By her mid 30′s Marian Evans was a major player in Victorian intellectual circles, writing regularly for The Westminster Review and translating important works of Feuerbach and Spinoza into English. For various reasons she used a pseudonym ”George Eliot” when she undertook fiction writing. Born in 1804, she was raised in a nominal or “easy going” Anglican home, she had a period of deep evangelical Calvinistic conversion, but in the context still of the established Anglican church. By her mid 30′s she was an agnostic, but remained sympathetic to the Church at least in part. The following excerpt is from her “Scenes of a Clerical Life”. The book tells the story of three Anglican clergyman. The one mentioned in this passage is an establishment evangelical:
The first condition of human goodness is something to love; the second, something to reverence. And this latter precious gift was brought to Milby by Mr. Tryan and Evangelicalism.
Yes, the movement was good, though it had that mixture of folly and evil which often makes what is good an offence to feeble and fastidious minds, who want human actions and characters riddled through the sieve of their own ideas, before they can accord their sympathy or admiration. Such minds, I daresay, would have found Mr. Tryan’s character very much in need of that riddling process. The blessed work of helping the world forward, happily does not wait to be done by perfect men; and I should imagine that neither Luther nor John Bunyan, for example, would have satisfied the modern demand for an ideal hero, who believes nothing but what is true, feels nothing but what is exalted, and does nothing but what is graceful. The real heroes, of God’s making, are quite different: they have their natural heritage of love and conscience which they drew in with their mother’s milk; they know one or two of those deep spiritual truths which are only to be won by long wrestling with their own sins and their own sorrows; they have earned faith and strength so far as they have done genuine work; but the rest is dry barren theory, blank prejudice, vague hearsay. Their insight is blended with mere opinion; their sympathy is perhaps confined in narrow conduits of doctrine, instead of flowing forth with the freedom of a stream that blesses every weed in its course; obstinacy or self-assertion will often interfuse itself with their grandest impulses; and their very deeds of self-sacrifice are sometimes only the rebound of a passionate egoism. So it was with Mr. Tryan: and any one looking at him with the bird’s-eye glance of a critic might perhaps say that he made the mistake of identifying Christianity with a too narrow doctrinal system; that he saw God’s work too exclusively in antagonism to the world, the flesh, and the devil; that his intellectual culture was too limited—and so on; making Mr. Tryan the text for a wise discourse on the characteristics of the Evangelical school in his day.
But I am not poised at that lofty height. I am on the level and in the press with him, as he struggles his way along the stony road, through the crowd of unloving fellow-men. He is stumbling, perhaps; his heart now beats fast with dread, now heavily with anguish; his eyes are sometimes dim with tears, which he makes haste to dash away; he pushes manfully on, with fluctuating faith and courage, with a sensitive failing body; at last he falls, the struggle is ended, and the crowd closes over the space he has left.
George Eliot. Scenes of Clerical Life
The Christian faith is thus ecclesial because it is evangelical. But it is no less true that it is only because the Christian faith is evangelical that it is ecclesial; that is to say, its ecclesial character derives solely from and is wholly dependent upon the gospel’s manifestation of God’s sovereign purpose for his creatures. The church is because God is and acts thus. It is, consequently, an especial concern for evangelical ecclesiology to demonstrate not only that the church is a necessary implicate of the gospel but also that gospel and church exist in a strict and irreversible order, one in which the gospel precedes and the church follows. Much of the particular character of evangelical ecclesiology turns upon articulating in the right way the relation-in-distinction between the gospel and the church-”relation,” because the gospel concerns fellowship between God and creatures; “distinction,” because that fellowship, even in its mutuality, is always a miracle of unilateral grace. It is this particular modality of the encounter between God and creatures-what Christoph Schwobel calls a “fundamental asymmetry’ between divine and human being and action-which I suggest is to characterize both the church’s constitution and its continuing existence.
Evangelical ecclesiology is concerned to lay bare both the necessary character of the church and its necessarily derivative character. Two consequences follow. (1) An account of the gospel to which ecclesiology is purely extrinsic is thereby shown to be inadequate. Much modern Protestant theology and church life has been vitiated by the dualist assumption that the church’s social form is simple externality and so indifferent, merely the apparatus for the proclamation of the Word or the occasion for faith conceived as internal spiritual event? Among some strands of evangelical Protestantism, assimilation of the voluntarism and individualism of modern political and philosophical culture has had especially corrosive effects, not only inhibiting a sense of the full ecclesial scope of the gospel but also obscuring much that should have been learned from the magisterial Reformers and their high Protestant heirs. “So powerful is participation in the church,” wrote Calvin, ”that it keeps us in the society of God. Ecclesiology may not become “first theology”; that is, the ecclesiological minimalism of much modern Protestantism cannot be corrected by an inflation of ecclesiology so that it becomes the doctrinal substratum of all Christian teaching. In mainstream Protestant theology of the last couple of decades, this inflation has been rapid and highly successful: among those drawing inspiration from theological “postliberalism 4 among Lutherans who have unearthed a Catholic Luther and a catholic Lutheranism;’ or among those who describe the church through the language of “practice.”‘ The attempted reintegration of theology and the life of the church which stimulates such proposals is, of course, of capital importance; but, as we shall see, the underlying ecclesiology is commonly set out in such a way that it threatens to distort the asymmetry of gospel and church. Annexing much of its basic conceptuality from nontheological theory, it is often underdetermined by exegetical or dogmatic description, so that what is produced can appear more of an exercise in ecclesiality than an ecclesiology. A consequence (or perhaps a cause) is a rather immanentist account of the church which lacks strong interest in deploying direct language about God, since the church is the historical medium of divine action. A further consequence is heavy investment in the church as visible human communion. The derivation of the church from the gospel is, accordingly, rather remotely conceived; at best it forms a background affirmation, but one which exercises little critical or corrective force upon the way in which church practice is conceived. In short: Schleiermacher, not Barth.
John Webster, in Mark Husbands & Daniel J. Treier. The Community of the Word: Toward an Evangelical Ecclesiology
Great insight by J.K. Smith about how people pit orthodoxy vs orthopraxy, and see the former as modern and the latter as postmodern:
So this is why I think the distinction between orthodoxy and orthopraxy is a moot point. Any community of practice is going to have both. It’s not doxa or praxis that’s at issue; it’s the ortho! On my account, the Christian community can’t avoid defining the ortho because no community of practice can be without standards of excellence.
(Permit a digression: I’ve never understood why some think that orthodoxy is hopelessly “modern” whereas orthopraxy is sexy and postmodern. Have folks not read Kant’s Groundwork for the Metaphysics of Morals, or his Critique of Practical Reason? The latter is a pretty classic “orthopraxy” it seems to me, to the point that Kant really doesn’t give a rip about the specifics of orthodox dogma, as long as you’ve got your orthopraxy in place. [Sound familiar? See any 15 popular “emergent” books of your choice.] Do we really want to suggest that Kant was a proto-postmodern? Or does this show us that those who make this doxy/praxy distinction are still locked within a modernist paradigm? Indeed, at the end of the day, isn’t it the ortho that they really resist?)
Peter Leithart recently posted a blog entry (http://www.leithart.com/2012/05/21/too-catholic-to-be-catholic/#more-14412) entitled “Too catholic to be Catholic”. It’s a wonderful piece about why he remains a Reformed Protestant, and his reasons are catholic ones. The post concludes with the following:
One final reason has to do with time. I cut my theological teeth, and still cut them, on James Jordan’s biblical theology. At the end of Through New Eyes, Jordan argues just as the temple was unimaginable to Israelites living through the collapse of the tabernacle system, so the future of the church is unimaginable to us. We can’t see the future; we can’t know how God is going to put back the fragmented pieces of His church. We can trust and hope that He is and will, but all we have access to are the configurations of the past and present. It’s tempting to imagine that the future of the church will be an extension of some present tradition – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist, whatever. But the future never is a simple extension of the past and present (how can it be, with the massive surge in Christianity in the global South?). So I remain contentedly and firmly in my reformed catholicity, but I remain also eager and impatient for the church to come. Of that church we know nothing except that it will be like nothing we know. We worship a living God, which means (Jenson tells us) a God of constant surprises.
Before delineating the various aspects of the gnostic type, it should be understood that the one primary ingredient for the birth of gnosticism is a particular mood. The mood is one of despair. The gnostic solution can be satisfying only to those who have no tangible or rational hope. Because a certain number of people at every stage of history are caught up in despair, gnosticism of one sort or other always has a following. Throughout Christian history, certain individuals and small groups have been drawn toward the gnostic way. That historical reality is not terribly alarming; every great religion has variations on the theme. When, however, we come to a period like that of the first four centuries of the Church, when the gnostic way almost prevailed, how can we speak of a mood? Can an entire culture be in despair? And if so, why?
-Philip J. Lee, Against the Protestant Gnostics
On the way to a Presbyterian ordination service in NYC the other day I was talking with a friend who’s a Catholic priest. Needless to say it stimulated some thinking. I came across this quote on a great blog this morning:
The Reformed, following Calvin and the best of those who spoke in his wake, sought to witness to how the cross and the eucharist are held in a unity that does not violate but reinforces their distinction via two forms: The constitutive form is the cross while the mediating form is the eucharist. ‘The cross is always central, constitutive, and definitive, while the eucharist is always secondary, relative, and derivative. The eucharistic form of the one sacrifice does not repeat the unrepeatable, but it does attest what it mediates and mediate what it attests. What it mediates and attests is the one whole Jesus Christ, who in his body and blood is both the sacrifice and the sacrament in one. As the sacrifice, he is the Offerer and the Offering. As the sacrament, he is the Giver and the Gift. The Son’s sacrificial offering of himself to the Father for us on the cross is the ground of the Father’s sacramental gift of his Son to the faithful in the eucharist’ (Ibid. 151). As TF Torrance has shown in Theology in Reconciliation, the cross is the ‘dimension of depth’ in the eucharist. The eucharist has no significance in and of itself. Its significance is both derived and grounded in the cross. The cross alone is, as TF Torrance notes, the saving ‘content, reality and power’ of the eucharist. It is to this that the Reformed minister and church directs our gaze.It was precisely such a position which led PT Forsyth, the theologian of the cross, in his lectures on The Church and the Sacraments, to offer the following statement:The Lord’s Supper is the most complete and plenary of all the cultic ways of confessing the work of reconciliation, where the sin of humanity is conquered by the grace of God in a holy Kingdom. It is therefore the real centre of the Church’s common and social life. This should not be sought in social reunions, or ecclesiastical monarchy, or philanthropic cohesion, but in the spiritual region, in the worship, and the theology moulding it. For here we are summoned to what is our vital centre deep within all the individual wills that wish to unite, to what is the centre of the faith that makes the new Humanity, and to the goal which rounds all’. (p. 260)
The decline of Mainline Protestantism is a fact. But what does it mean? What’s at the root of it. Christian Smith offers some suggestions in Souls In Transition, at least where that decline concerns young adults.
It is old news by now that mainline-liberal Protestant denominations in the United States are suffering major declines in membership and social prestige. Sociologists have for decades been documenting a hemorrhaging of members from mainline Protestant churches. And the religious and political ascendancy of American evangelicalism since the 1970s has drawn the spotlight away from the once mainstream religious presence of the more liberal Protestant churches. What was once mainline is now regularly dubbed the “sideline”
and the “old-line.” These are not the glory days of mainline-liberal Protestantism in America. Yet many observers are so focused on membership statistics and apparent political influences that they miss an important fact: that liberal Protestantism’s organizational decline has been accompanied by and
is in part arguably the consequence of the fact that liberal Protestantism has won a decisive, larger cultural victory. In this idea, we follow the argument of the University of Massachusetts sociologist of religion N. Jay Demerath, in a perceptive but we think underappreciated journal article he published in 1995 entitled “Cultural Victory and Organizational Defeat in the Paradoxical Decline of Liberal Protestantism.” Demerath’s argument is fairly simple. “Far from representing failure,” he says, “the decline of Liberal Protestantism may actually stem from its success. It may be the painful structural consequences
of [its] wider cultural triumph. . . . Liberal Protestants have lost structurally at the micro level precisely because they won culturally at the macro level.” What Demerath means by this is that liberal Protestantism’s core values— individualism, pluralism, emancipation, tolerance, free critical inquiry, and the
authority of human experience—have come to so permeate broader American culture that its own churches as organizations have diffi culty surviving. One reason for this development is that these very liberal values have a tendency to undermine organizational vitality. The strongest organizations are generally not built on individualism, diversity, autonomy, and criticism. Furthermore, having won the larger battle to shape mainstream culture, it becomes difficult to sustain a strong rationale for maintaining distinctively liberal church organizations to continue to promote those now omnipresent values. Liberal Protestantism increasingly seems redundant to the taken-for-granted mainstream that it has helped to create. Why organize to promote what is already hegemonic?…very many mainline Protestant emerging adults simply could not care enough to talk about religion in any specific terms, but those who did in fact
usually talked like classical liberal Protestants. In short, many emerging adults would be quite comfortable with the kind of liberal faith described by the Yale theologian H. Richard Niebuhr in 1937 as being about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the
ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.” They simply would have no idea about the genealogy of their taken-for-granted ideas, that is, from where historically they came. On more than a few occasions, in fact, while listening to emerging adults explain their views of religion, it struck us that they might just as well be paraphrasing passages from classical liberal Protestant theologians, of whom they have no doubt actually never heard, from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The likes of Adolf von Harnack, Albrecht Ritschl, Wilhelm Hermann, and Harry Emerson Fosdick would be proud. (p.288-289)
So perhaps the reason why the Mainline loses its young is not that they don’t listen, but that they listen all too well.
After having studied Romans 14 this week in church, conduct in the midst of theological disputes and church conflict is fresh in my mind. Paul suggests that regarding food and calendar practices the Roman Christians all should “be fully convinced” of their position in their own minds (14:5) at the same time resisting the temptation to pass judgment on those with differing convictions (14:13) I began re-reading Robert Jenson’s Systematic Theology this evening and came across some wonderfully relevant passages about the penultimate nature of our theological convictions and our confidence in a fallible church’s fidelity.
No structures of historical continuity merely as such can assure the integrity of witness to reality that is other than the transmitting group, at least if that witness is such as to require hermeneutical reflection. Thus neither Scripture nor creed nor liturgy nor teaching office, nor yet their ensemble, can as historical structures guarantee the fidelity of our proclamation and prayer to the apostolic witness. Affirmation that the church is still the church pledges the certainty of a historical continuity that no structures of historical continuity can make certain. This affirmation therefore reaches beyond its immediate object to be faith that God uses the church’s communal structures to preserve the gospel’s temporal self-identity and so also the temporal self-identity of the gospel’s community.
Invoking such an activity of God, the church speaks of the Spirit. Thus the church believes that her Scriptures are instruments of the Spirit in her life; that her dogmatic decisions may truly begin, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us”; and that ordination grants a “gift” of the Spirit to preserve continuity of the apostolic teaching. Faith that the church is still the church is faith in the Spirit’s presence and rule in and by the structures of the church’s historical continuity. Indeed, even the church’s recognition through the second century of who were and who were not apostles cannot be justified except by trust in the Spirit’s leading.
But if it is God the Spirit who sustains the gospel’s and so the church’s self-identity through time, then that identity cannot be mere historical continuity with the church’s past beginning. For the Spirit is precisely God as the power of the future, God as his own and our transforming outcome. If it is the Spirit who sustains the gospel’s and the church’s self-identity through time, then that identity is primarily anticipation of an end and just so perpetuation of a beginning, anticipation of the “eternal gospel” and just so reiteration of a historic message.
Therefore, until we have identified the particular deity of the Spirit that is, until we have the trinitarian interpretation of God more fully before us we cannot fully understand the church’s tradition, nor therefore Scriptural or creedal or liturgical or ministerial authority. [emphasis mine]
Recognizing that in the midst of our disagreements the Spirit is in our midst guarantees us two things. First, that all parties see through a glass darkly regardless of whatever partial truths are affirmed on either side of any given argument. Any truth confessed is a truth that is confessed on the way to a future which still awaits our arrival. Second, the Spirit’s presence is our guarantee that despite any and all falsehoods either party may hold, they hold them as member’s of a community not abandoned by the Spirit, and thus one that will be safely (if begrudgingly at times) led into all truth.
This is simple, but pretty good.