Introduction: Baptism and the Church in North Africa

In my continual quest to establish myself as the dry, boring professor-type of the theo-blogosphere, I thought it might be interesting to do some history of doctrine. This series is adapted from a lecture I gave in a class at Princeton Theological Seminary this past January. More currently speaking, I was inspired to post this material by David Congdon’s recent discussion of church unity, entitled: “Christological Unity and Pneumatological Plurality: A Theological Reflection on the Church.” David argues in this post that the sort of visible (organizational / political unity) unity that ecumenical work tends to promote may not be the most desirable sort, if it is desirable at all.

In the comments to his post, David encountered the following critical comment:
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’s response to this criticism is, in my opinion, sound. Perhaps because he and I discussed it before he wrote his response. In any case, you’ll have to surf over and read the whole thing for yourself. But, this series aims at elucidating and grounding two of the claims that David makes in that response. Here they are:
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.
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.
An excursus in the history of doctrine will bring some thickness to David’s claims. Don’t ever let the Roman Catholics tell you that Protestants destroyed the unity of the church. Long before Martin Luther, well before Rome and Constantinople anathematized each other in the 11th century, and even before the schisms surrounding the Council of Chalcedon, there were the Donatists and the Novatians. And the story of these North African controversies is one of local theological commitments and communities being marginalized through the development of a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology.

This is not to say that the Novatians and the Donatists were ultimately correct. And my discussion is more general, as opposed to a purely polemical undertaking. Hence the dry, boring professor-type bit. But it will show two things relevant to the aforementioned polemical context:
  1. History reveals a relationship between strong support of the church’s visible (organizational / political) unity on the one hand and a sacramental-ecclesial soteriology on the other.
  2. There were indeed serious schisms within the church besides those involving points of what would later be considered dogma – the doctrines of christology and the Trinity. Whatever else is involved, the language of orthodoxy and heterodoxy does not apply to the Novatian and Donatist schisms.
So, stay tuned!



Jason Goroncy said…
I look forward to reading your posts on this topic.
Bobby Grow said…
Oh, okay, now I understand why you have water as your theme background ;-).

Seriously, Travis, this looks to be a good series; I look forward to it as well!
Maybe I need to write a post on why I have water as my background...there are myriad reasons.
Bobby Grow said…
I thought it was because you were so dry, and you wanted a drink ;-).

I bet the real reason is because you're super spiritual, and you're trying to correlate your blog writing to the living waters of eternal life :-).
David Baruch said…
Just read Cyprian's "On the Unity of the Church." It was fascinating to see that a text crit problem is what the Catholics and Anglicans appealed to in arguing for either complete unity, one bishop "the pope" (variant one); or, many bishops "archbishops" (variant two). What do you think about this text crit issue?
That sort of thing is par for the course in patristic theology. Another case off the top of my head would be Augustine's doctrine of original sin. It does us well to remember that no one in the early church used the version of the Bible (in terms of the critical 'purity') that we do in the modern era.
Bobby Grow said…
Even TFT used the KJV in the modern era ;-).
Anonymous said…
I think maybe WTM misses the Great Lakes.
Rick Morris said…
you've whet my appetite!
Anonymous said…
But aren't you all railing against straw men? Didn't Catholic theology give up the ghost of a view of dogma as static and monolithic with the advent of Newman? Isn't it just the divinity of the Spirit that guarantees the coherence of a developing dogma's unified end?

It seems to me that you and David are just as upset about out-moded "Catholic" ways of thinking as some Catholics seem to be about out-moded (liberal) "Protestant" ways of thinking. Ships in the night. Also: unhelpfully polemical.
David Baruch said…
I am not sure what you are saying, Anonymous. Can you elaborate a bit more. I did not say whether I was for a Protestant or Catholic reading of this text. Yet, you presume to think I am against a Catholic reading, or mentioning this text crit issue to be polemical. It very well may be that the correct reading is the Catholic reading, even though I am a protestant.
Rich - glad to do it. :-)

Anon - you're comment would be more significant if you did not chose to remain anonymous. At least then I could engage it meaningfully. As it is, I must treat it as itself a merely polemical statement. In any case, you would have to make it clear how what I've written here has anything to do with the points you make about dogma and Newman. As far as I can tell, my claims were rather modest.
Anonymous said…
1. You endorsed David's claims, which aren't so professorial as this post is. Be careful who you run with: it can polarize even one's most explicitly bland rhetoric.

2. Commenting on blogs in public is unwise. This stuff doesn't disappear.

1. Yes, my comments were not "professorial," because they were a comment, not a blog essay. Also, Travis has taken just a couple quotes out of context. I think they make better sense in light of what else I say.

2. I'm not sure what bearing Newman has on this conversation. For starters, how important is Newman really for most Catholic theology today? Also, I take his point to be about dogma, whereas my point has to do with the nature or ontology of the church. Catholics may accept the diversity of doctrine, but they still hold to a static ontology of the church as the sacrament of God's grace for the world. So even if I take your point about dogma, it doesn't seem relevant to the actual issues that I and Travis are raising.

3. Finally, my point is not directed at Catholics specifically. It just so happened that a Catholic wrote the comment to which I then responded. My issue is with a certain view of the church that is common to many Protestants as well. Any notion of the church as a sacrament, where visible unity is made necessary on the basis of a certain essentialist ontology. In short, I am defending a dialectical-actualistic conception of the church -- one with which I think (wink wink) you are entirely in agreement.
Anonymous said…
What is an "essentialist ontology"? Then, how is it any more obscure or more abstract than a dialectical-actualistic conception of the church?
I don't think I said anywhere that it was more obscure or abstract, though I do think that's nevertheless true, in a certain sense (as I discuss below).

My only point is that this particular view of the church understands the church's mission to be one of inclusion or participation in its being (as opposed to participation in Christ, who stands over and beyond the church), and this being is univocal and universal in nature. That is to say, the church's being is identified as something that it permanently and eternally "is." And it's this "is" that I am criticizing. The Catholic understanding is just the best example, but it's by no means the only one.

What makes this "essentialist" view abstract is precisely its universalism. This takes two forms. First, it is abstract in that it is not concretely determined or oriented toward the particularity of Jesus. Put another way, this view of the church involves some variation of the church as prolongation of the incarnation. This universal extension of Christ is necessarily a process of abstraction. This happens, e.g., when Protestant orthodoxy makes doctrinal formulae the definition of the "true church," since here we have an abstraction from the particularity of the gospel in the form of certain dogmatic propositions purported to have universal significance. The "high churches" do something similar, but there it is the universal liturgy, more than universal doctrine, that forms the formative center of the church's being.

The second abstraction relates to the particular concrete contexts within which the church is locally present. The other problem with these universal conceptions of the church's being -- which, to reiterate, are made necessary because it is presupposed that the church is the mediator of God's grace to the world -- is that they abstract from the contingency of the contexts within which the gospel is proclaimed and heard. Such a church is not an indigenous community, because its mission involves the absorption of a context into its univocal and universal essence. Here I think the missional theologians are right a thousand times over in their emphasis on the need to translate the gospel into indigenous contexts. This already happens, by necessity, but what needs to happen dogmatically is the articulation of a doctrine of the church that conforms to this crucial missionary and contextual reality. The "being" of the church has to be determined by its "mission," contrary to the view I am opposing, in which the mission of the church is identified with its being.

"Dialectical-actualistic" is my shorthand way of getting at both of these points: the concrete particularity of Christ, and the concrete particularity of the cultural-historical context. One could also just say, "mission makes the church."

This seems like an interesting series, and like you said, it is relatively modest and uncontroversial.

What is more controversial is David G.'s assertion that "This universal extension of Christ is necessarily a process of abstraction." I would counter that the emphasis on the bare, unmediated singularity of Christ is abstraction par excellence. David faults Protestants and Catholics for the continuation of this abstraction via doctrine or liturgy, but reading between the lines, or farther down the presuppositions, it seems that David disallows "thought" and "action" as applicable to Christ, the Gospel Event. But the stripping of content and precondition of from Christ in a celebration of his singularity, which sounds to mere perilously close to what Hegel critiqued as "sense-certainty", which thinks itself the most immediate/singular, but is in reality the most abstract and conceptual.

For this reason, back to unity, because direct appeals to Christ are themselves "abstract" the theme of history, tradition, and unity are required. so i would add that while "mission makes the church" (qua Flett/Kerr), it is also the case that "the church makes mission" (Yoder/de Lubac).

Explain to me how you see David as ruling out "thought" and "action" with reference to X. It seems to me that he is retaining these categories with great emphasis, and as mediated through the particularizing work of the Spirit.

As far as the relation of mission and church go, I still with the formula Turretin used when relating Scripture and church: the two are inseparable, but mission rules and church serves.
Thanks, Geoffrey, for your comments. I'm under no illusion that the positions I am rejecting do not also have strong cases to make for their concreteness. I'll grant you that emphasizing tradition, history, etc., can be a way of making the church concrete. The question is whether a certain mode of concreteness is more in keeping with the gospel. Put differently, what kind of concreteness follows from the gospel? Which begs the question, what is the gospel? What is the relation between the gospel and the church that it calls into being? These are large questions that require long, systematic answers. I'm sorry I won't be able to give you the full response you deserve. That will have to wait for the dissertation I suppose.

In the meantime, I think the real question -- modifying Travis's comment -- is not whether one appeals to the Spirit or not but rather "what is the relation between the Spirit and the church?" This seems to be at the heart of the dispute. Flett and Kerr, and I with them, are opposed to the enhypostatization of the Spirit in the practices of the church espoused by Hütter and others with him. Put another way, we reject the notion that the Spirit is limited to the institutional church as the mediator of God's redeeming grace within the world. The church is not the "hands and feet" of Jesus, as some like to put it, not even the "hands and feet" of the Spirit, so to speak. The church bears witness to a God that is "extra ecclesiam" (the proper use of the "Calvinistic" extra!). God is "loose" in the world, apocalyptically and transformatively present as the resurrected one. The church testifies to this God of mission, and the church participates in God through its own missionary movement. But God is no more bound to the church than the gospel is bound to Greek and Hebrew.

Sorry I can't say more at this time. I hope this clarifies matters a bit.

yes, this clarifies a bit, but only in the sense that your stated again your position contra ecclesial mediation of grace and the restriction of the Spirit to practices via an apocalyptically informed soteriology, etc, etc. I'm really in agreement with what you all are FOR (missional church), but I don't agree with what you are AGAINST (ecclesial practices), because I actually do live, work in, and theologize from a concrete, particular church.

You say you are all for particularity, but there is nothing to be said about the "hand and feet" of Christ/Spirit, only that God is "loose" in the world (which I affirm, just not in abstraction).

So my initial comment is that I don't really follow/agree with you use of universal (ooh, Bad!) and particular (yeah, Good!). Reading Kerr and Flett I hear/see nothing of actual practical value, just lots of discussion of "singularity" and "historicity" and "being in mission as God is." Flett, in my opinion, is much worse on this account because Kerr is oriented politically and it would be easier to fill this out.

But my hunch is that if this perspective (yours/Flett/Kerr) ended up actually discussing practical matters about how (as you say) "The church testifies to this God of mission, and the church participates in God through its own missionary movement," you would end up sounding much like the positions you supposedly reject.

Let me be clear: I'm NOT against church practices as such. How could I be, as a practicing Christian myself? I have no problem affirming a full range of practices, and being quite concrete in talking about them.

The issue -- the only issue I've been concerned with -- is whether these practices constitute in themselves what the church actually "is." In other words, are these practices universally determinative for what it means to be the church? Does every church that lays claim to the ministry of reconciliation have to exhibit X, Y, and Z practices in order to be in "unity" or "continuity" with the gospel of Jesus Christ?

This alone is the concern that I am raising, not whether practices are involved in the church. Of course they are. But it's their ontological-theological status that I am questioning. Or, to put it more missionally, I am questioning the translatability of the practices from one context to another.

To give a concrete example, I think it is very problematic when a communion/denomination believes that there has to be one universal form of baptismal practice - infant, believing, etc. - that is normative for all times and places. Or when the Catholic Church for example legislates one universal liturgy, whether Latin or in various vernacular languages. These issues have, at their root, a certain conception of what the church is and what the relation is between the church and the Spirit of God's mission.

This was actually very clarifying.

I suppose we are working from very different contexts. I from an evangelical background thoroughly steeped in the missional conversation which just talks of "Jesus" out there (somewhere) in the world and couldn't both with ecclesiology (Kerr did state at a conference recently that his project is against ecclesiology as such...). Perhaps you are just working against denominations that take themselves altogether too seriously.

You want to questions the ontological-theological status of practices (which is fine at a certain level), but I want to question the ontological-theological status of Christ in the world. I affirm that he is, but just how is the affirmation declared and received in the world? Questions of mediation (of grace? presence? witness?) are inescapably bound up with questions of practice.

I, for one, being an evangelical have hear ceaselessly that the church should participate in God's mission [the church only is its mission] (translatability=seeker sensitivity in NA) and have failed to see it happen b/c of lack of adequate formation (and Kerr and Flett are adamantly against ecclesial edification...and I see this an inadequate).

Geoffrey: some thoughts.

One reason why mission people downplay practices is that they get over-emphasized. This is true in evangelicalism as well, where people are flocking to Canterbury, and writing books about sacramental worldviews and evangelism as a sacrament - to mention just a couple.

The more fundamental reason, however, is that they don't believe practices to be fixed. Instead, the church should make use of those practices of proclamatory witness that function best in any given society. The only non-negotiables for me, for instance, are preaching, baptism, and the Supper, with the latter two defined by the former.

"Seeker sensitive" does not equal missional. It is, in my opinion, a bourgeois distortion of the church.

On the question of mediation: mediating grace and mediating witness are two very different things. When you emphasize the former, you get something like comes out in this series where the church is necessary for salvation to reach people. When you get the latter, the church is not necessary. Barth (in)famously said that the world doesn't need the church, but the church needs the world.
thanks also for the clarification, travis

(and everyone, please call me geoff...only my mom, and google I guess, call me geoffrey)

as these comments are making clear to me, you all are more nuanced about practices than other that you associate with. but i think the main rub for me is this dichotomy between "means of grace" and "means of witness". I certainly am not a Catholic sacramentalist, but I do see a necessary relation between the two via some form of a theological epistemology (i.e. what "looks/feels" a means of grace to the world is actually known by the church to be a means of witness.)

I guess if my means of grace you mean a strictly priestly mediation of forgiveness and such, then of course i deny that. but within a paradigm of the priesthood of all believes acting graciously toward each other in forgiveness and love, then this very intersubjective graciousness "is" a means of grace as others are pulled into the kingdom of the gospel.

this is where Yoders body politics come in where the practices of binding and loosing (communal discernement), baptism, eucharist, the exercising of gifts, etc, are both, simultaneously the practices which missionally witness (outer) to the kingdom and offer edification (inner) for the church.

What I want to avoid by avoiding language of mediating "grace" is any notion of transfer, where one stands in need of more salvific "stuff" which then get's transfered to one under certain conditions.

I sympathize with your position. I, too, am an evangelical, and I grew tired of the wishy-washy, vacuous, bourgeois evangelicalism that would put on rock concerts on Sundays but didn't participate in the eucharist. Weekly partaking of the Supper is virtually a sine qua non of my church life.

The people I have in mind are fellow evangelicals like myself who, out of a keen awareness of the poverty of evangelical ecclesiology, are leaving evangelicalism in search of a church where their practices really "matter." Francis Beckwith famously said that he was looking for a church where his actions "count" for something before God, where piety and practice are determinative of our identity. I think this is a problematic trend, not because I don't sympathize (I do), but because it is based on certain theological ideas that I think need to be contested.

I really don't think I differ in any serious way from Flett and Kerr. I just think they have very specific targets in mind when they make their (at times exaggerated) statements. Flett has Huetter and Kerr has Hauerwas.
Jason said…
I'd like to prod this conversation in a different direction, if I may. It seems like a necessary corollary of translatability is recognizability, that is, a translation has to be recognizable as a translation and not an invention. Perhaps this is presupposed in the concrete unity of Christ's person and work, but the polemical edge of this conversation is moving towards (perhaps mutually unintelligble?) plurality. Where does recognizability fit?
Hey Jason, glad to have your input here!

I would say that the recognizability is rooted in the confession of Jesus as savior/messiah, the crucified Christ as the locus of our redemption. It is this gospel kerygma that constitutes the unity of the church. But I would also say that this gospel is inherently translatable, i.e., it can come to expression in new words and concepts, in ever new historical contexts. But the person of Christ, as the agent of our salvation, remains the formative center and norm of our faith.

However, I wouldn't then want to say that the unity of faith is always phenomenally recognizable as a coherent unity. I do firmly believe that there are faithful confessions of Jesus that I may not be able to recognize -- at least not "at first glance." There is always a need to "test the spirits," as the epistle of John says. Such testing may mean that those who seem on the surface to be in unity with the faith may not be, while those who seem to be "outside" may turn out to be in material unity with the gospel. These issues are difficult and admit of no easy answers. What I want to resist is the notion that recognizability is something that can be determined apart from an ongoing dialogue and relationship with others.

To conclude, I think the starting-point, biblically speaking, for a discussion of recognizability has to be Matthew 25. "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry..."
Jason said…
David, thanks for the warm greetings!

I'd think that Matthew 25 would be a strange and unhelpful place to start a conversation about recognizability, unless, of course, you were trying to say that there is no such thing as recognizability, since even the faithful, those received into glory, did not recognize the Christ they worshiped in the face of the needy. If they could not recognize Christ in the poor, how could they recognize others who were serving Christ? They couldn't. If that is your point, then I think that you and Augustine are on the same page, for isn't this precisely the point of the Augustinian appropriation of the parable of the wheat and the tares? We can't separate out the faithful from the unfaithful, so all we can do is wait until the final judgment when the angels will do the separating themselves(Matthew 13:24f; and parallels).

To take this parable further, the question of recognizability has to do with what constitutes the field in which the wheat and the tares grow and not with the wheat and the tares themselves. As Travis pointed out, this question is answered by Cyprian and Augustine differently, but they both try to answer the question about the field and not first and foremost about the people within it. By allowing that the laity and the clergy might be corrupt and still saying that this does not hinder the efficacy of the sacraments or the ministry of properly ordered bishops and priests, Augustine creates just the space needed for continued dialogue and relationship with others, "others" being understood here as people we disagree with, or people that we believe right off are tares and not wheat. Both the Novatians and the Donatists thought they knew who the wheat were and tried to redefine the field around them.

That is to say that I would reappropriate the emphasis on the visible structures of the church in (perhaps Cyprian and) Augustine as minimalist expressions of the Church's being based on a maximalist understanding of God's electing grace in Christ. It is because God is faithful that I can receive the sacraments as a true representation and communication of God's grace from someone I feel fairly certain is a tare. The wheat (who might in fact be tares) can only tolerate being among the tares (who might in fact be wheat) because the 'wheat' believes that God Himself will sort it all out in the end (Mt 13:30).

Therefore, I think that the "sacramental-industrial complex" is actually far more inclusive than it is exclusive. It is a bare minimum of belief and practice meant to name the boundaries of the field, not to claim that all within it are wheat.

Thanks for the fascinating comment. I think you've correctly understood an aspect of what I was getting at, but not the key aspect.

I agree with the wheat and tares business, in that I certainly do agree with Augustine that there is simply no basis for making those distinctions within history. That is God's business, not ours. But your taking my comment in that direction indicates a crucial difference with respect to the nature of ecclesial unity. The wheat/tares analogy understands unity to be something that belongs to the church as the people gathered together by God. It is the unity of the people, even if this community is only revealed eschatologically.

I brought up Matt. 25 not primarily because of the problems with identifying "who is in" and "who is out" which are intrinsic to our finite existence in the world. Rather, I brought up that passage because it is my belief that the unity does not belong on the level of the community at all. The unity obtains or exists only in Christ. He alone is our peace, to borrow from Ephesians. Wherever Christ is, that is where the "church" exists. And Christ is always outside of and beyond the church as the institutional body or "sacramental communion." Christ is incognito in the world, and the church comes into existence when and where people bear witness to him (even if that witness is unconscious or unreflective).

I'll certainly grant that a sacramental conception of the church can be very inclusive. Of course it can. But I'm not concerned with issues of inclusivity. I'm concerned about the nature of the church itself. What IS the church? The sacramental position defines the church as the mediator of God's grace for the world (allowing for a variety of ways to understand what we mean by "mediation" and by "grace"). Within the sacramental model, the being of the church is located in the structure of mediation that sustains the communication of God's grace. If this structure depends upon a formal and phenomenal unity, then issues like doctrinal agreement and liturgical harmony become pressing concerns.

My own dialectical/actualistic/missionary conception defines the being of the church as the act of witness to Jesus Christ. There is nothing in this act that is mediating of anything. The church does not mediate grace; it is not a necessary vehicle for the communication of God's redemptive power. One need not participate in the institutional church to be a child of God. Instead, the children of God are first and foremost those who have no church, no community, no society. Jesus is with the "least of these" in an ontologically significant way long before he is with the faithfully religious. The constitution of our unity resides in him, not in any group of people.

The wheat and tares is a worthwhile issue to address, but it presupposes that the locus of unity is to be found in a particular community of people -- even if only eschatologically manifest. I am saying that, dogmatically speaking, we should dispense with any notion that unity is something pertaining to a community of people, regardless of temporal mode. The unity I have in mind does not belong to the church as something that it "has" or "is." The unity is rather to be found in Jesus, and the church simply comes into existence wherever he is and wherever people bear witness to him. Certainly this will occur in the institutional/sacramental body of believers, but it does not belong there. It is not a unity that should ever be ascribed to the community.

(This is parallel to bibliology, in that the divine word is never something that should be ascribed to the text itself as text, because it belongs to the Spirit of Christ who speaks in and through it here and now. And it is only in this present speaking of the Spirit that this text can be understood as God's Word for us.)
Hello All,

As for what Jason said, I heartily agree that often times it is the "sacramental-industrial complex" is often more inclusive and less sociological than other ecclesiologies (although, for the record I'm not a high church anglo-catholic, but more of a sacramental-anabaptist.

But on the other hand I agree a little with David that Matt. 25 does concern recognition (on the side of the reader who understand how to recognize Jesus while on the side of the goats/sheep he is unrecognized).

However, to add a twist, it is not transparently clear whether those "in need" are the missional others outside church, or merely the least of these within the church, so this text doesn't determine the case either way (for unity or mission).

But even if David's point stands, I find this logic to be exceptionally well-worn and predictable in missional (and anti-sacramental) discussions: i.e. just as Jesus is found in the world in mission/social action so too the church really is only "gathered" not in a building administering sacraments but as it is "scattered" in the world in its missional being/doing, and therefore it is Matt. 25 that shows us the true revelation of the Body of Christ contra the ontologizing capture of sacramental ecclesiologies [or so that argument typically goes...].

But what about linking Matt. 25 to Matt. 26 and the institution of the Lord's Table, the eschatological meal, and yet still in some way "my body," as Jesus says. Isn't Jesus body, Jesus himself, the model of the "the least of these", and as Isaiah says, "many were appalled at him--his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness"despised and rejected by from whom men hide their faces." So to discern him at the table makes possible a discern of him in mission? It seems the often neglected (at least by certain missional types) 1 Cor. 11 and the discernment of the body at the table argue toward this point?

So in a dialectical feedback, I think it necessary to hold the sacramental discernment of Christ and the missional discernment of Christ together (epistemologically and ontologically) without foreclosing toward one or the other as sacramentalists or dialectical/actualistic/missionals are apt to do.

You raise some good points, and I don't want to be misunderstood as rejecting tout court the discernment of Christ present in the liturgies of word and sacrament. Far from it. But I have to make a crucial correction to your overall point (which in general I am sympathetic with). You write:

"So to discern him at the table makes possible a discern of him in mission? It seems the often neglected (at least by certain missional types) 1 Cor. 11 and the discernment of the body at the table argue toward this point?"

First, regarding 1 Cor. 11, there is nothing in that passage about discerning who belongs to the community, or where Jesus is located, or any of that sort of thing. It's instead about discerning whether we are living in conformity to our calling as disciples. It's an ethical self-reflection, not a theological recognition of who is in unity with Christ. It's precisely because Paul presupposes their unity with Christ that he then gives them the imperative to conform their lives in accordance with the gospel.

Second, the contrast between discerning Jesus at the table and discerning him in mission is a false contrast, in that neither is our starting-point. We first and foremost discern who God is in the crucified one, and only on that basis are we then commissioned to discern him elsewhere. The mission of the community in the world is subordinate to the mission of reconciliation in Jesus' death and resurrection. And it is this same divine mission in Christ that funds our discernment of Jesus in word and sacrament. So I am quite willing to say that Christ is present and active in the sacramental practices of the church, just as I want to say that he is present and active in places completely dissimilar to the sacramental institution. But that's because my norm for discerning Christ is the gospel kerygma of his passion and death. This is what illuminates the presence of Jesus elsewhere.
I just want to toss in 2 more cents on the whole translatability thing. It's a question of what counts as revelation. Here is the choice, at least as it seems to me:

(1) Revelation is of a message, the kerygma, which proclaims the reconciliation of God and humanity in Jesus Christ and is fundamentally translatable.

(2) Revelation includes not only this message, but the socio-temporal context in which that message was originally given, its culture and its thought-forms.

If the former, you get something like David is trying to articulate. If the latter, then we all likely need to believe in a flat earth, a heliocentric solar system, and all manner of absurdities.

Now, this does not mean that translation lacks rule. There is a certain required fidelity, and translation is generally performed by someone who is familiar with both 'languages', as it were. Furthermore, we would want to say that the same judgment are being maintained on each side of the translation, even if that isn't obvious or the way that judgment is maintained or expressed is strange to someone from the other side. So there would be the potential for recognizable consistency, even if not at first (or second, or third!) glance.

At the end of the day, however, the fidelity of the translation depends on the work of the Holy Spirit.
Oh, I forgot to add that I think Acts 11 and 15 settle the question of which of the two options I give above is the right one.
David and Travis,

First off, I have so far found this conversation to be the most constructive and least inflammatory in regard to this conversation. The positions put forward here much more measured here than I usually encounter from, dare it say, the actualist-apocalyptic camp (this coming from the Marquette School of Metaphysical Theology [if there is such a thing]).

In response to David, whole heartily agree that discerning Christ at the Table and in mission should not be contrasted. But my disagreement is that it is not so easy to get behind these practices to the "first and foremost discern[ment] of God in the crucified one." The "mission of communion" and the "mission of reconciliation in Jesus" is not, for me, so easily separate (in theory or practice). How do we come to know the reconciliation of Christ outside of seeing/hearing a people? And to say that "the norm for discerning Christ is the gospel" just pushed the epistemological issue back one more step without solving it. Of course it is Jesus, the Christ, and his gospel that saves us. But how do we come to know that this gospel is the norming norm? and which gospel? and what is the right application of the norm?

Which leads me to Travis's response. Revelation is less a "message" and more a person (God in Christ) given to a people (first to the Jews and then the Gentile). So yes Acts 11 and 15 are fundamental, but almost in the opposite sense that you seem to give it. Instead of merely witnessing a break from historical context so that the "message" could become translatable (which of course true of this passage), but I rather think the emphasis could also land on the discernment in community of just how to apply the norm of the gospel within history by the power of the Spirit. As said in Act 15:28 "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us...". This is a living example of the process of Matt. 18 and its binding and loosing (understood in the Anabaptist sense, not the Catholic).

So for me, the more thoroughly the question of translatability is posed the clearer the inter-relationship of church and message become (such that subordination becomes harder to understand in practice even if necessary in theory), and I have yet to see how an "actualist" perspective can account for the necessary theological epistemology suggested by Paul and the gospel writers.

That's not to say there could be such an account, just that I have yet to see it, and have often been shouted down for even asking for it.

But I hope that this and similar conversations can continue to sharpen our positions for what promises to be a lively, continuing dispute.

You have much in favor of your position, I don't deny it. This may be an instance of alternative ways of interpreting the biblical material -- both conceivably justifiable, yet based on competing theological presuppositions.

So here's the rub. In agreement with you -- and before you with the likes of Tillich, Schleiermacher, and many others -- I am in agreement that even to speak of a kerygma is to speak of the church, albeit implicitly. There is no Christ, as Tillich was wont to say, without a community to confess him. And thus there is no recognition of Christ apart from a community doing the recognizing. No kerygmatic proclamation without an apostolic community to do the proclaiming. All that is true, and I don't want to minimize its importance. As Bultmann rightly said, to believe in Christ means also to believe in the church. The two go hand-in-hand.

But we cannot lose the asymmetry here. Just because the church is ingredient in the kerygma does not mean the church constitutes the kerygma. The church comes into being through this encounter with the gospel news of Jesus, even if the church is, in some sense, the creaturely agent of this news. The circularity is certainly there, but within this circularity is an asymmetrical priority belonging to the transcendent divine agent. It is the word of God that calls the church into being, even if the creature is the agent who speaks the word. Put another way, the ontological efficacy of the gospel (i.e., the fact that this gospel is "the power of God for salvation," Rom. 1.16) belongs to God and not to us, even if it takes concrete form always within a particular social-ecclesial context.

However, what I've said so far doesn't really get to your real point. Because thus far, the church is not defined by the kinds of practices that you think are constitutive of its identity; it is only understood as the people that hear and proclaim the news of Jesus.

[And to be honest, I am indeed of the opinion that this is all one needs to define the church. The bare minimum of the church is the hearing and proclaiming of the gospel (in some form) that we are accepted and forgiven in Christ.]

But you want more: you want to say that the sacramental practices of the church are in some sense determinative in the recognition and proclamation of Christ. And so you ask me: "How do we come to know the reconciliation of Christ outside of seeing/hearing a people?"

I'm afraid I have a very simple answer, one that may come across as facile but is not meant to be so: in short, scripture. We come to know Christ through the scriptures. I take it that this is the essential Protestant insight. The scriptures are a norm over and above the church's traditions. Which means that, in effect, one can indeed come to know Christ without the institutional church. I do believe this to be true. Put another way, where the scriptures are heard as gospel, there the church comes into existence.

None of this is to suggest that biblical interpretation is a private affair, that we are all hermeneutical monads who can understand the biblical text in an ahistorical way. No, no, no. I definitely don't want to affirm any such thing. I'm only speaking in a theoretical or abstract sense. In the same way that the kerygma's power and efficacy is properly ascribed to God alone (even though there is no kerygma without the believing community), so too the recognition of Christ is properly ascribed to scripture as the apostolic witness to the news of Jesus as the Messiah (even though there is no scripture or scriptural interpretation apart from the community).

Again, it's all a matter of asymmetrical ordering. What this means, in practice, is that I cannot make the institutional practices of the church dogmatically necessary features of the recognition of and witness to Christ. That they are necessary in effect and practice is something I cannot deny. But I refuse to move from that acknowledgement to a theological conviction that such practices are necessary at a theoretical level.

Does this make sense? Have I understood your point?
I only bring up Acts 11 & 15 to support the fundamental translatability of the gospel. It is essentially free of cultural baggage, we might say. But this does not mean that I don't have a role for the church. I consider myself an ecclesiologist! Like David, I want a proper asymmetry and, like David, I would describe that asymmetry with reference to the relation between the church and Scripture. Which brings me back to a point I made very early in this conversation by quoting Turretin: Scripture and the church are inextricably linked, but Scripture rules and the church serves.
Jason said…
I'm sorry that I'm coming back into this conversation so late. Travis sent me some extra-curricular reading that I wanted to take care of before jumping back in.

David, over the last several posts, you've developed your thought in directions that I appreciate, especially about the asymmetry and priority of Christ in relationship to the church. This is absolutely imperative.

However, as you emphasized the event in which the church comes into being, it seemed to me that you were painting a picture like this: The congregation is gathered for worship in the dark. Then someone recognizes Christ, and the lights come on. The church has come into being! But wait, oh, it's over. It's dark again. No more church. Its existence has winked out.

I don't think you mean to convey the idea that a gathered congregation may or may not be the church on any given Sunday (or at any given moment!) depending on Christ's Lordly interaction with it that day. Otherwise, one could never know that one had been to church! Could you please clarify your thought for me here?

Travis, one of the lectures you sent me covered Barth's ecclesiology. There you talked about living and dead congregations, that, as you said, there can't be fellowship between living and dead congregations because the dead ones, like zombies, are enemies of the living.

It seems to me that this line of thought can't adequately address either the Novation or the Donatist controversies. Both thought they were the living church, and they predicated their rejection of Rome, et. al. on the fact they it was dead, corrupted by the traditores, etc. Unless I'm missing something, the only remedy this zombie metaphor could recommend is separation.

But, it's Augustine's contention, using the parable of the wheat and the tares, that the Donatists can't actually know if their congregations are the living ones vis-a-vis the dead ones. And, besides, if they tried to make the distinction, they would destroy some of the living congregations along the way.

And here we come back to recognizability. Barth says that living congregations will automatically recognize other living congregations. His ecclesiology, as I've learned it from you, only seems to have a place for living congregations (those who hear and respond to the Word). Where Augustine seems to have the advantage is in the relationship of living to dead congregations. One cannot assign another congregation to the dustbin because Christ has promised to be present even to those we might see as 'dead.'

What do you think?

A pleasure, as always. ;-)

David may be out of commission for a bit, so I’ll go ahead and try to address all your thoughts. He can disagree with me publically at some later point if he feels the need.

I think the picture of a gathered congregation is the wrong one. The church comes into being when the self-witness of Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit moves into the beyond, out into the world, and there gathers the church to himself. The gathering of the church is the corporate form of the awakening to faith. That is the primary reference.

Now, once you have a church gathered, you need a continual awakening to faith. This is the again and again mode of analysis, as Hunsinger might put it. This is what David is emphasizing because this is, I think (and he does as well) the bedrock layer. But, your concern – as far as I can tell – is for what Hunsinger might call the more and more mode of analysis. While the first awakening / gathering is definitive even if it needs continual actualization, the continued actualization might well be more than that definitive event. For one thing, we can participate in it to a greater degree: in the first, the Spirit jumps out and grabs us, but in the subsequent we can – at least – pray for the coming of the Spirit.

In Barth’s language, these things are the ‘gathering’ and ‘upbuilding’ of the church. The critical thing for Barth, the thing that lends all this the needed asymmetry, is that he goes on to talk about the sending of the church. The church is only gathered and upbuilt in order to be sent (it helps to think of it in linear terms like this, although strictly speaking they don’t apply). If it does not undertake this outward movement, the gathering and upbuilding are called into question.

This gets into the living / dead congregations question. For Barth, a congregation is living if it is bearing fruit (vocation!), and dead if it is not. Now, at the same time, each congregation is always already dying because its life depends on the continued vivifying work of the Spirit. In this way, Barth is in agreement with Augustine (for my money). But things get yet more complicated, and this is where Barth disagrees with Augustine. When Barth is speaking of dead congregations, I think he is talking about those who are only concerned with some sort of inward ‘spiritual’ life; living congregations are out in the world proclaiming the gospel. Both Augustine and the Donatists fall under this criticism in a way: the Donatists are inward focused with reference to their own moral standing, and Augustine is inward focused in terms of getting the sacraments into people.

That’s all kind of rambling, that’s just where my head is right now. But, I think it furthers the conversation.

Popular Posts

Abortion, Authoritarian Self-Deception, Evangelicals, and Trump: a collected Twitter essay from Christopher Stroop

Brief Reflection on the Suicide of a Pastor

Marilynne Robinson on Theology

Does God "Exist"? Meh. (With Apologies to my Atheist Friends)

Jürgen Moltmann on lecturing at the beginning of his career