05 June 2014

Ever-Day Has Begun

Not only does the church suffer from an open wound of schism, she is weak, and unsurprisingly so, in this time between the times. The former continues in disobedience; the latter is just the way it is, at least until that final day.

Has anything ever been decreed absolutely by God (when it comes to his contingent creation), without any expectation of meeting certain conditions on our part, without any response on his part to intervening historical contingencies? Taking our cue from the sacred Scriptures, we see that even those decrees (oracles, prophecies, apostolic utterances, etc.) that appear at first glance to be absolute (e.g., Jonah 3:4), are nevertheless laden with conditions (when dealing with humankind in particular).

I submit that the same holds true with respect to the people of God and their calling to be one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.

Put another way, I'm talking about a God who called out of the massa perditionis a Christ (the eternal Son of God who took upon himself our nature), in whom people are united (through baptism and faith), which people are then called to be what they are. Being thus made posse non pecare they are given the tasks laid out in various places throughout the Scriptures of embodying what it means to be corpus Christi, and, by virtue of the indwelling Spirit of God, are thus able to do so. In doing so, they falter, they err, and all the while their loving and patient God struggles with them, responding to them, and continually goads them on toward the unity (of will and purpose and substantiality) that is shared among the Godhead, the great Three in One.

And the reality is, the church continues to fail in this particular calling toward unity set before it, a church of the open wound. So far as this world and our finite perspectives are concerned, Christianity, with all its divisions, worldly alliances, demagoguery, and heterodoxy, does indeed look false. But there's hope with each dawn, which will be fully realized on that final morn when there will be no more night, for the Lord God himself will shine (Rev 22:5); indeed, the city will have "no need of sun or moon, for the glory of God illuminates the city, and the Lamb [will be] its light" (Rev 21:23).
No-nightness comes.

Ever-day has begun to encroach upon the lightless land,
and we, lamp-stands all, called to remove the basket covering.
But how is the church "rightly" weak today? Perhaps it's better stated this way: the church has always been weak, and we have the tools to recognize it as such, and therefore we have the tools to better "let our good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise our heavenly Father" (Matt 5:16).

Recently, an essay over at First Things by Matthew Rose on "Karl Barth's Failure" produced some critical responses by a few Protestant bloggers. One, in particular, stood out: David Congdon's "In Defense of Modernity." In brief, Congdon writes, "Put plainly: modernity is Protestant, so to reject modernity is to reject Protestantism. Perhaps that is the underlying message of Rose’s article. Barth finally fails, because he remains, at the end of the day, "a theologian of the Reformation."

And what are some of the contours of that modernity? You can read Congdon's post to see, but I'd like to highlight one—the rise of historical consciousness as a genuinely theological event. He quotes Gerhard Ebeling at length to unpack the point:
The sola fide of the Reformation is directed not only against justification by works and thereby against a legalistic exposition of scripture, not only against mysticism and against multiplication of the revealing reality in the form of saints and against materialization of the revealing reality in the form of sacred objects. But the sola fide has undoubtedly also an anti-sacramental and an anti-clerical point. To the sola fide there corresponds solus Christus. Revelation and the present are separated from each other in such a way that only one bridge remains: the Word alone—and indeed, lest any misunderstanding should arise, the Word interpreted as salvation sola gratia, sola fide. All other bridges have been broken up. The whole system of Catholicism has thereby collapsed. There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation. (emphasis mine; Word and Faith, 35–36)
"There is no such thing as a simple, matter-of-fact presence of revelation." The sola fide of the Reformation implies a rejection of all absolute institutional claims, of all offers of restored taken-for-granted institutional certainty (to paraphrase Peter Berger). But does this mean that no institution is left standing? No. But what type of institution can we then speak of? Extraordinarily weak associations of individuals with no deep commitment. Can such institutions survive? They can and do. (I'm a member of a vibrant parish in a decidedly progressive mainline diocese, and it has much more in common with its traditionalist counterparts in Roman and Lutheran churches, and yet is not filled with parishioners who maintain a posture of alleged certainty. And this phenomena occurs regularly within the old mainline churches, often cast in less traditional forms, whether broad-church or evangelical.)

No doubt the certainty of Rome’s institution has been considerably weakened by historical scholarship and the social sciences. The same holds true, of course, for Protestant institutions as well. Every time the structures of Protestant orthodoxy sought to recapitulate Rome's absolute claim—in order to maintain a "strong" institution, one that has a "foundation of taken-for-granted verities, requiring representatives who exude an air of self-assured certainty," so Berger—those structures have also come tumbling down. It's one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation—the divine and human protest again any absolute claim made for a relative (i.e., socially constructed) reality, which immediately turns directly back on to itself.

What this means is simply this: "For the sake of Christ, take pleasure in your weakness . . . . For when you are weak, then you are strong" (2 Cor 12:10). Knowing you're weak, recognizing the gaping wound in the side of our Lord's bride, reshapes the mission each of us have been called to in this American life.


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