Response to DeRoo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I love it that each of my interlocutors has homed in on quite different themes and issues in The Fall of Interpretation.  And as you’ll have guessed, it’s a special treat to engage Neal, one of my star students about whom I regularly brag, taking way more credit than I deserve.  (We also both share a common teacher, Jim Olthuis, whose fingerprints are all over The Fall of Interpretation.)[1]

And I love it that Neal has homed in on just the question I think he should be asking (and I keep hoping he comes up with a different answer!): “What is the church?”  This is encouraging to me precisely because it’s not a question that someone would have asked upon reading the first edition of The Fall of Interpretation.  Indeed, after reading the first edition, one would have been more likely to ask: Where is the church?

But Neal rightly discerns that my “catholic” postmodernism—which I think is a more persistent postmodernism—requires a strong ecclesiology, and hence a pretty solid sense of just what the church is (I get at this a little bit in the last chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?, the chapter emergent folks tend not to like).  So yes: “what is the church, according to Jamie Smith?”

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not?  When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church.  I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ.  Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then?  Let me try to improvise in response to that question.  Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.”  He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2]  As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4]  In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.”  As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community.  They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5]  This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point.  Any community of practice is going to have both.  It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho!  On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.

(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern.  Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason?  The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place.  [Sound familiar?  See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.]  Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern?  Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm?  Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)

Again, I’m improvising here in response to Neal’s good, important question.  I hope this moves the conversation forward.

[1] And lest you think the whole “De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da” thing is just crazy, check out the lyrics.  See what I mean? Plus, the Police were just so huge with hip undergraduates in the early 2000s, right?

[2] See Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 2nd ed. (University of Notre Dame Press, 1984), ch. 14.  Neal asks for an account of how our liturgical practices are rooted in the creeds and confessions.  I actually think the “rooting” goes in the other direction (lex orandi, lex credendi), as I’ve argued in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009), ch. 4.

[3] And as MacIntyre emphasizes, to participate in a tradition requires that one submit oneself to the tradition, even if you then want to push back on it.  Neal suggests that a similar account might also be at work in Derrida, which I think is right.

[4] Granted, this poses special challenges for “non-denominational” Christianity, or anti-creedal denominations.  I’m OK with that.  I already posed the problem in the final chapter of Who’s Afraid of Postmodernism?

[5] See Abraham, Canon and Criterion in Christian Theology: From the Fathers to Feminism (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 1.  Abraham has subsequently developed this into what he describes as “canonical theism.”  See further articulation in Abraham, Crossing the Threshold of Divine Revelation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006) and Canonical Theism: A Proposal for Theology & the Church, eds. William J. Abraham, Jason E. Vickers, & Natalie B. Van Kirk (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).  I have engaged Abraham more extensively in James K.A. Smith, “Epistemology for the Rest of Us: Hints of a Paradigm Shift in Abraham’s Crossing the Threshold,” Philosophia Christi 10 (2008): 353-361.  For another relevant discussion, see D. Stephen Long, “Sources as  Canons: The Question of Canonical Coherence,” Modern Theology 28 (2012): 229-251.

James K.A. Smith :
  • Travis Greene

    I’m sympathetic to this kind of broad small-c catholic view of the church, even as a quasi-Anabaptist emerging whatever. But the problem is always getting specific. Creed might be simple enough, and let’s stipulate we can bracket the Apocrypha when it comes to Scripture. But liturgy? A specific liturgy, or just the general practice of it? Because that is really more of a style, at least the way most people use the word. Maybe you mean simply repeated participatory actions over time, but if so we’re going to have to strip it way way down to general categories like “public reading of Scripture” and “words of institutions at Communion” or you will leave out large swaths of faithful people from “the church”. Same with iconography, unless you reinterpret it to mean simply “art” or “beauty” or a sense of aesthetic or something, and that won’t work for the people who genuinely believe in icons. The Fathers, okay, but why stop with them? And of course, the sacraments are the biggest problem of all.

    But maybe those are all surmountable problems and we can come to some agreement that will allow everybody from the Amish to the Copts to recognize each other as church. The biggest problem is that this is all circular. Any list of things “officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community” is already assuming what the boundaries of that Christian community are.

    • James K.A. Smith

      Good questions, Travis. Just very quickly: I don’t mean any of this generically. For example, for a specific shape of Christian worship that nonetheless crosses specific denominations and communions, see Frank Senn’s magisterial book, Christian Liturgical: Catholic & Evangelical, esp. the fantastic table on pp. 646-647.

      As for the circle: Yes! That’s the hermeneutic circle (per Heidegger), not to be confused with the “vicious” circle of analytic logic.

  • Neal DeRoo

    First of all, thanks for not responding with any comments about my appearance at the time…or any photos. I think some things are best left in the past ;)
    Second, thanks for your response. I agree that the doxy/praxy distinction is overblown, and that any and every community will necessarily have both. There is, however, something about which of the two gets emphasized more that is suggestive–and that’s why I tried to show that, for all the continuity FoI evidences with your recent work, it does seem to show traces of a latent emphasis on rationality that, I think, you have since moved beyond. In that sense, a shift has occurred, albeit perhaps only a shift in emphasis. Also, the emphasis on rationality is indicative of at least a certain period of modernity, as your invocation of Kant shows clearly (where even his praxis is wholly rationalistic!).
    This, of course, is not to say that postmodernism is irrational or non-rational, but merely that it tries to situate rationality a little more evenly with other human pursuits, rather than continuing to give it pride of place. It is this situating of rationality vis-a-vis other human activities that I think would be helped by the use of terminology of praxis rather than doxa. It seems to me that your recent work, Jamie, places the emphasis more on our historical and cultural actions rather than on our ideas or doctrines, even to the point of viewing doctrines as historical and cultural actions in and of themselves (which I think is correct). In this sense, what matters about Nicene orthodoxy is less its truth value, but the way it functions as a “standard of excellence” (as you put it) for our contemporary actions; that is, the way it helps shape and guide what we do (including, but not limited to, what we think as one type of human action that we do).
    So, while I take your point that it is the “ortho” that really tends to be the problem for people, I don’t think it is the “only” thing at issue here: there is something at stake in the emphasis on doxa v. praxis. Which leads me to another point (and one that I know you have faced in regards to Desiring the Kingdom as well)–it seems your emphasis on liturgical (which is to say, historically and socially formative) practices can lead in a humanist or historicist direction, where all that matters is what humans have done in the past and will do in the future. Obviously, this is not how you intend it, and I was hoping you’d take my prodding about the Spirit as an opportunity to clarify what role the Holy Spirit plays in the establishing and maintaining of Christian liturgical practice. I’m currently trying to think through this issue myself and am finding that the Reformed tradition has been largely silent on this issue (though Dooyeweerd’s notion of the heart seems potentially promising in this regard, if I can ever figure out what the heck he means by it and how exactly it works in his system).

    • James K.A. Smith

      Thanks again, Neal. At the risk of sounding obnoxious, I am glad to say that I think this specific concern about the Spirit/liturgy relation is directly addressed in my new book, Imagining the Kingdom: How Worship Works. There I explicitly refuse any dichotomy between the two. So Christian liturgical practices are not something “we” do; they are Spirit-charged practices into which we are invited to participate. They are first and foremost sites of divine action. The practices are what Craig Dykstra calls “habitations of the Spirit.”

  • James

    ok i simply thought that Deroo was having fun with de do do do, de da da da and maybe he was, but after i read the the lyrics i thought they sounded akin to some of the darker and violent views of language in pomo lit. I take back my chuckle from deroos review and replace it with a unsettled “gasp” from Smith’s response. Sting needs to chill out!

  • Andy Rowell

    I think Travis (another Duke Divinity person and fellow free church person) is questioning what I would also question: this line above by Jamie:
    As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.” This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

    Jamie is rightly concerned about schismatic/biblicist ecclesiology which claims to be only guided by the Bible and the Spirit and ends up fragmenting into tens of thousands of denominations, many of which unintentionally look very much like the pagan world in unfaithful ways. Therefore he thinks there is a need for more “regulation” that give clarity to how the Scriptures are to be interpreted. But even if we should read the “Fathers” as good parental advice that should not be discarded without care–this is what Barth says–to what degree are “creeds . . . liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments” authoritative? Do we really want to say they are “canons”? In the same way as Scripture serves as our “standard of excellence?” No, we don’t. These additional “traditions” must be regulated by the canon: Scripture. Even “Catholic” theologians are reluctant to equate the Holy Spirit’s work in liturgy, etc. without significant qualification because of: the obvious unfaithfulness during some periods of history, the potential for current abuse by those in power, the denigration of Scripture as uniquely “canon,” and the calcification of forms in such a way as to be indifferent to evangelism. Barth in Church Dogmatics IV/1 § 67 walks through “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic” and sees none of these predicates of the church as rightly understood as entailing unqualified loyalty to church traditions (“creeds . . . liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments”).

    Some of the different emphases in the ecclesiology conversation come down to what people see as the greater problem in the church. Is it unfaithfulness, division, and confusion because of the proliferation of denominations and independent churches–what Barth calls in The Christian Life “the church in defect”? Or is it unfaithfulness because of hierarchy, corrupt power, biblical illiteracy, and indifference to mission–what Barth calls “the church in excess?” In this interaction, I am more on the side of warning against the “church of excess” and Jamie is worried about the “church in defect” but I have seen Jamie’s concerns about his own denomination’s machinations to know he is also worried about the “church in excess.”

    I sketched my view in the comments on Neal’s review:

  • James K.A. Smith

    Thanks for your engagement, Andy. I don’t know if I see “fragmentation” as my biggest concern–though it is one. I think my concern is more assimilation–that “free lance” Christianity, unhooked from the “regulation” of Scripture, creeds, confessions, liturgical orders (and bishops/elders/synods), is more easily prone to be gobbled up into American civil religion. (Though I grant that the Episcopal church in the United States is a “creedal” communion that has done just that–so we’d need further discussion about how we relate Scripture, creeds, etc. AS authorities.)

    Where I think we fundamentally disagree is in your working distinction between Scripture and tradition. As I explicitly argue in “Fall of Interpretation”–including the 1st edition–I think this is a fairly untenable distinction. Scripture IS tradition, and certainly the formation of the canon is a product of post-apostolic tradition. So the very “canon” of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia.

    Finally, just one last point: I don’t think it’s a question of _whether_ our interpretations are regulated by a tradition; I just think it is _which_. The “free” church’s have their hermeneutic traditions and liturgical canons, too.

    • Andy Rowell

      Thanks for your response.

    • JGZ

      Your openness and attraction to catholicity/universality on the one hand and desire to defend against “assimilation” sounds like a difficult path. How do you define the threat of assimilation? Do you mean a type of liberalization or secularization? Would civil religion be any alliance of Christianity with the state, or simply the acquisition of a kind of cultural hegemony where Christian identity and discourse are assumed by default?

      I ask because it seems strange for the ECUSA to come to mind first as an example of creedal-hierarchical-traditional Protestantism turning into a civil religion unless you mean “liberal civil religion” — something along the lines of Rusty Reno’s critique of the ECUSA in The Church in Ruins — kind of a therapeutic unitarian-agnostic museum Christianity for upper middle-class people who tend to be left of center, at least on “social issues.”
      Yet wouldn’t you agree the much larger source of American civil religion today is coming from “orthodox” and “conservative” creedal Protestantism, where one can be a militarist, an economic libertarian, a despiser of liturgical orders, church hierarchies, and other resources of canonical tradition? In terms of its politics, this segment of American Christianity acts in reaction to the imposition of secularism and liberal, multi-culti civil religion by trying to impose positively Christian policies and discourse on the public sphere. I’m pretty sure that ends up as “civil religion” too.
      I wonder too if you see conservative creedal Protestantism as being more faithful or salvageable because it defends the Bible as a relevant, truth-disclosing guide and rule for life, whereas liberal Protestants are more likely to have a low or dismissive view of scripture. If so I’d agree but caution that a high regard for scripture is not without its own problems quite apart from the plurality of interpretations, and this is not just a peripheral issue. The conservative position is still the old Princeton “Fundamentalism” fighting against “Modernism” over inerrancy, inspiration, and so on. This is a dead end that can’t be tweaked into serviceability with a better hermeneutic. The early modern ontological and epistemological assumptions embedded in Evangelical and Reformed Protestantism are wholly inadequate for a fully formed faith and culturaly engaged intellectual life — a problem that has become increasingly acute since the later 19th century.
      I have in mind not just the modern developments of textual and historical criticism but also things like the “univocity of being.” Conservative Protestants still cannot accept biblical and historical scholarship the present pope has no problem absorbing, and not because he is in any way a liberal. (For similar reasons conservatives could not accept Barth, who offered them a way out.) And as Brad Gregory (borrowing form Amos Funkenstein) points out, the medieval scholastic source of Protestant views of God and nature as sharing in the same type of “being” spawned science but then proved incompatible with it, as God was nowhere to be found in the cosmos that science tests and describes. Intelligent Design and less sophisticated forms of Creationism attest to the persistence — and folly — of this aspect of the contemporary conservative Protestant intellectual situation. Perhaps not only “what is the church?” but also “what is scripture?” are questions that need to be substantially settled prior to trying to read the latter and be the former.
      Having written this, I realize I’ve cited and alluded to the work of four catholic scholars I admire, two of whom are recent converts. My guess is they’d object to your earlier characterization of the idea as “romantic” that there is a “true church” in a particular institutional form. This is not only a very widespread and old view, it is based on the literal words of Christ and the earliest practice of ordination, church government and apostolic succession. Surely such a “canonical” tradition deserves better than to be dismissed as a naive fantasy. People who hold it are perfectly capable of also understanding and appreciating the truth of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, and of real historical failures, past and present.