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A. SCRIPTURE AND HISTORY

Daniel G. Bloesch admits in the introduction to his Essentials of Evangelical Theology, Vol. 1 that "[i]t is to the credit of liberals [. . .] that they were profoundly aware of the corporate nature of evil and of the social imperatives of faith. [. . .] The Gospel is in reality a world-changing message" which has been obscured by "an overemphasis on individual salvation to the neglect of community responsibility" (3).

While calling for an increased level of "prophetic insight regarding social sin" within the Church, however, Bloesch nonetheless argues that "[t]he Gospel is a spiritual message which stands above all social ideologies" (3). I think Bloesch is correct only insofar as a) what a "spiritual message" is and what spiritual message the Gospel presents remains essentially vague, and b) by "social ideologies" he means any specific, static articulated formulation which grows out of feminist thought, which grows out of anti-racist thought, which grows out of queer theoretic thought, etc. But the conservative evangelical idea that we are free from the underlying necessity to be anti-racist, feminist, queer-theoretic, etc. insofar as Biblical theology (whatever that may be) does not explicitly command it is dangerous. No articulation of ideology, be it social or theological (however one might understand the distinction) should be exempt from the dialectical processes of which truth is a function. All ideological processes should hold truth, not orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy, as their ultimate objective.

Bloesch recognizes this when he states that "the fundamental norm of faith (Scripture) must continually be subordinated to and interpreted by the material norm, the Gospel of reconciliation and redemption"--although he resists those specific moves that liberals have made in the service of that material norm "against" in some sense the "objective criterion" of Holy Scripture (2), in contradition to "the objective basis of faith" (5, n. 3).

If by "objective" Bloesch is demanding a realist metaphysics akin to that argued for by recent pontiffs of the Roman church, then obviously any theology, especially a postmodernist theology like mine, which denies the possible independence of truth from the dialectial process in and of history--which is to say, from the work of the Spirit--will not satisfy him.

But that is not, despite what those Roman pontiffs might assert, to affirm relativism: the dialectical processes in effect are hardly of a nature such that we can make a thing true merely by, say, wanting it to be true, or even by believing it to be true. Truth is a force much, much greater than any one of us. It is transcendent--of divine origin, a gift from God. But, like God, it is always-already revealed through history.

The Scripturalism of evangelical theology is thus at once its greatest danger and its greatest weekness; indeed, in many ways it is the source of all of its other ills. Resistance to faddishness is always exemplary, but many evangelical Christians are sorely overconfident in their ability to distinguish what is a fad from what is progress. As fallible human beings, our understanding is always-already structured by our history; this is inevitable.

To claim to have in a static text an objective critierion which can then be freed from the historical context which produced it and applied uncritically to evaluate our experience today is thus to deny the possibility of further revelation, that the Spirit is still speaking to us and that the Church still has room to grow. It is to stunt our legs before we have learned to walk, on par on arbitrarily deciding that the medieval period represented the apex of medical advancement and that we should use only leeches to treat patients.

The Church simply cannot do this and survive. Stasis is death. Nor should it--authentic discipleship does not mean the abandonment of the criticial dialectic. We need a Church which engages with the dialectic of history, not merely deigning to stand apart and claim to "learn from" it or "take what is good" but to truly give itself up to it and find itself enriched, stronger, more ready for true apostleship. This is the way the Kingdom is built.

This is not to say that we should not look to the Scriptures for guidance, of course; after all, they contain all things necessary for salvation. In many ways it is in reading and telling the stories of the Bible that we find our identity as Christians: they are our stories (although of course they are not uniquely ours, some or all of them being shared with Jews, Muslims, Bahá'ís, and others). The Bible is our inheritance as Christians, the history of our community, a textbook not of religion and morals but of our religious and moral evolution. It is a shared language and history which binds us together as sisters and brothers and siblings in Christ. It's the core of the basis for our entire religious symbology (with additions made here and there, sure). Its stories inform who we are, both culturally and spiritually. These are the documents which we as a Church look to as foundational. "God still speaks to us through the Bible," the Episcopal catechism reminds us.

The Scriptures are a gift from God, a tool for understanding God and seeing God and discerning God's will, the lens through which we understand the transcendent.

But they're not everything.

B. HISTORY AND THE CHURCH
"The Church, in turn, is the sacrament of our encounter with Christ and of Christ's with us. And the seven sacraments, in their turn, are sacraments of our encounter with the Church and of the Church's with us. Indeed, the other members of the Church are sacraments of encounter for us and we for them because, in the Christian scheme of things, we exaperience and manifest the love of Gof through love of neighbor."
Richard P. McBrien, 101 Questions and Answers on the Church, 17.
The sacraments are the means of grace, and the Church is a sacramental institution. The institutional and corporate nature of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church is often downplayed within Protestantism, which chooses to focus instead on personal experience and individual salvation--but only at great risk. The Church is a thing, an ontologic entity, which is Mother to us all and Bride to Christ.

The Church stands as means of grace not because of her ability to minister from some extrahistorical pulpit but rather because of her incarnational positionality from within history, as the Body of Christ, which uses the substance of the here and now to open a way to the transcendent.

While continuing to assert the Biblical truth that what shall be bound on Earth by the Church shall be so bound in heaven, however, we cannot accept the unbridled authority which the Roman church has claimed for itself. The Church is free from being subject to the dialectic of history only insofar as she is herself synonymous with that process. The Church is thus identified not with the top-down imposition of claimed authority (whether emanating directing from the ecclesia itself or from an interpretation of Scripture) but by the bottom-up practices of debate, dialogue, and critical reasoning as motivated by the Spirit.

In the Episcopal Church, my own denomination, this essential dialogic character is reflected in its very governance, which holds according to liberal democratic principles, the Church subject to the faithful, and not the other way around. The end effect is messy, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news (or has attended a diocesan convention!) knows--but it is also authentic.

The role of the Church on planet Earth is to build the Kin(g)dom. The Episcopal catechism states that it is the ministry of the laity "to carry on Christ's work of reconciliation in the world" and of all Christians "to work [. . .] for the spread of the Kingdom of God." The Church is not, contrary to the teaching of some Protestants, called to exile. We return, then, to a Christian commission for the work of social justice. While not discounting what Bloesch calls "the realism of the Reformation which took seriously the lust for power embedded in the very being of [the human person] that so easily corrupts every human dream and achievement and whose most virulent manifestation is the collective pride of races and nations" (200), so too do we take seriously the transformative power of accepted grace. The pessimism of evangelical Protestantism, rooted as it is in the Reformation doctrine of total depravity, lies in contradiction to our catholic understanding that
the world is essentially good, although fallen, because it comes from the creative hand of God, has been redeemed by Jesus Christ, and has been renewed by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. Human existence is graced existence. The history of the world is, at the same time, the history of salvation. (McBrien 17)
C. HISTORY AND THE SPIRIT

It is impossible to speak of history within a Christian context without mentioning the Holy Spirit. History for the Trinitarian Christian is always-already pneumatological in character; creation is breathed from the Breath of God, and all of human history is a testimony to the Works of the Spirit, who, according to the Episcopal catechism, "is revealed in the Old Covenant as the giver of life, the One who speaks through the prophets" and in the New "as the Lord who leads us into all truth and enables us to grow in the likeness of Christ." Hegel famously spoke of a Spirit, or Geist, in history: obviously the Hegelian notion of Spirit and the Trinitarian Christian one will have deep similarities and even deeper dissimilarities, but the underlying notion of a spirit working in and through history is common to both.

Looking to all of history as salvation history, then, we see always the effects and presence of the Spirit. The deuterocanonical book known as the Wisdom of Solomon reminds us that God's "Wisdom guided Her disciples safely though all the tribulations" (11:9); "She rewarded the labors of a holy people and guided them on a wondrous quest" (11:17).

To the secular materialist human history, like cosmic history, is purposeless, unthinking, subject only to causal necessities totally indifferent to us--"one fucking thing after another" as the eponymous teenagers in Alan Bennet's The History Boys are fond of saying. Any notion of "progress" is a myth in the pejorative sense: things do not get better, only different.

The Christian, on the other hand, looks at history and sees a Plan: a single narrative which speaks of redemption and reconciliation between the peoples of the world and their Creator. The Christian (although of course not only the Christian) is given by the Spirit the virtuous gift of hope, and the expectation of God's Kin(g)dom. To the Church, history is a testament to this hope, not only in Scripture but through all of human activity: while it is not always a straight line--in our human fallibility we are cursed with backsliding, as we reject the Spirit's gifts, not only as individual but also (and especially) as communities, as nations, as a planet--but in its whole it represents a progression from worse to better.

It is of course true, as Richard Rorty notes, that this "justification is not by reference to a criterion, but by various detailed practical advantages. It is circular only in tha the terms of praise used to describe liberal societies will be drawn from the vocabulary of the liberal societies themselves. Such praise has to be in some vocabulary, after all" (581). In other words, the teleological character of pneumatic history is not metaphysical in character; there is "no ahistorical standpoint from which to endorse the habits" which we wish to praise and to condemn the habits we dislike. To those who feel that the sort of realist metaphysics embraced (for example) by the Roman church is philosophically untenable, this is a point in this account's favor, not an objection against it.

The Spirit is not some principle which intervenes in human history from some position outside of it. On the contrary, it is the inevitable logic of who and what we are--the imago dei, the images of God.

At the same time, however, one would of course not wish to deny the transcendent character of the Holy Spirit. Human history is a signifier of a transcendental signified greater than itself. Its dialectical processes are, or should be, what Immanuel Kant called a "transcendental dialectic": something which takes us beyond the rational to an apprehension of ultimate reality. All three Persons of the Trinity are transcendent as well as immanent, but this transcendence will always be and can only be the subject of the deepest and most profound mysticism. As the Creed of St. Athanasius states: "The Father incomprehensible, the Son incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost incomprehensible. And yet they are not three incomprehensibles, but one incomprehensible."
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My Prayer

"This is my prayer: that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you to determine what is best."
-- St. Paul's Epistle to the Philippians 1:9-10

All entries copyrighted © 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012 by Cole J. Banning


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