Posts Tagged ‘Ecclesiology’

These aren’t exactly polished thoughts, but I was wondering if any of you had any insights (or heretical labels) to offer on this. Much of what follows is highly indebted to Robert Jenson’s 2009 Burns Lectures delivered at the University of Otago. They can (and should) be viewed here. (The quotations in this post come from his first lecture, “Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation.”)

The word of God is none other than Jesus Christ. I don’t think this is a controversial claim in Christian circles. Anything else we call “God’s word” must somehow derive this status from Jesus Christ. The question about the word of God, then, can only be framed as a “Who?” question. If our doctrine of the word of God cannot be related to the person of Jesus, then we are off track. So the most appropriate question about God’s word is not, “What is it?” which usually entails the follow up, “What can we point to today and say, ‘That is God’s word’?” The question is, rather, “Who is it?” which entails a more appropriate follow up question, “Where is the concrete form of this One in the world?” Of course, when we ask about the concrete form of Jesus Christ in the world, our first and most obvious answer is: incarnation. But how do we answer this question now, that is, after the resurrection and ascension? Where is the concrete form of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Jesus Christ in the world today? And to what extent can we identify it as the concrete form of God’s word in the world today?

If we identify the word of God as the second person of the Trinity who became incarnate in space and time, then it becomes necessary to posit a direct connection between the divine logos and Jesus’ human body. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The bodily presence of Jesus simply is the presence of God’s word to the world. Thus, to ask how God’s word takes concrete form in the world today is to ask how we can speak of Jesus’ embodied presence today. Considering Paul’s statements about the body of Christ, I think that we need to answer this question ecclesiologically and sacramentally. To skip to the conclusion of these reflections, can we not say that the concrete form of God’s word in the world is the church-community? That the word God speaks in the world today is spoken concretely not only through this community but as this community?

This brings me to the question of the authority of the New Testament in the church. (I must leave aside for the moment the question of the Old Testament, because its place and role in the church has a much different history.) The New Testament canon, as we know it today, did not exist in the earliest days of the church. Yet the church existed, thrived, and grew. What brought about the need to gather and preserve these texts we now know as the New Testament? As Robert Jenson observes, “Any community that intends to be around for more than a moment, that hopes to remain itself through some palpable stretch of yesterday, today, and tomorrow will have to deal with the fragility of a life thus stretched across time.” He offers the following phenomenological description of scripture: “A religious community’s scripture is a body of literature that is fixed in some medium that preserves it—and that may simply be trained memories—and that in that fixity is necessary for the perdurance of the community for its self-identity through time.” Canonical Holy Scripture for the church thus functions as an authoritative set of texts designed to preserve the church-community as church through time.

The basic thesis I’m trying to test out is this: The New Testament is authoritative insofar as it functions to preserve the identity of the church-community through time. (I’m not suggesting that happens automatically or as a result of “applying” the text; it only happens as the Holy Spirit takes up the texts and uses them to enliven and shape the life of the community that the New Testament can function this way.) Thus, it is the church, not scripture, that is the concrete form of God’s word in the world, because it is in the form of this community that Christ’s body lives on earth.

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Okay, I’m frantically trying to finish by thesis. I’m writing on the relationship between theological anthropology and ethics in Bonhoeffer’s theology, and I’m pretty much done with all the grunt work. All I need now is to finish my intro and write a conclusion. I had always hoped to conclude with a pastoral reflection on how Bonhoeffer’s theology might be appropriated in the church, and there’s one particular line of thought that I’ve been following for a few weeks now. I thought I would enlist the help of my fellow (ex-)seminarians or anyone else who might happen upon this blog. I’ve tried to summarize my thoughts in the form of some basic theses. The first point is essentially where my research leaves off. My goal is to follow Bonhoeffer’s line of thought and consider about how we might hear his message for the church today. I do hope these make some kind of sense. I fear they are even more disorganized than I think they are. I’ll try to clarify if there are questions.

  • Christian life is participation in the reality of Jesus Christ in the world today. The world has no reality apart from Jesus Christ, the Real One. All attempts to speak of the world apart from Christ are abstractions. There can be no retreat from the world if we would be in Christ, because the world has been accepted, included, and borne in the person of Jesus. Furthermore, there can be no speech about Jesus Christ that does not ultimately include the world. We cannot speak about the person of Christ in himself, because he has revealed himself as one who is for the world. We cannot step behind this self revelation and inquire about who he might be apart from the world. This is merely metaphysical speculation, grounded in something other than God’s self-revelation. The transcendence of God is to be sought in God’s immanence: “God is the beyond in the midst of our lives” (LPP, 367). We therefore speak about the person of Christ, the being of Christ, as being-for-others. Jesus only “is there for others.”
  • Participation in the reality of Christ is “a new life in being there for others” (LPP, 501). Through faith, the human person participates in the person of Jesus, and so the human being is transformed into being-for-others. The Christian life is therefore characterized by a profound worldliness. Our new being in Christ is a “being there for others,” a being that is directed outward for the sake of the world.
  • The church, therefore, is church only when it is there for others. It is only as the church lives out its mission for the sake of the world that it is the church. Church-in-itself is not true church; there is only church-for-others.
  • The mission of the church is to proclaim the reconciliation of the world in Jesus Christ, in word and deed. It requires no more space in the world than is necessary to make this proclamation. This message contains a Yes and a No. The Yes, which comes first, is the message that all humanity has been accepted, included, and borne in Jesus Christ, that God has reconciled the world to himself through the cross of Christ. Where this Yes is heard and believed, it becomes immediately apparent that the world does not look like it has been reconciled. This is the No, which arises alongside but not prior to the Yes. The church cannot reverse the order of this proclamation. The No in itself is a dead message; the church’s proclamation has life only in the Yes.
  • Regarding the message of the church to the world: Following the church-for-others model, we can say that the Yes is the outward proclamation of the church, while the No is its inward confession. The Yes goes out from the church to reach all people; the No is gathered up in the church and brought before God. The latter cannot happen without the regular practice of confession. Confession—the concrete acceptance of guilt—is how human beings bear the No spoken over their lives, without which the Yes can never be heard or answered. Not only must the church confess its own sins, it must also vicariously confess the sins of the world. Through this act of vicarious representation, the church manifests its new being in Christ for the sake of the world, namely, being-for-others. Where the church reverses this, speaking a definitive No over the world while affirming itself with an ultimate divine Yes, it ceases to be the church. The world will never hear a Yes to itself; it will only hear the church’s Yes to itself.

I hope this is enough to generate some discussion. This is still very roughly sketched. I do think this at least begins in Bonhoeffer’s thought; whether I’ve followed his trajectory accurately I cannot say, nor can I easily delineate exactly where Bonhoeffer leaves off and I take over. Either way, any feedback would be greatly appreciated. I’m most interested in finding out if there’s a major gap or flaw in the argumentation (which might be Bonhoeffer’s, but is more likely my own) or if there are ways you could see this being a valuable message for the contemporary church to hear. Where would you take this? Or is this just a dead end?

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I’ve been reading Robert Jenson’s systematic theology for fun lately. I read the following passage this morning, where he talks about the body of the resurrected Jesus and how Paul can speak of both the bread and cup and the congregation as the “body of Christ.” I thought it was interesting.

But what can Paul mean, speaking so of Christ’s body? Neither the bread and cup nor the gathering of the church look like a human body or react as one.

The obvious first suggestion, which turns out to work perfectly on the texts, is that he speaks of the “body of Christ” as he speaks of “bodies” generally. In Paul’s language, someone’s “body” is simply the person him or herself insofar as this person is available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself. It is in that Paul is a body that persecutors can mark him as Christ’s (Gal 6:17); it is in that Paul is a body that he can be seen and interrogated by one of his congregations, or be remote from this possibility (1 Cor 5:3); it is in that Paul is a body that he can discipline his own self (1 Cor 9:27). In Paul’s ontology, such personal availability may or may not be constituted as the biological entity moderns first think of as “a body”; for Paul, a “spiritual” body, whatever that may be, is as much or more a body as is a biological body (1 Cor 15:44).

The church, according to Paul, is the risen body of Christ. She is this because the bread and cup in the congregation’s midst is the very same body of Christ. Paul’s first statement on the matter does not extend quite to this equation. “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor 10:17). But Paul then applies this doctrine to the behavior of the Corinthian congregation: because the Corinthians eat and drink disrespectfully of one another, they fail to “discern” the body of Christ (1 Cor 11:29). We want to ask which body Paul has in mind, the bread about which he has just reported the dominical words “This is my body,” or the congregation that is in fact the offended entity and which he has just earlier called Christ’s body. Paul’s text makes sense only when we grasp that he means both at once, and would reject our question as meaningless.

It is time for theology . . . to let what Paul meant by “body” teach us also what to mean by “body.” . . . We must learn to say: the entity rightly called the body of Christ is whatever object it is that is Christ’s availability to us as subjects; by the promise of Christ, this object is the bread and cup and the gathering of the church around him. There is where creatures can locate him, to respond to his word to them.

No metaphor or ontological evasion should be intended. Sacrament and church are truly Christ’s body for us, because Christ himself takes these same things for the object as which he is available to himself. For the proposition that the church is a human body of the risen Jesus to be ontically and straightforwardly true, all this is required is that Jesus indeed be the Logos of God, so that his self-understanding determines what is real.

The subject that the risen Christ is, is the subject who comes to word in the gospel. The object—the body—that the risen Christ is, is the body in the world to which this word calls our intention, the church around her sacraments. He needs no other body to be a risen man, body and soul. There is and needs to be no other place than the church for him to be embodied, nor in that other place any other entity to be the “real” body of Christ. Heaven is where God takes space in his creation to be present to the whole of it; he does that in the church.

(Robert Jenson, Systematic Theology, I.205-06)

So, for Jenson, Christ’s body is who he is in his availability to us. In my estimation, this might be a good way of explaining how we can speak of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (especially for a Lutheran like Jenson), and how we might similarly speak of the church as the bodily presence of Christ on earth. What do you think?

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