Too catholic to be Catholic

Peter Leithart recently posted a blog entry ( 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.


Eschatology, Eschatology, Eschatology…

If Christianity be not altogether thoroughgoing eschatology, there remains in it no relationship whatever with Christ…. All that is not hope is wooden, hobbledehoy, blunt-edged, and sharp-pointed, like the word `Reality’….But to wait is the most profound truth of our normal, everyday life and work, quite apart from being Christians…. We ask nothing better or higher than the Cross, where God is manifested as God. We must, in fact, be servants who wait for the coming of their Lord.
Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans

The Judgment of Jesus

“Christ allocates ruin to no one; he himself is pure salvation, and whoever stands by him stands in the sphere of salvation and grace. The calamity is not imposed by him but exists wherever man has remained distant from him; it arises through continuing to abide within oneself”.

-Joseph Ratzinger, Eschatology

Thinking about Hell

“The truth is not simply an either-or: either somebody is in hell or nobody is. Both are partial expressions of the whole truth. Thus, too, Ignatius has a right to make his meditations on hell and to instruct that they be made…The truth consists in a sum total of partial truths, and each of these partial truths must be wholly expressed, wholly thought out and lived through. We do not arrive at the truth if we only bring out one part and cover up the other. In every perspective, the whole must come to expression.”

-Adrienne von Speyr, Kreuz and Holle, vol. 2.

Comfort In The Midst Of Controversy

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.

Why is the Resurrection Significant?

At our church’s weekly bible study we were discussing the significance of the Resurrection. It was a great conversation. I wish I had re-read a piece by Richard Gaffin beforehand. Here’s a nice passage from his essay entitled “Redemption and Resurrection”. Particularly nice is Gaffin’s emphasis that Christ didn’t rise but was raised from the dead:

In view, further, is Christ’s resurrection as an innately eschatological event. In fact, as much as any, it is the key inaugurating event of eschatology, the dawn of the new creation (2 Cor. 5:17; Gal. 6:15), the arrival of the age to come (Rom. 12:2; Gal. 1:4). It is not an isolated event in the past, but, in having occurred in the past, it belongs to the future consummation and from that future has entered history. In Christ’s resurrection the resurrection-harvest at the end of history is already visible. Pressed, if present, say, at a modern-day prophecy conference, as to when the event of bodily resurrection for believers will take place, the first thing the apostle would probably want to say is, it has already begun!

The emphasis on Christ as the first-fruits of resurrection points out that, for Paul, the primary significance of Christ’s resurrection lies in what he and believers have in common, not in the profound difference between them; the accent falls not on his true deity but on his genuine humanity. The Resurrection, as we will presently note in more detail, is not so much an especially evident display or powerful proof of Christ’s divine nature as it is the powerful transformation of his human nature.

This emphasis is confirmed in an implicit but pervasive fashion by Paul’s numerous references, without elaboration, to the simple fact of the Resurrection [4]. These undeveloped statements display a consistent, unmistakable pattern: 1) God in his specific identity as the Father raises Jesus from the dead (Gal. 1:1, 2) Jesus is passive in his resurrection. This viewpoint is held without exception, so far as I can see. Nowhere does Paul teach that Christ was active in or contributed to his resurrection, much less that he raised himself; Jesus did not rise, but was raised from the dead. The stress everywhere is on the creative power and action of the Father, of which Christ is the recipient.

I Want My Body!

Robert Harrison is the host of Entitled Opinions, which is for my money the best podcast on the web. He had this to say in a recent episode entitled “Epilogue: The Earthly Paradise”:

…for human beings happiness outside of the body is very difficult to imagine, and impossible to desire. We can desire deliverance from the body, and desire it very ardently, but that’s another matter. The best proof of this in my mind is the fact that the beatified souls, the saints in Dante’s Paradise, anticipate with a surplus of joy the resurrection of their flesh at the end of time. One could say that their bliss in heaven is incomplete in fact until they recover in time what time has robbed them of: namely their personal identities which were bound up with their flesh. So, as I tell my students sometimes when I teach Dante, all of us on earth insofar as we are in our bodies, are more blessed than the saints in Dante’s heaven.

We can’t desire happiness outside our embodied existence. We can try to imagine it, but it’s probably an exercise in futility. We can, as Harrison points out, ardently desire deliverance from our bodies and all the limits, risks, joys, and uncertainties we are confronted with on a daily basis as a result of indwelling them. Buddhism, Hinduism and Platonism all offer this hope, and with good reason, as do all the those who deny any afterlife. Those that would advocate the afterlife’s denial are clearly a minority in our human history. But their case, when compared with pictures of eternity sans our bodies, whether they come in Eastern or Western forms, seems far more down to earth. So we are left with a decision. We either hope for a future life where all the happiness and goodness we have know is left behind and we go on existing without our fleshly mortal coils. Or we can deny any future eternity after death, fixing our hopes, dreams, and yes our happiness on what we can do in the limited span of years we are given to function.

Then there’s the Christian and Jewish hope: resurrection. Resurrection is neither the denial of the future life, nor does it have much in common with the stories about our eternal destiny that want us to be uncomfortable “in our own skin”. The biblical promise of redemption doesn’t merely involve the resurrection of our bodies and with it the assurance that there remains a future for our old friend our body. It involves the promise that embodied existence will continue, but in a way better than we could hope or dream. What would it mean to meet our bodies again for the first time?