Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Cryil of Alexandria & Ecclesial Realpolitik

This week I have been reading Daniel Keating's latest book The Appropriation of the Divine Life in Cyril of Alexandria. Cyril (5th Century) has been my favorite church father for quite some time now, mostly because of his unique willingness among the Greek fathers to speak of the suffering of God (though he always did this in a nuanced paradoxical way, e.g., that the Word of God suffers impassibly, unlike many modern theologians who throw around sloppy rhetoric about the passibility of God without assessing the consequences). On the other hand, Cyril is well known for his political cunning and sagacity. He is often labeled as the most despicable of early church theologians for his alliances with imperial forces in order to triumph over his theological foes, the most famous of which is Nestorius. His large and fascinating body of work is typically overshadowed by his Machiavellian reputation.

The question on my mind is whether Cyril-fans like me need to apologize for his bad behavior, or defend his politicking as doing Christian orthodoxy a great service. If Cyril was right (and I think he is) about Nestorius jeopardizing the reality of salvation with his Christological formulations, then what was the right thing to do? Just speak and write and hope the church would see the truth? Or get up and team up with the powers that be to ensure the victory of his view within the structures of the institutional church?

I am at a loss because I think so much can be at stake in such a foundational theological controversy, and yet I am not inclined to "play dirty" to ensure the right thing gets done. In today's controversies, I often find that those who are willing to politick are those with whom I disagree. So many in my generation are uncomfortable using institutional structures to do anything about it. So we idealistically sit back in the cool assurance that our ideas will win on their own merit. Maybe this ideal is a must, and I am willing to follow it through if it is a matter of obedient discipleship. But is it a higher calling to give up some of my personal piety for the sake of the church as a whole? That is the question.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Parsing Emergent

I was recently commissioned to write an article for Princeton Theological Review on Emergent Ecclesiology. Although I intend to do more than just define emergent (the task having become a bit of a cottage industry), the writing process necessarily begins will some clarification of terms. Over the past year, I have come to see that the emergent conversation can be parsed into three overlapping yet distinguishable categories.

(1) Epistemology:

Emergents have something to say about how we know. Although there are numerous various, the common denominator of emergent epistemology is that of a critical distance from strong truth claims, and hence an aversion to timeless propositions and a preferences for contextual stories. Terms like "postmodern" or "postfoundationalist" or even "narrative" will get thrown around in this regard. This aspect obviously attracts the more philosophically oriented, yet it has practical thrust: one communicates the gospel quite differently if it not a list of propositions to be accepted rationally but rather a story to be "lived into" so to speak.

(2) Cultural Analysis:

Emergents are also making observations about the contemporary culture in which we live. The claim is that we are in the process of a massive shift of the cultural forms and norms resulting in a new emphasis on community, the rise of pop cultural literacy, and a changing role of the church in society. Terms like "globalism" or "pluralism" or even "tribalism" will be used in respect to this aspect of the emergent conversation. Such cultural analysis naturally attracts the more pragmatically oriented as they seek to find new forms, styles and methods to "fit" the current culture. Yet all emergents necessarily have some interest in cultural analysis, for the term "emergent" itself has this cultural valence. "Emergent" in the narrowest sense refers to emerging cultural phenomena: emerging cultures, emerging generations, emerging churches.

(3) Ecclesiology:

Emergents are furthermore saying something about the nature of the church. The dominant theme is that the church's nature subsists in its mission, and that the structures and ministries of the church should reflect its missional nature. This implies both the addition of forgotten aspects of the church's mission in the world as well as the subtraction of those activities in the church which do not serve its mission. Emergents thus speak of "missional" communities or "post-christendom" models or even an "apostolic" ethos. Such ecclesiological discussions draw in the more theologically oriented, who are interested in scriptural exegesis, ecclesiological concepts, polity & denominational structures, the dialogue with missiology, and the understanding of ministry & laity. But of course, all emergents participate in such theological reflection, at least at the motivational level. For the church to be worth changing, it must be worth saving.


Is this parsing helpful?
Is it helpful?
Are you particularly attracted to one of these aspects?
Do any of these aspects turn you off?
Which aspect is the strong suit of the emergent church?
Which is its weak spot?

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Two Challenges Collide: Popular vs. Esoteric / Seminal vs. Derivative

Geeks like me are always getting challenged by our colleagues in ministry to communicate in a clear, accessible way. I feel up to the challenge, as I hope my preaching as well as my blogging attest. I also aim to write some popular works in due time. Nevertheless, I do ask for patience while I give time to more "esoteric" matters that serve to sharpen my mind as well as help me jump through a few guild hoops.

This June I heard what seemed to be an unrelated challenge. My brother suggested that I take steps to ensure I do not become merely a derivative theologian but seek to be truly seminal in my thinking. I have been poindering a lot about what this might look like, but I haven't got very far, mostly because graduate studies in theology are designed to teach you that every great thought has already been thought before and you just need to learn how to find it. Yet becoming a seminal theologian is certainly an option, if after learning all this one has enough energy left to pick up the mantel of the masters and develop their ideas beyond what they themselves would have done.

Suddenly this week these two challenges collided with each other. I realized that these two goals may very well be contradictory. How can one be truly seminal without also being a least a little esoteric? How can one be a "popular" theologian without "translating" and thus being derivative? How can one develop the thoughts of the masters without joining in their esoteric conversation? How can one develop original ideas without fashioning an original nomenclature? Can these two challenges be reconciled? Or must I choose?

Of course, I can imagine be able to speak and write in two different styles according to context. But then problems arise of balance, priority, stewardship of time, loss of a distinct voice, and the possibility of leading an intellectual double life. The question remains: how does one forge a simultaneously popular and seminal theological style?

Any thoughts?

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Is Church Discipline Really Possible Anymore?

My thoughts this week have converged on the issue of church discipline. First I had an e-mail conversation about discipline as the third mark of the church. Next the latest Christianity Today came with church discipline as its theme. Then my daily reading for today just happened to be I Corinthians 5, the Pauline locus classicus for church discipline.

As a Wesleyan with both Anabaptist and Catholic influences, I have every reason to emphasize church discipline and have done so for many years. I count myself among those who believe in three marks of the church: word, sacrament, and discipline (roughly corresponding to the prophetic, priestly, and royal offices of the church). The question of the marks of the church was brought to the fore by the Reformation. Without a unified church, the reformers needed a criterion by which to identify the true church. Luther had seven so-called marks, many of which could be combined into larger categories. The preaching of the pure word of God and the right administration of the sacraments were quickly received as the two basic marks. The addition of discipline as a distinct mark comes first from Bucer in Strausborg, but it was quickly dropped by the magisterial reformers (cf. Calvin's Institutes Iv.1.10) in reaction to its perceived over-emphasis in the radical reformation. It was picked back up by the Puritans in their conflict with the Church of England. It was through the Puritans that discipline was passed on to Wesley and the Methodists. The Wesleyan Church mentions it as a mark of the church in its Discipline. Just the distinctive name "Discipline" (as opposed to "Book of Order" or "Canon Law") used in a number of Wesleyan/Methodist/Holiness denominations points to this emphasis.

Enough of the history lesson. The question on my mind is whether church discipline is really possible anymore. When Paul wrote to the Corinthians, the man who was getting kicked out of the church did not have the option of walking down the street to the next Christian community. There was not the smorgasbord of Christian options now on offer. The same went for the Reformers, who contrary to popular belief were certainly not setting up "Protestant" churches down the street from "Catholic" churches. It was whole duchies and cantons that were reforming, and the formerly catholic parish church became a protestant church, leaving just one church per parish and not the multiplicity we see today, especially in the states. Even as the denominational splitting began centuries later, people were quite troubled over which christian community was the true church. It wasn't always a matter of taste or even needs. For many, eternity was on the line. So church discipline held serious weight for those who took their church membership seriously.

But these days are gone. Nowadays excommunication merely means switching to the church down the road (or to none at all). So the threat of excommunication is rendered empty. Thus all forms of church discipline, which must necessarily have the possibility of excommunication backing them up as their gold standard, have lost their bite. And although I have no desire to reinstate Christendom, I doubt whether the church's mission can be sustained without some kind of formative discipline. Yet it seems like an impossibility.

Now I would love to call for church leaders to reinstill in their people a sense of the cruciality of united christian community. I have done this and I will do this again. But that is for a different setting. Here I simply want to ask whether church discipline has any hope at all. Is it gone for good? Is that a good thing? If not, does it have any chance of return? If so, where is it to be found? Is it found only in visible church unity? Is it found in an increased sectarianism? Is it found through spiritual renewal? Is it found only in missional communities in hostile contexts? Is it a problem with our culture that we have to fix first? Is it merely taking new forms that I am missing?