‘Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it.’: TF Torrance’s Ecumenicity

As Protestant (even more pointedly, as Reformed) Christians it is easy to give into a sectarian attitude wherein we believe that we have recovered the Gospel like no other iteration of Christian tradition has ever known. It is easy in the evangelical-Reformed sub-culture to look out at the Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox with animus, as if they have such a perverted Gospel, that we should not consider them brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ. But this isn’t the attitude that TF Torrance operated with. Torrance was unceasingly ecumenical in his theological endeavor and hope. As some of you may know, he was involved in an Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, with the hope of closing the breach between the Reformed churches and the Orthodox; particularly as that breach opened up around the ‘Great Schism’ of 1054, which had to do with Trinitarian concerns vis-à-vis the so called Filioque. Torrance, as a result of that effort, was named a Protopresbyter of the Greek Orthodox church.

In 2013 I was involved with Participatio as an Assistant Editor on a volume (of that journal) that revolved around TFT and Orthodoxy; later it was published as a book under the editorship of Matthew Baker and Todd Speidell—I commend this volume and book to you. Jason Radcliff, following those publications, ended up publishing his PhD dissertation, which he completed at New College, University of Edinburgh (TFT’s school), under David Fergusson’s watchful eye; his book is entitled Thomas F. Torrance and the Church Fathers: A Reformed, Evangelical, and Ecumenical Reconstruction of the Patristic Tradition (he refers to the work Myk and I have done with our Evangelical Calvinism books, therein). Since then Jason has published another important monograph entitled: Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (which he graciously had sent to me as a review copy; thank you, Jason!). What I want to engage with, just as I’m starting my read of it, is what Jason has written in the preface to the book. He impresses just how important being ecumenical was, not only to TFT, but to the magisterial reformers in general.

Jason writes (in full):

Upon reaching the Reformation one is reminded of both the great importance and the great tragedy of the Protestant Reformation. Concerning the great importance, as Robert Farrar Capon put it, “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace—bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly” (Between Noon and Three, 109-10). Yet, as Joseph McLelland says in the discussion following the Third Preliminary consultation of the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue (in 1983) “we Reformed tend to overemphasize the uniqueness of the 16th century Reformation.” The Reformation was a movement of rediscovery of the radically unconditional grace of God as witnessed by the Scriptures and church fathers; but, it was one movement of many throughout history and, it was never meant to be decisively schismatic in the way that it eventually became.

As Thomas F. Torrance says at the beginning of “Memorandum A” on Orthodox/Reformed relations, “’The Reformed Church’ does not set out to be a new or another Church but to be a movement of reform within the One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Jesus Christ . . .” (p. 10). Elsewhere Torrance states, “the Reformed Church is the Church reformed according to the Word of God so as to restore to it the face of the ancient Catholic and Apostolic Church.” (Conflict and Agreement in the Church: Volume 1, 76). In other words, we should never be happy with being “Protestant.” We must always, as Protestants, work toward rapprochement with Rome and Constantinople.

As we pass by the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation these words of Torrance are as relevant today as they ever were. As we commemorate the Reformation and celebrate the wonderful discovery of the radical grace of God in Jesus Christ, the inherently ecumenical and catholic approach of Torrance and the Orthodox Reformed Dialogue remind us that being Protestant was not the point of the Reformers. Torrance and the Dialogue remind us that we are not faithful to the spirit of the Reformation if we cease working for reform and renewal within the the [sic] one universal church. As Protestants, Torrance reminds us that we should bewail the necessity of the Reformation and, indeed, the continued existence of Protestantism. Torrance reminds us that Protestants faithful to the Reformation should regularly work towards rapprochement with the other two wings of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church: Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. He reminds us that Protestantism is not the Church. We are a prophetic movement of reform within it; if we cease working for reform and rapprochement, we cease to follow the Reformers

The type of ecumenical rapprochement offered by the Orthodox-Reformed Dialogue also provides an example of real ecumenical dialogue. The agreement reached by Orthodox and Reformed was authentic and substantial. It was not the “agree to disagree” compromise so often settled for in ecumenical conversations today. The Orthodox and Reformed confessed together a doctrine of the Trinity that bridged East and West on the basis of the Trinitarian and Christocentric theology of Athanasius and Cyril.[1]

Knowing the sensibilities of many Reformed Christians today, I think this approach, by Torrance, would rub many of them the wrong way (understatement). Yet, for us Evangelical Calvinists, while we’re not shy about stating our beliefs, and attempt to develop and articulate those for the church at large, it is this attitude of ecumenicity, modelled by TFT, that we hope to reflect. While Evangelical Calvinists, at least this one, are not shy about engaging in heated discussion surrounding various theological ideas; this should not be taken as a sign that at the end of the day, I, as a representative, want schism. But even so, some might surmise, “okay, but what about certain fundamentals of the faith; the very fundamentals that brought about the rupture between the Protestants and Catholics (and by default, the Orthodox) in the first place; you know like sola fide, sola gratia so on and so forth?” Someone might say: “it’s fine to attempt rapprochement around a doctrine of God, and the finer workings of Trinitarian dogma; but when it comes to salvation by faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, well that’s another story.”

These are not always easy questions to engage with, but one must start somewhere. Torrance decided to start with the doctrine of God. Maybe he was astute to something in that particular doctrine par excellence that he thought if relief could be brought there, if greater depth of understanding could be agreed upon at that point; that the following doctrines, developed from that primal one, would also be open for redress and discussion among the churches—in this case the Reformed and Orthodox churches.

I commend Jason’s book to you just as I am starting into it myself. His work is always stellar, and so I am confident in giving a pre-recommendation prior to my own reading of it. It is important to engage with these issues, I think, because, for one thing, it gives a, hopefully, a broader more fulsome and catholic attitude about the Church of Jesus Christ in its catholic reality. Maybe you aren’t aware of just how miniscule, among Christendom, the Reformed faith is. As I recall, George Husinger, for purposes of perspective and humility, once noted that the Protestant Reformed Church only accounts for 1% of the Church worldwide; in regard to tradition and theological location. This doesn’t, in itself mean that what the Reformed churches think is marginal, per se; but what it ought to tell us is that the church catholic is made-up of peoples and traditions that aren’t univocal with what the Reformed churches are currently recovering, theologically. We at least ought to have an attitude of charity as we engage with these other traditions, with hopes of fostering fruitful dialogue, and working towards the unity of the One Faith once for all delivered to the saints

[1] Jason Robert Radcliff, Thomas F. Torrance and the Orthodox-Reformed Theological Dialogue (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications an Imprint of Wipf and Stock Publications, 2018), ix-x.

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Papalism, Clericalism, Pastorism: You Have No Authority

The idea that Jesus set up an apostolic succession in Matthew 16 is unfounded. Contextual exegesis, which I don’t have time to currently demonstrate in this setting, roundly debunks such mythology. Reference to ecclesial tradition to establish apostolic succession is petitio principii, and thus is a non-starter. The only authority Jesus Christ set for His church is Himself; He did not imbue that to popes or pastors. The Gospel is the authority for the church, not any person or institution. Christians in the Bible are witnesses to God’s authority in Christ; we hold each other to this regulative standard, and prophetically bear witness of God’s reality in Christ to the world. As such church structures, governments, or organizational strategies have nothing to say to me about my standing before the living God; only the living Christ has that capacity. The problem I am noting isn’t just unique to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or higher church liturgically oriented traditions; it is a problem for them, but it is also a problem for low-church, congregational evangelical churches just the same. No pastor has inherent authority to speak authoritatively into someone else’s life, only Christ has that office. The pastor, as is the reality for all Christians, has a requisite-derivative authority only insofar as they point people to Jesus Christ. Jesus has all authority in heaven and earth to make pronouncements and bring judgments into His people’s life apart from mediating that through pastors, church governments, and/or the self-perceived institutional church. The church has no authority to speak authoritatively for the church’s head who is the Christ.

Nevertheless we see the evangelical churches, the institutional churches (in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox trads), the higher churches in the Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist et al. shot through with this presumption of holding a mantle of authority over people’s lives in the name of Jesus Christ. Pastors and church institutions do not have the keys to the Kingdom; only Christ, the son of David does. Pastor, Pope, Bishop you are out of line if you think you live in some sort of genetic line of sacerdotal authority vis-à-vis Christ. Why should I pay attention to you? You’re just a man; you’re not God, nor are you God’s absolute representative on earth. The Bible does not give you this authority; church tradition is not a viable reference for giving you God’s authority; and your popularity among the people cannot give you this authority. So why do you think you have such authority? In each case, whether scriptural, traditional, or cultural your case for authority is a non-starter. I stand before God and none other; I don’t stand before you, a man. So repent of your false self-importance and false pretense upon which you stand as a spiritual authority in the church; that’s not how things operate in the economy of God’s Kingdom come and will be done. Who are you oh man? . . .

Papalism in the Local Church: Church Discipline and the ‘Free’ Church

I’ve been thinking lately, and for along time, off and on, about the local church and a theory of ecclesial authority. I’m thinking from my own context of Free low evangelical churches in North America (my background is Conservative Baptist and then even Calvary Chapel for a formative period of my Christian life). My thoughts interlace with theories of church government, and how those inner-structures (self-referentially definitive) might provide greater or lesser contexts of authority in the lives of the parishioners of those various churches. In particular what I’m thinking about is the role that church discipline plays (or doesn’t) given a congregationalist church government (like a Baptist church operates from). What brought this home for me, most recently, was a tweet from a pastor I follow of a Conservative Baptist church; it has to do with church membership and discipline. He tweeted:

Church leaders, make sure you include a clause in your constitution or by-laws that will allow the church to reject a membership resignation in cases of church discipline. You don’t want to be held hostage by your policies so that you’re not able to obey Christ’s commands.

In principle I can appreciate the desire to have a responsible framework for discipline in place, but it always leaves me rather empty when people who are self-proclaimed (for all intents and purposes) leaders elevate themselves—even from within the inner-structure of their institutions—to a capacity that leaves me wondering where that capacity comes from. In other words so often it seems as if the standards that many of these pastors are holding people accountable to have more to do with the accretion of evangelical sub-cultural pietisms and “values” rather than to the reality of the Gospel itself. This is why I’m usually left with this ad hoc feeling when I read statements like the one we see in the tweet I’ve referenced.

I am a Free church proponent (and I’ll have to do a post getting into what “Free church” even means), and this is why I’m probably so leery of what counts as the bases for church discipline (which honestly, in the main, I don’t think discipline of any kind is carried out in most of these churches to begin with); I don’t think pastors-teachers in the local church have an inherent authority bestowed upon them in ordination or because of the office they hold. I think the only authority a pastor has in the local church, and in the church catholic, is one that is derivative and grounded in the authority that all Christians have; an authority to hold each other accountable to the reality of the Gospel and God’s holiness itself (to me this is an implication of the Priesthood of All Believers).

The feeling I often walk away with, particularly in Baptist churches (or congregational) that are caught up in a movement like Mark Dever’s 9Marks, or even as we get into more classically Reformed confessional churches, is almost this sort of ecclesial-heavy understanding of the church; its leaders almost taking on a vicaresque sense, such as we find in the Roman Catholic church. I do recognize the Bible speaks about pastors being responsible for the people under their care, but the basis upon which that care (authority) is framed, I believe, is only as a proper understanding of the Gospel itself is held to by both the leadership and laity the same. And yet this presents a dilemma: given the reality of so called pervasive interpretive pluralism, how people understand the Gospel and its entailments (in regard to holiness etc) is diverse; as such it makes it difficult, to say the least, to discern when a church is acting within the entailments of the Gospel and the authority it allows others to have for others.

One other thing, as I already alluded to above, is the way these so called Free churches, as local churches, are operating. They are operating as if they have an inherent capacity to be authorities over others in the name of Christ when they themselves, as pastors, are simply ministers of the Gospel (alongside peers) often elevated to even that office by a voluntary movement they have made on their own initiative to be a pastor. In other words, many pastors have risen to where they have not because they even meet the biblical qualifications for what it means to be a pastor, instead they have risen in their rank primarily because of their personalities and ability to speak (gift of gab).

I’m out of time, I have more to pontificate on, but I’ll leave it here for now.  

A Free Bible; A Free Church; Only If the Church Can Deconflate Her Self Understanding From Jesus’s Voice And Reality

There seem to be magisteriums everywhere; interpretive that is—something Christian Smith identified as Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism. It is the saddling of Holy Scripture with certain authoritative church structures—such as we find in Roman Catholicism, or Eastern Orthodoxy—or certain authoritative confessional/catechetical structures (again funded by a certain theory of ecclesial authority found in many of the Protestant and classically Reformed and Lutheran Confessions). We also find this same type of harnessing of Holy Scripture in Low Church traditions; these are typically associated with particular personalities/pastors. Beyond this, and this is the whence of many liberal and evangelical communions, there is a stirruping of Holy Scripture with the wits of this or that historico-critical biblical exegete and their idiosyncratic engagement and interpretation of the text of Scripture (Rudolf Bultmann on one hand, and NT Wright on the other come quickly to mind). There is this always already attendant hermeneutical problem, it seems, when someone wants to engage with Scripture. A complex within which Scripture is received, and within this complex there is an attendance of various claims to Scripture’s actual meaning for the church. Whatever the expression of this might be one thing stands out: the Bible and its meaning, more than not, has become slavishly tied to the layering of various historical and linear accretions of meaning that bind the Bible’s reality to the warp and woof of an abstract human history rather (as situated within an ecclesial superstructure) than to the living reality of Scripture given over and over again by the miracle of the Holy Spirit as Jesus Christ breaks through such accretions as the risen One who is indeed King of the world; and in particular, King of the Church wherein Scripture has been given embassy to reach into the lives of every tribe, nation, and tongue.

I think, once again, what is at issue is how ecclesiology and the text have been thought together; and how Authority for the Christian is thought from there. If the ground of the church is understood as something inherent to the church and not ecclesia quae extra nos (outside of us as the church), then Scripture’s meaning as corollary will become bounded to this type of inherent pure natured reality, and not understood as the Free floating instrument that is intended to be managed by none except its living reality in Jesus Christ. Karl Barth opines masterfully here (which is the inspiration for this post):

If, then, apart from the undeniable vitality of the Church itself there stands confronting it a concrete authority with its own vitality, an authority whose pronouncement is not the Church’s dialogue with itself but an address to the Church, and which can have vis-à-vis the Church the position of a free power and therefore of a criterion, then obviously in its writtenness as “Bible” it must be distinguished from and given precedence over the purely spiritual and oral life of ecclesiastical tradition. It is true that this real, biblical Canon is constantly exposed to absorption into the life, thought and utterance of the Church inasmuch as it continually seeks to be understood afresh and hence expounded and interpreted. Exegesis is always a combination of taking and giving, of reading out and reading in. Thus exegesis, without which the norm cannot assert itself as a norm, entails the constant danger that the Bible will be taken prisoner by the Church, that its own life will be absorbed into the life of the Church, that its free power will be transformed into the authority of the Church, in short, that it will lose its character as a norm magisterially confronting the Church. All exegesis can become predominantly interposition rather than exposition and to that degree it can fall back into the Church’s dialogue with itself. Nor will one banish the danger, but only conjure it up properly and make it acute, by making correct exposition dependent on the judgment of a definitive and decisive teaching office in the Church or on the judgment of a historic-critical scholarship which comports itself with equal infallibility. If we assume that one or other of these authorities is worthy of the Church’s highest confidence, then either way the Church goes astray in respect of the Bible by thinking that in one way or the other it can and should control correct exposition, and thereby set up a norm over the norm, and thereby capture the true norm for itself. The exegesis of the Bible should rather be left open on all sides, not for the sake of free thought, as Liberalism would demand, but for the sake of a free Bible. Here as everywhere the defence against possible violence to the text must be left to the text itself, which in fact has always succeeded in doing something a purely spiritual and oral tradition cannot do, namely, maintaining its own life against the encroachments of individual or total periods and tendencies in the Church, victoriously asserting this life in ever new developments, and thus creating recognition for itself as a norm.[1]

A Free Bible; I like that! There almost seems to be a nihilism about Barth’s approach to Scripture; a healthy nihilism, in my view. In other words, if one were to take to heart what Barth is expressing (like I do), you would almost feel a sense of helplessness; as if church tradition, the “critical” exegetes, and my pastor cannot provide the type of authoritative reading of Scripture that I’d always hoped to have. Ultimately, I don’t think Barth is against any of the aforementioned offices in the church (in fact I know he’s not), but he wants to ensure that the Bible, and more importantly, the Bible’s reality, have the actual freedom to be the norming norm that Protestants, in particular, claim it to be. I don’t think though that most Protestant churches, let alone Catholic and Orthodox, have provided the kind of freedom for the Bible that Barth is calling for. This is because, as Barth notes implicitly in his explication, the churches have so absorbed various accretions and interpretations into their relative identities (across the spectrum from Catholic to Low Church evangelical), that Scripture’s reality, Jesus Christ, no longer has the regulative space to confront and encounter people with His voice as it is spoken in Scripture afresh and anew. So in this sense I think Barth’s nihilism is a necessary acid that needs to be applied to the Church’s approach to herself as the church, and as corollary to the Church’s deployment and appropriation of Holy Scripture (one way or the other) within the lifeblood of her existence as the Church.

Barth might seem almost anarchical when it comes to things like this (in fact to almost every doctrine he touches), but that’s only because he is calling people back to the reality that Jesus is Lord, and that we are not. People generally rebuff such exhortation, and simply label all of Barth (genetically) as a heretic; but this, in my view, is to their own destruction. Does the Bible have the Freedom in your life, in your church’s life that Barth is calling for? If it doesn’t, why not?

 

 

[1] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 103-04.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest Theology: Deus Dixit, God-Has-Spoken Theology Versus Aaron’s Golden-Calf Theology

In Karl Barth’s Göttingen Dogmatics he has a whole section titled Deus Dixit (lat. God has spoken). As a section prologue he writes:

Christian preachers dare to speak about God. The permission and requirement to do so can rest only on their adoption of the witness of the prophets and apostles that underlies the church, the witness which is to the effect that God himself has spoken and that for this reason, and with this reference, they too must speak about God. This assumption can arise only because they take it that God’s address is directed to them as well. It means that with fear and trembling they recognize God as the true subject of the biblical witness and their own proclamation.[1]

In Barth’s latterly composed Church Dogmatics I/1 he writes something very similar. Here he is critiquing the theology of his modern period wherein theology, according to Barth et al., had become anthropology; as such theology had become nothing but a cacophony of people talking-to-themselves; something we might see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest rather than what we would expect to find in the church of Jesus Christ. He writes:

As regards the main concept of proclamation this exegesis stands first in antithesis to Modernist dogmatics. This, too, is acquainted with the function specified but it is not aware of its essential distinctiveness as compared with other functions in the Church—a distinctiveness accrues to it when it rests on a commission to and for men, when as man’s talk about God it has to serve God’s own Word spoken from an ineffaceable antithesis to all humanity. Modernist dogmatics is finally unaware of the fact that in relation to God man has constantly to let something be said to him, has constantly to listen to something, which he constantly does not know and which in no circumstances and in no sense can he say to himself. Modernist dogmatics hears man answer when no one has called him. It hears him speak with himself. For it, therefore, proclamation is a necessary expression of the life of the human community known as the “Church,” an expression in which one man, in the name and for the spiritual advancement of a number of others, drawing from a treasure common to him and to them, offers, for the enrichment of this treasure, an interpretation of his own past and present as a witness to the reality alive in this group of men.[2]

This not only applies as a critique to modern-liberal-hyper-subjectivist theology, but it can be applied, I would contend, to the church (pre-critical) in general. In principle (de jure) when we, as Christians, do Christian theology, we should be committed first and foremost to the idea that we cannot do any type of proclamation, any type of dogmatizing or theologizing, without first attending to the voice of God that has spoken (Deus dixit). As Thomas Torrance has written in reflection on this type of theological reality, and as commentary on Barth’s theology:

Because Jesus Christ is the Way, as well as the Truth and the Life, theological thought is limited and bounded and directed by this historical reality in whom we meet the Truth of God. That prohibits theological thought from wandering at will across open country, from straying over history in general or from occupying itself with some other history, rather than this concrete history in the centre of all history. Thus theological thought is distinguished from every empty conceptual thought, from every science of pure possibility, and from every kind of merely formal thinking, by being mastered and determined by the special history of Jesus Christ.[3]

God has spoken in Jesus Christ; he has exegeted himself for us in Jesus Christ: “18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”[4] This is why as Evangelical Calvinists we are committed to what Thomas Torrance calls ‘dialogical theology’, which is of a piece with Barth’s ‘dialectical theology’; the idea being that theology can only be done when a person is confronted by the living voice of God (viva vox Dei) in Jesus Christ. And the confrontation itself, much like Moses’s confrontation by Yahweh in the burning bush, becomes a personal and relationally charged encounter that calls for response—this is the way of Christian theology.

If we apply this to the development of classical theism, as an example of what we could find in the history of ideas of the Christian and ecclesial heritage, what happens? What happens to the doing of theology that is principially shaped by the idea that we cannot do theology, that we cannot construct categories, that we cannot create trajectories or emphases, prior to encountering the living God in Christ? It seems to me that the typical philosophical categories—all categories developed pre-encounter-with-God, or outwith such encounter by definition [i.e. since such categories were developed by pagans]—like impassibility, immutability, pure being, pure nature, omni-theology, so on and so forth all become suspect; at the very least. In other words, there seems to be an backwardness to the way Christian theology is usually done; even in the history.

Be that as it may, nevertheless, the theological heritage is there. Has it really been engaged in in such a way that it genuinely has been done only after God has spoken; or has it been artificialized to the point that we have brought so many pre-God-has-spoken categories to help us grammarize God that we have ended up with a sacred-monster rather than a sacred God? These are the ongoing questions I continue to struggle with. I am not an advocate for primitivism, or restorationism, or for the idea that there was a golden-age in church history (i.e. the first century N.T. church) wherein a theology genuinely done only after-God-has-spoken can be found. I do believe that the remnant of ideas scattered throughout church history represent a good faith effort wherein the people of God, and “mind of the church” has sought to provide right doctrine (orthodox) for the church. But I remain unsatisfied, in many ways, that what counts as THE orthodox heritage has adequately provided THE proximate witness to who God actually is (like in static ways). In other words, there is still work to be done; a work that is always attempting to reach that high goal of doing a theology only after-God-has-spoken. I do think much of church history has lost her way by indulging herself on the spoils she has rummaged from Egypt, by slurping from the muddy waters offered by the metaphysicians. If Jesus Christ (as he was for St. Athanasius et al.) is not genuinely regulative for the theological task, then in what way can it be said that the church is actually doing theology, is doing proclamation, is doing preaching that is done after-God-has-spoken? If the church is coming to God with a bunch of gold and silver skimmed from the gentiles, offering it up as worth-ship to him, saying it best represents him; I wonder in what way this differs from Aaron’s Golden-Calf? Are we not prone to wander? Doesn’t the Protestant Reformation itself (the need for it) attest to the reality that God’s people can wander; even for the centuries?

[1] Karl Barth, The Göttingen Dogmatics: Instruction on the Christian Religion (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 43.

[2] Karl Barth, CD I/1, 58.

[3] Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth: An Introduction to His Early Theology 1910-1931, 196.

[4] John 1.18, NRSV.

What Kind of Church Culture Can Produce a Declaration like the Nashville Statement? Bearing Witness to Ourselves Rather than to Jesus Christ

I have had a chance, as the day unfolded, to reflect further on the so called Nashville Statement; the statement that a hundred and fifty evangelical signatories signed their names to. It seems to be their attempt to draw a line in the sand in regard to what they see as a pressing problem for the church, and in particular, their evangelical church. The problem for them, of course, is the progression and in-roads of the LGBTQ, homosexual gay agenda, as they see it transforming not only the body politic of culture in general, but its pressing into the church itself.

But I have a problem with it. For me, the problem has more to do with these leaders’s conception of how the church ought to operate in regard to its witness to the Gospel in relation to the world at large. As I see it, they are presuming upon an us versus them dynamic that the Gospel itself does not presume; instead, the Gospel is an equalizing reality. The Gospel as the Word of God in Jesus Christ stands as judge not just over those guys and gals out there, but as judge of the church itself; as Peter notes: “17 For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?”[1] In other words, the Nashville Statement places itself in the place of God’s Word, as if its signatories are the judges; it actually and ironically displaces the Word of God with its own word over against others. If these signatories were to listen to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and his admonition to the American churches, as he saw it back in the 30s, they may well not have penned such a statement. Bonhoeffer wrote:

American theology and the American church as a whole have never been able to understand the meaning of “criticism” by the Word of God and all that signifies. Right to the last they do not understand that God’s “criticism” touches every religion, the Christianity of the churches and the sanctification of Christians, and that God has founded his church beyond religion and beyond ethics. A symptom of this is the general adherence to natural theology. . . . But because of this, the person and work of Jesus Christ, must for theology, sink into the background and in the long run remain misunderstood, because it is not recognized as the sole ground of radical judgment and radical forgiveness.[2]

Do you see what Bonhoeffer is getting at, particularly when he references ‘natural theology?’ It is when churches displace her reality, founded in Jesus Christ alone, with a perception of herself as possessor of God’s absolute Word, and not just as possessor, but as dispenser, that she has presumed too much. She begins to elevate herself beyond the culture of which she is ensconced, and presumes that she has divined things, and thus has become able to pronounce things in absolute and damning ways, that in reality belongs to the Lord of the church alone; the living Word of God. Bonhoeffer’s point, is that when the church sees herself as coextensive with the Word of God itself, in an absolute way, that she actually loses her voice to bear witness to the living Word of God who not only stands in judgment of his church, but of the world at large.

Similarly, John Webster, as he comments on Barth’s critique of the liberal church in Germany is somewhat and ironically parallel with Bonhoeffer’s critique of the American church as he saw it. Here Webster, in line with Bonhoeffer points out how, in the thought of Barth, morality and ethics become too much aligned with the ‘moral and absolute self’ such that the Word of God loses its place for the Christian, and at the same time becomes coterminous with the Christian’s perception of the world at large and her pronouncements toward the world. Webster writes:

A large part of Barth’s distaste is his sense that the ethics of liberal Protestantism could not be extricated from a certain kind of cultural confidence: ‘[H]ere was … a human culture building itself up in orderly fashion in politics, economics, and science, theoretical and applied, progressing steadily along its whole front, interpreted and ennobled by art, and through its morality and religion reaching well beyond itself toward yet better days.’ The ethical question, on such an account, is no longer disruptive; it has ‘an almost perfectly obvious answer’, so that, in effect, the moral life becomes too easy, a matter of the simple task of following Jesus.

Within this ethos, Barth also discerns a moral anthropology with which he is distinctly ill-at-ease. He unearths in the received Protestant moral culture a notion of moral subjectivity (ultimately Kantian in origin), according to which ‘[t]he moral personality is the author both of the conduct with which the ethical question is concerned and of the question itself. Barth’s point is not simply that such an anthropology lacks serious consideration of human corruption, but something more complex. He is beginning to unearth the way in which this picture of human subjectivity as it were projects the moral self into a neutral space, from which it can survey the ethical question ‘from the viewpoint of spectators’. This notion Barth reads as a kind of absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness’. And it is precisely this — the image of moral reason as a secure centre of value, omnicompetent in its judgements — that the ethical question interrogates. [3]

The Nashville Statement exudes this sense “of [the] absolutizing of the self and its reflective consciousness, which come to assume ‘the dignity of ultimateness.” The Word of God has now been conflated with the Nashville Statement, as if a hundred and fifty signatories, backing fourteen theses on homosexuality are what God himself believes about the state of affairs in regard not just to homosexuality but other moral proclivities.

What concerns me most is the culture, in the evangelical church, that fosters the idea that such statements are healthy and good. In what way do such statements bear witness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ; to the living Word of God? It ends up reducing the church to an organization of people who appear to be oriented around a cluster of ethical principles and mores instead of an organic reality who finds her sustenance in and from Christ. Whether or not homosexuality is contrariwise to the ethics of the Kingdom[4], the church herself should be more concerned with her own blights and inadequacies. The church should evidence humility before God wherein she is constantly crying out to him for his mercy and grace, such that this posture, before the world, bears witness to the reality of God in Christ. The church should avoid placing herself in positions where she appears to believe that she has become the absolute mouthpiece for God, in regard to perceived moral inequities, and instead submit to the personal reality of God herself. It is this repentant posture before God and the world wherein the power of God will be most on display. It is up to God in Christ to bring transformation into the lives of people; he alone justifies and sanctifies, the church does not!

Who do we think we are? Jesus is LORD, not the church!

 

[1] I Peter 4.17, NIV.

[2] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Protestantism without Reformation,” in No Rusty Swords, ed. Edwin H. Robertson (London: Fontana Library, 1970), 88-113 cited by George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 71-2.

[3] John Webster, Barth’s Moral Theology: Human Action in Barth’s Thought, 35-6.

[4] Which personally I believe it is.

*Artwork of Dietrich Bonhoeffer from Mark Summers.

“Seek your own welfare above all else”: How evangelicalism Has Largely Become a Faith for Utilitarians and Relativists

Utilitarianism and pragmatism have so saturated the mind of the North American evangelical church (and probably other churches in the West) that it has become difficult for the thinking Christian to navigate their way through these choppy waters. There is a kind of pervasive relativism afoot in the lives of so many good intending evangelical Christians, that they don’t even realize they’ve been taken in by it; because, indeed, it’s pervasive.

Maybe you’ve experienced this, and the impact of this in your own Christian experience; I definitely have, and in very real and concrete ways. For example, just the fact that I think deeply and reflectively about my Christian walk, just because I believe that there is an objective value to knowing God in and from whom he is and revealed himself to be in Jesus Christ; often this is met with disdain. The disdain comes precisely from this adoption of the utilitarian and pragmatic psyche that has so infected the evangelical mind. If it does not become immediately apparent to such said psyche how and why dwelling on God in deep ways is pertinent to the utilitarian way, it will immediately seek to attack and finally reject such ways for knowing God. In other words, and maybe you’re sensing what I’m getting at, there is an anti-intellectualism, or anti-anything that appears to smack of anything that might challenge the “utilitarian’s” perceived way of living life in “real” ways; you know, like in ways where they feel comfortable, unchallenged, and can worship a God who makes them feel good, giving them experiences that only they can really understand. If such mindsets, if such people encounter other people, people who are committed to a way wherein the better way, for them, is to live an examined life before God, one that reposes in a love-duty like approach to knowing God, in and from the subject of God’s life in Christ, these latter people are actually ridiculed by the more dominant way of the utilitarian Christians.

Have I spoken abstractly enough for yet? The reason this might sound so abstract is because it is inherent to the culture in which many of us live. So, at least for me, it becomes difficult to try and articulate a way out of this quagmire; but I would go so far to say that most of us have an intuitive sense of what I’m getting at—even if that is only understood in gist. In order to help us negotiate our way through this in even more critical ways, let’s appeal to George Hunsinger (and this will once again be an extensive quote). We start reading with Hunsinger just as he has described the nonutilitarian way for living life before God in Christ; here he develops what the utilitarian and more dominant way, I would contend, for the evangelical psyche entails. He writes:

This nonutilitarian (i.e. biblical) version of Christianity stands in sharp contrast to the prevailing mores of our culture. As Robert Bellah and his coworkers have pointed out in Habits of the Heart, their fascinating study of the contemporary American middle class, utilitarian modes of thought run rampant. Although in respectable ethical theory utilitarianism is associated with a quest for the common good, in popular American consciousness the notion of the common good, if our researchers are to be believed, has all but disappeared. What one finds instead is a utilitarianism of private interest. White middle-class Americans describe their ethical and religious choices as depending on little more than a shifting set of personal wants and inner impulses. “Seek your own welfare above all else” has become the maxim of the day. Whether one’s welfare is defined in terms of wealth, status, and power or in terms of inner psychic satisfactions, either way one’s choices are grounded in virtually nothing more than a sense of the solitary, autonomous self.

Bellah circles around this problem again and again. For many, he writes with dismay, “there is simply no objectifiable criterion for choosing one value or course of action over another. One’s own idiosyncratic preferences are their own justification, because they define the true self.” Reliance on mere preference to define the self is something Bellah regards as symptomatic of the therapeutic style which has pervaded the values of our culture. At the center of the therapeutic style is “the autonomous individual, presumed to be able to choose the role he will play and the commitments he will make, not on the basis of higher truths, but according to the criterion of life-effectiveness as the individual judges it.” The ordering of all other goals to the goal of self-fulfillment, as determined by need and preference, is the hallmark of the therapeutic style.

What troubles Bellah is the stunning loss of any other criterion, any  higher truth, for moral judgment. “The right act,” he comments, “is simply the one that yields the agent the most exciting challenge or the most good feeling. . . . In the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right and wrong, good and evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest, in other words, which so many of our contemporaries have espoused as their own, is largely sponsored by a pervasive sense of relativism—a sense that no values are ever more than arbitrary preferences grounded in the autonomous self. Bellah connects the seepage of relativism into our culture with a massive flight from communally transmitted authority and tradition as the vehicles of objectifiable moral criteria. The ethic of arbitrary self-interest and its connection with our surrender to relativism are nicely captured by a line which sums up the distress of Bellah’s book: “Utility replaces duty,” he writes, “self-expression unseats authority.”

The moral crisis Bellah describes has a religious and theological counterpart. At both popular and sophisticated levels of discourse, Christianity is widely regarded as instrumental to the attainment of various benefits or satisfactions. Biblical truth is sought not as an intrinsic good in itself, but as a pragmatic device for fulfilling wishes and desires shaped independently of faith. And utilitarian Christianity, in turn, is sponsored openly or secretly by an unhappy surrender to relativism—that is, by such an extreme departure from Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, that we regard him as an object not of obedience, love, and awe, but of our control and manipulation. . . .[1]

In my experience what Hunsinger, through appeal to Bellah, describes couldn’t hit the nail more squarely on the head. Indeed, in many ways these last many years of my life, coram Deo, has been an attempt to extricate myself from the utilitarian psyche. What I have found is that in this process many friends are lost, but many more are also gained. It is risky, in a utilitarian sub-culture, to attempt to go another way; to go the way of the cross. But the risk is worth it. Yes, we might be pegged as arrogant academic pin-heads who think they are better than others; but of course this, in principle, just is not the case. As growing and maturing Christians I think part of our job, for the broader body of Christ, is to bear witness, to our brothers and sisters that God is God and we are not. This means repenting of our utilitarian and/or self-centered ways, taking up our crosses daily, and following Jesus Christ.

 

[1] George Hunsinger,Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 2000), 97-8.

‘The Greatest Threat to Faith Today is not Hedonism but Distraction’: ‘Being Human’

The following quote from Andrew Sullivan[1] might sound, at a theological level, rather pelagian; but I think it represents some rather good cultural commentary on where the church is at in the 21st century—particularly for those of us in low church North American evangelicalism. Sullivan’s article, from which the following quote is taken, is a lament on the devastating effects the smartphone beinghumanculture has had on western societies; he calls it “living-in-the-web.” He is lamenting the impact that technology has had upon the human psyche, such that quiet places and silence (in our heads) is a thing of the past. Indeed, Sullivan himself, refers to himself as a social-media addict, and he actually went to “treatment” to disabuse himself of it (which cost him money, since he made money as a social-media and business personality). What I found striking about his critique was how he applied it, in the following paragraph, to the church; as an evangelical this insight hits very close to home, and resonates deeply with my own lived experience. Sullivan writes:

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.[2]

There has, of course, been a kind of movement called ancient church that has indeed attempted to resource some of these types of contemplative and even mystical spaces from the past. But of course, when something like that is artificially generated, among evangelicals in my case, it loses that actual space we are seeking; it becomes all too self-focused, and identity driven. Anyway, I thought Sullivan’s point about ‘distraction’ versus ‘hedonism’ was a valid one; even if the two are not necessarily mutually exclusive in the way he seems to intimate.

 

[1] H/T: Jason Goroncy, he shared the link to Sullivan’s article via his blog in his post: ‘i used to be a human being.’

[2] Andrew Sullivan, I Used to be a Human Being, accessed online 10-22-2016.

The Intellectual and Social Seed-bed of Secularism-Pluralism in the West is the Church

I have always found it intriguing—insofar as I have known about this relationship—the relationship between secularism, pluralism, and scientism, with its intellectual origins within Protestantism. In Kurt Anders Richardson’s book Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology, he offers a good sketch of this that I thought I would share with you all. Richardson writes:

brokenchurch1Religiously, although modern secularity and postmodern pluralism or relativism have been deemed excruciatingly low points, they are not the whole story. These religious realities are rooted in
the earlier movements of Reformation and post-Reformation, where religious dissent and the search for authenticity of Christian faith prompted first toleration and then liberalization in religious and legal theory. In the first instance, secularity is the conscientious objection to irreconcilable interecclesial conflict, and pluralism is the conscientious objection of multiple ecclesial bodies within a single civil order.

The conflicts that led to these states of affairs were not merely the failure of politics; they were the striving to interpret the Christian faith with greater authenticity. Failure to understand this often leads to recalcitrant nostalgia for an ecclesiastical golden age—a medieval one, which of course is no more real than a pre-Raphaelite painting. The trajectory of Christian culture has simply been in the direction of liberty of conscience on theological grounds and the unavoidability of religious pluarality, first, for the sake of one’s own conscience, and then also for the sake of everybody else’s. The power of a critical and/or secular perspective is always rooted in some religious, in this case the power of repentance or of conversion. Critical judgment and secularity have always been disingenuous when claiming to have no religious or theological nature. That the modernist belief in and quest for certainty of religious knowledge is rooted in late medieval and Reformation beliefs in certainty of religious knowledge is a highly important connection. For the Reformers, of course, the belief in certainty rested on the fundamental critique of the Roman ecclesia and the way it cast its own authority. The certitudes of magisterial authority were relocated in Scripture and certain self-referential hermeneutical practices of interpretation. That this move was made is not so surprising, given the hermeneutics of Christian belief. What is surprising is the secular detachment of certainty in philosophical rationality. Such certainty was divine from the outset and therefore mythical or at least something that divine providence alone could have omniscience. But the idea that omniscience had inscribed itself in nature meant that some native clarity of vision could attain certainty of knowledge. One can lament the history of secular certainty, but one must also remember the theology from which it sprang.[1]

It is more than ironic when confronted, usually on a daily basis, with people, “secular people,” who seem to think they are indeed “secular.” True, even by Richardson’s accounting, secularity is a real thing; but not in the same way that a secular person thinks. The intellectual heritage of both the secularist and pluralist, as Richardson develops, comes from a deep and wide theological foundation and premise; indeed, one that is ecclesio-political-social in orientation. The atheist and Christian alike have a shared intellectual heritage; of course where that goes in regard to submission to Jesus Christ as Lord, or not, will give this share commitment various expressions and externalizations into society at large and in the individual’s life personally.

What Richardson touches upon reminds me of something Karl Barth once wrote; Barth’s development is more of an application of Richardson has sketched, but an application that dovetails principially with Richardson’s premise. Barth writes:

Theology is one among those human undertakings traditionally described as “sciences.” Not only the natural sciences are “sciences.” Humanistic sciences also seek to apprehend a specific object and its environment in the manner directed by the phenomenon itself; they seek to understand it on its own terms and to speak of it along with all the implications of its existence. The word “theology” seems to signify a special science, a very special science, whose task is to apprehend, understand, and speak of “God.”

But many things can be meant by the word “God.” For this reason, there are many kinds of theologies. There is no man who does not have his own god or gods as the object of his highest desire and trust, or as the basis of his deepest loyalty and commitment. There is no one who is not to this extent also a theologian. There is, moreover, no religion, no philosophy, no world view that is not dedicated to some such divinity. Every world view, even that disclosed in the Swiss and American national anthems, presupposes a divinity interpreted in one way or another and worshiped to some degree, whether wholeheartedly or superficially. There is no philosophy that is not to some extent also theology. Not only does this fact apply to philosophers who desire to affirm — or who, at least, are ready to admit— that divinity, in a positive sense, is the essence of truth and power of some kind of highest principle; but the same truth is valid even for thinkers denying such a divinity, for such a denial would in practice merely consist in transferring an identical dignity and function to another object. Such an alternative object might be “nature,” creativity, or an unconscious and amorphous will to life. It might also be “reason,” progress, or even a redeeming nothingness into which man would be destined to disappear. Even such apparently “godless” theologies are theologies.[2]

There is no doubt that the natural human bent is to elevate itself into a god-status, no matter the pain and destruction that might cause; and so it is interesting to note the intellectual heritage to all of this—that we can identify one. Just as with the nation of Israel, syncretism starts out with good intentions, but when it blossoms all that is left are the “high-places” of their own making; whether that be the nation of Israel (in the OT), or humanity simpliciter. What we end up with in the secular project is still a sense of divinity, it’s just one that ends up being a projection of ourselves; whether that be individually and/or collectively.

Western society (even Eastern society for its own intellectual and spiritual reasons) is one that has its seed in the church, whether it likes it or not. When we look at my home-state, the United States of America, this particular project expressly reflects the pattern we see described by Richardson; and embedded within that, we end up with theologians of all stripes, as Barth so eloquently develops.

 

 

[1] Kurt Anders Richardson, Reading Karl Barth: New Directions For North American Theology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2004), 34.

[2] Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, 3-4.

Sanctorum Communio, The Communion of the Saints and being catholic Thinkers

A week ago today I was in a funky mood, and wrote a blog post called Doubting the Theologians and Biblical Interpretation. I was lamenting what I see as undue license being given to theologians or biblical exegetes in our reading of the text of Holy Scripture; I still have this concern (the whole reader response hermeneutic). Someone I’ve known through blogging and Facebook over the communionsaintsyears, David Guretzki, professor of theology at Briercrest College in Canada, and Barth scholar, made a comment. He wrote:

Bobby, what if you instead thought of these authors as part (even if not the only) communion of the saints? We do not read scripture as individuals, but as the Church–of which these doctors of the Church are a gift (charism). The Protestant evangelical way of reading Scripture assumes perspecuity (clarity) available to all–that is its strength. But its weakness is that it too often has degenerated into a non-ecclesial way of reading scripture. It is precisely other voices that keeps us from hearing only the echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities imposed upon scripture. The problem, of course, is that we are too often too selective of the voices we listen to. The danger is not that we read Barth or Aquinas or Augustine, but that we are too apt ONLY to read Barth, Aquinas, or Augustine (or Calvin or Luther, etc. etc.) and thus keep reconfirming too often our own subjectivities and biases.

At the moment I wrote that post I, frankly, wasn’t in the mood to hear much, I was just in a total venting mode. But what David wrote is something I whole-heartedly agree with and have pushed myself here at this blog and other blogs of mine over the last many years. What David wrote points up something that I think everyone needs to be cognizant of; we need to avail ourselves, as the body of Christ, to what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called the sanctorum communio, or what Guretzki called the communion of the saints (the English). If we don’t avail ourselves of these various voices we will fall into the trap that Guretzki rightly alerts us to; we might only hear “echoes of our own thoughts and subjectivities” and impose that “upon scripture.”

This actually dovetails with my last post. If we close the circle too tightly, we might only gather teachers around us who always and only reinforce our own subjectivities. The principle of what Gurtezki is getting at is that we need to be open to the whole tradition of the church, and remove ourselves from self-imposed echo-chambers. We need to read Holy Scripture with the communion of the saints. Clearly we are finite time and space bound creatures, and so that in and of itself is going to delimit how many voices we can open ourselves up to. And of course we don’t want to be so open that our brains fall out; we want to be open critically. But we do want to do catholic theology, and be participants in the whole tradition of the church.

We all have our favorite teachers, even teachers who are strewn throughout the history of the church; that’s natural, we are going to be drawn to certain teachers and theologians for one reason or the other. Obviously, I am drawn to Thomas F. Torrance, Karl Barth, and John Calvin; but I have also learned from so many in the history of interpretation. We just want to be open enough that, indeed, we are actually participating in the communion of the saints that Christ himself has gifted us with in his body.

What I think this entails, though, and this gets back to my last post, is that as Christians we want to identify the reality that Christ has given teachers to his church in every century and period of his church; and he continues to (Ephesians 4). Truly, we need to be critical and discerning, but we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the idea that there are “holy centuries” in the communion of the saints, in the church. We should understand that God in Christ can, has and does break into every century of his church; we should understand that God can speak through modern metaphysics as clearly and perspicaciously as he can through medieval metaphysics. The reality is that all metaphysics used to help supply a grammar for theological discourse must be evangelized and reified in and by the concrete ground of God’s Triune life in Jesus Christ.