January 7, 2012 / The Church & Postmodern Culture
This Christmas season I had the privilege of attending a memorial service, a vigil in …
June 9, 2010
I want to continue the conversation (really just questioning) begun by James K.A. Smith between an ecclesiocentric view of mission and the “apocalyptic theology” of Halden, Kerr, and Siggelkow. (James commented on the Preamble). Really, I’m not offering a defense of an ecclesiocentric understanding of mission, but offering critical questions springing from “Kingdom-World-Church: Some Provisional Theses.”
I usually won’t demand too much rigor from a blog entry, and I don’t want to be too critical, but not withstanding the ‘provisional’ nature espoused throughout, the authors seems to be desiring to start a new theological agenda that may “contribute to the task of theology” and have publishes these theses “for citation purposes” at The Other Journal, so I feel free to judge it by a somewhat stricter standard.
The text reproduced, and my comments/questions are in bold.
Thesis 1: The church is an event within the event of this world’s
apocalyptic transfiguration. This is a midrash on Robert Jenson’s insight that
“the church is neither a realization of the new age nor an item of the old age.
She is precisely an event within the event of the new age’s advent” (Jenson,
Systematic Theology, 2:171). The church is an apocalyptic event just to the
extent that she lives from the Ascension and Pentecost, and so towards the second
advent of Jesus Christ. Thus the church can never fail to see itself as
inhabiting this apocalyptic space. Or rather, the church’s whole mode of being
is “timed” by God’s own apocalyptic act of invading the world, transforming it,
and redeeming it. As such the church, in every aspect of its life, abides at
the intersection of the old age and the age to come. The church lives in
saecula saeculorum precisely and only at this indissoluble interstice of God’s
redemptive and life-giving invasion of the world of sin, suffering, and death.
How is this “event within the event” distinguished but
related? Or rather, how is the
habitation of the apocalyptic space made possible, practiced? Is there a habituation of
inhabiting? I certainly agree with
the “abiding” nature of the church between the times, and that we “abide” in
Christ, Christ in us, and we in the Spirit.
Thesis 2: The church’s primary task is apostolic. The church exists as a
function of Christ’s own singular apostolicity; that is, its existence is a
matter of its participation in Christ as the “sent one” (Heb 3:1). “The church
has no other existence than in actu Christi, that is, in actu Apostoli”
(Hoekendijk). The church thereby exists to serve the ministerium Verbi
incarnati (Barth)—the church’s share in the apostolicity of Christ consists in
its being sent out by the power of the Spirit to proclaim the euangelion of
Jesus Christ to the world. In this sense, the church’s “priority” with regards
to the world is that of a distinctively apostolic precedence.
What of priest?
What of prophet? What of
king? Certainly evangelicals all
too often get caught up in the prophetic nature of the church (which is usually
a Constantinian function), and Catholics self-consciously adopt a priestly
function. And of course there is the King and Christendom? But just
to ignore these images and opt for a different one (albeit, a missionally
focused one in-line with the Johannine corpus) seems short sighted.
Thesis 3: The euangelion of Jesus Christ, as Yoder puts it, is “not a
religious or a personal term at all, but a secular one: ‘good news.’” (But what is the gospel then? And to say “apocalyptic rectification” does little help. Rectification from what? And Yoder isn’t totally correct on this for the gospel was declared by Isaiah well before Ceasar used it). As
heralds and witnesses to this gospel the church’s visibility is thus “not a
cultic or ritual separation, but rather a nonconformed quality of (“secular”) involvement
in the life of the world” (Yoder, Politics of Jesus, 39). The apostolic mission
of the church is secular because God’s apocalyptic act in Jesus Christ
abolishes religion. The proper starting point for Christian reflection lies not
with the nostalgic lament that “once there was no secular” (Milbank), but in
the genuinely liberative good news that in Christ “there is no longer
religion.” From the standpoint of God’s apocalyptic act in Christ religion is
“unbelief” (Barth). Religion is “the attempted replacement of the divine work
by a human manufacture.” The apocalyptic inbreaking of God in Christ does
not affirm the “world-in-itself,” but rather ruptures and suspends the
religious distinction between the “sacred” and the “profane” (and between “church”
and “world,” as such). The new antinomy created in the coming of Christ is not
between the “secular” and the “religious” but between apocalypse and religion.
It is God who apocalyptically comes to the world in the sending of his Son and
his Spirit to liberate the church, and indeed, the world, from enslavement to
religion. And so Paul can confidently proclaim: “It was to bring us into the
realm of freedom that Christ set us free” (Gal 5:1).
This seems to use “secular” in a self-serving and equivocal
manner. What the secular means for
an Augustinian like Milbank is very different from Martyn (I see his language all throughout) and his use of
‘religion’. If religion is equated
with sin, then yes, the gospel frees us from it. But if religion is the pursuit of the good and transcendence,
then such an antinomy is not so clear.
Thesis 4: Christian worship does not lie in a realm outside of religion.
To seek a direct correspondence (Who seeks a direct correspondence? Any
liturgical theology would never
make such a claim.) between leitourgia (“the work of the people”)
and divine action is to forget that worship itself is a “perpetual factory of
idols” (Calvin). Furthermore, such easy correspondence risks fetishizing and
instrumentalizing worship. The problem is structural and runs deep; in truth,
the very discipline of “ecclesiology” is prone to idolatrous self-aggrandizement.
Thus the critique of religio strikes at the very heart of Christian worship.
The occasion for sin occurs preeminently as leitourgia—the “work of the people”
to self-justify, to strive to stand aright before God. Indeed, worship is the
site marking our deepest estrangement from God. But this is not the final word!
In Jesus Christ, God decisively wills to be God-for-us and so our idolatrous
“work” becomes the site of our reconciliation with God. Reconciliation occurs
not as exchange or production, but as a gratuitous event of grace. In this
event the Spirit “takes up” our “work” to stand aright before God and
transforms and transfigures our prideful attempts to “make a name for
ourselves.” Our worship only becomes true praise, then, as our “work” loses track
of itself under the great pressure of God’s own doxa. Such doxa happens as the
event of God’s grace evokes gratitude “like the voice an echo.” Indeed,
“Gratitude follows grace like thunder lightening” (Barth, CD IV/1, 41).
criticism regarding instrumentalizing worship needs to be substantiated. Too often we fear capitalist production
that we can’t think the relation of divine/human activity. Worship, ecclesiology, and Christology
all work together as arenas of human and divine action. How does the event of grace interact
with human attempts to worship?
The answer has classically been through the sacrament which unite the
physical and the spiritual? How
does this ‘event’ happen for you all?
Thesis 5: Dispersion, or diaspora, names “the truly ecumenical reality
of the church in this world” (Stringfellow). The church’s first ecumenical
reality is to exist as a priest among the nations. Here mission and ecumenics
are shown to be inseparable. True Christian unity is inseparable from the
realization of the koinonia of the whole world with God that Jesus Christ has
actualized. It is for this reason that the church cannot itself be considered a
“home” or as constitutive of an alternatively “habitable world” (Hauerwas), for
the Christian vocation is to be in the world, without reserve—that is, in the
one whole world whose true reality is to be reconciled to God in the one whole
Christ. It is as such that the church realizes the truth of its
“catholicity”—the fullness of koinonia in the apocalypsis Iesou Christou.
Again, as Jamie mentioned, “world” is ill defined
here. And who of the
“ecclesiocentrists” claim the church as our home? “God is our eternal home” (Isaac Watts).
Thesis 6: It is as Lord of all humanity that Christ is rightly to be
understood as Head of his body, the church. The true body of Christ (corpus
verum) is thus in reality all of humanity crucified and resurrected with
Christ, and so reconciled to God in him (Aquinas; Barth). The church in via is
thus “but a part of the larger Body of Christ” (Nicholas Healy). So the
church “is” the body of Christ as precisely and paradoxically what it “is not,”
in itself. And so to make use of the image of soma Christou for the church is
not ontologically to prescribe what the church is, but rather to remind the
church continually that precisely as such it is not an end in itself.
This thesis looses the emphasis of Healy, who is pulling
from Aquinas, that Christ is the Head of humanity in that his power for redeeming
humanity is sufficient for all, but not currently effective in all. That all of humanity is crucified in
Christ is surely more a Hegelian universalist dogma in the way state above. Why would Paul draw such attention in
Gal. 2:20 to his being crucified in Christ if all humanity already was, regardless
of faith? This does not adequately engage with scriptural and/or sacramental understandings of the body of
Thesis 7: Jesus Christ alone is constitutive of the church’s sacramental
existence. (No sacramental theologian disagrees with this.) And
Christ is so constitutive as in his priestly office he himself is sacramentally
given for the whole world’s transfiguration in the singular event of his cross and
resurrection. (But what does that mean? Is the whole world transfigured in the
cross/resurrection? But does the
world know this? And if not, how
does it come to know it?) The ultimate reality (res) of which the church is a
sign and for which she is given, then, is nothing other than the mystery of the
world reconciled to God in Christ. “Sacrament” is thereby the language by which
the church is given to communicate that for which she exists, as also the
praxis whereby the church is plunged into the heart of the world (I
thought the sacraments plunged the Church into the paschal mystery, but now it
is into the world?) and given to live for
that reality—the coming kingdom of God—which she is not in-itself (McCabe). The
sacraments are neither constitutive of an alternative social program—a polis,
as such—nor are they constitutive of an alternative mode of production, or the
expression of an alternative “technology of desire.” Rather, the sacraments are
but ways by which Christ gives the church over to a dispossessed readiness for
service (disponibilité) in the world. (I don’t understand the antithesis here. Why can’t an alternative technology of
desire prepare one for a dispossessive readiness?) As such, the language
and practice of the church are sacramental to the extent that they are utterly
dependent upon the active presence, by the Spirit, of Christ’s ongoing
reconciling and transfiguring presence in the world, which must continually be
received afresh by the church from the world (as from without), as both
judgment upon and justification of its existence. To affirm the church’s
sacramental existence as such is thus to affirm that “the Church would be lost
if it had no counterpart in the world” (Barth). Or, to put it another way, the
language of sacrament is but the difficult work of learning “all that is
involved in refusing to say that the dominion of God over his world is
manifested here but not there” (MacKinnon).
I could be wrong, but would it have been easier to say,
“The sacraments help the church to know that God is at work in the world,” or
something like that. But I think
the sacraments lead us into the paschal mystery (cross/resurrection) so that we
can live in Christ in the world.
Or rather, in the sacraments the church learns to see that Christ is
near, and in this learned perception the church begins to see Christ
Thesis 8: At the heart of the church’s existence is the claim that “God
was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19). This world
reconciled to God in Christ is the “new humanity” (I don’t think
exegetically this stands. The
world does not equal the new humanity for Paul. The new humanity are all those who have died/risen in
Christ, who are heirs of Abraham, participate in the life of the new Adam,
etc.) for which the church is sacramentally given. Our baptism is baptism
into this new humanity precisely insofar as it is a baptism into the reality of
this world’s transfiguration. It is this transfigured world, moreover, that
provides the context for the practice of the Lord’s Supper. The eucharist,
then, is not the ritual means of “inhabiting the church,” but rather the way by
which the church inhabits the whole world (oikoumene) in grace, joy, and
hospitality. It is the whole world reconciled to God in Christ to which we are
opened in communion. And so it is the sacrament of baptism, as entrance into
this world, that carries with it the imperative of open communion—without
conditions! “With the gospel goes an open door” (Hoekendijk).
I’m not totally sure if Herr Hoekendijk is informing your
discussion at this point, but are their more recent missiologists that we could
pull from instead of book written in 1967? What of Bosch, Newbigin, or Hirsch? And I think the ecumenical discussion
of sacraments, and the discipline of missiology have far advanced beyond these
claims. It feels like you know
that someone (I for one) would make a stink about the sacraments so you
pre-empted by categorically redefining them. But no liturgical, sacramental, ecumenical theologian or
missiologist that I know of
Thesis 9: If the world reconciled to God in Christ is that for which the
church exists, then the church is visible precisely at the point of such
reconciliation—the church is visible as an event of this world’s apocalyptic
transfiguration. This is a “very special visibility” indeed (Barth). For
according to such visibility what one sees is a liberation of this world from
the old age of sin and destruction and a liberation for participation in the
new age inaugurated in Christ. The visibility of the church then occurs
precisely in the reconciling and liberating event in which “we no longer regard
one another from a human point of view” (2 Cor 5:16). The church is thus made
to be a visible sign of reconciliation in the world precisely in the event of
being conformed, given over by the Spirit, to God’s new creation brought about
in Christ. But one only sees (yes, perception, epistemology, this is
essential) this transfiguration and
liberation of the world by believing the church—that is, by way of faith in the
gospel of the kingdom which she proclaims for the whole world.
So does one have to be “in”
the church (“believing the church”) to see the liberation of the world? How is the different from the ecclesiocentric
crowd? But it seems like so much
more than ‘emphasis’ is at stake.
Thesis 10: As such, the church is visible not by way of its ritual or
cultic separation from the world, but by way of is kenotic solidarity with the
world. Such solidarity with the world happens as a matter of concrete kenotic,
cruciform obedience to the way of its Lord in this world. To be in such
solidarity with this world is to struggle with the oppressive and sinful powers
of this world by being given over to a mode of living and suffering and dying
with the victims of these powers that embodies and proclaims in its very living
and suffering and dying a hope and a joy and a celebration that these powers
can neither produce nor control. Sent out in the power of the Spirit of Jesus
Christ the church stands in concrete solidarity with the oppressed peoples of
Thesis 11: Such kenotic, cruciform solidarity in obedience to the way of
the cross leaves no room for the church to be anything other than the “church
of the poor.” The church’s kenotic solidarity with the world thus occurs as
solidarity with the poor. As Jon Sobrino reminds us, “The mystery of the poor
is prior to the ecclesial mission, and that mission is logically prior to an
established church” (Sobrino, No Salvation Outside the Poor, 21). Or as
Moltmann puts it, “It is not the Church that ‘has’ a mission, but the reverse;
Christ’s mission creates itself a Church. The mission should not be understood
from the perspective of the Church, but the other way round.”(Moltmann, Church
in the Power of the Spirit, 10). With the Catholic bishops at Medellin, the
church must reaffirm and exercise the “preferential option for the poor.” This
“preferential option” is not simply one of many tasks of the church—it lies at
the center and heart of its mission. In fact, it is its mission, because this
is Christ’s mission.
Thesis 12: The “church of the poor” is in fact the one genuine “church
for others” (Bonhoeffer), which lives, simply, by giving its property away. Such
is the “ecclesieccentric” existence that the “Christeccentric” (R. Coles)
relation of God’s kingdom to the World calls us to. It is precisely by way of
such “ecclesi-eccentricity,” moreover, that the church happens as not only sign
but also a foretaste of that new creation, that kingdom to come. If the way of
God’s eternal life as revealed in Christ just is the way of an eternally
outgoing, self-giving love, then it will have to be thus in the church. Only as
the church throws its life away in love for the other, only as the church loses
itself completely in the world for which God’s kingdom has come, might the
church be given to happen as an event within the event of that world’s
transfiguration. Only as such, in precisely this kind of solidarity with the
world, might the church be given—in the event of this world’s
transfiguration—to see and to taste that love by which alone she mysteriously
lives, that love that shall reign forever when God will be all in all.
Thesis 13: Existing as we do in the “crater” of God’s own singular
action in Christ (Barth, Epistle to the Romans, 36), the church lives utterly
by prayer. The incursion of God into the world of sin and death breaks open our
failed history, liberating the world from its bondage to death. As such, the
church, which lives as a sign of this event, awaiting its consummation in the
Parousia, can only be ultimately understood as a communal event of lived prayer
that is created by the Spirit who bears us in our weaknesses, “with sighs too
deep for words” (Rom 8: 26). God’s apocalyptic invasion of the world in the
sending of Jesus and the Spirit does not create a stable, habitable place from
which we as the church might grasp for ourselves a mode of intellectual or
political coherence and control (Doesn’t Hauerwas always preach the gospel
of “living out of control”?). Rather, this
radical grace leaves us in the same place as the Son of Man who has no place to
lay his head (Luke 9:58). And it is precisely in this being upended and
unhanded that the church exists as prayer. “The true church is thus
co-extensive with the community of true prayer” (Forsyth, Soul of Prayer, 54).
As a people “timed” by the apocalypse of God in Jesus Christ, who live solely
by the grace of the Spirit who conforms us to Christ, the church can embody its
calling only by throwing itself in faith upon the God who raised Jesus from the
dead. Thus we can finally only speak of the essence of the church in terms of
lament, intercession, and doxology. To seek more than this is ultimately to
seek another gospel altogether.
These theses are, quite clearly, only the rudiments of a
beginning, the fragments of a hope that strains the bounds of theological
articulation. The God with whom we have to do in Jesus is truly “exceedingly
abundantly beyond all that we could ever ask or think” (Eph 3:20). These
theses, such as they are, are here simply to be offered in the fullest sense of
the word. Let anything in them that does not speak truly of the gospel of
Christ perish and be forgotten forever. The three of us seek, in our
discussion, prayer, and writing together to do nothing more than to become
transparent to the liberating gospel of Christ, crucified and risen.
As such we hope that in the very doing of theology under the
authority of the gospel that we may be given, by the Spirit to be conformed to
Christ’s kenosis, his self-expending life given for us and for our salvation.
We agree with the words of Donald MacKinnon: “To live as a Christian in the
world today is necessarily to live an exposed life; it is to be stripped of the
kind of security that tradition, whether ecclesiological or institutional,
easily bestows.” It is precisely this exposed life, a life which, in prayer,
desires nothing more than transparency to the way of Jesus Christ, that we
seek. It is our desire to move forward in the task of theology in the service
of the gospel precisely in this mode of kenosis, prayer, and weakness. With
MacKinnon “we can only hope that because a false dream has yielded or begun to
yield to a temper more deeply perceptive of the mystery of kenosis, we will be
a little better prepared to recognize our frailty, and that it is in genuine
weakness that our strength is made perfect: in genuine weakness, not the
simulated powerlessness of the spiritual poseur” (MacKinnon, Stripping of the
Altars, 34, 39).
And so we move on together, praying without ceasing that God
will have his way with us in the task of theology in the service of the gospel.
At the heart of our common work is the passionate conviction that, in Christ,
God has truly brought about a new creation which exceeds and transcends all our
attempts to control, regulate, and manage our lives through the various
configurations of the power of death. We offer all of this, then, in the spirit
of doxology. With Paul, we can only end in praise of the One who has set us
the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are
his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the
Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him, to receive
a gift in return? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To
him be the glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33–36)
 See John Flett, “Communion as Propaganda: Reinhard
Hütter and the missionary witness of the ‘Church as Public,’” Scottish Journal
of Theology 62 (2009) 457–76.
 On the apocalyptic nature of reality in Bohoeffer’s
work, see Philip G. Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer—An Ethics of God’s
Apocalypse?” Modern Theology 23/4 (2007) 579–94; see also Ry Owen Siggelkow,
“The Lamb that Was Slain is Worthy to Receive Power: Christology, Apocalyptic,
and Secularity in the Ecclesiologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and John Howard
Yoder” (MA Thesis, St. Paul Seminary, University of St. Thomas, 2009).
 Ziegler, “Dietrich Bonhoeffer,” 585–87.
 Karl Barth, CD I/2 302.
 See especially J. Louis Martyn, Theological Issues in
the Letters of Paul (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), Galatians: A New Translation
with Introduction and Commentary (New York: Doubleday, 1997), and “The
Apocalyptic Gospel in Galatians,” Interpretation 54/3 (2000) 246–66.
 See Matthew Myer Boulton, God Against Religion:
Rethinking Christian Theology through Worship (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008).
 See Nicholas Healy, “Practices and the New Ecclesiology:
Misplaced Concreteness?,” International Journal of Systematic Theology, 5/3
 For more on the nature of the church’s life as being
solely one of opened possibilities see Robert W. Jenson, Story and Promise: A
Brief Theology of the Gospel about Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1983), 81–82.
I don’t really have much to add from the last several theses or conclusion. But overall, I’m not sure who advocates for what you are against, and what you are advocating for seem ill thought out.
Geoffrey Holsclaw is a co-pastor at Life on the Vine (www.lifeonthevine.org) and a PhD candidate in theology and society at Marquette University. He is an editor for the Church and Postmodern Culture (http://churchandpomo.typepad.com/) and writes at geoffreyholsclaw.net.