Thursday, June 10, 2010

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.