The Church and the Valley of Dry Bones (Ezekiel 37) - Paul M. van Buren’s “Austin Dogmatics”

One of the things about van Buren that I really like is that he sees interesting things in biblical texts that I miss. He gets this instinct from his teacher in Basel, of course, and it constitutes something of a family resemblance.

In any case, one instance where PMvB caught my attention for insightfully reading the biblical text was his discussion of Ezekiel 37.1–14. Van Buren reads this as an ecclesiological passage, that is, a passage that illustrates the basic dynamic involved in the church’s life. So I thought that I would share his reading.

(This passage raises all kinds of questions about how to properly conceive of the relation between Christianity and Judaism, and PMvB spent a great part of his life working through those issues in three volumes under the title A Theology of Jewish-Christian Reality.)

Paul M. van Buren, The Austin Dogmatics: 1957–1958, (Cascade, 2012), 34–35.
Perhaps more striking is the familiar passage of the valley of dead bones in Ezekiel 37:1–14. For Israel is not a stick or stone which, once brought into being, is simply there, a part of the landscape, an immovable Rock of Gibraltar. Israel is in a relationship with God characterized by constant need of renewal, of being called again, of being recreated by the Word of God. And the passage from Ezekiel, although it has to do with the creation de novo of the church, is still a vision situated well along in the history of God’s dealings with this people. It is at once a tale of creation and of renewal. For the bones in that valley were “very dry” (v. 2). The possibility of life being there rested with God alone. It was not a subject for human calculation, even as a possibility (v. 3). Then the bones were addressed by the Word of God through the prophet and, even as this took place by the very action of being addressed by the Word, the bones came together, took on flesh, and were filled with the breath of life (vv. 4–10). “Then,” lest there be any doubt, “he said to me, ‘Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel’” (v. 11). For this is what it means to have the Word of God as the Lord of the church and so its criterion: it means also that the church has its existence from him who is the Word of life, so that it can never know hopelessness. It owes its existence exclusively to the Word, and so not to any other, least of all itself; and so, it need never be disillusioned, never abandoned, never lost or destroyed, in so far as it is willing to let itself be the church, in so far as it is willing to let the Word be its Lord, and so the measure of all that it is and does.

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