Archive for the ‘Roman Catholic’ Category

Thoughts on The Future of Protestantism


I am still trying to process the essays and interchange at “The Future of Protestantism” (video) roundtable held at Biola last night. If you are unfamiliar with what I am referring to, the Torrey Honors Institute, Davenant Trust, and First Things co-hosted an event where Fred Sanders and Carl Trueman responded to Peter Leithart and an essay that he wrote last year on the future of Protestantism. City of God friends Peter Escalante and Brad Littlejohn were both involved as moderator and organizer, respectively.

All in all, I enjoyed the interchange. Each of the conversation partners, and the moderator, had distinct personalities that made watching and listening a pleasant experience. The added element of following on Twitter with the hashtag #protfuture was also good, as people with varying perspectives on ecumenism shared thoughts and concerns. The humour over the Other Peter’s mustache was also quite hilarious—it felt a little like Dali was in the house!

I have sympathies with Leithart’s concern for a publicly visible unity of God’s people. I also agree with him that the traditional Protestant understanding about the Church of Rome is that she is a true church but has become deformed (to use the language of some participants last night). The question that I continue to wrestle with, however, is: at what point does a church cease to be a church? It strikes me, based on what Leithart said about Jehovah’s Witnesses, that an “in/out” boundary is found in the formulations of the ecumenical creeds. Thus, if a church ceases to believe in the Trinity or deity of Christ, it is no longer a true church.

However, Galatians 1:6-10 indicates that the boundaries should be tighter than Trinitarianism or Christology and should include concerns about the gospel (would Leithart say this is tribalism?). Leithart points to N. T. Wright’s definition that the gospel is only a declaration about Jesus Christ as Lord, not justification by faith. While I agree that the gospel is not less than a declaration about Christ’s lordship, it is certainly more, and is deeply bound up with justification by faith. Or, to view it with another soteriological lens, how do I a sinner become reconciled to God? Is it by my own work or merit? Or do I trust in what Christ did in his propitiatory sacrifice and his resurrection on my behalf? Based on his words last night, I would think that Leithart would have to say, ultimately, that it does not matter. If Protestants and Catholics effectively share the same gospel—that is, that the gospel is only a declaration of Christ’s lordship—then it does not matter whether my works contribute to my reconciliation with God or not. Because of Galatians 1:6-10, I can’t escape the fact that Paul would anathematize such a view. Is he not the one who elsewhere said that the gospel is the power of salvation for everyone who believes, Jew or Gentile? Is he not the one who linked the “good news” (euangelizometha) and “justification” (dikaiothenai) in Acts 13:13-52, esp. v.38? This is what brings about eternal life.

I do not doubt Leithart’s genuine desire that Protestantism should develop a higher liturgy. I too would love to see the Eucharist become more central than it is in many denominations. When I visit my mother’s Reformed Baptist church back home, they practice weekly Communion, and I am deeply blessed by that. I would also love to see Protestants have a more robust and Reformed understanding of the real presence. But as I listened to the discussion last night, so much of that part of Leithart’s discussion felt like a veil, masking the core question of what is the gospel? The Roman Catholic Church and Reformed Protestanism hold fundamentally different views about the gospel. Sure, we share the ecumenical creeds, but that is not enough.

One might also ask, what about those Protestant traditions that are purposefully low-church? Is it wrong to not want the accouterments and trappings of medieval Christendom? What about the Salvation Army, or Black Gospel churches? What about churches in other countries on other continents that express their worship according to different cultural norms? Leithart’s vision seems to be heavily indebted to historic European forms of worship.

These are the thoughts jumbling in my head as I come away from last night’s discussion. Leithart’s vision, if it is stripped of the admittedly important, yet also secondary issues of worship, seems to be the ecumenical message that has been in vogue for the last hundred or so years. I have yet to be convinced by that movement, and I remain unconvinced by Leithart—as interesting as I often find him.

The Magic of a Kind Word

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”

-Proverbs 15:1

Much has been said about Pope Francis’ statements on atheism or homosexuality, the sorts of things that have earned him the nod from Time as Person of the Year for 2013. What’s remarkable is that nothing that he’s said really contradicts what either of his two most recent predecessors have said. What he has really changed is more a matter of tone. There is nothing in the substance of Francis’ statement about how he can’t judge a gay man who seeks God that contradicts Benedict’s assertion that all gays are “objectively disordered.” There is a world of difference however in the tone of such remarks. Benedict was successful at capturing very conservative church people from Evangelical denominations, Francis is capturing the attention (and the imagination) of pretty much everyone else. And yet for all those who either laud or damn him as a crypto-Marxist, nothing he has said seems to fall outside of conventional Catholic teaching.

Is Cessationism Responsible for David Hume?

There are, of course, many positions on modern charismatic gifts in the church. In my previous post, I quoted Robert Mullin who listed four possible kinds of approaches. One of the most popular in the history of Protestantism has been cessationism, which argues that miraculous gifts were limited to the age of the apostles. However, this general approach has contained within it several strategies, rather than just one. More concretely, when the cessationist position came up against claims of contemporary miracles, as in the Roman Catholic apologists, it had at least two possible responses (though in reality, there was at least one other, which I think they overlooked): they could claim the miracles were demonically inspired, or they could question the veracity of the miracle claims.

Earlier on Protestants like Increase Mather opted for the first approach in their response to Catholics; later on, though, the latter approach gained more popularity, with writers like John Locke and Conyers Middleton arguing against the reliability of modern miracle claims. This was useful for Protestants in the dawning age of the Enlightenment, but it’s worth asking if, in retrospect, it might have been a devil’s bargain.

Robert Mullin notes the effects of this position:

The idea of a radically limited age of miracles, and the marriage of a Protestantism and the Enlightenment that it reflected rested, however, on a precarious base, namely the willingness to distinguish between the plausibility of biblical events and that of nonbiblical events. It was precisely this point that David Hume challenged in his famous discussion of miracles in his Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748). As is well known, Hume’s essay has two parts. In the first he argues against miracles from probability. Because miracles were violations of a law of nature established by the “uniform experience” of humanity, he explained, no testimony is ever sufficient to establish a miracle “unless the testimony be of such a kind that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavours to establish.” It is his second argument, however, that is more important for our purposes. In order to illustrate his assertion about the improbability of miracles, Hume proceeded to put the Protestant argument for a limited age of miracles on its head. He offered three postbiblical miracle stories: healings associated with the Roman emperor Vespasian, the regeneration of the leg of the doorkeeper of the cathedral of Sargossa (Spain), and healings associated with the tomb of the Jansenist Abbé Pâris in early-eighteenth-century France. Middleton had also appealed to the case of Abbé Pâris, for it was widely discussed in eighteenth-century England; but he had used it to discredit the claims of postbiblical miracles. Hume, however, argued that the “evidences and authority” of the accounts of the French miracles surpassed that of any biblical miracle. The evidence was particularly impressive because it included testimony from some Jesuit authorities who were the arch enemies of the Jansenists. Hume’s implication was clear: if the better attested postbiblical miracles were to be rejected, then the biblical ones should be jettisoned. 1

To put a point on it: is cessationism responsible for David Hume?

Ignatius and Papal Succession

Ignatius of Antioch (ca. 35-ca. 107), one of the so-called “Apostolic Fathers,” is important for our understanding of the shape of early Christian practice. It is said that he was a disciple of the apostle John and thus shares in the “living memory” of our Saviour. Ignatius’ seven letters written on the way to certain death in Rome open a window onto the first century’s view of martyrdom and church governance. On this last matter he also offers a surprise.

Papal succession is a Roman Catholic teaching, based upon Matthew 16:18, that Peter is the first pope and his lineal successors through history occupy his chair of papal authority. This doctrine involves the argument for a traceable organic line of popes. In the case of Ignatius, however, Roman Catholics are posed with a problem.

Enchained by the state, Ignatius was brought by ten soldiers to Rome to face execution. Along the way he wrote six letters to various churches and one to the famed Polycarp (ca. 69-ca. 155), bishop of Smyrna. In five of his letters directed to specific churches—to Tralles, Magnesia, Ephesus, Philadelphi, Smyrna—he formally addressed the bishop of the church and admonished the congregation theologically and practically. The purpose of his letter to the church in Rome, however, was specific. Ignatius feared that if somehow the church managed to free him from his fate that it would be a blow to the Christian cause; martyrdom for him was an important apologetic. His plea to Rome was that they would not intervene. He did not know this church personally, thus there is a formality to the letter that is not evident in the others, but his plea is impassioned.

What is curious about the epistle to Rome is its absence of any address to her bishop. This is important for three reasons: first, it breaks from the convention that Ignatius follows in his other five letters; second, for such a formal letter, a failure to address the bishop is out of order; third, and most importantly, it would further Ignatius’ desire to be martyred to appeal to the authority of Rome’s bishop to keep politically influential congregants from preventing his death.

There are a number of possible reasons why Ignatius did not address the bishop of Rome, but the one favoured by a significant number of recent scholars is that there was no bishop in Rome at that time. This answer puts Ignatius in the best possible light—other unlikely answers require that he either forgot to mention the bishop, that the two were at odds personally, or that he was ignorant of who the bishop was.

For the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal succession, Ignatius’ letter to Rome thus poses a challenge. If there was no bishop in Rome at the time then there is no historic link back to Peter. Thus, from the earliest days of the church there is a gaping link in the chain of succession that weakens the doctrine. While we cannot be absolutely sure whether there was a bishop in Rome or not, there is strong reason to doubt it. Roman Catholics may not abandon papal succession for this one problem, but it should put serious doubts into their mind about the notion as a whole.

Originally posted on July 18, 2011 at the Sola Scriptura Ministries blog.

Final Justification, Protestantism, And Wright

I want to continue my series of posts on NT Wright and Reformational issues by focussing in on the matter of final justification. This seems to be one of the teachings many regard as a particularly dangerous part of Wright’s teaching. I already addressed this point in brief in my first post, but I can add a few more comments to strengthen my position.

I think the concerns of many Protestants regarding Wright’s view of final justification according to “the whole life lived” fall into three main categories: (1) his view is not Protestant, (2) his view is not Augustinian, and (3) his view is not Biblical. I will address these in turn.

Is Wright’s view Protestant?

Thankfully, I don’t need to do much work here. My friend Steven Wedgeworth has done it all for me. His survey clearly demonstrates the variety of expression amongst Protestant theologians about this matter, and that clear precedents for Wright’s position lie within that variety. More specifically, from the doctors that Wedgeworth surveys, the following say basically the same thing as Wright (I will append some brief quotes to make this point clear):

  • Martin Bucer
    • In the case of Bucer, Michael Bird provides the clearest testimony, though the post about Witsius below also contains a citation from Bucer.
  • John Diodati
    • “Whereas St. James takes the same word for the approving of man, in a benigne and fatherly judgment, as he is considered in the quality of God’s child, and living in the covenant of grace, as having the two essentiall parts of that covenant joyned together, faith to receive God’s grace and Christ’s benefit, and works to yield him the duties of service and acknowledgement;”
  • Benedict Pictet
    • “for in the first [justification] a sinner is acquitted from guilt, in the second a godly man is distinguished from the ungodly. In the first God imputes the righteousness of Christ ; in the second he pronounces judgment from the gift of holiness bestowed upon us; both these justifications the believer obtains, and therefore it is true that “by works he is justified, and not by faith only.”
  • Herman Witsius
    • “This justification is indeed very different from that other, of which we shall presently treat, wherein the person is absolved from sins, whereof he is really guilty, and which are forgiven him on Christ’s account. In this we are speaking of he is acquitted of sins, which he is not chargeable with, and is declared not to have committed.XXIV. The foundation of this justification can be nothing but inherent holiness and righteousness. For, as it is a declaration concerning a man, as he is in himself: by the regenerating and sanctifying grace of God, so it ought to have for its foundation, that which is found in man himself:He that doth righteousness is righteous, says John, 1 John iii. 7. and Peter says, Acts x.34, 35. “of a truth, I perceive, that in every nation he that feareth him and worketh righteousness is accepted with God.””
  • Edward Polhill
    • “These things evince, that obedience is a condition necessary as to our continuance in a state of justification: nevertheless it is not necessary, that obedience should be perfect as to the evangelical precept; but that it should be such, that the truth of grace which the evangelical condition calls for, may not fail for want of it: “Blessed are they that do his commandments, that they may have right to the tree of life, and may enter in through the gates into the city,” (Rev. xxii.14.) The first fundamental right to heaven they have by the faith of Christ only: but sincere obedience is necessary that that right may be continued to them: in this sense we may fairly construe that conclusion of St James, “Ye see, then, how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only,” (Jam. ii.24.)”
  • Thomas Goodwin
    • “So then, Paul’s judging according to works, and James his justification by works, are all one, and are alike consistent with Paul’s justification by faith only. For in the same epistle where he argues so strongly for justification by faith without works, as Rom. iii.iv., he in chap. ii. also declares, that ‘he will judge every man according to his works.’ He doth so to the good: ver. 7, ‘To them who, by patient continuance in well-doing, seek for glory, and honour, and immortality, eternal life.’”

In addition to Wedgeworth’s sources, one other deserves note:

  • Westminster Shorter Catechism 38
    • Rich Lusk rightly noted that WSC 38 teaches believers receive an acquittal at the final resurrection; the choice of proof-texts for this point may startle some, too, in that the Westminster divines selected a text about rewards for good works to prove believers would receive this acquittal (Matthew 25:23).

On the other hand, Wedgeworth rightly explains that John Calvin, Francis TurretinJohn PrestonJames Ussher, and Thomas Gataker, William Gouge, and John Downame shy away from speaking of two justifications with the second by works, though Calvin’s position in the Institutes is quite sophisticated and I think comes very close to the one evidenced in the list above. But to the list of reticent theologians we should add Martin Luther, and I would imagine the Lutheran tradition (though I know nothing about the particulars here).

Given Wedgeworth’s work here, I can’t see any reason to say Wright’s view fails the Protestantism test. At most one can say some Protestants disagreed with his view. But they did not excommunicate his predecessors.  As long as the fundamental Protestant concerns were upheld, there was manifestly room for difference on this matter.  And as I showed, Wright certainly sustains those fundamental Protestant positions.

Is Wright’s view Augustinian?

Anecdotally, on several occasions I have seen critics of Wright contend that his position on final justification is semi-Pelagian. Of the three issues I mentioned at the beginning, this one is the easiest to dispatch, I believe. For the charge that Wright’s view of the final judgment implies salvation by merit runs up against the problem of Augustine himself. If anyone was an Augustinian, and not a Pelagian or Semi-Pelagian, when it came to merit, it was the bishop of Hippo. Yet everyone recognizes that he did not teach a Protestant view of justification, i.e., he believed iustificatio referred to the transformative process by which God made us more just, not the verdict in God’s court which declares us so. For Augustine, justification and sanctification basically referred to the same process. But for all that, Augustine’s view of grace rendered it impossible for human beings to stand before God on the basis of merit. My reference to the saint’s saying that “God crowns the works he does in us” hinted at this point. The fact that God is the ultimate source of our good works, as many Protestants have noted, eliminates merit from the good works that those same Protestants affirm that we do. But if the divine origin of our good works eliminates merit in sanctification, then it must also eliminate merit even in final justification.

To put this all a different way: this charge confuses two issues which must remain distinct. The question of the instruments of justification, initial and final, stands beside the question of grace’s relation to merit. These matters remain separable, as Augustine’s own position makes clear.

Is Wright’s view Biblical?

For Protestants, at least in theory, all theologoumena must pass the bar of scripture, or else be discarded. At this point, I don’t wish to defend Wright’s view as biblical (though I believe it is). But I do contend (a) that his position is at least prima facie defensible (it has been defended by otherwise respected evangelical scholars of late e.g., beyond Wright himself, also Simon Gathercole, Mark Seifrid, and Tom Schreiner), and (b) that in light of my responses to the previous two questions, the answer should not be threatening to Protestants if Wright turns out to be correct. It undermines neither their ultimate concerns nor the (non-existent) uniformity of their tradition.

This will probably be my final post, at least for some time, concentrated on NT Wright’s place in Protestantism. I welcome feedback and criticism. I hope, at least, that I’ve provided reason for some critics of Wright to reconsider their problems with his teaching, even if I have failed to convince them of my entire position.

Luther and Wright, Justification and Ecclesiology

Continuing the theme of my TCI post on NT Wright, I would like to address another question many raise regarding the bishop’s new perspective. That is: what does it imply about the application Luther made of Paul’s thought to his own day?

I want to make the case, briefly, that Wright’s view of Paul doesn’t change much vis-à-vis the Reformation issues.

Wright’s critics have charged him with relocating the doctrine of justification from soteriology to ecclesiology. There is one line in What Saint Paul Really Said that certainly gives this impression, but in later works he has clarified his point, and affirmed that what he really means to affirm is a both/and. Justification is about salvation, but also about church.

Many have not noticed, though, that Wright’s affirmation consists with the Reformers. They too affirmed that justification was both about soteriology and ecclesiology (not to mention politics!). As Brad Littlejohn puts it in his summary of Luther’s view of the two kingdoms:

It flows, in short, from the doctrine of justification, with Luther’s famous concept of simul justus et peccator, his conviction that the realm of appearances is very different from the realm of spiritual realities.  Christ reigns mysteriously and invisibly over the kingdom of conscience, and no human authority may dare to interpose itself as the mediator of this rule; it is by faith alone that we participate in this kingdom, so we must not be deceived into identifying it with external works or rituals.  Perhaps better than the terminology of the “two kingdoms” then, the zwei Reiche, is that of the “two governments,” zwei Regimente.  The spiritual government is that by which Christ rules inwardly in the conscience by his Word and Spirit, the realm of grace; the temporal government (weltliche Regimente) is that by which Christ governs all external human affairs by law, in which he works not directly and immediately, but through the larvae, “masks,” of earthly governors and institutions.  Only the elect experience the former; the latter they share in common with the unregenerate.

Luther’s doctrine of justification severed the absolute link between any human institution and divine rule.  This meant, of course, that no ecclesial authority could claim the power to ultimately determine who was saved or lost.  No bishop or Pope could set a divinely authoritative boundary around the community, and include or exclude at his whim. Rather, God alone determined the ultimate shape of his church, and he did this through his Word, received by faith.

As I noted in my previous post, Wright would agree with all of this. But, further, his explanation of Paul’s logic in, e.g., Galatians, requires Luther’s practical conclusion for the Roman Catholic Church of his own day.

Wright explains in What Saint Paul Really Said (p. 122):

When two people share Christian faith, says Paul, they can share table-fellowship, no matter what their ancestry. And all this is based four-square, of course, on the theology of the cross. ‘I am crucified with Christ,’ he writes, ‘nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me’ (2:19-20). The cross has obliterated the privileged distinction that Saul of Tarsus supposed himself to enjoy; the new life he has as Paul the apostle is a life defined, not by his old existence, but solely by the crucified and risen Messiah.

The bishop emphasizes that in Paul’s day a major point of the doctrine was to build a united Jew-Gentile church; but it is just as clear that the logic of Paul’s teaching opposes other possible divisions, beyond those of race. That is, if the unity of the church is based on the new life Christians receive through their initial faith, a life defined solely by the crucified and risen Messiah, then clearly it is impossible for a new human institution to come along and create new rules that will again divide that family.  God has created one badge of membership: faith.  To add to that badge, whether with the Jewish law or a new manmade one, is to offend against the same divine work.

I’m not the first person to notice that something like Wright’s perspective still causes problems for institutions such as the RCC in Luther’s day. Donald Garlington, in his book Studies in the New Perspective on Paul (pp. 14-15) speaks of the implications of his NPP, which is similar to Wright’s:

If I may build upon and extrapolate from Dunn’s remarks, the difference between my version of the NPP and Roman Catholicism revolves just around the relation of tradition to final judgment (justification) by works. If my perception is correct, then what is stake in the latter’s doctrine of judgment is not “good works” in the most generic terms, but a commitment to the Tridentine standards, including such articles of faith as papal infallibility, the mass, the sacraments, the perpetual virginity of Mary, and prayer to the saints. By contrast, the obedience of faith in Paul bypasses all forms of tradition, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, and focuses fidelity solely and exclusively on Christ. The latter- day justification of the people of God hinges on union with Christ and the observance of all things that he has commanded the church (Matt 28:20), and nothing other than that. In short, what is required for a favorable verdict in the last day is allegiance to Jesus and his law (1 Cor 9:21; Gal 6:2). It is in this regard that the Reformers made a right application of Paul’s denial that justification is not by “works of the law.” That is to say, if justification is not by Jewish tradition, then it is not by church tradition either.

My way of putting the matter would be: insofar as the Roman Church conceived itself as having the power to determine who belonged in the community of God’s people, and who did not, based on its laws and canons in addition to the faith God requires, it was reproducing precisely the Judaizing heresy, though now without any possible claim to Mosaic sanction.

First Impressions Of Francis I

Okay, so we’re not Roman Catholics, but certainly the person sitting on St. Peter’s throne in the Vatican has an influence through all of Christendom.

First off, there seems to be more than clever marketing behind Francis being called Francis, the guy rode the subway in Argentina back when he was an Archbishop:


It is hard to imagine Ratzinger/Benedict doing the same sort of thing once he had the means to ride around in company cars. Another subtle hint: no points for guessing which shoes belong to which pope:

I don’t pretend to know how Francis is going to run things in the Vatican, but he seems to have at least clued into the idea that, as had of a religion whose largest groups of followers reside in the developing world, it’s simply obscene for him to continue to revel in the ostentatious treasures of his new digs. He can however go further in this direction, the Vatican holds all kinds of art treasures and other extravagances, more than they can ever hope to display or use. Perhaps it’s time to start slowly divesting these things. I wryly tweeted something to the effect that only the Pope can be called a humble man of the people whilst riding in a convertible Mercedes SUV (journalists were making comments to this effect because he had his people remove the bulletproof glass that surrounded his predecessors . I guess given the Vatican’s starting point, it’s something.

There was some talk about whether or not Bergoglio collaborated with the Argentine government in persecuting a number of liberation theology priests in the 1970s though at least one of those priests has come forward to say that he does not hold Bergoglio culpable for his persecution. Given how negatively the current hierarchy views liberation theology, it’s hard to imagine someone from that school feeling compelled to absolve a new Pope.

Reasonable Fasts

The season of Lent is upon us, and so Christians are talking once again about fasting. Among Protestants, this is always a touchy subject. Some among the sons of the Reformers strive to distinguish themselves from Papists by glorying in feasts; others, for various reasons, seek to regain some part of the church’s tradition surrounding fasts.

I’m not particularly interested in hashing out this debate here, though I have my opinions. However, I would like to share Scot McKnight’s argument, from his little book on fasting, about the logic of fasts in general. I read this years ago, but it has stuck with me ever since as eminently reasonable.

He defines fasting as follows:

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life. [xx]

That is, he argues that fasting is a natural response to a particular kind of moment, a grievous, or serious, sacred moment. In other words, fasting is not done (at least in the Bible) for the purpose of achieving some response. It is not done, primarily at least, with prospective vision, but rather with retrospective [xx-xxi].

The Jews and the early Church, of course, also practiced stationary fasts, which are fasts that are practiced regularly, often two days a week (Jews on Mondays and Thursdays, Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays). McKnight admits he does not know exactly what the purpose for these fasts was, but he argues that, given the survey of fasting he had given by that point in the book, it was reasonable to assume that they, too, were retrospective acts. As he puts it:

Even if we cannot always discern why the earliest Christians fasted, we can be confident that some grievous sacred moment prompted the fasting. In light of the themes we’ve already discussed, it is reasonable to think that body discipline was a response to the presence of sin, to the reality of a broken world, and to the yearning for holiness and love. [73]

And how can it be otherwise? Until the Lord comes, there will always be evil and pain to cause us grief, both in others and in ourselves. There is thus always reason to fast, if we are sensitive enough in heart to perceive it.

A Study In Contrasts

James K. A. Smith put up an interesting post the other day, responding to a pointed question about his ecclesiology: Response to Deroo: Whose Church? Which Ecclesiology?

I basically just want to use this post to set out a contrast. Smith’s position is nicely outlined in the post itself:

Can I begin in a negative mode by identifying what the church is not? When I speak of the church, I am not thinking of the “one, true denomination” and certainly not thinking of my denomination—or some other denomination or communion that I romantically think is “the” church. I’m also not primarily thinking of a local congregation, though local congregations are necessary instantiations of the wider body of Christ. Furthermore, nowhere do I suggest the two definitions that Neal articulates (“those who believe that Jesus is the Son of God…” or “those who have the Holy Spirit inside them”) would be adequate to define an ecclesiology.

So what do I mean by “the church,” then? Let me try to improvise in response to that question. Neal is right to see my understanding of the church is “institutional” and bound up with “Nicene orthodoxy.” He also rightly highlights that I see the “the church” primarily as a community of practice, which I would articulate in the MacIntyrean sense.[2] As a community of practice, the church would be informed by a narrative and a tradition that specify and substantiate the “standards of excellence” for that community of practice (without which there is no community of practice[3]).

So perhaps I could say that the church is that trans-national community of practice (a “body politic”) rooted in the biblical narrative as specified by the “catholic” tradition of both the creeds and the liturgical heritage.[4] In the history of the church, our language for “standards of excellence” has been “canon.” As William Abraham helpfully emphasizes, the “canons” of Christian orthodoxy include more than “the canon”; they also include “ecclesial canons” which “comprise materials, persons, and practices officially or semi-officially identified and set apart as a means of grace and salvation by the Christian community. They are represented by such entities as creed, Scripture, liturgy, iconography, the Fathers, and sacraments.”[5] This is what it means when we confess the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.”

So the church is an international community of practice, a body politic, normed by the ecclesial canons of documents (“in which the very ‘canon’ of Scripture is a product of the canons of the ecclesia”), persons, and practices that have come to be part of the bedrock of Nicene Christianity.

In contrast, I’d like to quote from Peter Escalante, summarizing the magisterial Protestant position on what the church is: (more…)

What Is The Church’s Mission?


This question is being discussed continually these days, and not without reason. We are living in a time of great upheaval, both politically and ecclesially, and it is common for people in such times to step back and ask themselves, what exactly should we be doing here?

When it comes to Christians, at least as represented in the blogosphere, we have begun to ask ourselves the question found in the title to this post more frequently and fervently. And we have also begun to articulate very different answers.

You have the answer of neo-Anabaptists, who say that the church is called to form counter-cultural communities, living out a vision of pacifistic social justice. You have the answer of Westminster West, suggesting the church’s role is simply to preach Law and Gospel, and administer the sacraments, and that Christian faith has nothing to contribute to broader pursuits in society. And you have the answer of Radical Orthodoxy and other groups which suggest the institutional church’s role is to direct all of society.

What might the political theology and ecclesiology of the magisterial Reformers say to this question? I think their first response would be to divide the question, or ask a counter-query: What is the church you are talking about?

When we ask “what is the church’s mission?” are we referring to the institutional church, constituted as a visible fellowship surrounding the sacraments and the elders of the church? Or are we referring to the corpus christianorum, Kuyper’s “organic church”, the sum total of all believers as they exist in the world?

It seems to me that, if we are speaking about the institutional church, the Westminster West approach might be best on a general level. That is, it seems the institutional church’s mission should be to do what it is best equipped to do: preach, teach, baptize, celebrate the eucharist, and give general guidance to parishioners (including, if necessary, discipline of sorts, as well as general direction in how to live as a Christian in the world). If we are speaking about the organic church, then it seems that the best answer is Kuyper’s approach: each Christian should seek to do their work to the glory of the triune God revealed in Christ, and for the common good. They should seek, by the grace of God, to reorder their little corner of the fallen world, so that it reflects God’s original creative intentions, for it is this reordering that is God’s redemptive intention. Grace, after all, is meant to perfect nature. Arguably, too, the anabaptists and the Radical Orthodox preserve this point: both are concerned to stress that the Christian live his whole life in submission to Jesus as Lord, and to see all of reality in the light of the triune God’s creative love. This leads quite directly into a Kuyperian approach, if these views are shorn of their political and theological errors.

All of this is another way of saying: the answer to our major question should be inflected along the lines of vocation. Those given to spend most of their time ordering visible fellowships (i.e., pastors), should spend their time doing things that only pastors can do: expositing the scriptures, shepherding parishioners according to general scriptural principles and prudence, leading public worship.  Those who have been called to spend most of their time outside the institutional church should do what they are called to.

Conflating these two leads to crusader churches, Amish ghettoes, and lots of other mistakes. Preserving the distinction, on the other hand, gives us an institutional church devoted to excellence in being what it is, and Christian men and women doing their work in the world to the glory of Christ and for the good of their neighbours.

There is one major objection I can see to this perspective: the office of deacons. In this office we seem to have an institution in the visible church which is devoted to things outside the realm of preaching and sacramental activity. But I think it would be at least possible to argue that the office of deacon was created in the early church for strictly prudential reasons. That is, while human society in general, and the magistrate as representative of that society in particular, have a moral obligation to help the poor, unsurprisingly in many cases they do not. Because the corpus christianorum‘s mission is to restore nature, and this is inclusive of restoring the poor to a place within human society, the earliest members of that corpus determined a wise way to deal with this problem (especially the problem as it manifested within the corpus) was to create members of visible fellowships that would have a dedicated responsibility to address this situation. It might be at least arguable that in a society where these conditions were not present, the office would not need to be present. That is, if the corpus christianorum (or even just the society, or the state) were taking care of the poor sufficiently, the visible assemblies of the church would not need to.

Another objection to the above position might be: does this imply clergy can never speak of specific political or cultural issues? I think the answer is that they may, but then again, it would be a matter of prudence as to when these things should be done. For clergymen who are not trained on the specific issues that they might wish to speak on, their course of action should be restraint: only speak as far as you are trained to do so. When it comes to moral instruction, this might mean sticking to more general principles of morality and prudence presented in scripture and the created order, and leaving more particular judgments to people whose calling it is to determine such things.