January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
June 8, 2010
Of late, several comment threads over at Inhabitatio Dei have been occasions for some ships passing in the night (shouting angrily at one another as they sense some threat in the vicinity!). These have generally come down to differences between those of us sympathetic to what some might call an “ecclesiocentric” understanding of mission and the purveyors of an “apocalyptic” theology.
As a way of trying to get at some of the substantive issues, Inhabitatio Dei has posted a fulsome essay, “Kingdom-World-Church: Some Provisional Theses.” As a way of trying to take this seriously, I here reproduce their essay with interjections and comments interspersed as a sort of response/commentary–something that the comment thread at Inhabitatio Dei could not absorb.
Here I only engage the Preamble to their theses. Perhaps in the future I’ll have opportunity to do something similar with the theses themselves–or, even better, someone else might take up a similar strategy with respect to the theses.
I don’t speak for any “party,” in doing so, and don’t represent anything like the “Hauerwas brand,” as it were. However, I obviously do have sympathies with a certain school of thought loosely represented by the Ekklesia Project and–if they’re willing to slum with the likes of me–associated with folks like Hauerwas, Steve Long, Bill Cavanaugh, Dan Bell, and others. On some points, I’m probably just mistaken, or have been working with my own idiosyncratic hybrid of a “Reformed Catholic” tradition. In addition, I’m shooting from the hip here, in haste. But for what it’s worth….
From “Kingdom-World-Church: Some Provisional Theses”
by Nathan R. Kerr, Ry O. Siggelkow, and Halden Doerge
We should like to begin these brief reflections with an oft-quoted passage from the conclusion of John Howard Yoder’s Body Politics:
This passage and others like it from Yoder’s oeuvre have been the impetus for a number of contemporary modes of “ecclesiocentric” construals of the kingdom of God in relation to the world.
Well, first of all, I’m not sure that any of us “ecclesiocentric” folks would ever say we’re offering an ecclesiocentrical “construal of the kingdom.” God’s reign is clearly larger and wider than the church precisely because it’s wider than humanity. The “kingdom,” then is a shorthand for an eschatological vision of God’s creation rightly ordered and flourishing. The church is called to be a foretaste of that, and is called to be a people who are shepherding this broken creation toward that. But an “ecclesiocentric construal of the kingdom” is never language I would use.
The church’s missionary thinking, so the argument goes, is ecclesiocentric just to the extent that the church ontologically precedes the world and, ultimately, supercedes the world with respect to the kingdom’s eschatological fulfillment.
I’ve never made the claim that “the church ontologically precedes the world,” but some of my friends have and I understand what they’re getting at. What I think is missing in these conversations, however, is a robust doctrine of creation, which is precisely what I think my Reformed tradition brings to the table. The “world,” then is NOT creation–it is the dis-ordering of a primordially good creation. Therefore “the world” is secondary, derivative, parasitic. Now, insofar as the church is that body which is a new creation, it is a restoration of creation–the creation which precedes the disfiguring of “the world.” It does seem to me that the church of this kingdom-world-church conversation needs to articulate a theology of creation in order to avoid pitfalls on both sides. In any case, opening with this claim seems to make it more central and pivotal than it really is for those of us you’re describing as “ecclesiocentric.” It seems like this claim is a favorite whipping boy for apocalpytics, whereas many of us never make the claim. Straw man?
As the late twentieth-century theologian and missiologist J.C. Hoekendijk [uh, never heard of him–why are we letting critical secondary sources speak for the “ecclesiocentric” camp?] has argued, however, such “church-centric missionary thinking” is itself a false start. For from within such ecclesiocentric thinking, Hoekendijk claims, the call to mission, or evangelism—that is, the call to proclaim and to embody “the gospel”—often turns out to be “little else than a call to restore ‘Christendom,’ the ‘Corpus Christianum,’ as a solid, well-integrated cultural complex, directed and dominated by the Church” (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 15).
I’m sorry, but how this could be taken to be a description of what Hauerwas is after is beyond me. (Milbank, sure; but Stanley?) Almost no one who will identify with the so-called “ecclesiocentric” camp is going to identify with this. Furthermore, just invoking the C-word doesn’t prove something is wrong.
That is to say, the church aligns itself with the Kingdom and against the world by way of the production of it’s own alternative, habitable culture. 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.
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.)
Thus, on such an ecclesiocentric reading of the Church-world relationship, the church is most missionary precisely at that point at which the church is most intentionally “self-regarding” (Hauerwas). [Could use a little more specific reference here, with a hint of context.] And herein lies the reason why we must insist upon resisting such an understanding of the church as ontologically “prior” to the world as such, in relation to the kingdom: viz., it presents us with not only an ecclesiologically but missiologically idealist logic—such an intentionally self-regarding conception of mission requires the construction of another (“the world”) as productive and reflective of it’s own identity.
The problem with such an ecclesio-concentric understanding of the church’s relation to the Kingdom and the world, says Hoekendijk, is that it misconstrues the basic Scriptural sense in which the kingdom of God is first and foremost the kingdom for the world.
I’m pretty sure I could come up with a healthy string of references to “ecclesiocentric” folks making the claim that the church is the church for the world. What am I missing? Do you just mean they’re not universalists? The church is the church for the world by inviting “the world” to become what is was made to be.
The kingdom is oriented from beginning to end towards the oikoumene—the whole world.
For this oikoumene the Kingdom is destined; world (kosmos/oikoumene) and Kingdom are correlated to each other; the world is conceived as a unity, the scene of God’s great acts: it is the world which has been reconciled (II Cor. 5:19), the world which God loves (John 3:16) and which he has overcome in his love (John (16:33); the world is the field in which the seeds of the Kingdom are sown (Matt. 13:38)—the world is consequently the scene for the proclamation of the Kingdom. (Hoekendijk, Church Inside Out, 41)
But surely you recognize equivocation in the New Testament regarding the meaning of “world!” So in addition to your citations here, consider: “The whole world lies under the sway of the evil one” (1 John 5:19); “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15); “Do not be conformed to the world” (Rom. 12:2). Surely the Kingdom does not “belong together” with the world under the sway of the evil one. So there’s no identification of Kingdom and world here. Again, it seems to me that “world” is severely under-theorized in this discussion. (Cf. my discussion of “the world” in Desiring the Kingdom, pp. 187-190).
In short: “Kingdom and world belong together.” The order of God’s economy is thus “God-World-Church, not God-Church-World” (71).
Still citing the Dutch guy here? Anyway, what does “world” refer to in such a claim?
This is the order of God’s own missionary existence in Christ. And by participation in this missionary existence of God, we must give new expression to the church’s own missionary existence: the order of this existence must be that of Kingdom-World-Church, not Kingdom-Church-World.
You’re kind of losing me here, but it’s probably my fault. It just seems strange to me to talk about an “order of missionary existence.” Again, this just feels like language that we “ecclesiocentric” folks are not prone to use, so I’m trying to imagine how I’d formulate an alternative. I’d have to think more about that because I’m just not sure what the “poles” of this debate are. I guess I would want to say that the church is the body of Christ, Christ being the second Adam who carried out what the first Adam was created to be, then sending his Spirit to empower us to do the same. So the church is the community empowered by the Spirit of Christ to be what we were created to be. And insofar as we do that we constitute an invitation for all humanity to find their vocation in that way of life. Maybe the big problem is I just don’t know what “world” means in your formula.
What we should like to propose, then, is that the quote from Yoder with which we began these reflections should be read through the perspective of this alternative Kingdom-World-Church order. Precisely as such, we might better come to understand the implications of Yoder’s insight that mission has to do with coming to “see the church in relationship to the world rather than defining ecclesial existence ‘by definition’ or ‘as such’” (Yoder, Royal Priesthood, 78). The church only exists as “living from and toward the promise of the whole world’s salvation.” (Yoder, Priestly Kingdom, 12).
As such, the church thereby exists as one dimension of a thoroughgoing apocalyptic realism. That is to say, the church exists insofar as it is constituted by the manner in which, in the apocalypse of Jesus Christ, “the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world,” proving victorious over the fallen powers of this world for the sake of this world’s salvation (Bonhoeffer, Ethics, 54).
Is it fair to ask about the shape of an “apocalyptic” pneumatology? I don’t hear much about the Spirit in this model.
What really matters, then, for the church, is it’s mode of participation “in the reality of God and the world in Jesus Christ today” (55). And that reality is without reserve that of the apocalyptic rectification of all things to God in Christ.
Yes, “all things” will be reconciled. This is music to my Reformed ears.
That event of apocalyptic rectification is constitutive of reality itself;
I’m trying to figure out why it’s so hard for me to understand what this means.
and the event of the church takes place firmly within that reality of the reconciled world “that is real only through the reality of God” disclosed in Jesus Christ (54). The church thus exists as an ergon Kyriou (a work of the Lord),
And you don’t seriously think that “ecclesiocentric” folks think otherwise, right?!
which means to say that the church exists for the sake of the unique and special share that it is given in the cosmic meaning of the sovereignty of this world’s living Lord.
No one will accuse you of light prose. Seriously, this sentence is positively Milbankian.
But precisely as such the church does exist, and it’s existence is precisely that of a special function and task. As to the nature of that special existence, function, and task, we should like to conclude these reflections. We shall do so by putting forward some provisional theses on the existence, nature, and task of the church. There could be more, of course, and these could be articulated with more depth and precision. But these are, after all, mere theses—and provisional at that.
[More to come on the Theses, I hope.]
James K. A. Smith
James K. A. Smith is an associate professor of philosophy and an adjunct professor of congregational and ministry studies at Calvin College. He is also the executive director of the Society of Christain Philosophers and and a notable figure working at the intersection of Christian faith and postmodernism. He also is editor of the Church and Postmodern Culture book series published by Baker Academic. Smith is the author of Desiring the Kingdom, The Devil Reads Derrida, and several other books.