The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Five: The Church]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition
For part four, see Why the Permeative Tradition is Failing

The End of the Road for the “Divine Church”

It is a deep and bitter irony that “the Church” has probably become one of Christianity’s greatest liabilities. By “the Church” I mean the idea of the Christian church as a divine institution which mediates and communicates salvation to believers and the whole world. This is “the Church” as a concrete human – yet divine – organization that is necessary for our salvation.

This concept of church is a collateral notion of permeative theology: it is permeative theology’s social expression. Today, it is normally justified with some type of “incarnational” theology, although traditionally its theological articulation has been more diffuse, broadly based in a Neo-platonic vision of a sacred polity that is a step up the “divinity ladder” from other social structures and that communicates higher spiritual realities to lower, more earthly realms.

There are several problems with this idea.

The Church and the Gospel

The central issue is that the Gospel requires no such “Divine-Church”. More, the Divine-Church actually obscures the Gospel.

The Gospel is that Jesus Christ died on the cross to grant us salvation gratis. Period. It is not that Jesus died on the cross to establish an institution to grant salvation to us (!?). This is one of these ideas of the old synthesis that is prima facie bizarre, but has become so routinely expressed and so rarely examined that it has nevertheless become widely accepted – a “conventional absurdity”, as one might say (rather like the equally bizarre notion that the Good News is that Jesus died on the cross to give us a sacred book to exegete). No: the Gospel is that God is the full and total agent of salvation – not us, not anything else. The “not us, not anything else” includes, of course, the church-as-intermediary, no matter how refined and “divinized” we might believe it to be. “Divinized us” is still us, after all.

This exclusion of “us” – the church – might at first appear as a slight to humanity, but it is a central part of why the Good News is Good News. It re-enforces that salvation is a truly free and radical gift. Salvation is a gift without any conditions relating to its transfer, mediation or acceptance. Salvation does not depend upon us at all. Christ has done it all, and Christ gives salvation freely.

This one-sidedness of salvation is critical. Think about it: it means that no matter what anyone else on this planet says or does, whether in the church, or out of the church, the Gospel is still that Jesus Christ has died and risen again for you, and that this gift of salvation is absolute and irrevocable. When it comes to salvation, i.e. the core of what Christianity is about, the Gospel exactly frees us from each other’s agency, authority, influence, opinion, and coercion – even our own! We are no longer dependent upon anything human, upon anything of this world, “divinized” or no. That is what it means for a gift to come from God.

This means that the Gospel requires that the church cannot become an essential intermediary in salvation. The Gospel is far too powerful for that. If healthy, the church’s whole purpose should be to witness to this power by precisely affirming that neither it nor any other human institution can ever be divine or join Christ as some type of second agent of salvation. It should be constantly vigilant about not allowing our agency to “sneak back” into the divine work. Ironically, the church, at its best, should be constantly proclaiming its own “secularity”! “Nothing is divine but God alone; and nothing is necessary but Christ alone”: that is the church’s real message. At its best, the church constantly points to Christ as something precisely other than itself (“alien” to itself).

But what about the Incarnation?

Unfortunately, traditional theology has been almost entirely given to proclaiming the opposite message: the church is divine, it shares in Christ’s work, and it is absolutely essential. Today, this message is justified above all by theologies of incarnation.

Theologies of incarnation say that since our salvation was wrought “bodily” in Christ’s incarnation, we must “bodily” participate in the life of the Church for salvation to be real and effective. The salvific reality of God’s incarnation in Jesus necessitates an incarnation of God in the church. A Divine-Church ecclesiology, with our physical/ritual participation in a concrete, sacred community/polity, follows directly and necessarily from Christ’s incarnation. If you don’t believe/participate in the church-incarnation, you can’t believe/participate in Christ’s incarnation.

This incarnational ecclesiology has become so conventional that it’s become almost “common sense” in church circles today – rarely questioned or examined.

But it’s based on a complete non sequitur. Why, if you fully believe in the incarnation of Christ, and its salvific power, do you also have to believe in the divine “incarnational” nature of the church, and its salvific power? What is the necessary connection? Even if you are deeply invested in understanding our salvation as a physical process worked by God in Jesus, why do you also have to believe that that this salvation only becomes real for you and me in the physical process of your adherence to a certain human polity? Why do you have to believe not only in the incarnation itself, but also that this incarnation somehow mystically “spreads” to the church? These are actually two quite separate sets of beliefs.

In fact, there is no necessary connection between the two at all. It’s simply the case of an analogy that has been extended by convention into an equation. I can fully put my trust in God’s incarnation as a central tenant of my faith without thinking “Ah, this obviously now requires me to join and give my complete adherence to a somewhat odd (and now at times repressive) late antique/medieval/early-modern ritual society that I will now believe is also ‘incarnating’ God!” No: that’s absurd. The incarnation doesn’t necessitate such a conclusion at all – there are many other possible ways of understanding the incarnation’s significance and consequences.

In fact, faith in the incarnation should probably push us in the opposite direction: in not believing that it “spreads” to the church.  When we believe in the incarnation of God in Jesus – i.e. when we trust in the incarnation – this should mean that we precisely do not believe in, i.e. trust in, any other incarnation! The point of the power of God’s incarnation is that it is something God has done for us. The Good News is Jesus’ incarnation is totally sufficient and all-encompassing in itself. In the incarnation, God is doing exactly what we cannot do – and God is doing it for us, on behalf of us. So God does the incarnation, and we benefit from it. To throw the Divine-Church back into the equation just denies the sufficiency of the incarnation and the radicalness of God’s gift. No: we are called to trust that God’s incarnation, in and of itself, saves. This is an act of trust in God: not “God-and/in-us”.

People will counter, of course, that Christ’s saving incarnation still needs to somehow be communicated to us and realized among us. If not the church, how else?

If by “communicated and realized” we mean that we need to live out our faith in an embodied, physical way, of course there are hundreds of ways we can do this without having to deify and absolutize any particular manifestation of Christian institutional existence. We can be kind, we can struggle for justice, we can strive to live moral and upright lives, we can have mercy, we can advocate for the oppressed, we can communicate the Gospel, we can feed and house people, etc. These are all very bodily means of living out or realizing Christ’s incarnate actions. But none of these require an exclusive membership or ritual adherence to a particular church body – i.e. the creation of a Divine-Church. In fact, living a truly “incarnational” Christianity almost certainly requires us sometimes to shut down or leave church bodies – to honestly sort through and subject our “bodily” existences to the critique of the Gospel. When churches fail to incarnate the Gospel – which, truthfully, happens all the time – our very real “incarnate” response should be precisely to reform them or close them!

But however we might wish to understand our realization of Christ’s incarnation, the ultimate point for us to remember is always that, as far as salvation goes, our participation or “incarnating” doesn’t matter. Our temptation is to constantly re-orient our faith towards the fruits and process of our sanctification. But our faith should instead be directed solely towards God’s promise of salvation given to us despite the fruits and processes of our sanctification. That’s the real Gospel. Our faith is always trust in God’s salvation whatever our realization or “incarnation” of it (imagined or real). Yes, our sanctification is important for us, and others, and of course the churches should promote it; but the bitter, wonderful pill of the Gospel is that these actions have nothing to do with salvation! That is why there is no one configuration of interpretation of “incarnation” that is obligatory for anyone; and why the “Divine-Church” is a deeply problematic doctrine.

Escaping the Roman Empire

So the “the Divine-Church” ultimately does a very poor job of conveying the Gospel. Its very existence obscures it.

But a troubling question remains: if this idea of the church doesn’t follow from the Gospel, where does it come from? And what are its practical consequences?

Permeative theology, as noted, is a fossilized metaphysic of the ancient world. The Divine-Church is likewise a fossilized remnant of the Greco-Roman political imagination.

Hellenistic and late Roman polities were conceived as human reflections of divine realities. They participated in and communicated these higher realities to the cosmos. Society was understood as a divinely ordained and ordered whole, and every aspect of it was to be connected to the heavenly realm: human law was to be an extension of divine law, human reason the conduit of divine power/knowledge, the ruler an image and representative of the gods, etc. Broadly, the social order, the moral order and the political order were all understood as (ideally) sacred orders being realized on earth, and so social distinctions – of gender, class, culture – were considered part of the cosmos’ divine hierarchical structure. Hierarchy, in fact, was a key characteristic of this divinely ordained reality, and people were understood to participate best in the sacred whole by above all remaining in their proper, divinely ordained place and obeying and imitating those higher than them. The “higher” elements of society mediated the divine for the lower in an enormous divine-social “chain of being”.

In their task of imitating and realizing the divine, social and political structures were understood as quasi-absolute and eternal, possessing divine authority. Since the state existed for no other reason than to further the divine will on earth, its legitimacy and power were rooted in that divine will. Animated by a divine mandate, every aspect of life was to be regulated to conform to the divine model. The paramount social and political virtues were consequently order, obedience, control and compliance – which could be subsumed under a constant rhetoric of “harmony”. Since the whole structure existed to ensure conformance to a divine image, authoritarianism and paternalism were default political and social modus operandi. And since everything possessed divine meaning and import – “infused” with the divine (this is the “enchanted world” so mourned by today’s neo-traditionalists) – sanctions for any deviance always had a divine dimension: social or political deviance ultimately bore the stigma of blasphemy. Finally, unity and uniformity were overwhelming imperatives. There was one God, one Divine Kingdom, one Divine Law – so one Emperor, one Empire, one Society.

Does any of this sound familiar?

It should: it’s basically an outline of traditional Christian ecclesiology. Our Divine-Church is really an internalized Greco-Roman state!

(It is a strange irony that the Roman Empire, once the great persecutor of Christianity, seems to live on today in our world primarily within the political imagination of the Christian church! Elsewhere it is mostly dead.)

Is it necessary to explain at length why this idea of church will be expelled in Reformation 2.0? Simply said, despite the Romantic pull it can still exert, there is very little about this image of society or reality that passes moral or theological muster today. For the church, to have such a repressive, coercive, hierarchical, authoritarian and monolithic view of society and polity associated with the Christian faith is simply untenable. To pass it off as essential, and part of the Good News (!), is impossible.

So it will go.

The Church of the Future?

But what will replace it?

I think Reformation 2.0 will develop a new idea of church. Its hallmarks: secularity, change, transience, variety. This will be a disjunctive vision of the church, not a permeative one.

In the disjunctive tradition, church has only one purpose: to proclaim the Gospel of God’s salvation as salvation by God’s action alone. To do so it must, qua church, renounce its own claim to playing a role in salvation. Precisely as a means of proclaiming the one-sidedness of God’s salvation, it must carefully and unequivocally assert its exclusively human and transient character. This means it does not mediate, communicate, “incarnate” or transmit salvation: it simply proclaims salvation as something (praise God!) not bound to itself. The church is thus not a divine, unchangeable institution – an extension or reflection of God’s kingdom on earth. It is an entirely human institution, one of our kingdoms: changeable and malleable. Different versions will come and go. The only necessary thing: to proclaim the Gospel.

These churches will still try to shape themselves to express and realize the Gospel in their corporate lives, actions, moralities, etc. But they will all be sinful, and they will all know it. So they will always be reforming. They will also realize that different times and places demand a different ethos, polity and aesthetic to communicate the Gospel, which means that no church will ever claim an absolute status – and none will try. Each church will instead earnestly adopt that which best conveys the love, grace and mercy of the Gospel to its current members and community. The result will be a huge variety, and a newly-found pragmatism – churches will think not “how can we make everyone conform to us and our way of life” but “how do we need to change to actually convey the Gospel to the people that God is now sending us?” Churches will also realize that they are never necessary or essential, and certainly no one version of the church is necessary for anyone. Enforcing unity and coercing obedience/adherence will thus no longer hold the power they once did. Community control/coercion will be on an entirely secular, practical level (“please help contribute to the coffee hour!”.)

So in Reformation 2.0 churches will probably be mostly egalitarian, open, inclusive, and relaxed. They will be as far removed from the Divine-Church of the late antique world as our modern nations are from the Roman Empire. These new churches may not have the enchanted and gilded allure of the old Greco-Roman and medieval edifices (although some might – there will always be space for “historical” churches too!), and they may even be rough around the edges, variable, weak, perhaps even uninspiring. But they will be real; they will not be possessed of the pretence and façade that too often plagued the old Greco-Roman attempts to realize heaven on earth. They will instead keep both feet firmly on the ground, place a huge value on honesty, and cultivate a culture of self-critique: and they will always point beyond themselves.

Final Post: Disavowing Control and Coercion

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Four: Theology Concluded]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture
For part three, see Rolling Back the “Permeative” Theological Tradition

Why is the Permeative Tradition Failing?

Right, so, why will Reformation 2.0 roll back the permeative tradition?

A survey of 20th century theology would suggest that most theologians are inclined to do exactly the opposite. The last century has, if anything, witnessed a widespread revival and retrieval of the permeative tradition, even within Lutheranism, the traditional home of the disjunctive tradition.1 Within some circles, particularly the Protestant post-liberal movement and among the theologians of “Radical Orthodoxy”, the permeative tradition has re-emerged with such zeal that its expression occasionally borders on caricature. If anything, contemporary theology’s leading instincts are almost the precise inverse of the four points of Reformation I’m suggesting in this series.

But we should be very skeptical of this revival. I believe we’re witnessing a phenomenon common to the end of many social and cultural movements: just before the final demise of a cultural structure, a last, usually exaggerated, attempt to re-enact and retrieve its traditional forms emerges. Julian the Apostate’s highly artificial 4th C revival of paganism comes to mind as a good example. When it was finally clear – in the late 4th C – that paganism was in true collapse, that is when we saw an exquisite and elaborate neo-pagan traditionalism articulated. I believe this is exactly what is happening with much of theology of the past century. It seems to be a general phenomenon that, when the carpet is being finally pulled from under our feet, humans instinctively leap backwards (at first). But this movement always signals the end: a last attempt to hold the old structure together before it finally succumbs – and something new emerges.

But why is the permeative tradition poised to “succumb”?

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  1. The so-called Finnish school is only the most obvious example. The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between the Lutherans and the Roman Catholics points in the same direction in a subtler, but profounder way. []

The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Three – Theology]

For part one, see A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now
For part two, see From Scripture to scripture: De-Divinizing Scripture

Part Three: Into the Heart of the Storm

The next major change I envision pertains to our core Christian theology: we will roll back the “permeative” theological tradition – i.e. the theology of deification, sanctification, or incarnation.

This is a huge change, and needs considerable explanation. But this will be at the revolutionary heart of Reformation 2.0, so bear with me.

What is the Permeative Tradition?

The permeative theological tradition is so pervasive that even professional theologians often do not realize that it is “a” position, or that there might be an alternative.

Permeative theologies think of God’s actions in the world as quasi-physical energies or forces that spread and “permeate” throughout the cosmos and human nature. Salvation is understood as a gradual process in which one is progressively infused with these divine energies/grace. In this view, the whole point of God’s actions is to slowly assimilate the world to God through the gradual working of God’s energies to transform the world into the divine. Generally the cosmos is conceived as a hierarchical spectrum of being, in which creation is meant to progress ever further towards the higher, more spiritual realms where the world finds it truest reality/being. The ethical life of humanity is also understood as on a spectrum, where sin has a quantitative character which can be gradually – and quite truly – purged and cured. The idea of a graded, gradual ascent is critical: one is always struggling to move up through higher levels of knowledge and ethical realization to realize one’s (true) divine life.

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The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part Two – Scripture]

About the Author
David Wagschal

For Part One, see “A New Catalyst for Change: Something is Different Now”

Into the Storm

So I think it’s about time that I throw down the gauntlet and start to outline what I think the next reformation is going to look like. What is going to change, and what isn’t?

My prediction is that Reformation 2.0 will be both radical and not-so-radical.

The Gentle Showers

Let’s start with the not-so-radical bit.

This time around, I’m pretty sure our “externalities” are not going to be a big issue. When we think about reform, our minds go back to the 16th century and we tend to worry about major changes to our everyday experience of Christianity – to rituals, aesthetics, structures. We are usually deeply intimidated by this, because our identities are bound up with these practices and structures.1

But Reformation 2.0 will, I suspect, be happy to leave the majority of current Christian practice intact. In fact, a hallmark of Reformation 2.0 will almost certainly be its tolerance of a huge variety of forms for Christian existence. Holiness folks? You will be able to keep your passion and praise. Orthodox? Your liturgical beauty and ethnic traditions won’t need to be diminished. Christian Reformed? You won’t lose your simplicity and austerity. Lutherans? You can keep your singing and informality. Traditional Roman Catholics: keep your Tridentine mass, if you want. High Anglicans: go wild – use as many “thees” and “thous” as you please! And if you aren’t into any of this – perhaps you prefer a house church, or other informal spiritual group – actually, that’s fine too.

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  1. Why our identities have gotten so deeply enmeshed is these practices and structures is something we need to question – but that’s another post. []

The Gathering Storm: A Guide to Reformation 2.0 [Part One]

About the Author
David Wagschal

There’s hardly a week that goes by where I’m not somehow reminded of the pressing need for Reformation 2.0 in the Christian church. A bitter sermon; a conversation with a frustrated Christian friend; a depressing news story about this or that church; the silly or embarrassing behaviour of a church leader. I can’t seem to escape it. Everywhere I look I see evidence that the old synthesis is fraying: pastors seem to be regularly and systemically burnt out; theologians are angry, cynical and uncertain; the laity is tired and perplexed; churches stand empty. Sadness, anger and frustration linger everywhere. Distortion and exaggeration seem to be on the rise. Most of all: people seem oddly disconnected from church, even when they don’t want to be. It’s like no one exactly fits the old mold anymore. We’re all standing “outside” of the system now, in different ways. It’s weird.

The atmosphere is so strange. I feel like I can almost smell the storm coming. It’s not all negative: there is a kind of new, almost wild hope in the air too. But something is going to give; and soon.

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The Church, Freed: An Alternative to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal
  1. An Alternative to Hauerwas’ Church
  2. Summary: Conclusion

I’m hesitant to devote another post to Hauerwas. If you’ve followed my essays on Hauerwas over the past months, you know that my estimation of his theology has been souring. I’ve come to see his work as deeply flawed – down to its roots. More, I’ve come to see his theology as a dead-end.

To me, Hauerwas represents a whole generation of theologians who, enjoying perhaps the last gasp of Christendom’s material supports (secure professional positions, media profile, some level of public authority), recognized the dying of the old synthesis, but responded in exactly the wrong way. Instead of forging a new synthesis, they tried one last time to revive the old. Instead of engaging with the world, they retreated into sectarianism. Instead of finding new ways for the church to speak in the world with power and conviction, they drew it further into Romantic nostalgia. Worse, they’ve managed to obscure the few voices (the old “liberals”) in the early 20th C who were struggling – admittedly, not always happily – to fashion some type of new synthesis.

As you can gather, I’m a bit bitter about this. I am — speaking very personally — quite demoralized and frustrated. We really needed more from them. I feel that my generation, with far fewer resources, now has the burden of not only devising a credible new synthesis – which was their task – but also cleaning up their legacy.

And their legacy is really problematic.

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There’s Something Fishy about Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve now completed the Hauerwas Reader, and I’ll soon be writing my concluding post on America’s Theologian. But first, there is one issue that has been nagging at me. It has to do with a strange set of contradictions that linger around Hauerwas’ understanding of “church”.

  1. Hauerwas’ Idea of Church
  2. So Where’s the Contradiction?
  3. The Pandora’s Box of Pre-Modernity
  4. Hauerwas the Liberal and the End of the Road

Hauerwas’ Idea of Church

Church is a central, maybe the central, focus of Hauerwas’ work. In fact, his theology could be characterized as a Methodism-that-found-church. Methodists understand the Gospel as an empowering of Christians to realize a concrete moral/ethical holiness. Hauerwas (a Methodist) believes this whole-heartedly, but his holiness must have a “political” dimension: an active manifestation in a socio-political community. Therefore, Christians must achieve holiness as church. Church therefore becomes a critical part of Christian life, since a) it is the necessary training ground and framework for holiness/virtue; and b) more so, it is the very realization of that political holiness: the church is Christian ethics in Hauerwas’ view. And since the Gospel is Christian ethics, and Christian ethics means nothing without the church, the church is the Gospel.

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Hauerwas’ Inner Constantine

  1. What is Constantinianism?
  2. Hauerwas: Constantine’s Mini-Me?
  3. So… what is a real antidote to Constantinianism?
  4. How is such a position possible?


I continue to struggle with Hauerwas’ sense that he is not “Constantinian”.

“Constantinianism” takes its name from the 4th C Roman emperor, Constantine the Great (272-337 AD), who legalized Christianity in the Roman Empire and set it on the path to becoming the empire’s official, state-sponsored religion. Under his successors, Christianity became deeply integrated into the political, legal, and cultural structures of Roman society. Eventually, in the late empire (and in its medieval successor states), state citizenship and Christian belief became virtually synonymous. The empire became viewed as the earthly mirror of the heavenly kingdom, and the ruler as God’s appointed representative on earth (under the tutelage of the clergy, of course!). Religious dissent became an offence against the state, and the divine mission of the state and the divine mission of the church were understood as inextricably linked.

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Hauerwas in (Very Broad) Perspective

About the Author
David Wagschal

Stanley Hauerwas’ work is usually read as a reaction to the theological liberalism of the 19th and early 20th C. Hauerwas situates his own work this way, and this is how he is mostly characterized in the academy. He is a “post-liberal” concerned with re-asserting the particularity and distinctiveness of Christian belief over and against liberal theologies that sought to harmonize or reconcile Christian theology with Enlightenment and humanist beliefs.

Such a contextualization of Hauerwas’ work is both accurate and useful. But it may be a bit narrow. What happens if we place Hauerwas’ work in a broader perspective?

Resurrecting the Imperial Church

For me, as a historian trained in late antique and Byzantine culture, what immediately jumps out from the pages of Hauerwas is the extent to which he can be read as resurrecting the key tenets of the pre-modern “imperial” Christian synthesis. This is the 3rd and 4th C “Great Church” synthesis of doctrine and practice that congealed into the official religion of the Roman Empire and broadly became the basis of all historic branches of Christianity.

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Five Counterpoints to Hauerwas

About the Author
David Wagschal

I’ve decided that life is too short, and the days too beautiful, to engage in a lengthy refutation of Hauerwas.

I don’t mean this as a slight to Hauerwas. It’s just an acknowledgement that, for a Lutheran, Hauerwas is almost an anti-theologian.

In a nutshell, Hauerwas’  wants to:

  • blur, even erase, the division between justification and sanctification;
  • re-establish Christianity as a new law;
  • replace a Pauline and grace-centric reading of Scripture with a “whole narrative” reading;
  • restore the old Greco-Roman belief in salvation as divine transformation and growth in holiness (particularly via the re-appropriation of classical virtue ethics);
  • replace faith-as-trust with faith-as-obedience/subjection (“faithfulness”);
  • and above all, re-divinize or “re-enchant” the church as the key and exclusive locus of salvation and truth.

This is basically a program to roll-back the Lutheran Reformation.

And politics?

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