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”?

The Historical Problem

The fundamental historical problem is that, in the final analysis, the permeative tradition is nothing more than the cultural Christianity of the late antique Mediterranean. Deeply enmeshed in the metaphysics, conventions and presuppositions of this one, specific pre-modern world, it’s essentially a Christianized version of late Roman Neoplatonism. As this pre-modern world disintegrates, permeative Christianity is disintegrating with it. Had the permeative synthesis remained the cultural Christianity of the ancient world – and then passed away along with that world – there would be no problem. But it has instead become an obligatory part of Christian orthodoxy: to become Christian, you must subscribe to this ancient world-view.

This puts today’s churches in an increasingly untenable position. For people to become Christian, they must implicitly sign on to a host of long-dead cultural and philosophical presuppositions. For the Romantics who want Christianity to be precisely a revivalist sect of pre-modern social and cultural forms, this is fine, and exactly as they wish it to be (and I’m afraid that a lot of modern theology can be characterized as an exercise in this type of Romanticism). But I think it’s fair to say that most people are – rightly – not terribly interested in pre-modern revivalism. They would regard most metaphysical assumptions of the permeative synthesis as mythological, and its moral assumptions as objectionable, even abhorrent. For example: do most of us believe that we inhabit a tiered universe, in which there are inherently higher orders/classes (males, intellectuals, ascetics, freemen, rulers) and lower (females, married people, commoners, slaves)? Or do we take the Biblical historical narratives more-or-less literally? Would many of us subscribe to actual Platonic or Aristotelian ontology? Above all, do most of us want to take up ancient positions on questions of human rights, conscience, freedom of speech, sexuality or political organization? Of course not. But today, when people join permeative churches, they are forced to do just this. Except, of course, they don’t actually believe it or practice any of this. So this creates a huge disconnect between what we believe and what our churches teach – and this makes the whole permeative edifice very unstable. The disjunctive tradition, by contrast, has very few metaphysical claims: in effect, it says “trust in this message of the Gospel, and believe what you want”.

The Theological Problem

A much deeper problem is that, simply as a Christian theology, the late antique synthesis is not impressive. The key diagnostic question for any theology is: “what is the Good News about Jesus that this theology proclaims?” The Good News of the permeative tradition is clear: that God is going to allow us to “work out our salvation”. God will get the ball rolling, and now we just need to embark on a program of exercise, virtue and obedience to complete what God started. In effect, God has set up creation as a great spiritual contest (the Greek agon), which he has graciously allowed us to enter. And the reward, for the willing/worthy? To share in his honour and glory. God is a kind of Greco-Roman master of the games.

At first, this synergistic view appears quite positive and affirming, even flattering (and indeed, the permeative tradition inclines to a kind of anthropolatry). It’s all about our improvement and empowerment. But it doesn’t take long to realize that this comes at a terrible price.

There are two things any Christian synthesis needs to convey: 1) God’s work of total and unconditional grace and love; 2) an honest, unflinching recognition of the depths of sin and misery that humans endure. But the late antique synthesis is weak on both counts. In the permeative tradition, God’s love always comes with conditions (e.g., our performance, ascetic struggle, or assent) and his gift is always dependent upon our reception, response and gratitude. Similarly, sin is constantly downplayed as a humanly-curable state against which we can prevail if we but try.

It doesn’t take too much life experience to figure out that both of these messages are very Bad News. In fact, as Luther long ago realized, if you take this permeative tradition to heart, it is only a matter of time before you feel yourself to be in a state of constant condemnation, and you begin to secretely hate and despise God. How could a merciful God make our eternal salvation dependent upon our wills and performance? The weakness and hopelessness of both are manifest. How could a good God ignore our experience of the overwhelming and inexorable power of sin and suffering – and then, in effect, blame it on us, on our lack of effort, and still demand gratitude and praise? And how could a loving God treat us as participants in some cruel contest for his approval and salvation?

All of this is perverse and grotesque. Most humans treat their children better. Why can’t God?

But in the end, such a God is not the God of the Gospel, whose face should only ever be that of Jesus crucified and risen “for me”. Instead, the face of this so-called god is that of a cruel Roman judge, greedy for power and glory, wrathful, and always demanding the performance of duties from his “clients” to maintain his good will. This “god” can never give us anything but fear and new ways to fail him.

This eclipsing of the face of Jesus in our image of God is part of another, broader theological weakness of the permeative tradition: the strangely minimized position of Jesus and his work. It is striking how, in classic permeative theologies, Jesus becomes merely one figure in a long “salvation history”, where a more generic “God” (the Father) is the key actor. Jesus’ role in salvation is mostly instrumental. He becomes, basically, God’s means for effecting our salvation. Further, Jesus only really initiates salvation – his real role is to enable our salvific work. Jesus plays the opening act to our headlining performance!

But this understanding of Jesus is much too weak for the Gospel. Jesus isn’t a secondary actor, and he isn’t an instrument; Jesus manifests definitively and centrally who God is. And Jesus accomplishes everything for our salvation. He is not a mere means for enabling our action.

So the permeative tradition is actually a pretty brutal theological fail. Traditionalists are endlessly upset by Luther’s “arrogance” in his excoriation of the old tradition; but I think when you consider the depths of the traditional theology’s error, Luther’s anger was well placed, and long overdue. How could Christians perpetuate such a cruel and vicious theology for so long? And allow Jesus to become so oddly marginalized? Our indignation should be directed at the structures and habits that have made us persist in this error for centuries.

Today, if people need Good News, they need actual Good News, not the “Good News” of the church-as-Greco-Roman-arena overseen by Caesar-Judge-God. And so I think it is virtually assured that the churches of Reformation 2.0 will, out of necessity, reject the permeative tradition. This synthesis simply can’t convey the Gospel.

The Holiness Problem

There is one other important weakness of the permeative tradition.

The permeative tradition places a high premium on visible, objective human holiness. This follows necessarily from the idea that the Good News is the Good News of God enabling our holiness. Naturally, this means we should see holiness actually enacted on a human level – at least to some degree.

As a result, most churches in this tradition share a central concern for promoting and creating holiness in the Christian person and community. Further, they tend to look to their visible holiness, their “spiritual success”, as an important means of validating the truth and supremacy of their faith.

Spiritual success can mean different things. Traditionally, it might have meant the emergence of “holy men” who could perform miracles or other wonders. Or it could mean missionary success, or victories granted to Christian rulers against their enemies. More recently, objective holiness might be sought in the successful cultivation of certain experiences (being “strangely warmed”, “experiencing the divine energies”, being “slain by the spirit”, etc.). Today, however, it manifests most commonly in the idea that Christianity creates the best way of life, the best communities, the best civilizations: Christianity possess an inherent moral authority in the social-political realm that others should recognize and follow. Christianity has the recipe for creating a true “kingdom on earth” – an ideal, holy civilization and society. This is where our holiness becomes truly manifest.

But connecting the Gospel and our holiness is a very dangerous game. If our message is tied to our holiness, and then our holiness fails, or even appears to fail, what then? Our message fails too.

Unfortunately, I think this is exactly what has been happening over the last few centuries in the socio-moral realm. The permeative tradition demands “success” in this realm – but we don’t have much success to show, at least not recently.

For centuries Christians could look to the successes of western civilization and claim them as their own. But since the Enlightenment, this has become much harder to do. Does anyone see Christianity as a central force in the tremendous moral, cultural and social advances of the last several centuries? No. Whether it be human rights, freedom of conscience, democracy, pluralism, class struggles, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, racial equality, or simply technological developments that make life better for people, Christians have generally not been on the cutting edge of progress. There are exceptions, but mostly we have settled into a depressingly familiar pattern of playing moral catch-up to “secularism” – and that’s when we’ve not been supporting outrightly retrograde or oppressive positions, which is now fairly common. The painful truth is that Christianity has lost the moral upper-hand, and has for some time. People don’t today think “church” and immediately think “good” or “holy”, and for good reason. Secularism has largely “beaten” Christianity at actually encouraging human flourishing, at simply being good to others, at helping people, and improving lives.2

This is a tremendous problem for the permeative tradition (cf. my analysis of Hauerwas on this point). What has happened to all of those “divine energies”? To our objective transformative work in the cosmos empowered by God’s grace? To our synergistic developing of the kingdom? The permeative tradition needs us to show some results — it’s version of the Gospel is exactly that we really can produce results! Granted: we can blame our sinfulness. But that only goes so far: presumably the Enlightened secularists have been just as sinful, and yet they seem to have done so much more. Why? Have Christians even shown the vision to produce what the Enlightenment has — much less its results?  No: in the end, we’ve been out-moraled. The narrative of Christian socio-political superiority is simply not credible.

So has God failed? Has the Gospel failed? If we follow the permeative tradition, these are hard conclusions to avoid.

But there is another possibility: maybe our theology has failed? Maybe we shouldn’t have been tying the Gospel to our holiness to begin with…?

I think Reformation 2.0 is going to reach the latter conclusion pretty quickly.

Next week: The End of the Road for “The Church”

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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. []
  2. Of course, Christians will retort that most modern Western advances still, ultimately, have been predicated upon the Christian cultural heritage. No doubt there is truth to this and there may even be enough truth in it to convince those born into traditional Christian churches to stay in those churches. But there’s probably not enough truth in it to get anyone else to join. []