assertions all day, Mike, but at the end of the day that’s all they are. You seem dilettante when it comes to understanding what Barth actually thinks of what you call ‘subjective actualization’; I’d suggest reading George Hunsinger’s How to Read Karl Barth: The Shape of his Theology, or some other aides in secondary literature that will help provide the kind of commentary you apparently need to get a handle on Barth’s offering.

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  22. Look up Adam Neder’s book Participation in Christ: An Entry into Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics (Columbia Series in Reformed Theology). He’ll help to lull your concern’s w/ Barth’s ‘subjective actualization’ to sleep and for good.

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  23. Please be fair. Assertions are par for the course in blog discussion. You’ve made plenty yourself, with no reasoning or evidence.

    I understand ‘subjective actualisation’ all too well, couched within the false notion that my ‘no’ is contained in the ‘yes’ of Christ. Not only is that demonstrably unbiblical, but it allows Barth to imagine that his unrepentant adultery was enveloped by Christ’s ‘vicarious humanity’. Perhaps that’s precisely the context in which that theology arose – as a way self-justifying the unjustifiable with a pious-sounding but false Christology. No. I’d rather stick to a traditional christology and ecclesiology that doesn’t twist scripture to serve sexual sin.

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  24. Yeah, you don’t understand Barth at all, Mike (keep hitting the books). And now you’re just being totally absurd. You’re no longer welcomed here.

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  25. And by the way, Mike, the no being couched within the yes is only half the equation. Check Neder’s work et al. Not interested in your kind of “dialogue” though. Barth’s Christology is quite Chalcedonian and Athanasian as is TF Torrance’s. You like to provoke, I’ve noticed, Mike, but with really little to back up your thin layer of assertion about things (that approach, admittedly, does work very well in blog threads and online). So long.

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