Statements and Social Power

MacArthur and Friends published a so-called “Statement on Social Justice” recently. It’s the second major statement made within conservative evangelical circles in the last year or so; the first, the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood’s “Nashville Statement.” Both statements sought to clarify certain evangelical theo-political positions, and both were lauded by those for whom they were written. The Nashville Statement has over twenty thousand signatories — the Statement on Social Justice, over nine thousand — to date. These public declarations have clearly struck a chord.

They are not without their faults, however. Matthew Lee Anderson excoriated the Nashville Statement and then, remembering Zombieland’s second rule, had the wherewithal to double tap. While I don’t agree with everything that Anderson writes (a tall order, considering his prolificacy), Anderson has demonstrated an obvious, sustained, and rigorous pattern of thought on the particular ethical concerns currently impinging the church’s freedom to worship and be in the public square. His thoughtfulness is not mirrored in these statements, which is part of the issue he takes with the Nashville Statement in particular. Rather than resorting to a kind of knee-jerk reaction, Anderson’s measured reflection on contemporary trends is praiseworthy, and it serves the church’s advancement in coming years in a way that the defensive postures of the Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice do not.

That said, disregard the failure to conceptualize adequately theo-ethical concerns. Set aside the problems that Anderson outlines. Although I find his argument eminently compelling, I want to draw your attention to a more formal, or political, issue.

The church is a variegated body. I’m torn over whether distinctions are inherently vicious. (The argument that they are inherently virtuous is obviously wrong, as far as I’m concerned.) Nevertheless, the fact that the political body is split into various bodies is indisputable. We see a variety of denominations, and these each exist within or as distinct institutions. Most of these political bodies also exist within the spiritual body, although the precise nature of the relationship between the political bodies and spiritual body of Christ is a bit complicated. (For some, the political body of Christ is coextensive with the spiritual; for others, they are mutually exclusive; both positions are asinine.)

In any event, whether splits in Christ’s body are good or bad, they do exist, and at least part of what is entailed by their existence is a dispersion of the responsibilities of church discipline. That is to say, however local churches are structured, and to whomever they bind themselves (denominationally, associationally, etc.-ly speaking), the responsibility to discipline does not rest in the fragmented body of Christ as such but to this or that fragment, or to this or that collection of fragments. I gesture at some issues associated with discipline in this piece on satellite campuses, but I dwell on it in this piece on heresy. (If you have a few moments, read that article, and then continue in this one.)

The Nashville Statement and the Statement on Social Justice depart from traditional models of ecclesial discipline, which both statements are designed to enable the church to enact. The perlocutionary aim of these statements is obvious enough:  clarify and provide social capital to particular theo-political perspectives so that the evangelical church has purchase to enforce these perspectives–that is, to enact discipline along these lines.

However, these movements are an attempt to circumvent the established mode of church discipline. These statements are not issued ex cathedra; of course, there is no formal institution that would allow for such a statement–because there is no attendant disciplinary structure to enforce adherence. And yet, framers of these statements certainly intend that their published words be heeded by the evangelical church. If that is the case, and if evangelicals lack the basic polity for such statements to be enforced de jure, what is the mechanism by which such statements are adopted by evangelicals at large?

Coercive power, effected through the use of social/political capital. The individuals responsible for the Nashville Statement (Moore, Mohler, etc.) and the Statement on Social Justice (MacArthur, White, etc.) are well-known figures in evangelical circles. They individually have significant cache, and grouped together these evangelical leaders exert an especially outsized influence on evangelicalism. Such influence isn’t necessarily improper. But when it is utilized in this context, as a means of working around established institutions and ecclesial polities, it violates the autonomy of local bodies and their institutional relations. While evangelical leaders are not appointed through an official channel, it would be foolish to ignore the fact that there are de facto figureheads within evangelicalism. John MacArthur’s nickname “The Evangelical Pope” is elucidative. Issuing these declarations “[without] any pretense of ecclesiastical authority” is a bold denial of the reality of the situation. Church leaders who do not sign statements are called into question, whether or not they have good reason not to sign. The shepherds are called into question by the sheep for their refusal to submit themselves to an exertion of social power, which has no formal authority over them. In terms of form, exercising power in this manner is totally backwards. (Unless we’re in the midst of a new reformation? We’re not, but it could be argued that would be a sufficient cause to subvert ecclesial institutions. I did so in an earlier paper.)

There are ways to issue these statements without violating the formal structures of the church, but it’s a much more difficult task within the evangelical movement because it is not a formal church polity. First, those who wish to issue statements could refuse to purportedly speak on behalf of or to evangelicals as such. Second, those who issue statements could incorporate key denominational and congregational leaders, but specifically those who exercise political authority–not seminary presidents, best-selling authors, and commission leaders. Evangelical statements should either be curtailed to specific denominations or associations, or they should be developed with input from institutional leaders. Failing to do either results in a statement from nowhere exerting authority everywhere.

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Satellite’s Gone

Let’s talk about satellite campuses for a moment. Within evangelicalism, the satellite campus model is a way of structuring a local church’s membership across several campuses, typically locally. It’s similar to the episcopal model of church polity. For episcopal church governance, a certain area is governed by a bishop, and individual church bodies (specifically, the clergy) within that area answer to the bishop. By way of example, episcopal churches include the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches; the Anglican and Episcopalian Churches; and the Methodists. Quite a rich tradition.

Churches with satellite campuses have a few obvious similarities to the episcopal model, but they also depart radically. In terms of their shared features, episcopal churches and satellite churches both function essentially under the authority of one figure: the local bishop or the lead pastor(-ate) of the “main campus.” (In my experience, the most typical church to embrace the satellite campus model is the non-denominational, “baptist-lite”[1] church, in which the authority of the congregation or the elder board are either entirely or substantially subsumed into the single person of the “lead pastor” [or, perhaps, “pastoral team”], who functions as a bishop. This has its own, serious problems.) The other “campus pastors” within the satellite model function more or less as “parish priests,” and they are tasked with administrating campus events, such as Sunday worship, Wednesday church, etc. The campus pastor/parish priest is accountable to the lead pastor/bishop.

Satellite campuses, nevertheless, diverge from the episcopal tradition, and in my estimation these divergences are quite damning to the satellite campus model, particularly in its worse manifestations.

The most significant departure has two facets, but it can be summarized as a loss of congregational autonomy. These two facets are integrally linked though distinguishable. First, the lead pastor exercises a higher degree of functional ruling on day-to-day affairs than a bishop ordinarily (and in terms of best practice) would. This is the case simply by virtue of the organizational distinction (or lack thereof) between a main campus and its satellite.

Second, the satellite campus does not exist as an independent body. “Independence” ought not be understood in either a strict or an absolute sense. Rather, think of it in terms of freedom of direction. The worse examples of the satellite model display congregational dependence most clearly. Satellite models frequently have campus pastors, who “serve at the pleasure of the lead pastor,” to mangle the phrase. Campus pastors are, therefore, often bound to the “vision” set by their lead pastor or pastoral team. At its most grotesque, campus pastors lack the freedom to genuinely preach to their congregation, relying instead on a simulcast (or even recording) of the main campus’s/lead pastor’s sermon. Ironically, commodifying the preached word in this manner devalues it.

Satellite campuses at first glance share a great deal in common with church plants. Nevertheless, whereas church plants are (hopefully) begun with the goal of eventually functioning as an independent, autonomous church body (howsoever defined per political [i.e., “of polity”] model), the satellite campus is by its nature not privy to that end. The satellite campus more often than not exists as a brand extension into a new locale. The main body is furcated into a number of different bodies, each of which the church hopes will grow, but none of which are expected to become independent.

Members of satellite campuses are shortchanged by the model. Insofar as these campuses function true to form, members are left with either a campus pastor handcuffed to the main campus or a simulcasted presentation of a sermon. By a minimalist definition of “church,” in which a church is constituted by the administration of (1) word and (2) sacrament, the satellite campus model denies its members a fully-flourishing “church.” Again, this denial can most clearly be seen in its worse instantiations. A simulcasted sermon is not a sermon. (Axiomatic, I know, but I will stand by this. Perhaps fleshing out to come.) And, less worse though still condemnable, a campus pastor who does not have the freedom to preach that which this church body needs–rather than that which that church body needs–cannot totally “preach the word.” He’s hamstrung.

I don’t want to suggest that there’s nothing positive to the model. Yet, the satellite campus model fundamentally misconceives the church. Again, there are better and worse examples–healthier and unhealthier. Nevertheless, satellite campuses are healthier when they are treated more as semi-autonomous-lurching-toward-autonomy than as functionally dependent, derivative bodies.


[1] I have my friend Daniel Drylie to thank for that phrase.

The Attender is Always Right, and Other Myths: Reviewing the Come Back Effect (2018)

9781493414109Young and Malm (“YM”) in The Come Back Effect seek to make a church’s visitors feel welcomed, loved, and at ease. They offer suggestions that can promote the hospitable atmosphere the church ought to inculcate in her weekly gatherings.

YM’s distinction between “service” and “hospitality” is duly noted. We can be like Martha, so wrapped up in serving our guest that we neglect to be with them (20). Second, their point that you need to budget for hospitality if you claim to be hospitable is fair enough (45). Finally, focusing on “values” for your team rather than on policies allows greater freedom to achieve your desired ends, especially hospitality (146).

Nevertheless, the book suffers from fundamental misconceptions of the church and her purpose. As helpful as their practical tips and tricks can be, they are rooted in a perspective that misunderstands and prostitutes the church. The Come Back Effect is a case study in the interrelationship between bad theory and bad practice.

I have no desire to rehash arguments made by the discernment trolls from underneath their bridges, but they rightly point out serious flaws in the “seeker-sensitive” ecclesiological model, of which Andy Stanley is a chief example. YM’s relationship to Stanley litters the pages of this book, and his influence is clear. Such deference is made to the “seeker,” the guest, and the customer that one quickly forgets for whom the church was instituted. (Yes, your Sunday School answer is appropriate here:  the church is for Jesus.)

Sunday worship ought to discomfit an unbeliever. Such unease comes not from being unwelcome[1] but from the stark discrepancy between members of god’s kingdom and members of the anti-kingdom. The hospitality in this book goes beyond being hospitable to selling the experience of the church, which turns worship into a commodity and the elements into grotesqueries to be hidden away. The supernatural strangeness of the Christian body is swept under the rug, hidden behind baskets of breath mints and clever branding. A church more concerned with appealing to visitors than extolling Jesus Christ will not remain a church for long. It may retain its facilities and its membership, but the sine qua non of the church–the unadulterated worship of Jesus–will be understated again and again, for the sake of relevance. At what point does a church decide it will pander no further? The Come Back Effect is so steeped in marketing and the hospitality industry’s understanding of hospitality-as-sales that the consideration is not even raised; in this respect, its frequent callouts to business-owners is unsurprising.

The Come Back Effect could use a robustly theological account of the church. Its helpfulness is undone by this lack.


[1] Although, now that I write this, perhaps it is; perhaps the unbeliever ought to feel unwelcome in a house of worship, when they do not worship its god. We ought not be surly to strangers, but there’s no reason to suppose that gathering for Sunday worship is geared toward those who do not worship.


Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

On Heresy

If you’ve spent any amount of time in the theological ghettoes of social media, you’ll have certainly come across threads in which “Heresy!” or “Heretic!” is bandied about with a frequency far disproportionate to its normal, everyday use. For various reasons, the term’s usually wielded by more conservative theologues; simply, the “conservation” impulse inherent in conservative streams of thought spends more energy manning the fences of orthodoxy than similar impulses in liberal streams. Nevertheless, “Heretic!”, especially in the digital context, functions primarily as an opprobrium, a “caveat lector.” I think this represents a departure, ironically enough, from the traditional modes in which accusations of heresy were used.

To justify that position, however, requires that we take a step back and look beyond the scope of our current moment. First, I’ll characterize this moment of the church–a church simultaneously present and absent, physical and digital. Then, I’ll offer two understandings of heresy: one prior to today and the one in use at the moment. Finally, I’ll close with a couple of correlative thoughts on the matter.

We are fortunate to live in the time of mass media. The benefits to the world from easy global communication are immeasurable, and we each have access to a world of knowledge at the tips of our fingers. For the church, this digital proximity has engendered a sense of the global, transcultural body of Christ. For that, we ought to be thankful. Modes of Christianity–theological paradigms, church structures, social witnesses–which would have remained invisible within our local context, are now immediately available thanks to the advent of social media. Questions we would have never thought to ask, ways of being in the world that would have never occurred to us–these are now shifting our perceptions and our expectations of Christian life.

All of which can remain largely abstract, as far as it goes. For the most part, such questions remain ethereal but for the genuinely interested. Nevertheless, this perpetual presence affects those of us whose minds have been shaped by the cell phones in our pockets. Now, we exist simultaneously in two worlds:  our local, embodied environment and our digital sphere. The phone constantly pulls us from one environ to the other. It disrupts our physical bonds, distracting us from the person in our midst. The immediacy of the flesh-and-blood relationship we have with those with whom we worship on a weekly basis competes with the pseudo-intimacy of our social media relationships, those cultivated strictly through–or mediated through–an online forum, in which one can carefully and artificially manicure their being in a categorically different manner than one’s embodied presentation to us.

An artificial intimacy crafted online has the capacity to assume duties that, properly exercised, belong to the person near you. The local church, as the local gathering of people belonging to Christ, promotes a type of personal co-involvement only achievable by means of extensive communion, of being-near and living-near. When we speak with another person, when we communicate with them and read their body language as we hear their voice, we “comprehend” them in a manner impossible merely through artificial channels. Worshipping alongside, serving alongside, living alongside–the people with whom we share our lives from week to week to month to year become more real to us than an avatar ever could. The difficulties of real life relationships, the frustrations, the complexities–in other words, the very things that can be filtered out, muted, and otherwise ignored online–must be worked through, or the relationship fails. The temptation to replace the embodied relationships of your local context with the digital mutual following of the internet weighs heavily. Whereas the person in your midst has an obligation, simply by virtue of their shared involvement in the world with you (among other reasons), to love you, to help you, to counsel you–your online community is under no such obligation, although such an obligation may be felt by virtue of pseudo-intimacy.

In terms of the church, your local collection of believers–the ones with whom you’ve bound yourself to the apostles’ teaching and to each other (cf. Ac. 2.42ff)–has obligations that reach merely as far as that body extends. In other words, the life and worship of a certain church are coextensive with, in this case, its discipline. Mutual submission is the fundamental political character of the church. Members of the local spiritual body are obligated to each other by Christ, and so, when a member of this body transgresses the limits appertaining to this body, the body (through whatever mechanisms it chooses for itself, such as an elder board, diaconate, or whatever) is obligated to treat the matter.

How, then, do these ecclesial obligations change or appear to change in our new context? For one, felt obligations are augmented by the entrenchment of social media in everyday life, precisely because of the pseudo-intimacy that grows from our second, digital lives.

For another, and I believe these two causes are connected and feed into each other, the conception of the ‘body of Christ’ as a ‘spiritual body’ gives credence to the idea that we are equally-bound to discipline and exhort the avatar brother as we are the enfleshed brother. I would suggest that such considerations are prompted by a naive, or perhaps sentimental, perspective of Christian brotherhood. Exercising spiritual authority–for the act of discipline in local context functions as an act of authority–in a digital context relies on a view of the spiritual body that effectively disembodies it. The structures of the local church do not bear, because this kind of conversation takes place outside of the bounds of the local church; it transcends both bodies.

Which is precisely the problem. Divorcing spiritual authority from authority structures is fertile ground for authoritative abuses. One may, and frequently will, retort that such spiritual authority derives from Scripture. In application, however, a functionally anonymous figure appears from the digital landscape to mandate that another person submit–not merely to Scripture (if their interpretation is correct) but to the authority of this anonymous individual rather than to the spiritual authority vested in Figure X by the church body to which our example belongs. In other words, the Scripturally-mandated means of authority are subverted, replaced by a disembodied voice.

I’ve focused so closely on church discipline because the act of declaring something heretical or somebody a heretic is an act of church discipline. That is, historically speaking, to be named a heretic was coterminous with excommunication; somebody declared outside the bounds of orthodoxy was ipso facto declared outside the bounds of the church body. Functionally, to call somebody a heretic was to censure, as it were, with the effect of removing them from the worshipping body, from receiving the elements of communion, etc.

It was never simply a statement of disapprobation (“You shouldn’t believe that”) nor, in its proper use, the voice of a single individual (“I don’t think you should believe that”). More, at least as far as its etymology was concerned, it was not limited merely to “wrong belief,” as it has traditionally been taken. αἱρετικός, at least as late as the apostle Paul, meant “one who causes divisions” in Titus 3.10, which suggests the emphasis being not so much the false doctrine itself but the political effect within the body of Christ, subverting the unity essential to its proper function. To call one a “heretic,” therefore, was not to say, “You hold wrong doctrine,” full stop, but to say, “Your profession of this doctrine undermines the credibility of the church; therefore, you’re removed until you repent.” In other words, “Heretic!” was a far more serious charge than we experience today, one in which the offender was barred from the life of the church.

In the digital discourse, “Heretic!” means not “This person is now being placed under church discipline” but, typically, “I strongly disagree with this person’s theology”. Among more grounded theologues, particularly those who have spent a fair amount of time in pre-Reformation theology, to call somebody a heretic may retain its original force, such that it says you believe they should come under church discipline. But the structures of evangelicalism especially do not lend themselves to censures of any effect–any effect, that is, other than the autonomous exclamations of “Heresy!” that attend to any theology thread worth its perusal. In the absence of strict structures of authority, at the very least those of the local church (not to mention those that transcend single congregations–i.e., a regional presbytery), the only recourse for those for whom the digital competes with the physical is the “caveat lector” mentioned above. That is to say, informal mechanisms of opprobrium, obloquy, and stigmatization are the means whereby a contemporary church stripped of its governing authority (by competition with the digital space) can enforce the boundaries of proper church life.

By warning all within earshot that a particular author or individual is heretical, the hope would be that others would avoid falling into the same trap (per 1 Cor. 5), but it fails insofar as the purpose of church disciple–formally exercised–is primarily the restoration of the offender, not the protection of others. Such digital excommunication fails to achieve the intended effect precisely because its pseudo-intimacy fostered in social media has not, before things became difficult, engendered the kind of hands-on, risky love necessary for reconciliation. Abiding through difficulty in addition to living-near and being-near, which are both essential to a healthy church, are precisely those features inherently missing in digital intimacy, such that discipline carried out over the internet lacks the purposeful, aiming-for-which necessarily undertaken in a (healthily) structured church’s discipline. Digital discipline serves merely as “Caveat lector” rather than “Oramus pro tibi, amamus te.” And that loving consternation properly issues forth from a heart shaped by physical proximity in worship, in service, in life.

Appraising the Reformation

The five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s Wittenberg theses, and therefore the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, was acknowledged[1] today. Luther developed and disseminated ninety-five theses, and taken together these theses helped prompt the theological, political, and social revolutions of the 16th and 17th centuries.

As a result of the Reformation, the Western church would never again recover the formal unity that it had theretofore enjoyed. From that time, Christians in Protestant-majority Europe and North America have failed to worship and labor for the kingdom of god under the same ecclesial institution, instead being born into or joining markedly different Protestant traditions with varying emphases. Some would argue that such disparate fellowships are the necessary cost for freedom of association/thought/worship or are the unfortunate, though again necessary, response to the papal abuses of Medieval and Renaissance Europe.

I don’t intend to delve into whether or not the initial situation justified the response taken by Luther and the reformers. I’m inclined to believe that some measure of reformation was required; the degree to which the figures of the Reformation acted appropriately is not for me to discern–I’m no expert in Reformation scholarship. While I would consider myself unqualified to judge whether or not the Reformation ought to have taken place, I do think we’re in a position to judge whether the results of the Reformation have been beneficial, harmful, or a mixture of good and bad.

One would find it difficult to develop an argument that the Reformation has produced purely good or purely bad fruit. The most obvious, and also the easiest, assessment of the Reformation’s influence is that it brought about a mixed harvest:  some rotten apples, some ripe, and a great deal that isn’t as easily assessable. I’m going to key in on one apple:  the diversification of models of Christian theology, practice, and worship in the wake of the Reformation.

One could claim that shattering the institutional control of the Catholic Church brought about prized freedoms of conscience and assembly. Such a victory comes at the tremendous cost of dismantling–or, at least, reconfiguring–the institutional church, which, unless one will deny the importance of the corporeality of the body of Christ on earth, requires a serious cost-counting:  Does the individual’s freedom of conscience justify disassembling Christ’s church? Or had this institutional body so squelched the “spiritual” body of Christ within its members that the formal body could be done away with without violence to its head? How one understands the relationship of the institutional church to the “body of Christ” to the individual church and its individual members will in large part color their perception of the Reformation.

If there is no spiritual church without the institutional church, and if the institutional church is the Catholic Church founded by Jesus Christ through the apostle Peter, then such a Reformation attempts to dismember violently the body of Christ. On the other hand, if there is no institutional church without the spiritual church–if the spiritual church serves as the prior and necessary foundation to any institutional body whatsoever, then deference will be made to the volition of atomized believers who freely join together for common worship. These two positions are, of course, the two poles of argument in Western orthodoxy, but in this case the boundaries of debate are not populated sparsely.

To sketch out my own position, I defer to local communities of faith to determine for themselves the proper modes of worship and teaching. Beyond the local manifestation of Christ’s body, however, it seems necessary that there be some norming norm that stands above particular bodies and unites them into a common whole–such that all of Christ’s churches are Christ’s Church. The content of the norming norm is difficult to pin down. Scripture doesn’t interpret itself, and therefore, because every interpretation of Scripture is necessarily a contextualized interpretation, particular to its own time and culture, it seems impossible to point to a particular confession or conciliar decree as a once-for-all articulation of Christian orthodoxy. And yet, there have been (at the very least malleable) fenceposts of Western Christianity, beyond which Christians of most stripes dismiss as false religion. However, the further one moves from Christianity in toto to Christianity in hac civitatem, the more malleable the distinction between their and our Christianity becomes–but the pain of departure also becomes more acute, because the abstract transforms into the concrete. We operate according to a number of different received traditions, but those which most directly impinge on the everyday life of our local bodies are those which most clearly color the content of our theology and worship.

Under that model, insofar as the Catholic Church dictated from Rome the modes and emphases of teaching and worship throughout its reach, it overstepped its authority.[2] Following Tillich’s comment in Theology of Culture, “The church has to pronounce the principles and to criticize the given reality in the light of these principles, but it cannot decide about their concrete application. At least the Protestant church cannot. It must leave this to the courage, intuition, and risk of voluntary groups.”[3] The church as an institution has been tasked to develop and disseminate the content/boundaries of orthodoxy, but “voluntary groups” of the local community are responsible for applying it. Where the institution of the Catholic Church encroached on those elements of Christian praxis that belong specifically to the local body, it invited a response in that moment, and the response that arose has reverberated for five hundred years.

The response was the splintering of Western Christianity into innumerable sects, many of which share large amounts of their theology together (even together with the Catholics). Although there are clear differences between Lutherans, Presbyterians, and American Evangelicals, many of these groups do tend to share some very basic propositions of faith and practice.

However, one must consider that dismantling the monolith could have had the effect of obstructing the work of the kingdom, streamlined through one institution, for the sake of the freedom of conscience. Rather than working under a shared Tradition, most Protestants work under common traditions but with a distinct Tradition acting as their particular umbrella within the larger field of Western Christianity. Was the obstruction worth the concomitant gain? It’s difficult to tell. Breaking fellowship with our Catholic comrades (and, prior to them, our Orthodox and Coptic comrades) seems antithetical to John 17. And yet, Christians ought to be those who prize truth for its own sake. What’s the balance between fidelity to truth and fidelity to the church? Without dissolving one into the other, one has to show their hand as regards their preference.

It seems obvious that the proliferation of contradicting (or at least tense) positions within Protestantism itself is a problematic that require serious treatment. Whereas Catholics can point to a Sacred Tradition, embodied in the teaching of the church and in the Catechism, Protestants only have (if they’re confessionally-oriented, that is) their varying confessions of faith, which, in terms of scope, aren’t as impressive–but which may very well encapsulate the teaching of Scripture to a greater degree than the Catechism. If it is in fact the case that Christ established the Church with Peter as its vicar–that is, if the institution of the Catholic Church is identical with the Church of Christ’s establishing, then no departure from Scripture could warrant a departure from the church, because Christ would intervene to prevent radical departure. If it’s not the case, however, greater freedom for reconfiguration remains, although the desire to reform should be tempered by the desire to “cherish the brethren.”


[1] “Acknowledged” is the most value-neutral term I can use. My readers include Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox, the latter two of which will do anything but “celebrate” the Reformation.

[2] You’ll note that I have dealt sparingly with the actual content of Renaissance Catholic theology. I am more concerned with the problems of form raised by the results of the Reformation than with the theological debates that raged at the time (and continue, in some measures, today). Drawing the lines of argument along the contours of Reformation theology as such is to invite another argument:  Does one show fidelity to “truth” or to the institution that Christ established? Or, how does one be faithful to Christ’s church, how to the truth? Is there a manner in which, counterfactually, the Reformers could have done both without forsaking Rome? I will not pursue those questions at this point.

[3] Tillich, Paul. Theology of Culture. Edited by Robert C. Kimball (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959), 196 – 199.

Rahner on Original Sin

Karl Rahner by Letizia Mancino Cremer
(c) Letizia Mancino Cremer

Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner first published his landmark systematic work, Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity, in 1976. Although the title may seem to indicate that the material is simple or easily accessible, Rahner draws on every aspect of his German Catholic heritage to write it, which is to say that this is not a book for somebody who hasn’t dealt extensively with continental philosophy or Catholic theology. He sets out to articulate many of the basic features of Christian theology, beginning with man in his transcendental subjectivity, freedom, guilt, and the like. Perhaps spurred on by the recent interest of Bobby Grow, one of my long-time follows, in the doctrine of sin–I found Rahner’s treatment of “original sin” unique and worth considering.

Rahner posits that everybody acknowledges that the world in some manner exists in a state of disrepair. However, the Christian perspective on this disrepair isn’t identical with other views. He writes about “the pessimism of Christianity”:  that although all are touched by sin and although most do attempt to alleviate “this situation of guilt,” all our virtuous acts are tainted by guilt, and yet Christianity’s “radical realism” concerning the fundamental state of humanity promotes “the best service” for creating better people, societies, etc.:

But this human experience, which is really quite obvious, is prevented from becoming innocuous by the message of Christianity and its assertion that this co-determination of the situation of every person by the  guilt of others is something universal, permanent, and therefore also original. There are no islands for the individual person whose nature does not already bear the stamp of the guilt of others, directly or indirectly, from close or from afar. And although this is an asymptotic ideal, there is for the human race in its concrete history no real possibility of ever overcoming once and for all this determination of the situation of freedom by guilt. Throughout its history the human race can indeed, and always will strive anew to alter this situation of guilt, and even do this with very real successes and as an obligation, so that to neglect this obligation would itself be radical guilt before God. But according to the teaching of Christianity this striving will always remain co-determined by guilt, and even a person’s most ideal, most moral act of freedom enters tragically into the concrete in an appearance which, because co-determined by guilt, is also the appearance of its opposite.

By rejecting an idealistic as well as a communistic optimism about the future, Christianity believes not only that it is giving witness to the truth, but also that it is performing the best service for a “better world” here and now. It believes that it has offered the world adequate moral imperatives and obligations extending all the way to responsibility before God and to the risk of eternal guilt. It believes that its historical pessimism is also the best service towards improving the world here and now, because the Utopian idea that a world functioning in perfect harmony can be created by man himself only leads inevitably to still greater violence and greater cruelty than those which man wants to eradicate from the world. Such a pessimism, of course, can become the excuse for not doing anything, for offering people the consolation of eternal life, and really for offering a religious attitude not only as the opiate of the people, but also as an opiate for the people. But this does not alter the fact that the radical realism which comes to expression in the pessimism of Christianity as we have formulated it with respect to the situation of our freedom is true, and that therefore it may not be disguised.[1]

He goes on to suggest that the original sin is rooted at heart in “a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life.” He distinguishes this with the view that original sin was a rejection of a “divine law within the horizon of God himself.” Because we ourselves have an apprehension of our own guilt, and because we can reasonably infer that all those around us are also guilty, we are forced to the view that there was an original instance of freedom awry, for otherwise the current environment of universal guilt is inexplicable. Furthermore, the character of our present guilt “must be measured by the theological essence” of our original sin–the rejection of god’s “absolute offer of himself.” Note below:

What is specific about the Christian doctrine of original sin consists in two things:

  1. The determination of our own situation by guilt is an element within the history of the freedom of the human race, an element which is imbedded in its beginning, because otherwise the universality of this determination of the situation of freedom and of the history of the freedom of all men by guilt is not explained.
  2. The depths of this determination by guilt, which determines the realm of freedom and not freedom as such immediately, must be measured by the theological essence of the sin in which this co-determination of the human situation by guilt has its origins.

If this personal guilt at the beginning of the history of the human race is a rejection of God’s absolute offer of himself in an absolute self-communication of his divine life …, then the consequences as a determination of our situation by guilt are different than they would be if it had merely been the free rejection of a divine law within the horizon of God himself. This divine self-communication, which is called the grace of justification, is what is most radical and most deep in the existential situation of human freedom. As divine grace it lies prior to freedom as the condition of possibility for freedom’s concrete action. Self-communication of the absolutely holy God designates a quality sanctifying man prior to his free and good decision. Therefore the loss of such a sanctifying self-communication assumes the character of something which should not be, and is not merely a diminishing of the possibilities of freedom as can otherwise be the case in the instance of a ‘hereditary defect.’[2]

Rahner’s note that god’s (holy) self-communication was “prior to [Adam’s] free and good decision” makes the first sin a far more serious matter than it would otherwise have been. By rejecting god and not simply a command of god, man suffers on an ontological rather than merely experiential level. Of course, one has to wonder the degree to which one can drive a wedge between god’s self-communication and god’s “divine law.” In the degree to which “do not eat” reflects and comes from god-in-himself, god in his essence–it seems as though to reject that law would be to reject god. It remains to be seen if Rahner clarifies this point further in the work.

In any event, Rahner continues, articulating a brief positive account of the original sin:

Original sin, therefore, expresses nothing else but the historical origin of the present, universal and ineradicable situation of our freedom as co-determined by guilt, and this insofar as this situation has a history in which, because of the universal determination of this history by guilt, God’s self-communication in grace comes to man not from ‘Adam,’ not from the beginning of the human race, but from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.[3]

For Rahner, the doctrine is an explanation of the current state of affairs–indeed, the only adequate explanation for our “universal and ineradicable” position. However, and this point seems to be muddled a bit by the grammar–Rahner argues that original sin cannot be an explanation for our present situation unless it is that “God’s self communication in grace comes to man … from the goal of this history, from the God-Man Jesus Christ.” He seems to suggest that our descent into freedom to choose absurdity is explicable only by virtue of its resolution in time–by the Epiphany, by the Incarnation. The historical origin of sin works toward the “self-communication in grace” of God-in-flesh, without which it’s meaningless and properly absurd.


[1] Rahner, Karl. Foundations of Christian Faith: an Introduction to the Idea of Christianity. Trans. William V. Dych. Seabury Press: New York, 1978. 109 – 110

[2]112 – 113

[3] 114

Pannenberg on Secularization and Orientation

In 1988, German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg published a fascinating and brief study that traced the concept of “secularization” and the Christian faith’s changing relationship to a world becoming increasingly “secular.” He intended to critique secularization as such with the hope of “a new definition of the relationship between religion and society. But for that reason it need not just be seen as an expression of mere nostalgia or of a conservative disposition.”[1] Which is to say that Pannenberg’s critiques are not reducible to a mere “good ol’ days” narrative–when society was more or less “Christianized,” an idealized vision of the past that almost certainly never broached reality. I touch on that idea briefly here, if you would like a more cogent argument to that point.

Pannenberg puts forward a few consequences of secularization that deserve critique, which in turn raise a few questions of their own. Although the scholar wrote for his culture specifically, i.e. late twentieth-century Germany and Europe, the critique holds for a similar process that has been underway in the United States nearly since its inception. Cone addresses this from another angle when he writes that “[t]here was the temptation to let economics, rather than religion, determine one’s actions.”[2] For Cone, two competing narratives–a gospel in which all men are equal and a proto-capitalism in which all men are expendable–coalesce to form the substratum on which American culture was built. Pannenberg’s section is quoted below:

[Secular society and culture’s] great defect, to which Berger has constantly referred, is the loss of any meaningful focus of commitment in the spheres of public culture and private life. In former cultures a meaningful focus of commitment was provided by religion. The loss of such a focus as a result of the detachment of public culture from ties to a particular form of religion initially brought individuals great freedom and thus also introduced a phase of cultural flowering. However, this cultural flowering in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries still lived on the aftermath of the cultural tradition, the basic elements of which were all present, even though the age itself had diverged from its norms. In advanced secular society, the presence of these basic elements has faded in human consciousness. That applies not only to Christianity but also to the legacy of antiquity and its influence on European culture. True, information about these elements is still available, but as a culture to be consumed, along with a variety of other items on offer. Whether to make use of them is left to individual preference, especially as the education system no longer presents them as being binding. The arbitrariness of the consumption of culture destroys any sense of the binding nature of the cultural tradition and especially the religious tradition. But people need to be oriented on that which gives binding meaning. Erich Fromm has spoken of the need for a referential framework to provide orientation on the world, and along with this of the need for respect towards the sources and vehicles of such an orientation. Without such an orientation that is binding on the individual everything can become a matter of indifference. And in that case hopelessness and feelings of alienation spread under cover of succumbing to the pressures of the consumer society.[3]

What one ought to note immediately is that Pannenberg does not attribute this sense of loss simply to a cultural abrogation of Christian roots, although that is included. Such a simplistic account will not do. He cites also “the legacy of antiquity,” which ought to recall individuals such as Aristotle, Cicero, and the like. However, a “religious tradition” stands at the forefront of his analysis, and this is likely because of the demands that religion places on its adherents, the “focus of commitment”–especially when such a religion is diffused broadly through a culture. This sort of religion, further, draws individuals into a communal life that a purely secular association (that is, until it itself becomes a kind of sacred association) cannot accomplish. By uniting a society in a mostly shared vision, and by providing a community and a common set of rituals, a religious tradition offers an interpretative grid that often functions more subliminally than consciously. One mischaracterizes Pannenberg if they attribute a base traditionalism to this critique. He welcomes the opportunity to reimagine the place of the church in a new diaspora, prefiguring the present ventures of James K.A. Smith and Rod Dreher.

Nevertheless, the vestiges of the former foundation continue to recede into the background while losing their “binding,” normative force for most individuals, except those who consciously choose to embrace the old ways. It would be foolish to suggest that one could simply retrieve the antiquated ethos and replant it in our present time. It must be rejiggered to some degree, if only because the Christian “orientation” no longer serves as the major interpretative grid for most. Part of such a recovery would necessarily entail, by Fromm’s addition to Pannenberg’s critique, a parallel reconstruction of “respect towards the sources and vehicles” of that orientation. In practice, reconstructing this respect involves re-centering the church-as-holy-fellowship in the lives of Christians, suggesting two things:

  1. The church as holy place, which functions as the locale for sacramental practice. These sacraments instruct their practitioners cognitively, affectively, and manually.
  2. The church as fellowship, which identifies this collection of people as especially my people. “These are my people” provides a concrete place in a bifurcating society–and also an orientation.

Which brings us to our final point. Pannenberg’s emphasis here is certainly on the individual’s response to secularization. Little attention is paid to how the collective functions when a society has lost its moorings. In the absence of a positive vision provided by the church, society seems to have shifted towards claiming a negative vision, in which (almost) all are free to pursue whatever end they wish without an overarching good or telos for the whole of society. Not to suggest that modern liberal societies are libertarian utopias, but on both the left and the right[4] an emphasis has grown in recent years to let certain groups (usually my group rather than your group) live as they would like, without interference. Whether this involves choosing for whom you would like to bake a cake or choosing for yourself what kind of bathroom you would like to use, a narrative has popped up concerning this freedom of choice.

Without denigrating that narrative,[5] it does fill a vacuum created by the loss of an ostensibly majority-Christian culture. Even though most Americans at any one time have not been practitioners of the faith, there was to some degree a general self-understanding of this being a religious, perhaps even Christian, nation, and that self-understanding permeated the institutions and provided a glimmer of a shared vision to those even outside the religious organizations. As secularization continued further into the churches, what one witnessed among Protestant bodies especially was either a capitulation into secular culture or a total entrenchment against it. In recent decades, movements have sprouted among evangelical circles that seek to correct both impulses. To what degree they are successful depends in large part on their defined ends, but the notion that the sacred has a responsibility to the secular has grown. Talk of “mission” and “vocation” as Christian duties to the world exemplifies this quality as well. In the degree to which Smith’s critique of Dreher’s Benedict Option is fair,[6] I would have to agree that a retreat from the culture would be neither prudent nor wise. The suggestion that the historically marginalized church should cower in the face of increasing pluralism doesn’t seem correct. Rather, one should find much to like in Moore’s conception of the church as a prophetic minority, challenging injustice and abuses of power. Perhaps it would be more pertinent to suggest that the church act as a gadfly, constantly calling the world to account and exhorting it to be better than it is with a view toward the coming Kingdom.

It’s unlikely that the church will reclaim a fundamental, normative voice for the broad swath of Western, particularly American, culture. What must be reclaimed, however, is the church’s fundamental position for the broad swath of Western Christians. It must become again that place where communal bonds are formed and strengthened; where an orientation to the world is fostered; and where individuals find their place in the world. Only when her own members are united in a shared purpose can the church hope to enter its local community, and national conversation, with a voice to be heeded. And only from that position can the church hope to exercise her commission faithfully.


[1] Pannenberg, Wolfhart. Christianity in a Secularized World. Translated by John Bowden (New York: Crossroad, 1989), ix.

[2] Cone, James H. Black Theology and Black Power. New York: the Seabury Press, 1969. That is to say, whereas many of the early American settlers did come in search of religious freedom, many others (and many of those who did come for religious freedom) capitulated to an anti-gospel anthropology that permitted slavery.

[3] Pannenberg, 32 – 33.

[4] Convenient shorthand for mainstream democratic and republican platforms. Acknowledged that democrats are not particularly “left.”

[5] Indeed, there’s much to applaud about a free and open society. The problem today is that choice is entirely politicized such that one’s choice must by necessity be at the expense of another’s, or so the argument goes. In any event, I don’t intend to articulate much beyond this point. This is a very complicated matter and beyond my purview.

[6] Without having read Dreher’s work, I cannot comment on its veracity. However, for what it’s worth, Dreher and Smith have had a recent public spat, and here is Dreher’s response to Smith’s Washington Post editorial criticizing the work. Make of it what you will.