Sunday, May 15, 2011

Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church

Rachel Held Evans recently held her Rally to Restore Unity, a noble and much-needed effort to establish some healthy, humorous, and charitable dialogue among Christians. Consider this my modest and belated effort to contribute to that conversation.

What is the theological basis for Christian unity? What defines unity for Christian faith? The epistle to the Ephesians provides the best answer: “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. … In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord” (Eph. 2:13-14, 21). It is the person and work of Christ—the one crucified for us and our salvation—that forms the “ontological” ground for Christian unity. The unity of the church is located “in him.” Ecumenical peace only exists “in him.” The christology of Ephesians 2 is thus the basis for the more famous passage on unity in Ephesians 4. And we see this in other NT letters. Probably the most succinct and famous passage is Gal. 3:28, which states that all are now “one” in Christ.

But what kind of unity is this? In what sense is a theological-christological unity supposed to be evident on the level of phenomenology? It is in moving in this direction that I think most people tend to go astray. The assumption is that an ontological unity in Christ necessitates some kind of concrete, phenomenal unity on the level of corporate practice, if not also doctrinal formulation. In one sense, this is true enough; the fact that we are unified in Christ ought to translate into the actual practice of unity, as Halden and Ry have correctly argued. We need to do away with the notion that unity is something we do by finding universally-acceptable confessions and doctrinal statements, or through practicing a common liturgy of word and sacrament. Unity is not a task that we must realize. It is instead an indicative before an imperative; and there is only the latter because of the former.

All of this is a much-needed correction of a certain pragmatic ecumenical logic. And yet, I am still concerned about the very definition of “unity” that seems to be presupposed by all sides. What exactly does it mean to be unified? How does the gospel inform what unity looks like? Here is where I think the christological ontology of unity has to be supplemented by—or, rather, is actually ontologically inseparable from—a complex pneumatological repetition. In order to illustrate what I mean, I suggest we look at the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. We all know what happens. Jews in Jerusalem “from every nation under heaven” heard the apostles “speaking in the native language of each” (Acts 2:5-6). Biblical and theological scholars often point out that Pentecost is the Christian reversal of Babel, but this insight is worthy of further exploration.

First, whereas the Tower of Babel involved the loss of a unified language and so the loss of communication, Pentecost involves the restoration of communication in and through the diversity of human languages. Let’s reflect on this for a moment. Notice that the reversal of Babel is not a complete reversal; if it were, the Spirit would establish one common language in place of the many languages. But this is not what happens. God speaks a single message in a multiplicity of tongues: one kerygma, many contexts. What this means is that, in a certain sense, Pentecost actually blesses Babel, i.e., it sanctifies the very diversity that is the cause of our cultural fragmentation and miscommunication. Second, it strikes me that in the contrast between Babel and Pentecost, we have a perfect illustration of two kinds of ecumenical unities. Babel represents the pragmatic-anthropocentric unity forged through doctrinal agreement and liturgical participation. Pentecost represents the theological-christocentric unity established in the flesh of Jesus as the crucified one who destroyed the walls dividing one person from another, one nation from another, one denomination from another.

Third, it is particularly significant that this sanctified reversal of Babel occurs in association with the Spirit. If Christ concretizes the reality of God in a particular historical location, the Spirit universalizes this singular concretization through its infinite repetition. What’s especially important is that this pentecostal repetition is not the mere reproduction of the same. It is instead a creative repetition of the gospel in which the kerygmatic word of the cross is translated into an infinity of cultural contexts and historical situations. The repetition that God enacts, and that is consonant with the reconciling work of Christ, takes the form of a cultural diversification, a complex dissemination of the kerygma in a multiplicity of contexts. This repetition does not add anything to the singularity of Christ as the event of reconciliation; it rather bursts it open from within, enabling it to tear down dividing walls that no one—not even Jesus himself—could have known or anticipated. The Spirit turns Christ’s death and resurrection into an infinitely transposable truth-event capable of revolutionizing any situation, because in a certain ontological sense, Christ has already revolutionized every situation.

What is the practical payoff of this dense theological reflection? There are many aspects that could be developed, such as the claims that “mission makes the church” and that the gospel is intrinsically translatable. I want to focus on the nature of Christian unity. If it is indeed the case that our unity in Christ is inseparable from our being bound up in a pneumatic event of cultural translation, then this has rather dramatic implications for what it means to be part of the body of Christ. We are not dealing with a stable, static body whose limbs are all clearly identifiable as part of a single historical organism. We are instead dealing with a diasporic body whose limbs and parts are scattered and broken in every corner of the earth. It is the very confusion of Babel that is sanctified by the Spirit, because the infinitely translatable Christ is present and active in the midst of this confusion as the one who binds all the scattered remains together in his singular person—but not in a way that could be made phenomenally observable or dogmatically objectifiable. The post-pentecostal Christ cannot be definitively located; he cannot be tied down to any particular church or creed. His future cannot be directly identified with the future of any worldly institution or historical entity.

This brings us to the punch line: we correctly understand our unity to Christ only when it becomes clear that this unity is in fact irreducibly plural in nature; the unity is itself a multiplicity. We are united with those whom we do not know, and with whom we do not agree. Put more pointedly, it is precisely those who claim to be “orthodox” over against the “heterodox” who actually betray the unity that is characteristic of the Christian gospel. Those who cling tightly to their orthodoxy—whether a “sacred deposit,” a confession (such as Westminster), or a doctrine (such as inerrancy)—fail to bear witness to the pneumatological plurality that is distinctive of Christian faith in Jesus Christ. True unity is marked instead by cultural multiplicity and missionary translatability.

7 comments: said...

I have to utterly disagree. Only when the Church was already shattered in a thousand pieces could one think or say this, that is, in the last two hundred years. That Christological-pneumatic unity is never phenomenologically visible can only appear self-evident to someone living on the far side of schism.

David W. Congdon said...


Thanks for the comment. I don't mind if people disagree. I wrote it knowing that most people would.

I think the perception of a schism is a Catholic fiction from the start. The notion that there was ever some kind of pure visible unity is a fairy tale; it never existed. There were divisions from the very beginning, attested in the conflict between Antioch and Jerusalem in the NT. There are literally thousands of marginalized groups throughout the history of the church, most condemned as "heretical" in one way or another. Such condemnations included the Reformers, and then the Reformers themselves condemned others like the Anabaptists as "heretics," and on and on it goes. The very notion of an orthodoxy, besides being theologically problematic, is an abstraction; it only exists on paper.

(Take, for example, the fact that 97% of Catholic women use birth control. Technically, they are all apostate, according to strict Catholic law. If we included individual views about various doctrines, I am convinced 99.999999% of all Catholics would be apostate, according to such laws. The problem is not with the %99; it is with the very notion of a law of orthodoxy.)

When I hear people refer to some golden age of unity, I have to remind them that they are confusing ecclesial unity with imperial unity. The church has never had a unanimous consensus. What it had, under the Constantinian revolution, was a unified political-imperial power to enforce the distinction between orthodoxy and heterodoxy. When people pine after a past unity, they are actually pining after Christendom. Those who are honest will admit this, such as Peter Leithart, John Milbank, and others.

However, the more important issue is what you think the church "is." If you think the church is an institution that mediates the grace of God to the world, then your position would be understandable. But I completely reject such an ecclesiology -- not because I have conformed to a schismatic world, but because I think the gospel message of Jesus Christ mandates it. The church is not a mediator of anything, but rather a creaturely witness to the one sacrament and mediator of God's grace: Christ himself. He alone is the event of salvation, the union of God and humanity for the world. The church bears witness to him, and that is its only given task. More accurately, the church simply is that task of missionary witness. It has no other being prior to or outside of that divinely-granted vocation.

So I hear your disagreement, and I understand why you feel that way. But we are operating with radically different views about the church -- even about the gospel itself, perhaps. And yet, I think the real thrust of my post is that I can and will say that Christ is with us both in the Spirit, even in our disagreement. said...


Thanks for your lengthy response. I have to say that (unsurprisingly) I read church history somewhat differently. Certainly there are always conflicts within the Church, whether between Jerusalem and Antioch, Rome and Constantinople or the Dominicans and Jesuits. These, however, I take to be qualitatively different than fractures in communion (e.g., Rome and Constantinople post-1054, Rome and the Lutherans), or dangers to the gospel (e.g., Arianism), which reveal why orthodoxy is in fact important--even while the latter is in service of the former. (You can't go after orthodoxy without knocking out the legs of your Christology.)

Do I have a different ecclesiology? Certainly. A different gospel? I would be surprised. I could, I think, follow you quite far on your Christological-pneumatological construal of ecclesial unity; I just hold a quite different view of the telos of this divine action. In other words, I read John 17:20ff. quite differently.

I'm actually unsure that one's view of the sacraments, or Church qua sacrament, is the issue here. One could easily hold a memorialist view and still believe that God desires a visible unity for the Church.

But yes! you and I are, I trust, united in Christ by the Spirit. We could, I hope, pray, sing, preach and read Scripture together. But whereas I would see this event as in protest of our continuing denominational divisions, and in virtue of our true union in Christ by the Spirit, you, I fear, could only say the latter, and would see the visible ecclesial disunity between Presbyterians (I'm only guessing) and Pentecostals (such as I) as a permanent feature of the divine action in the world. In all events, grace and peace,


W. Travis McMaken said...

I'll be providing a multi-part discussion that undergirds a number of David's claims. Just FYI. The introduction is already posted.

Alexander said...

In questions of church unity I always like to go back to Kaesemann's essay, "Does the New Testament Canon constitute the Unity of the Church?" (or something like this title). Answer: If you're looking for a narrow concept of unity, no, on the contrary. Same holds true of the Old Testament canon.

Tobias Stanislas Haller said...

Thank you for this essay. I tend to see things along a similar line. I do take Mr. Harris point on the difference between a presumed early unified church as opposed to the various explicit schisms. But I differ from him in seeing those schisms effectively right from the Apostolic era, and recorded in Scripture. It seems to me the Johannine community explicitly anathematized those who chose, in their view, darkness rather than light. And Paul definitely had choice words for those Christians who still pressed for circumcision. So division in the koinonia set in fairly early. It is too easy to say, "Oh, well, that's just how the church treats heresy." Obviously the "heretics" considered themselves good Christians, in fact, the "right" Christians, but their "party" was in course of time ruled on the outs.
I bemoan the breaches of sacramental koinonia between the various church bodies; but I resist, for example, the Roman Catholic model that claims sacramental communion can only exist where there is institutional communion. This seems to me to be backwards. But it may also be inevitable.

Mark Dixon: said...

Hi, David.

You are probably done reflecting on this post, but I have a couple minor contributions to make to the discussion.

Though perhaps not as complex or deep a concept as "unity," Winthrop Hudson discusses "functional catholicity" and cites it as a major contributing factor for the success of explosions like the Awakenings in North America. He contrasts F.C. with sectarianism. Others have recognized its common and significant appearance in the various manifestations of Pietism (or similar movements).

The other contribution concerns your comments on the danger of equating Christological unity with confessional unity. For overwhelming evidence of that assumption's danger, see the entire history of the Lutheran church. It has been a constant story of attempts to rally around a single flag followed by resultant (often heated) schism.

Mark Dixon