Gospel, Culture, and Mission: A Reply to the Ecclesiocentric Response to the “Provisional Theses”

I have resisted the theo-blogosphere for some time now, but the responses to the recent “Provisional Theses” on “Kingdom-World-Church” offered by Nate Kerr (along with Halden and Ry) have provoked my intense interest. I am thinking here especially of the response by James K.A. Smith, though the replies by Geoffrey Holsclaw and D. Stephen Long are also worth mentioning in this regard. Some of their criticisms are valid, especially their call for greater clarity of thought. As much as I appreciate Nate, Halden, and Ry—I consider them not only theological partners, but even friends—there is a tendency to replace clear argumentation with theological jargon that is often impressive without always being persuasive.

Having said that, I stand resolutely in agreement with the “Theses” over against the ecclesiocentric crowd. While I find the responses given thus far rather baffling, I am quite grateful to Smith and others for clarifying just why the ecclesiocentric position must be rejected. I am going to put forward a radical and polemical claim that will no doubt make many unhappy: if one wishes to be a Protestant in continuity with Luther and Calvin, then one must be a dialectical theologian. Let me briefly explain.

If there is anything that defines dialectical theology, it is the claim that God is not a given object available to any neutral observer on the surface of history or nature. The divine is not empirically or directly given to us. It is rather always and only an event of God’s self-giving in every new moment. For this reason, revelation cannot be confined in or reduced to the biblical text; the true church cannot be straightforwardly equated with the visible community; and God cannot be directly identified with anything creaturely, whether the humanity of Jesus, the social body of the church, or the natural cosmos. The collapse of these realities is the basis for any number of errors in the history of the church. The collapse of revelation into scripture is the basis for the error of evangelical fundamentalism. The collapse of the kingdom or the true church into the visible institution is the error of both Catholicism and postliberalism. It is this latter collapse that is of interest to us here. My claim is that both the magisterial Reformers and the modern dialecticians are making a sharp differentiation between the eschatological community—the divine kingdom—and the visible, empirical community. The Reformers did this over against the Catholic doctrine of the Mass and priestly authority; Barth did this over against liberal theology and the analogia entis. Postliberalism, at least in its Lindbeckian form, is an attempt to reestablish a new identity of the divine and the human within the ecclesial community (this is a claim I cannot establish here but have argued for elsewhere, though not in print), and it is no surprise that many of those who have learned deeply from Lindbeck have also made the journey to Rome.

Now, just to be clear, this response is not meant to be a criticism of Catholic ecclesiology (though I would certainly criticize it on these grounds), nor am I arguing that the ecclesiocentric crowd are Catholics-in-disguise (though there are important similarities). My interest is not in the similarities with Catholicism but rather in the ecclesiocentric rejection of the strict dialectical differentiation between gospel and culture, between kingdom and church. This is the issue that constitutes the central disagreement between these two camps, and the lack of clarification on this issue is, I believe, the source of the current confusion. To put it differently, the ecclesiocentric crowd claims that Kerr et al. have misrepresented their position. That may or may not be so, but what seems clear to me is that, when it comes to the question of a diastasis between the kingdom and the church, there is a major and indisputable disagreement.

The problem is made perfectly clear in Smith’s response to John Flett’s article (quick plug: buy and read his phenomenal new book, The Witness of God), referred to in the introduction to the theses, where Flett argues that the communion ecclesiology of Hütter (and others like him) amounts to the identification of mission with propaganda. This is because Hütter identifies the true being of the church with its institutional culture, such that mission becomes the “diffusion” (Lamin Sanneh) of this ecclesial culture. The conflation of gospel and culture seen in Hütter’s work coincides precisely with the collapse of (divine, invisible) kingdom and (creaturely, visible) church. Kerr puts this in the following way: “As John Flett has convincingly argued, mission thereby becomes tied inextricably to the extension of this ‘culture’; this culture, this particular way of life, just is the gospel that is proclaimed, and the church’s missionary relation to the world cannot but be a function of it’s own culture—gospel proclamation turns out to be a matter of the church’s propagation of it’s own way of life, and evangelism a mode of integrating the world into this particular habitable culture.” To this, I say a hearty “amen.”

Smith’s response, however, is quite revealing:

Um....and the problem is...?  But more seriously, first: the church is called to be a foretaste of an eschatological ideal, which is to some extent a restoration of a creational norm.  And this will only be "against the world" to the extent that the world runs against the grain of the universe.  So the church is inviting "the world" to good culture-making.  Indeed, it is inviting the world to find itself vocation (what it's made for) in a graced way of life.  I must seriously be missing something because I don't see the problem here.  (If it's that this is somehow "Constantinian," then it misses that the mode by which the church does this is primarily invitation and hospitality--though we might also say that it is a blessing for covenant children to be sealed into this way of life by baptism.  If this comes down to some kind of worry about infant baptism as "Constantinian," then you've lost me.  In that case, it seems like "apocalyptic" is just a fancy cover for autonomy.)

Smith makes a number of problematic claims, and I will tease them out individually before providing a summary statement at the end. First, we must ask Smith and others to clarify what they mean when they call the church a “foretaste” of the eschaton. Clearly, they are unsatisfied by Barth’s notion of witness. They seem to want the church to instead be a proleptic instantiation of the coming kingdom. The church embodies, albeit imperfectly, the eschatological goal of all humanity. It does not merely witness to a reality from afar; it is itself that reality made tangible and visible for others. If this is the case, then we already have in this one word a perfect indication of what separates an apocalyptic theology of mission from an ecclesiocentric theology of practice.

Second, Smith says that the church “invit[es] ‘the world’ to good culture-making.” Here we again need further clarification. If this means that the church allows the secular to be truly and properly secular, then such a statement would be acceptable. However, if Smith means that the church is to embody the true culture (the “creational norm,” as he puts it), and in this way display for the world what the world ought to look like, then I can only echo Barth: No!

Third, there is the issue of whether something is “Constantinian” or not. Kerr has already provided the best definition of Constantinianism on pp. 6-11 of his book, Christ, History and Apocalyptic. But for the sake of brevity and clarity, I offer the following definition: Constantinianism is the idolatrous collapse of the transcendent into the immanent, resulting in the replacement of a mission of translation with a mission of expansion and diffusion. While I can’t expound upon this in any serious detail, the point is that the loss of the dialectical tensions mentioned above results in a “Constantinian logic” of mission as cultural expansion. The kingdom of God is objectified through institutional practices which, through their uniquely divine status, claim to “shepherd this broken creation toward [the eschatological kingdom],” to borrow from an earlier statement by Smith in response to Kerr. The ritual practices of the church are thus made to be qualitatively different than other human practices; in them, the transcendent becomes immanent and visible for the world. Or as Hütter would say, the core practices of the church “participate enhypostatically in the being of the Spirit” (Suffering Divine Things, p. 137). Mission thus becomes the diffusion of these cultural practices. In this view, there is no translation of a gospel kerygma from one (secular, worldly) culture to another. Instead, the church becomes one culture among others, albeit the “true” culture which embodies the “creational norm” and offers an objectifiable foretaste of the coming reign of Christ. Smith seems to think that “Constantinian” refers to something violent, and so counters with the claim that the church acts through “invitation and hospitality.” But that’s to miss what really defines Constantinianism: viz. the non-dialectical collapse of divine agency into the cultural-institutional practices of the church. If the word “apocalyptic” is a “fancy cover” for anything, it is not for autonomy but for dialectic.

To conclude, let me reiterate again my agreement with the ecclesiocentric camp that the “Provisional Theses” are in need of great refinement and clarification. As they currently stand, they are the source of much confusion. What I have attempted to offer here, in a highly abbreviated form, is a thesis which I think will provide some measure of the needed clarification. It seems to me that the real divide is over whether the church, as a visible and cultural institution, is itself an embodiment of the coming kingdom. Put differently, we can ask the following question: does the gospel imply and give rise to a particular culture? If the answer is yes, as I believe it is for the ecclesiocentric camp, then we end up with a mission of expansion that is indistinguishable from mere propaganda. It stands opposed to the missiological insight that the gospel is an infinitely translatable word of proclamation. Lindbeck’s identification of the church with a cultural-linguistic semiotic system is a thoroughgoing rejection of missiological translation. It was no surprise when, in 1997, he argued that the gospel is a Weltanschauung (“worldview”) in competition with other (secular) worldviews (cf. “Gospel’s Uniqueness,” Modern Theology 13, no. 4 [1997]: 423-50).

A proper theology of mission, however, cannot accept the identification of the gospel with a worldview. The gospel message of Jesus Christ is the apocalyptic rupture of all worldviews and all cultural institutions. It comes as a radically interruptive word which nullifies the idolatrous hubris of our religious practices. It reminds us that, as a visible institution, the church is just one more sinful reality within the world. In itself, the church has no claim upon God; it no more participates in God than any other institution, culture, or community. To modify a statement that Barth makes about the biblical witness, the church has only its election and calling to commend it—but this counts! The church, properly understood, is a missionary word-event of faithful witness and action, a divine speech-act in which the kerygma is proclaimed and heard in humble obedience. Wherever the event of the word occurs, that is where the church exists. The church as icon of the kingdom has no stable culture, no visible institutional identity. It is the interruptive occurrence of divine speech and human witness, and that alone. Where the word happens—where the viva vox dei becomes existentially present—that is where the elect community exists. But it does not remain in existence through the propagation of human practices and social institutions. It must be reconstituted in every new moment through the ongoing disruptive activity of Word and Spirit. God must speak anew, and only in that dialogical event of speech and witness is there a true covenantal community. It is the Word of God that constitutes the church. This was the core Reformational insight, and it is what the dialectical theologians reaffirmed in their own modern way. Today, the apocalyptic theologians are maintaining that line of thought, and we need it today now more than ever.

Update: The response by Stephen Long appears to have been removed from the site.


Andy Rowell said…
David, 3 little comments on your 3 comments on Smith.

First, it is interesting to hear your questioning the "foretaste" language. The idea that the "Church is the foretaste, sign, and instrument of the reign of God" is language Lesslie Newbigin often used and predated him I suspect and has been taken up uncontroversially in various ecumenical contexts. I would guess that it tries to pick up on the biblical theology of "firstfruits" (Rom 8:23; 2 Thess 2:13; Jas 1:18; Rev 14:4). The term does not seem in the New Testament to be fleeting but rather something given. Yet it implies that it is incomplete--there is a load more to come.

Second, regarding the issue of "inviting the world to good culture-making"--there may be a real difference here (Milbank/Radical Orthodoxy vs. Liberal Protestant) between viewpoints but I suspect there is semantic confusion going on: "secular," "world" and "culture" all being unclear. Sanneh's term "diffusion" is very useful here--helping me see that you are concerned about imposing as in colonialism one's culture on another culture. I don't think Milbank and Lindbeck are talking about the same issue as Sanneh.

Third, Kerr and Smith are drawing on Yoder for their understanding of Constantinianism which specifically emphasizes an unfaithful compromise by the church in relationship to the state whereas your definition encompasses something much larger--similar to Barth's understanding of "religion" --especially in the Epistle to the Romans.

This leads me to the last point: I'm not sure that Barth (after the Epistle to the Romans where he is more polemically dialectical) is so adamant that the church "event" is so fleeting but I could see how you might see it that way.

I'll paste below a paragraph in which Barth reflects on this. Like I said, I could see both "sides" of this debate claiming Barth. (Forgive the long quotation, I know sometimes on blogs is the first time some people (not you!) get introduced to Barth so I thought it would be fun to give them a relevant glimpse into how he might wade into this!).

§ 62 The Holy Spirit and the Gathering of the Christian Community. In CD Volume IV,1.2. pp. 650-651.

As the work of the Holy Spirit the Christian community, Christendom, the Church is a work which takes place among men in the form of a human activity. Therefore it not only has a history, but-like man (CD III, 2 § 44)-it exists only as a definite history takes place, that is to say, only as it is gathered and lets itself be gathered and gathers itself by the living Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit. To describe its being we must abandon the usual distinctions between being and act, status and dynamic, essence and existence. Its act is its being, its status its dynamic, its essence its existence. The Church is when it takes place that God lets certain men live as His servants, His friends, His children, the witnesses of the reconciliation of the world with Himself as it has taken place in Jesus Christ, the preachers of the victory which has been won in Him over sin and suffering and death, the heralds of His future revelation in which the glory of the Creator will be declared to all creation as that of His love and faithfulness and mercy. The Church is when it happens to these men in common that they may receive the verdict on the whole world of men which has been pronounced in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead . . .
Doug Harink said…
David, I found this genuinely helpful. Thanks. I have just one comment. You write that the church must be "reconstituted in every new moment through the ongoing disruptive activity of Word and Spirit." I wonder about "reconstituted." Perhaps "renewed" or even "resurrected." God works upon something. There is a difference between creation and resurrection, even though they are (in Rom 4, for example) brought into the closest possible relation. Further, while I cannot agree with Jamie Smith's pretty straightforward reformational "creational" theology, I do not think that apocalypse and creation are one and the same thing. Somehow I think that gets to the heart of my concern about the "provisional theses" document.

Thanks again for your post.

On "foretaste" language, I should be clear: I don't want to toss the baby out with the bathwater. The key phrase above is: "If this is the case, then we already have in this one word..." So only if Smith's understanding of foretaste as the tangible embodiment of the kingdom is correct is the word "foretaste" problematic. If, as I would contend, foretaste-language is rightly understood in terms of witness (as I believe it is for Newbigin), then the word is perfectly acceptable and helpful. In my final paragraph I thus refer to the church as an "icon," which gets at the same idea.

You are right that words still need to be clarified. I would argue, though, that Milbank/RO is the most imperialistic theology on the market. In one of his later essays, Lindbeck explicitly expresses a nostalgia for cultural Christendom. His endorsement of the gospel as a worldview, combined with his understanding of intratextuality as social embodiment (in which the church absorbs the world, rather than the world the church), provides all the ingredients for a postliberal version of a mission of colonial diffusion. Where Lindbeck stops short, Milbank adds an ontology and goes all the way.

My definition of Constantinianism is certainly larger than Yoder's but seeks to uncover what I find to be the underlying theological logic. Kerr writes in his book that Constantinianism "identifies the eschaton as the teleological working-out and development of certain immanental historical processes" (p. 9). In other words, Constantinianism collapses the dialectic between time and eternity.

As for Barth and event, I don't mean to construe the church as "fleeting." I am only stressing the fact that for Barth and apocalyptic theology, the church is never a mere given (datum). It is always and only a divine giving (dans) and to-be-given (dandum).

Thanks, that's a good point. I originally had "reaffirmed" there, but felt a much stronger word was necessary. I agree that apocalypse and creation need to be distinguished, though I want to render both as equally actualistic in nature. That is to say, creation is no more a given than the new creation. As I argue in a forthcoming paper with the Koinonia journal, creation should be understood as a continuous divine act occurring anew in every moment. Certainly it has different content than the apocalyptic act of interruption and transfiguration, but I do think it bears the same formal similarities. God's act, whether as creation or apocalypse, never becomes a finished product but remains a continual divine activity here and now.
Chris Tilling said…
Dear David,
So glad to see you blogging again - once again a confident Barthian enters the fray.

I am just wading into this debate, so your post is very helpful - and extremely lucid.

Please forgive my ignorance of the wider debate, I had just one question following on from Andy's above: the first-fruit language in the NT. I wonder, is it a little one-sided to limit NT aparche (first-fruit) language to witness. In Romans 16:5, for example, Epaenetus is described as the "first-fruit of Achaia" for Christ. Certainly he was a witness to a fuller harvest, but I think Paul's point is more than that - he is also the beginning of what is to come, and this is not too far from saying he is the first embodiment of a coming reality (or foretaste, as the word can be translated). It is perhaps my last phrase that smuggles too much in, but rather than lift another aparche verse into this comment, I'll finish up. I trust you understand my question.

Warm greetings from London, England.
Chris Tilling said…
OK, one final question. I have recently tried to acquaint myself better with CD, and I have come across the following: 'Not God alone, but God and man together constitute the content of the Word of God' (CD I/2 207). Could this have bearing on the discussion?

From the quote you posted: "Therefore it not only has a history, but-like man (CD III, 2 § 44)-it exists only as a definite history takes place, that is to say, only as it is gathered and lets itself be gathered and gathers itself by the living Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit."

Add to this the numerous times in that quote Barth says something like "The Church is when it takes place..."

This looks like David's position to me. The church exists only in its history as the gathered and gathering body of Christ, only as the self-witness of Christ in the power of the Spirit awakens men to faith. Given Barth's actualism (his "theology of active relations" - Hunsinger), we need to say that this is something that occurs afresh every morning, and perhaps even every minute! The temporal extension of the church is simply the result of the Spirit's continued awakening and gathering presence, commissioning, equipping and sending the church as Christ's heralds among the nations. This action of the Spirit, and its "empirical correlates (as TFT might say), is the history of the church. But it is certainly not a history that we can take for granted, that is in some way possessed, that is in some way a spatio-temporal given in and of itself. Jesus Christ is the church, but the church is not Jesus Christ. The church's being is in its act, and that act is perceptible and actual only with reference to faith.
This is very constructive and helpful, David. Thanks for it. What I find most clarifying is that you frame the whole issue with a conditional: "IF one wishes to be a Protestant in continuity with Luther and Calvin..."

That confirms my own suspicions that the Theses represent a very intentional (some might say hyper-) Protestantism, and I admit that it is precisely on this point that I waver. (I might contest your specific claims about what you say the magisterial Reformers are after [cf. for instance Randall Zachman on the later Calvin.] But I'm going to grant you the point for the sake of argument.)

And if the whole argument is conditional, then it's hard to know just how one can argue for the antecedent. That is: do the Theses assume your conditional antecedent, and then show what must follow from that? I think so, which probably also explains why it's been so difficult to have a "cross-camp" conversation: we don't agree on the antecedent.

So it would then come down to determining whether one "wishes to be a Protestant." And what would be the criteria for evaluating such? I would hope this pushes us back to biblical and theological reflection, and I guess my understanding of the biblical narrative, along with an incarnational understanding of history, pushes me to not "wish" to be a Protestant (in the manner you describe here). It seems to me that if you're right, the project of the Theses is a conditional argument ("if one wishes to be a Protestant..." or "if one wishes to be a Barthian...) that does not argue for or demonstrate its antecedent.

One other aside, vis-a-vis Doug: I hope you won't confuse my talk of creation with some "canned" notion of "reformational" theology that we both reject. For this argument I'm happy to affirm with you an emphasis on the continuity (but not identification) between creation and apocalypse. (For the record, it seems to me that Bavinck (rather than, say, Kuyper) has a better appreciation of how the apocalypse also "exceeds" creation).

Yes, thanks, that's very helpful. You're right that there is an assumed antecedent here that we disagree about. I myself -- and I can't speak here for Nate, Halden, or Ry -- indeed do wish to be a Protestant in the sense that I have described. I certainly welcome my Catholic, Orthodox, etc., brothers and sisters as fellow pilgrims on the way to the kingdom, but I do believe that if one is going to claim the legacy of the Protestant Reformation, then it needs to be at least connected with the dialectic or eschatological paradox that I have described. I certainly have no desire to see the church reduced to the Protestant-dialectical vision of the church. But as a self-identified Protestant, I intend to stand up for a radical differentiation between the eternal kingdom and temporal institution with its rites and practices.
Thanks, David. I appreciate the point. As one who very intentionally identifies with the Reformed tradition, I don't agree that Protestantism per se requires the "dialectical" paradigm you extol here (again, I commend Randall Zachman on the later Calvin). So perhaps even Protestantism is contested in this regard.

But I wonder about your closing claim: does "radical differentiation" mean "discontinuity?"
Brad East said…
I'm interested by the question of where we place Yoder in this conversation -- for, as someone noted above about Barth, it seems both sides can claim him.

On the one hand, as I read him Yoder has no interest whatsoever in collapsing the kingdom into the church. The eschatological reality of the "not yet" is wholly retained. Point for dialectical apocalyptic.

On the other hand, Yoder also straightforwardly claims both that (1) the church in its life together is (to be) what the world will one day (be brought to) be; and (2) the concrete and visible local gathering of believers is ekklesia. (None of this "invisibility" or "true church" nonsense.) Point for the ecclesiocentrics.

What seems to be the sticking point is the extent to which institution, continuity, community, and practices define, constitute, and/or mark out ekklesia -- alongside the extent to which the "already" of the kingdom has irrupted into the life and language of the believing community through the Spirit (and thus the kingdom is actually present/available/"foretasted", not merely witnessed to), and how and in what form.

Perhaps this is simply my own idiosyncratic way of reading the discussion. Thanks to David (and to all others!) for the stimulating contribution to the conversation.
Anonymous said…
Post-liberalism, at least in its Lindbeckian form, is an attempt to reestablish a new identity of the divine and the human within the ecclesial community (this is a claim I cannot establish here but have argued for elsewhere, though not in print), and it is no surprise that many of those who have learned deeply from Lindbeck have also made the journey to Rome.

This statement baffles me because while it seems like it might have been effect of Lindbeck's Nature of Doctrine I don't think it reflects the book at all. Could you elaborate? As far as his students going to Rome, which ones are you considering that weren't already conservative Episcopalians?
I do think the much ignored but brillant Ephraim Radner (a student of Lindbeck's) has given us some very insightful thoughts on the nature of the church through his working out and staying in the recent Anglican struggles. But somehow he gets missed as being a student of Lindbeck's.
Dr. Long might be better at giving some defence to Lindbeck here than I have.
Peter Kline said…

What if witness is what constitutes the reality of the Kingdom come? That is, witness is not simply the preamble to something to come, but is actually the nature of eternal fellowship with God. What if God's own eternal life is an event of witness? This is Flett's claim in his outstanding new book, "The Witness of God."

This might seem to bring together some of the things you see drifting apart. The point is that, even in the Kingdom, the redeemed will always be directed to a reality outside of themselves, namely, to the Lamb who was slain. Eternal life with God will always be the act our throwing our crowns at the feet of the Lamb, witnessing to an event and act that can never be contained or controlled, even by those who now enjoy perfect, eternal fellowship with God.
Anonymous said…
Great work David.

Very clear and helpful in gaining an understanding of what you, kerr, flett, and others are after.

Its total crap. But helpful in getting an insight into you guys. :-)

Take care friend
Matt Kaemingk

I wouldn't say "discontinuity," since that is just as static and "given" as continuity. The issue is givenness vs. non-givenness. That is, whatever the relation between the visible and invisible church, it is a relation that must be actualized anew by God's Word and Spirit. It is a relation that occurs as an event. It never becomes stabilized, either in the form of continuity or discontinuity.

First, you should know that I have a strict policy of only accepting comments that provide a name. But you make a worthwhile point, so I'll respond to it. (Just be forewarned: if you want a follow-up to be posted, you'll need to use a name. My apologies if that's a problem.)

I agree that, on the face of it, my reading of Lindbeck is implausible. I've spent much of the last year or so reading most of his writings, including many of his early and later articles. Unfortunately, I can't unfold my argument here; I might publish something in the near future. My response to Andy above hints at part of my argument. In short, I argue that Lindbeck's postliberalism collapses the gospel into the cultural-linguistic culture of the Christian religion. I recognize that he intends to prevent a total collapse, but that there is in fact a collapse is, I think, indisputable.
Alan Thomson said…
David, thank you for this. You have clarified some of my initial issues very well.

I am still left wondering about a couple of questions. First, how do you envisage the relationships pertaining between church and the kingdom on one hand and church and its empirical expression on the other.

Second, I note analogia entis has been used elsewhere to in part characterize the ecclesiocentric position. To what extent do you think this debate might be enacting in a new way the Barth and Balthasar debate over analogia entis and analogia fidei?


Thanks for the comment. First, I don't think the church is a "third thing" between kingdom and empirical community. It is a word that can mean either one or the other, but it's not a third thing in addition to them.

Second, I definitely do believe the analogia entis debate is related to this debate here. See, e.g., Jamie's comment above about an "incarnational view of history." But I would be hesitant to make a direct connection between the two. I'll have to wait and see what the ecclesiocentric camp says about that issue, though I have my suspicions.
adhunt said…
No doubt Ephraim Radner is one of the most profound ecclesiologists now working and also the most utterly neglected in serious academic theology.
Christopher said…
Great post David!

I think Jaime's comment above really gets at the heart of it:

"As one who very intentionally identifies with the Reformed tradition, I don't agree that Protestantism per se requires the "dialectical" paradigm you extol here (again, I commend Randall Zachman on the later Calvin). So perhaps even Protestantism is contested in this regard. "
Bruce Hamill said…
Thanks very much for the post, David, and Jamie for his response. For some time now I have been unable to decide which side of the fence I sit on and to suspect that elements of the fence need to be reconstructed. For me the issue has to do with the nature of participation rather than anticipation/fortaste. What we say about the former will determine our thinking on the latter.
Chris E Green said…

A few questions:

1) Isn't it possible that both movements -- God-church-world and God-world-church -- are Spirit-impelled and can be lived in ways faithful to the Gospel? Perhaps in the same community, both-at-once?

2) What does your (or Kerr's or Halden's) alternative look like when embodied in a local church? Like Yoder's Body Politics ?

3) Doesn't Bonhoeffer have much to say to us on these matters? I'm thinking of his attempt in Ethics to explode the easy difference the tradition makes b/w worldly and churchly responsibility.

4) Is infant baptism a decisive issue in this debate? What about ordination?

5) Aren't we Protestants in danger of collapsing into solapsism? Why do we need to protect God's freedom by limiting the church's (cultural) freedom?

Just to be clear, I can't speak for Nate or Ry or Halden, so my answers are mine alone. You might want to direct these questions to them as well, since I have my own way of thinking through these issues.

1. The key claim of the theses is that God's relationship is not first to some "thing" called the "church," and only then through the church to the world. God's relation is to the world in Jesus Christ, and the church only exists for the sake of bearing witness to that God-world (i.e., kingdom-world) relationship. The church has a purely function existence: it exists to serve God's mission of reconciling the world to Godself. It is, as Hoekendijk puts it, wholly and only the apostolate. That is, the church's being is in its mission of witness. To posit a God-church relationship that is not wholly and exclusively rooted in the God-world relationship is a misunderstanding of the church.

2. Here I think one has to be careful. I would resist the notion that the apocalyptic theses provide any kind of "ecclesiological worldview" which can then be mapped out directly in a particular form of ecclesial life. This is not a new denominational confession; it is an attempt to articulate what the gospel message of God's missionary in-breaking in Jesus Christ demands of the church's life and faith. It is a theological explication of the gospel's claim upon the church in general; it isn't the blueprint for a new ecclesial form of life. Put differently, every denomination/confession should theoretically be able to affirm these claims. Insofar as a church's structure, theology, or ministry absolutely precludes such an affirmation, one must question whether that church is properly in conformity with the gospel of Jesus Christ. That is to say, any church that believes itself to be an "end in itself" that has its being in its liturgical practices apart from any mission of witness to the world is, I would say, living in contradiction to its proper identity and calling.

As for what a church might look like that self-consciously ordered itself around these apocalyptic-missionary ideas, I really have no way of answering that. Nate and Halden would certainly take it in Yoderian directions. That's fine with me, though I have a certain affinity for Lutheran and Presbyterian forms of church life. I suppose I would advocate a kind of hybrid. But, again, I don't think this necessitates a new church order, even though I'm perfectly open to infinitely new forms of ecclesial life and practice. I have no personal attachment to any denomination or confession.
3. Absolutely. I would say Bonhoeffer's insights on this have been deeply important to many of us, especially to Halden. As he himself would say, it is Bonhoeffer who really discovers that the church's very being and existence is in service to the world. This is precisely the insight guiding the theses. If that's the case, though, we cannot uphold a kingdom-church-world movement in distinction from kingdom-world-church. It is the latter that defines the former.

4. This is a very tricky and contentious issue. Here I think I speak alone. I think the authors of the theses are all in agreement in their rejection of infant baptism. And I agree insofar as the arguments for infant baptism are almost infinitely better. That said, I remain open to infant baptism IF and ONLY IF it is radically reconfigured and disentangled from the legacy of Constantinianism. This means rethinking the entire theology of baptism from the ground up. To put it differently, there needs to be a bit of free church wisdom infused into infant baptism. I can go into more detail about what this looks like if you wish. My wife and I had our son baptized as an infant, and I wrote a short piece explaining why (not on the blog). So I have my reasons, though I believe that our decision in all honesty should be the exception, not the norm. At the very least, it has to be a choice on the part of the parents, not an enforced rule by a church confession.

5. I don't understand this last question at all. Are you suggesting that the apocalyptic theology outlined by Nate et al. is in conflict with the cultivation of community? I don't see how that follows. However, if you are making the further claim that cultivation of community requires the development of a specifically Christian "culture," then here I might have to demur (depending on how you clarify things). I honestly don't know what you mean by the church's "cultural freedom." That sounds to me like a way of sneaking Christendom in by the back door.

Thanks for the good questions. I hope I've answered them to your satisfaction.
Chris E Green said…

Thanks for the quick and thoughtful response; I v. much appreciate it, and I want to take time to digest all of it. I did find your answers helpful, esp. in regard to the point about the church's reality being wholly functional. More on this in a few days, after I've had time to think it through more carefully!

Regarding my last question: (a) Yes, I did mean to bring Nate's, et al, vision of the church into question on precisely those grounds; here , if nowhere else, I think Hauerwas (and Jamie Smith, and, to a lesser degree, Milbank, although if I'm honest I have to admit I understand little of his work!) is right: churches that don't establish a 'culture' -- by which I mean a set of habits of thought and action that clearly set them apart from other political entities -- have no realistic chance to build or sustain community 'on the ground'. Here I agree with Yoder, in part.

(b) Further, that 'culture' (or whatever one wants to call it) should be formed, I believe, by the Christian liturgical and spiritual tradition, esp. but not exclusively the sacramental practices of baptism and the Eucharist, as well as the public reading of Scripture and preaching. Here, I disagree with Yoder, at least in part. For he reduces - unwisely and unnecessarily, in my judgment - the church's liturgical and sacramental activities to interpersonal exchanges. He does to the mysteries of Christian community what Bultmann did to the mysteries of the biblical text. But that's another story!

A quick note about 'Christendom', for what it's worth. I admit there is inescapably the danger of the church ghettoizing herself in some weaker or stronger version of 'Christendom'. But there is also always and inescapably another danger, that of the church's collapse into the world, as seen for instance in the recent history of liberal Protestantism. If the former comes when mission is lost behind liturgy, the latter happens when mission completely displaces liturgy.

In my judgment, we have to keep the God-church-world/God-world-church dynamic alive, so they can mutually interpret and define one another. And this means, in part, allowing mission and liturgy to play off of each other. I think we can think of the church both as means and as end.

I would v. much like to read your bit on infant baptism, if you wouldn't mind. You can email it to me at cewgreen at gmail.

I don't know if this is the forum, but I'd like to continue this conversation at length. Perhaps email is better for you? Let me know.
I'll be sure to email you.

There's as much ambiguity over the word "culture" as over the word "church," if not much more so. That's one area we'll have to clarify.

But this much I will say here: in my view, the church is nothing else but the world; the church is simply that part of the world which acknowledges Jesus as Lord, which affirms that it is the world created and redeemed by God. It has no separate culture, nothing to separate it from the nations. It exists wholly and entirely for others - in and with the world loved by God.

It's funny that you mention Bultmann, though. I'm a strong advocate of his work. I'll defend him against everybody. And my ecclesiology is, in an important way, connected to my affirmation of a demythologized theology. But as you say, that's another story.
Chris E W Green said…
Thanks for this response, and for the email, which I did receive. I'll be in touch...