Is the Church Apostolic? David Congdon Interviews John Flett

[Ed. note: John Flett is a long-time friend of the blog (see these posts on his earlier book: one, two, three, four, five), and David Congdon needs no introduction to DET readers. Flett very recently published a second monograph: Apostolicity: The Ecumenical Question in World Christian Perspective (use code 404-18 at check-out for a 40% discount - limited time only). How could I say “No” when David came to me with the idea to post an interview with Flett on the subject of apostolicity?]

1. For most people the language of apostolicity brings to mind the end of the Nicene Creed or the idea of apostolic succession. What do you mean by the word and why is it such an important issue today?

To be sure, some link the term apostolicity to apostolic succession and bishops, perhaps even increasingly so. It is, however, by no means the only approach. Apostolicity within the Reformed tradition looks first at the Bible as the basis of the church’s historical continuity. Still other groups, notably non-western communions, will interpret apostolicity in terms of missionary movement. The key point for all three, I suggest, concerns the continuity of the Christian faith across time and cultures, and the manner of its being a faithful witness to Jesus Christ.

As to why it is important today, one finds an increasing emphasis on the ‘catholic’ nature of the church. This appears linked to a perceived loss of Christian ‘identity’ within the West and a certain panicked need to reforge this identity by reference to a tradition. This approach might be developed in stronger or weaker terms, but I would see the likes of Stanley Hauerwas, George Lindbeck, Robert Jenson, James K. A. Smith, John Milbank, and William Cavanaugh advancing this general line.

The problem for me is the way ‘catholic’ is used in this debate (note that this refers not to the Catholic/Protestant schism). It promotes a strong sense of how Christian identity develops, how this shapes the form of Christian witness, and the central importance of structure within this schema. Catholic, in other words, presumes an ‘apostolic’ order. When attention turns to the underlying concept of apostolicity, a number of questions surface regarding the cultural location of the church, the missionary method of transplanting this culture, and the relativizing of any communion which is not of this particular culture. Apostolicity is important because it is the fundamental question of Christian identity and the continuity of the faith across times and cultures. But, this ‘catholic’ definition fails to deal responsibly with world Christianity and succeeds in prompting a mission method commonly called colonialization.

2. You mentioned the Catholic/Protestant schism. This idea features prominently in your book. How has it led us astray in our understanding of world Christianity?

We have no authoritative theological definition of diversity. Instead we have a strange tension between the concepts of division and diversity. Diversity is permitted, necessary even, but always set in relation to this caution against division. But what is division? Or, better, what is the concept of unity that leads to our understanding of division? In ecumenical documentation, unity is often developed with reference to structure, meaning that the legitimacy of diversity is measured by its relationship to established patterns of governance. Perhaps that might be acceptable, but the argument continues that the governing structure itself safeguards and encourages a culture within which the Christian is nurtured. All those cultural elements are themselves related to the structure, so, before you know it, the acknowledged need for diversity is reduced to a matter of façade.

In light of this, the Catholic/Protestant schism is a problem because it establishes the point of division though which all diversity is interpreted. Diversity is not a good basic to apostolicity itself. Instead, the diversity of appropriation and expression within world Christianity, including structural diversity, is read as an extended historical consequence of the Reformation era division (the tacit argument being that if the Reformation had not occurred, we would not see such structural diversity today). Moreover, such diversity is to be regulated by the solutions which address the primary Protestant/Catholic schism. One might, however, redefine schism. The key problem is not so much the institutional/structural problem, but the petrification of the gospel. In schism, theological energy focuses on the development of a religious culture concerned with questions that belong to a certain time and place. We end up reading the massive growth of world Christianity though this small lens of (Western) division, and that is precisely the problem that schism encourages. But what if world Christianity, in all its richness, is itself a proper consequence of apostolicity? What if division is the attempt by one expression of the gospel to mandate the form proper for all? One might read much of the New Testament in light of this definition of division.

3. You provide a thorough analysis of key ecumenical documents. What does the history of the ecumenical movement tell us about current global views of the church?

I do not think that it does view the global church in all its diversity. I think that it attempts to develop some framework derived from the tradition and make that universal. When it comes to the origins of the structures under question, earlier ecumenical documents which acknowledged their particular cultural locations have given way to sterilized accounts. There are some interesting discussions which lament the western location of the discussion, but none of these succeed in informing the ‘doctrinal’ discussion. With ecclesiology, as the lived experience of the gospel, a fundamentalism reigns which does not apply to Christology and the sacraments. The 2013 document from the WCC, “The Church: Towards a Common Vision,” is most disappointing in this regard, but really follows the ecumenical logic as it developed through the late 20th century.

4. Jaroslav Pelikan argued that ecclesiology was the doctrine of the 20th century, the way christology was in the fourth and fifth centuries and soteriology in the sixteenth. Do you agree with this and why?

Ecclesiology is, in my opinion, a derivative doctrine – having meaning only in relation to christology and pneumatology. By extension, when we elevate ecclesiology (as we certainly seem to be doing) we elevate a range of necessary and proper particularities into a position of central importance. The resulting debate between communions becomes a contest of these particularities, which themselves become seen as essential to growth in the faith.

None of this is to deny the importance of structures. Indeed, world Christianity and the discussion surrounding contextualization demonstrates the very centrality of structure and the problems which result from the importation of foreign structures. The very binary of established structure versus structural freedom is, for me, a central problem at the heart of the debate. One lesson from world Christianity concerns the conversion of structures by referring them to Jesus Christ, allowing for both continuity and discontinuity.

To put the same point another way, the colonial period illustrates how western Christian forms are neither the sole nor final forms of Christian identity and practice. Less clear is what this actually means in terms of ecclesiology. The debate is often a zero sum game, where the cross-cultural movement of the gospel consists of ‘giving things up’, we lose little bits of the faith when other peoples appropriate the faith. An alternate approach acknowledges that a diversity of form (grounded in the deterritorialisation of the faith) includes a diversity of history. The redemption of histories itself belongs to the story of conversion and maturity in the faith. This sets the discussion on a very different footing.

All of this should direct us to christology and to the grounding of communities. This is the question of apostolicity and finds significant correspondence to key debates that one sees in the New Testament.

5. One of your key claims is that apostolicity has been wedded to the idea of culture. How did this happen and what are the implications?

I suspect that this has always been part of the discussion, but it has assumed greater significance within more recent ecumenical documentation as a way of dealing with the problem of bishops. The cause of visible unity was not being forwarded by an either/or argument concerning the episcopate. BEM constituted a significant advance in the debate by shifting attention from apostolic succession to the ‘apostolic tradition’. With this, the question became one of ‘practices’ and the formation of a community in which each member is called to live according to his or her gifts. One such gift is leadership, and this must both derive from and promote the gospel. One arrives back at the ‘episkope’ issue, but now set in relation to the church as a community, and in service to this community’s witness. It is a clever move which sets a good deal of doctrine and tradition in relation to more contemporary anthropological accounts of identity formation and against fears concerning the loss of this identity through the secularization and pluralization of western societies along with the challenges of globalization. It is all understandable. The singular problem lies in the form of missionary method it promotes – the replication of the culture basic to witness and conversion as enculturation into this culture. These are big claims, of course, so I refer you to the documentary evidence in the book!

6. You mentioned above that discussions of catholicity end up promoting colonialization, and here again you speak about the replication of culture. Could you unpack this idea a bit more? Are you suggesting that post-BEM the implicit missionary method of the ecumenical movement has been a kind of cultural imperialism?

Yes, absolutely. There are two logical elements to the problem. The first element is the establishment of the church as a culture. The ecumenical benefit of this appears to be threefold: first, it provides a concept for how the church both remains the same and changes through time; second, it advances a definition of mission focused on the cultivation of the faith and so the internal life of the community; third, and related, it permits an account of the necessary forms of leadership within this community and in promotion of this mission. The second element is the movement of this culture across cultural boundaries. Though the primary definition of mission is internal to the life of this community, a secondary and external mission is needed to transplant this culture. Because the culture, with all its artifacts, symbols, orders, practices and institutions, is necessary to the building up of the primary internal witness, this whole culture needs to be replicated in another place. Mission becomes the transplantation of a culture and conversion the inculturation into this culture, which strikes me as a workable definition of colonization.

The next question, of course, is why is this link not made within ecumenical documentation itself. This occurs, first, because of the church is described in theological terms. That is, especially due to the historical course of these structures, a certain cultural dislocation is assumed. These structures, so the argument goes, do not reflect one single culture. The problem is that when non-western Christians are queried about their experience of colonialism and the Christian faith, concern is often expressed about the importation of western ecclesial structures (including schism!). These dogmatic structures do reflect a clear cultural form simply because they have developed in response to a certain context (a religious monoculture) and certain questions (how we define salvation, for example).

The link is not made, second, because no overt attention is given to missionary movement. This is a much wider problem even within theological faculties (I can count on my fingers how many western faculties have missiologists). The church fails to look beyond itself and the form of its own replicating movement. Yet, it is precisely mission which holds a mirror up to the local church to show it the nature of its own domestication. Nor is an ever retreating internal focus, which is general tendency today, a solution, because this just exacerbates the problem of a colonial missionary method.

7. One of your chapters explores the work of Dutch theologians on this issue, in particular J. C. Hoekendijk and A. A. van Ruler. Many English speakers will not know these names. Who are they and why are they significant?

In the period before and after WWII, there was a development within Dutch Reformed circles called the “Dutch theology of the Apostolate”. This was first identified with Hendrik Kraemer, and later with J. C. Hoekendijk and A. A. van Ruler. This movement promoted apostolic (missionary) movement as defining the church. Kraemer emphasized the establishment of Christian communities during the post-christendom period (which Kraemer saw as the end of the pagan confusion of religion and state). Hoekendijk’s interest concerned more the relationship of mission to church. Van Ruler was more concerned with the processes of Christianization as themselves belonging to the missionary question. The discussion is interesting for a number of reasons, not the least being the necessary definitions of the church which result. Hoekendijk was heavily influential in the ecumenical movement with many of his ideas influencing the theoretical developments in mission during the 1950s-1970s. I suspect however that he makes a greater contribution than many appreciate simply because he both asks key theological questions and martials some impressive theological resources in answering them. Plus, significant portions of this debate are not translated into English (remaining in German and Dutch).

8. As the subtitle of your book indicates, you bring world Christianity into this conversation. For some this will seem odd, since the ecumenical work of the World Council of Churches would seem to be global in nature already. What has been missing from the conversation and how does world Christianity shape our understanding of the church's apostolicity?

The issue for me is how to understand the massive growth in the faith, not as a continual threat to a non-existent structural unity, but as a living expression of apostolicity. The ecumenical concern, from my perspective, attends more to the global cohesion of an established cultural form, than it does to the reality of world Christianity. Though theorists of world Christianity do not use the language of apostolicity, the dominating issue remains continuity, both in history and across cultures, and the variety of structural expression this requires. One needs to reiterate that the dominant assumption which stems from the Catholic/Protestant schism sets established structure against structural freedom. This approach is both unnecessary and unhelpful. Reference to world Christianity helps us think beyond this schism, pointing to the significance of history, the reality of cultural imposition precisely in the form of ecclesiology, and the importance of the New Testament for understanding what is occurring today.

9. You close the book with a look at the New Testament and seek to draw on the biblical text to help us form a new understanding of apostolicity. In brief, what do we discover in the NT? How does this challenge the standard models? Why haven't we had a clearer picture of apostolicity in the past?

The New Testament is certainly the final word, but it is the previous chapter which really sets the questions that I put to the New Testament. It is again a question of opening the text from its narrow interpretation through the Protestant/Catholic schism. Once this is rejected as the norm, then dated oppositions, such as that between Paul and Luke on the question of the apostles, are obviously unnecessary and even harmful. One can start to read the biblical narrative as linking apostolicity to the formation of culturally diverse communities. Basic here is the christological point that the identity of the community lies in moving beyond itself, the opening of its history into the history of Jesus Christ. It is surprising how many of the presumed ‘necessary’ framing assumptions promoted by the Catholic/Protestant schism simply do not hold, and how many unexplored resources exist within the text for understanding apostolicity in relation to world Christianity.

10. Could you give us an example of one of the resources you find most helpful in the New Testament?

I do not know if reference to a single ‘resource’ is the best way to answer the question. We are better served by first understanding the interpretive lines that the Protestant/Catholic schism promotes. As one consequence, the text is used either to promote structural flexibility or to provide an initial pattern which becomes refined and established through history. Paul and Luke are set off against one another, with Paul advancing flexibility and Luke an established college. It is a horribly anemic and anachronistic debate, and yet one which excites apoplectic fervor.

Once we acknowledge the problematic blinders that the Protestant/Catholic schism have forced upon our reading of the text, then we can begin to look for other clues. I think that a very different definition of apostle and apostleship develops. If we understand apostolicity in terms of the appropriation of the gospel and the conversion of local cultures, then one can have multiple forms of community. The supposed contest between Luke and Paul completely falls away. A further clue is the link between apostolic ‘authority’ and the grounding of communities which coincidentally affirm cultural particularities and reject cultural pretensions. At base, however, apostolicity is a christological affirmation, and I spend a good deal of time exploring what this means, especially in terms of the church finding its identity as it moves beyond itself.

[Ed. note #2: Thanks to David and John for this illuminating discussion. I couldn’t help sprinkling in some emphasis in the form of underlining. Be sure to buy the book! (Use code 404-18 at check-out for a 40% discount - limited time only.)]



Jonathan Kleis said…
Hi Travis, thanks for posting this interview. Flett's book sounds fascinating and it fits well with the research that I am doing for my MA theological dissertation. Thanks for pointing me to it.

By way of introduction, my name is Jonathan Kleis, and I'm a friend of Bobby Grow and I discovered your blog through him. I've read your book on baptism after Barth, and I want to complement you on the excellent work you did. I am an evangelical missionary in Italy and many of the things about which you wrote are very pertinent to my own context and ministry.

If you ever have the chance, I'd love for you to check out my blog as well:

Hi Jonathan, it's very nice to "meet" you. I'm glad that you found my book worth reading and helpful to your ministry. I'll be sure to keep an eye on your blog. Your current reforming Calvinism series looks interesting.


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