Tuesday, June 7, 2011

On the One Thing Needed to Secure the Church's Existence

As we continue the move-in process and begin to get settled here in New Haven, the posts will remain scant around here for some time more. However, I wanted to offer a very brief comment that is in no way original, but bears repeating.

In Robert Jenson's Canon and Creed, he makes the statement that "the canon without the creed will not serve to protect the church against perversion of the gospel, and neither will the creed without the canon" (p. 32). Similar claims abound, and seem only to provoke counter-claims, concerning what is the "one thing needed" (whether it be an actual single thing or some combination) to somehow ensure, insure, protect, ground, establish, guard, or otherwise solidify the existence, endurance, and faithfulness of the church (or of the individual believer). Whether it be narrative, Scripture, discipline, creeds, creed + canon, magisterium, habits, locality, retreat, family, knowledge, activism, politics, whatever -- some thing or things, construed or combined, believed or possessed or enacted, will inevitably (and, however great a challenge, reliably) secure the life and faith of the church over time.

To repeat the one well-worn response to this omnipresent argument that is worth endorsing: There is no such thing, and never will be.

Not only is something like trustworthy security, however articulated, a mere illusion, a flat impossibility from the start; it simply does not belong to the church's form of life. Signing up for discipleship to Christ rids us at the outset of any expectation of security or enactable longevity. ("Just five easy steps to a faith/church/life you can count on.") Whatever solidity or perseverance our faith or community experiences (a better word would be discovers; the best: receives) will be, without exception, a gift from God beyond our plans and capabilities. Such a gift will itself not be an achievement we can claim, much less a possession we can get our hands around. And it will not be something like ground beneath our feet or a fence around our faith or a roof above our heads. Rather, it will be like birds which do not store away, but are fed, like flowers which do not labor or spin, but rise up beautiful and extravagant out of the soil.

There is, finally -- to conclude with an odd but, I think, representative euphemism -- nothing for the church to hang its hat on except God. All else is either a servant, a signpost, or a mirage thereof.


  1. What a wonderful post. In some ways I agree with you, especially if you mean that canon + creed (or whatever else on your list) is necessary but not sufficient to secure the life and faith of the Church over time. For life we need the Spirit, who blows where she wills, etc.

    But what about this suggestion, and stop me if I'm being too Catholic/Orthodox: the one needful thing here is the liturgy, because the liturgy just is the life and faith of the Church. It is not exactly a servant or a signpost and it is certainly not a mirage: it is God's worship of God made available to us. And there is a sort of security in it, based on the reliability of God's promises: for Christ promised us the Spirit, and if the liturgy is to mean anything, that promise is fulfilled above all in the liturgical act. It is certainly not an achievement we can claim, but it is in some ways a possession we can get our hands around - or at least, those aspects we cannot handle are delivered faithfully by God when we perform those aspects that we do have hands for. This is what it means to talk of sacraments as guarantees (but not exclusive means) of grace. This liturgy is the lifeblood of the Church, and the rest of your list is insufficient because it is derivative of it: the canon, e.g., is just those books found suitable for the liturgy, and the creed is just the interpretation judged appropriate for liturgical exposition. You've probably stopped me by now for being wildly un-Protestant, but that gives you some sense of how the other two thirds of Christians might qualify your point.

  2. Yes, yes, and yes. This is exactly what I wind up arguing in my dissertation conclusion. In today's theological climate, when you say something like this, you sound out of your mind. But Brad, it's the utter truth. Apart from the Spirit, the liturgy is empty, unless we take the line of saying that God has bound God's-self to the liturgy. To say that God is revealed in Christ, through the Scriptures? Yes. To say that the liturgy narrates this, and in some sense makes this truth dramatically present or 'real'? Yes. But apart from the Spirit, presenting Christ, binding the church together, ushering us to Christ in our prayers, there is nothing.

  3. Myles: Agreed, and thanks for the amen.

    Ross: In many ways I find your suggestion attractive and even compelling, but I just don't think it adds up. Even more, though I'm happy to acknowledge that your view represents quite a good number of the world's believers, it's more or less precisely the perspective I'm arguing against.

    This may spin into a wholesale liturgical discussion, but I find this kind of unfettered (even unqualified) centralized emphasis on the liturgy to be deeply distressing. Perhaps the sacraments are means of grace (I've never quite understood the typically Protestant allergy to that language), insofar as we indisputably share in and receive God's grace by and through them. But the moment this turns "the church" as identifiable community of worshipful discipleship (or discipled worship) into an administrative apparatus "distributing" some "thing" called "grace," which distribution, by way of the community's regular gathering, becomes the "point" (in your words, the "lifeblood") of the whole shebang -- that is where I not only have serious issues, but cannot for the life of me find any justification or imaginative analogue in the New Testament.

    The simple test question is: Can we gather together (ostensibly) to worship God, and instead engage in idolatry? If the answer is some form of No -- that, in Myles's words, God has so bound himself to the liturgy that it is in some way imperishably sanctified -- then we have made a serious mistake. Idolatry (perhaps we might just say "sin") is not removed as an option after baptism, and my goal in this post was to say exactly that: our only salvation, our only "security," is in the on-the-face-of-it unstable trust that God Immanuel will truly be with us. Even such a thing as liturgy, as the well-intended and beautiful act of worshiping God, cannot keep us from that built-in instability in the life of Christian faith.

  4. I'm emailing you my Stringfellow chapter right now. Read what I have to say about his ecclesiology, as it's precisely what you're sensing here.

  5. Brad,

    I think we can do the liturgy idolatrously, but the liturgy is not idolatrous. That is, when we gather at the liturgy, we are truly present to God worshiping God, and that act contains no idolatry, though we ourselves may be blind to that present reality in any number of ways and may be directing our thoughts, prayers, and intentions sinfully. Do we disagree here? When you say that the administrators-distributing-packets-of-grace view is unbiblical - and I agree that it is problematic - do you mean also to condemn this idea that the liturgy is reliably objectively pure?

    My point is not that different from saying that Scripture is itself the word of God and without idolatry, but our reading of it can be idolatrous. If all you mean is that, whatever confidence we might have in objective factors like Scripture or the liturgy making God present to us, we cannot take for granted our proper subjective appropriation of them going forward, then perhaps we do agree. That is the spirit in which I took, and enjoyed, your post.

    The stuff about liturgy in my first comment was directed not at this difficulty of appropriation but at the fact that creed+canon, even done without idolatry, is still not enough for the Christian life: it is only the first half of the Mass, after all. But by shifting attention away from creed+canon and toward liturgy, I was also trying to open some space for a community of faith that perseveres precisely in the sense that it holds in trust this act of worship, an act that cannot be transferred outside the community in the way that the Bible or the creed in some measure can (you cannot perform a copy-cat liturgy that is still liturgy, whereas a copy of the Bible is just another Bible). This is the possession that secures the life of the Church now and in the future, and if you want to deny that security, you have to deny that God's objective presence is guaranteed in the liturgy in the way that his word's presence is guaranteed in Scripture. Is that roughly your position? (Interestingly, I suspect the early Church would much sooner deny that God's word is present to us in the books of Scripture than that God's worship is present to us in liturgy, but I'm not sure how much their view counts with you.)

  6. Ross: Two things.

    First, what you've written is beautiful and clear and appealing; but, as you suspect, I deeply disagree with it.

    Second, back-and-forths like this make me look forward to this fall very much. It's going to be a blast being first years together and being able to work through this stuff.

  7. Alas, we can't all get along.

    And I, too, look forward to it.