Trying to be Realistic and Charitable Towards the Local Church

I came to a certain realization today at church: I think I’ve been placing too much of a burden on what the church is supposed to do for people. I’ve been frustrated for a very long time in regard to the way evangelical churches in North America regularly function with reference to what they are teaching. Now, I am only referring to churches that seemingly are self-conscious enough to recognize that their role is to disciple God’s people, and prepare them, as best they can, to encounter the living God in Christ each day and on that final day. Even in the most ideal of these churches I think I will always find myself, at a personal level, leaving dissatisfied.

Full disclosure: Like many of you, I’ve grown up my whole life in the evangelical sub-culture; even as the son of a Conservative Baptist pastor. I understand the inner-workings of what it takes for a church, particularly smaller to mid-sized churches, to function in our current cultural (and thus fiscal) moment. There are many pressures, not least of which is a spiritual onslaught which would like for nothing else but that the churches fail in their mission to make disciples of all nations and peoples, baptizing them in the singular name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, we have these pressures, and many more. And it is these on the ground realities that often hamper the work of God in Christ in the churches. But I think I realized today, even because of these pressures, that the churches really can only do so much; even in the most ideal of situations.

I think for all too long I have used myself as the measure and expectation of what I would think churches would be bringing to the people. Of course, this is a foolish standard. But I also think at some level, what I expect in itself isn’t even enough. I am conflicted about these things. I spend ALL of my free-time (meaning time not spent with family, per se) reading theology books and the Bible. Because of my background and training (in Bible College and Seminary) I am aware of the mountainous riches available to Christians in the history of the church. I have been being, and am being fed continuously from these riches as I continuously expose myself to them in vigorous ways. As I go to church I have to recognize that at best there might be an hour or two (tops) available for the teaching pastor and Sunday School teachers to attempt to expose people to the proclaimed Word of God in such a way that the souls of the laity are fed and lifted up. I have to recognize these sorts of time constraints and be realistic about what the church can actually accomplish in this time. So, this is the sort of positive realization I’ve been having about the church.

On the critical side, what remains to be a problem is that the churches set the bar too low. A Christian person, if they are so inclined, should be able to go to church and have their deep spiritual and theological longings met and fulfilled. Christ has raised up teachers in the churches for this very reason, and yet all too often we see (especially in my Free church tradition) pastors shrugging off their responsibilities to expose people to the riches I referred to earlier; often because the pastors themselves are not aware of them, or while in seminary (if they even attended) they simply saw them as not involving ‘real ministry.’ This point remains a raw one for me. While the local church, realistically, can only do so much, they can do much more than they are! Pastors will be held to a stricter judgment: meaning, pastors will be held accountable for what they exposed their people to, and what they didn’t. I’m not suggesting that all that I am referring to (like sacra doctrina – the sacred teachings of the Church) can be dumped on the people at the sort of technical levels the so called ‘professional’ theologians learns to think at. But, what I am saying is that the deep things that occupy the theologian’s mind and heart ought to be offered to the people in the churches, in accessible ways, so that they might grow. Remember, I’m just a lay person myself; I’m just like you, and you’re just like me. I might be motivated differently than some in the churches, but I have to think that my motivation to know Christ is something that God has put into me so that it might be inculcated in others in the church. In other words, it isn’t just the “theologians” who are to be occupied with the ‘deep things of God,’ but it is everyone in the Church. I don’t think the local churches are in fact doing a good job in this area, precisely because, I think, the pastors have shrugged this responsibility off as if helping people to grow ‘deeply’ into Christ is not ‘real ministry.’

While I am hopefully becoming a little more realistic about the local church’s role, as I have been writing this out it still appears to me that the local (evangelical) churches are failing even at their most minimal task of making growing disciples of Jesus Christ. The bar must be raised, not lowered; and yet in the revivalist/conversionist oriented churches we see it all too often being lowered in the name of doing ‘real ministry.’ It is rather foolish to think that real ministry can be done apart from a deep and abiding push into the depth dimensional reality of who the living God is as revealed in Christ. Real ministry is pushing people further into the eternal life they have come into union with in Christ (cf. Jn 17.3), and allowing the weight of this glory to propel people further into the inner sanctum of God’s Holy and Tremendous Life. I typically don’t walk away from church services with this sort of sense about who God is; things are way too domesticated. The Gospel is scandalous and foreign to our natural modes of thinking and conditioning. The local churches fail precisely at this point, at the point where they make the Gospel a pedestrian reality that seeks first the kingdom of man rather than the Kingdom of God in Christ; with all the good intentions in tow.

 

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The Abolition of Religion: And Establishment of the Only True Religion in the Scandal of Particularity Found in Jesus Christ

I received a bit of push-back on a recent post I did on Barth and his understanding of religion as “unbelief.” But let me expand further on where Barth is coming from, I think it will help provide some relief in regard to some misunderstanding relative to where he is coming from. When it comes to Barth it is always helpful to remember the broad strokes he is thinking from. Without keeping these strokes in mind, a prima facie reading of him (i.e. contextless) will inevitably lead many to read him wrongly; and this has happened!

In what we will read from Barth, it will become clear that his understanding of ‘religion’ is informed more broadly by his inchoate doctrine of election and his Christ concentration; both loci that are located in the so called scandal of particularity. We oughtn’t ever approach Barth without bearing his theory of revelation in mind, and how significant that is towards his development of theological conclusions. Again, for Barth, as we all know by now, the Centraldogma of all theological reflection is no other than, Jesus Christ. This is why even his understanding of religion, and the Church therein, is deconstructed and resurrected by God’s Self-revelation in Jesus Christ; for Barth everything comes back to Jesus, and his place in the economy of God’s triune life, in and for us. With this in mind, let’s follow along with Barth as he helps us understand what he thinks ‘true religion’ is constituted by; for Barth, there can be no true religion outwith God’s Self-revelation; and there can be no Self-revelation without Jesus Christ. As such, if there is going to be a true religion, it must be grounded in Revelation; or more pointedly, it must be concentrated in the face of Jesus Christ. This, for Barth, is where true religion obtains; maybe this will help bring understanding in regard to Barth’s belief that all religion is unbelief: other than the true religion that is necessarily grounded in God’s Self-revelation in Christ.

The preceding expositions have established the fact that we can speak of “true” religion only in the sense in which we speak of a “justified sinner.”

Religion is never true in itself and as such. The revelation of God denies any religion is true, i.e., that it is in truth the knowledge and worship of God and the reconciliation of man with God. For as the self-offering and self-manifestation of God, as the work of peace which God Himself has concluded between Himself and man, revelation is the truth beside which there is no other truth, over against which there is only lying and wrong. If by the concept of a “true religion” we mean truth which belongs to religion in itself and as such, it is just as unattainable as a “good man,” if by goodness we mean something which man can achieve on his own initiative. No religion is true. It can only become true, i.e., according to that which purports to be and for which it is upheld. And it can become true only in the way in which man is justified, from without; i.e., not of its own nature and being, but only in virtue of a reckoning and adopting and separating which are foreign to its own nature and being, which are quite inconceivable from its own standpoint, which come to it quite apart from any qualifications or merits. Like justified man, religion is a creature of grace. Bur grace is the revelation of God. No religion can stand before it is a true religion. No man is righteous in its presence. It subjects us all to the judgment of death. But it can also call dead men to life and sinners to repentance. And similarly in the wider sphere where it shows all religion to be false it can also create true religion. The abolishing of religion by revelation need not mean only its negation: the judgment that religion is unbelief. Religion can just as well be exalted in revelation, even though the judgment still stands. It can be upheld by it and concealed in it. It can be justified by it, and—we must at once add—sanctified. Revelation can adopt religion and mark it off as true religion. And it not only can. How do we come to assert that it can, if it has not already done so? There is a true religion: just as there are justified sinners. If we abide strictly by that analogy—and we are dealing not merely with an analogy, but in a comprehensive sense with the thing itself—we need have no hesitation in saying that the Christian religion is the true religion.[1]

True Religion for Barth, as noted, is necessarily grounded in the particularity and scandal of God’s in-breaking Life in Jesus Christ. It’s not that Barth doesn’t see that there is a religion here and there—indeed, he sees them everywhere—it’s that Barth (as do I!) rejects constructing a notion of religion from religious phenomena and phenomenological reflection as such.

This should be of no surprise for anyone who knows Barth’s theology; he never veers from his principled commitment to allowing Jesus to regulate all of his theological conclusions in intensive fashion. And for me, this is why I cannot escape Barth; with his warts and all. Indeed, for Barth, as the passage above illustrates, there can be no true religion except for one that is alien and extra nos (‘outside of us’); one that is not something humans can manipulate and control, but a religion that comes from above and determines what it means to stand before God in His genuine freedom of graciousness and love.

With the above considered, it is upon these bases that Barth concludes that the only true religion is the Christian Religion. It is because Christ alone is the only way, truth, and life to God the Father; and it is because only therein, in the esse of God’s Triune Life (which is the esse of all reality) that true anything (inclusive of religion) obtains and finds inherent valuation before the living God of all life and reality.

 

[1] Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, I/2 §17: Study Edition (London: T&T Clark, 2009), 127-28.

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

Apostolic Succession, Theories of Ecclesial Authority, and Biblical Exegesis: Miscellanies

As I noted on my FaceBook wall I am planning on writing a mini-exegetical paper on the doctrine of Apostolic Succession, as held to by both Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox in their own respective and distinct ways (i.e. please don’t think I’m assuming that RC and EO are just different sides of the same coin, I’m not. But they do share a similar view of Apostolic Succession in regard to their theory of the church and theory of authority). My exegetical paper will be an analysis of the locus classicus texts found in both Matthew 16 and 18. I will argue how and why 16 should be read in tandem with 18, and if read in this way, paying attention to the Greek grammar, the idea of Apostolic Succession is severely undercut; at least in the Dominical teaching of Jesus Christ. But my ultimate conclusion will remain chastened to the reality that Apostolic Succession and its attendant theory of the church is more complex than simply defeating it through an exegetical analysis of some Matthean texts.

The above noted, in this post I simply want to share something from Matthew Levering’s book Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption. In his introductory remarks he offers a quote from a Catholic scholar named O’Collins (of course that’s his name!); O’Collins is delineating how he sees tradition, church, and scripture working together as an organic whole. I thought something like this would be good to share particularly in light of my forthcoming paper on Apostolic Succession. Levering writes:

Regarding Tradition, O’Collins first shows that its practical necessity has been ecumenically accepted, and so the question now is how to distinguish authoritative Tradition. With respect to the relationship between Scripture and Tradition, he points out that “if the community’s tradition, along with the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, led to the formation of the Scriptures, one would expect tradition to remain active in interpreting and applying the Scriptures.”⁵⁵ The Bible in this sense cannot be separated from the Church, even though, as Dei Verbum affirms, the Church’s magisterium serves the scriptural word of God rather than the other way around. The Holy Spirit’s guidance of the Church includes working through the bishops (including uniquely—the bishop of Rome), rather than simply working through “individual believers reading the Scriptures, preachers expounding the Scriptures, and ministers using the Scriptures in administering the sacraments.”⁵⁶ It is the Holy Spirit that enables the Church to hand on Tradition—that is, to hand on the entirety of what has been revealed in Jesus Christ. O’Collins discusses eight elements that guide the Church and individual believers in discerning the true content of this Tradition: the magisterium, the Vincentian canon, the “sensus fidei,” continuity with the apostolic Church, the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, apostolicity, Scripture, and the risen Lord. He remarks that the Church of each generation inevitably hands on Tradition in a somewhat different form from that in which it had been received, although “an essential continuity is maintained.”[1]

This thickens things a bit, at least in regard to how I might be writing my mini-exegetical paper on Matthew 16 and 18. At the least it illustrates how my exegesis of Matthew 16 and 18 will not be the silver bullet in undercutting a doctrine of Apostolic Succession; my goal is not that triumphant. Really what I’m hoping to accomplish with my paper is to simply have something I can refer to, online, when I encounter people who appeal to that as proof positive for Apostolic Succession.

In regard to what I just shared from Levering and O’collins, it might be somewhat difficult to overcome the theologic being articulated if someone like Karl Barth hadn’t come along. Yes, the whole Post Reformed orthodox period of development has many direct responses to all of these claims and theologic provided for by Levering/O’Collins, with particular reference to the Scripture principle (which Barth himself appeals to in his book The Theology of the Reformed Confessions and in his CD etc.) and Sola Scriptura, but honestly I really don’t think Post Reformed orthodox theology (think of the work of Richard Muller and his Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics) has the actual ecclesiological chops to move away from the pressure provided by the theologic of Levering/O’Collins. In other words, I think any theology that appeals to natural theology will have a hard time escaping the ecclesiocentric approach to things that Rome is funded by; the Westminster Reformed types have the same ecclesiocentrism present in their theology. It is Barth, and really, modernity itself that supplies the type of theological escape route that one needs to be able to critically move away from the type of ecclesiocentrism that we find in both Rome and Post Reformed orthodoxy (with its heavy reliance upon its Confessional magisterium etc.).

 

[1] Matthew Levering, Engaging the Doctrine of Redemption: Mediating the Gospel through Church and Scripture, 26 Scribd.