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.

Now, there will be some surface changes. We’ll see a generalized flattening of hierarchy and the disappearance of many exclusionary practices (e.g. excluding women as ministers), and greater attention to how traditional elements can be “read” as more clearly conveying the Gospel – so there will be a certain filtering/editing going on. But broadly the “external” picture of Christianity isn’t going to be a major focus. On the local level, in particular, changes might be fairly minimal.

But underneath the surface? Fasten your seat-belts. That is where the coming reform will be very radical indeed.

The Wind and Fury

I see four critical changes on the horizon. Each represents the unwinding of a key practice or idea of our current synthesis, which has its roots in the late 3rd and 4th centuries.

1) From “Scripture” to “scripture”. We will finally de-divinize and de-throne scriptures.

This is a hard one to swallow. Veneration, and even fear, of Scripture penetrate most of us to the bone. But the “Scripturalization” of Christianity will, I think, eventually be recognized as a temporary and culturally-conditioned wrong turn in Christianity’s history.

Tying the truth of the Gospel to the purported divine inspiration of a book (or set of books) — i.e. Scripturalization — has probably been the root cause of almost every serious misstep made in historical Christianity, from Origen to Barth, Augustine to Erasmus, Calvin to Spener, and many, many others. Each of my next three points will serve as expositions of the results of this error. But its basic effect can be summarized easily: it has caused the Gospel to become confused and entangled with the cultural and social narratives of specific Ancient Near Eastern/Greco-Roman societies. Ever wondered why the Christian God keeps re-emerging as a kind of angry and jealous near-eastern ruler or judge – instead of the crucified Christ, the Redeemer, the Saviour? Or why Christianity endlessly re-morphs into a moral and social (and even political) law – instead of a simple and pure proclamation of salvation? Or why the Christian moral and social imagination can’t ever quite escape pre-modernity?

The answer to all of these is Scripturalization: the idea that the Bible is the core revelation of God, and Christianity is principally an exercise in exegeting this book.

This is actually a very strange mistake for us to have made. There is very little about the Christian message that should make us want to put a revealed book at the center of our faith. Even on the face of it the notion is bizarre: Christ died on the cross to give us eternal life and salvation – and to give us a special divine book to puzzle over? What a strange idea! We Christians claim that we have encountered everything in Christ crucified and risen, and Christ has given us everything, including himself; Christ is the sum total revelation of God. We have only to place our hope in him — that is the principal task of Christianity. But then we have some set of writings that also reveals (further?) who God is? It’s such a strange idea that, to support and maintain it, we have had to make it an object of our faith: we have to believe in the Bible. But wait: we have to believe in Christ and in the divinity of some books from antiquity? It simply doesn’t make sense.

What does make sense is that in late antiquity Greco-Roman Christianity absorbed non-Christian practices of understanding God as revealed through divine books/writings – and developed this as part of late antique “cultural Christianity”, in much the same way that other Christianities would adopt and incorporate older pagan festivals and rituals, etc. So if we think about the Scripturalization of Christianity as a historical peculiarity of late antique Christianity: fine. It is a kind of contextual theology. But it was their thing, and it’s passed.

Today, elevating this peculiarity of late antique Christianity into a universal norm has no warrant. In fact, it is downright harmful, because it “enchants” or gives divine authority to vast networks of problematic narratives and practices from a long dead pre-modern world. If we adhere to these ancient practices or ideas as “divine revelation” we cause genuine scandal and harm to people around us, because many of these ideas and practices are reprehensible; alternatively, if we try to find inventive and creative ways to dodge them, while still “keeping up the appearances” of their authority, we appear deceptive and even a bit ridiculous. Either way, we discredit the Gospel with our strange need to uphold the divinity of a set of ancient books. (Here’s a troubling question to ponder: how much of the Gospel have we sacrificed, historically, in order to uphold the divinity of our sacred Bible?)

Reformation 2.0 will therefore de-throne Scripture as God’s revelation or as the Word of God – and most certainly as the literal “words of God”, penned by divine hand.

Instead, the Gospel will re-take its place as the proper Word of God. And, in Reformation 2.0, “the Gospel” will mean not the Gospel books or the sum of the Gospel books’ content (the traditional Gospels are in fact not terribly good at conveying the Gospel, as Luther long ago realized). “The Gospel” will mean the message of the Good News that Jesus, who reveals who and what God is, has suffered and died for our sakes, and risen again, to grant us, without the slightest condition, salvation. This, and only this, will be the story of God: the Good News of our radically free gift of life and salvation in Christ crucified. This will be the sum of Christian “revelation”, and it is extremely narrow. All other texts must be read in light of this revelation, and as strictly subordinate to it (this is what Luther was trying to say when he talked about Christ as the only content of Scripture). So no set of texts will claim any authority over or against this Gospel. If we must speak in terms of “believing in” a text or message, we believe in the Gospel – not in the Bible. To put it differently, our belief will be restored in the God of the Gospel, not the “Biblical God” — and we’ll be released from the endless contortions to make the latter appear to be the former.

We will also realize that our divinization of scripture has been the divinization of oursleves. When we treat scripture as a divine revelation we have simply allowed one set of our human “stories” to replace, or at least be set on the same level as, God’s story, i.e. the story of the Gospel, of Christ on the cross. This is a form of  idolatry. It’s not the first, and it won’t be the last.

Scripture will therefore need to assume a very new  position in the Reformation 2.0. Its position will still be significant. Scripture will not be exorcised from our Christian liturgies, devotion, theology or study. We’ll still understand God as acting and speaking through scripture. People will still treasure scripture’s beauty and power. But moving forward, scriptures will not be allowed to determine or displace the Gospel in any way. Scripture will not be understood as ultimately authoritative of Christianity’s content (Reformation 1.0 blew this one, big time, despite Luther’s logic pointing in another direction). Scripture will become recognized as a real locus of God’s actions, but one that is not qualitatively different from any other way God acts in the world, whether through nature, other people, art, etc. The scriptures will simply become one of the means by which we explore and understand the Gospel – and valued exactly inasmuch as they are able to serve as this means.

Scripture will therefore, I suspect, re-emerge in Reformation 2.0 as “canonical” in a way similar to how, say, Shakespeare or Milton are understood as canonical texts of English literature.2 Scripture will be understood as a central literary monument of Christianity, a huge trove of images and concepts, and a key reference for learning about and talking about the Gospel. Inasmuch as it instills the Gospel, it will even be considered, in a manner of speaking, divine. But we will finally understand that it is not properly divine. Christianity will no longer be a religion of the book. It will once again become the religion of the Good News.

Next post: The Heart of the Storm: the End of the Line for the Theology of Sanctification and Deification

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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. []
  2. I owe this excellent observation to Tim Clark. []
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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 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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Step-up, Stan! Stanley Hauerwas – America’s Theologian

About the Author
David Wagschal

Has Christianity been playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values? Has it been contributing to the rising tide of authoritarianism, tribalism and anti-rational discourse? If it has, does it have to? Is there another way?

These are the questions that have sparked my current exploration of contemporary political theology.

For the American scene, these questions find an obvious focal point in one theologian in particular: Stanley Hauerwas.

Stanley Hauerwas, an American ethicist and political theologian, is something of a theological celebrity. He’s been hailed as “America’s Best Theologian” by Time magazine. He’s received innumerable honors, and his work has generated a sizable secondary literature in both Protestant and Catholic circles. Almost all seminarians read something of him. Heavens, he’s even appeared on Oprah Winfrey.

The precise source of his appeal is hard to pinpoint. He probably hasn’t made any one particularly remarkable or original contribution. Perhaps his curious combination of Methodist, Anabaptist and Catholic thought has simply hit all the right buttons in late 20th/early 21st century America theology? Or maybe he is one of those thinkers who has somehow managed to perfectly articulate the “spirit of the times”? Probably his exceptionally readable and approachable style hasn’t hurt — not to mention his charming Texan accent and penchant for swearing.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Something about Hauerwas resonates very deeply in America, and that is all that counts for our purposes. Hauerwas embodies a significant aspect of the American religious consciousness – so we need to explore his thought very carefully.

Hauerwas, however, is a difficult theologian to review.  It’s not that his ideas are complex, but his corpus is very large and very scattered. It’s hard to treat him by reviewing a book or two. (As I did with Yoder.)

Fortunately there is a 750 page+ compilation of many of his key works, curated by John Berkman and William Cavanaugh.  It’s now a bit dated, but I think it will do for our purposes. Over the next few posts I’m basically going to plow through this reader, and offer a series of reflections on the political implications of Hauerwas’ sprawling theological project.

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UTS Review Essay: The Politics of Jesus by John Howard Yoder

A neo-Lutheran review of John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus, 2nd edn. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans 1994; first edition 1972). Part of UTS’ exploration of contemporary Christian politics.

  1. Yoder’s Argument
  2. Yoder’s Method
  3. What I Love About This Book
  4. Nevertheless…
    1. What Exactly Does Yoder Think Christianity Is?
    2. The Cross…?
    3. Sin?
  5. Back to Scripture? Unfortunately, Yes.
  6. Back to Politics.

This is in many ways a great book.

At first, it does not impress. It is not particularly well written. The scope of the work is odd, built around an idiosyncratic selection of scriptural texts. It contains numerous annoying caveats about its own limitations, of the type normally reserved for doctoral dissertations or other junior research projects. The second-edition chapter “epilogues” are a bit self-indulgent.

But once you get to the end of it, you realize that this is a book of unusual power.

Yoder’s Argument

Yoder’s shocking thesis – already evident in the title of the book (The Politics of Jesus) – is that there is one consistent and well-defined ethical-political vision in the New Testament. This vision can be formulated succinctly, and it is obligatory for all Christians.

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Making America Average Again

About the Author
David Wagschal

America Needs a New Normal – and Fast

The political drama taking place south of the border is in so many ways unreal. The spectacle of the Trump administration/family is bizarre – and getting more bizarre. I don’t need to give examples.

Yet Trump and his coterie simply exemplify a much broader disconnect with reality in the American social consciousness.

However bizarre Trump may be, what is truly unreal about contemporary America is how far the bar has dropped on our vision of what society can and should be. Standards has become so skewed, and society’s vision so dimmed, that I think even the progressives in the United States are often not clear about what “normal” is.

So in all the confusion and bizarreness, I feel the need to offer a quick reality check: what is normal, again, for a just, moral and healthy first-world society?

I would offer the following as a few minimum standards:

1) Health care. Health care is free, universal, and admits no difference in levels of service according to people’s wealth or status. It’s basically like electricity or running water. Free, universal healthcare is understood as a simple moral imperative. There’s no real debate — this just is.

2) Wealth and class. The middle and lower classes dominate the income curve, and control the majority of society’s wealth.  Wealth and status differences between and within all classes are comparatively small. Social mobility is high. The political class is drawn mostly from the middle or lower classes. Generally, the upper classes view it to be in poor taste to display their wealth conspicuously – indeed, the upper class is relatively invisible, and class differences are hard to spot in day-to-day experience (i.e. it’s hard to tell class from how people talk, dress, etc.)

3) Employment. Everyone has multiple reasonable and realistic opportunities to obtain stable and secure employment, and all jobs have basically equivalent benefits, proportionate to the level of income/hours. (Health care is, of course, not a “benefit”; see #1 above.)  A dignified, if not lavish, retirement is more or less guaranteed.

4) Firearms. Aside from licenced and controlled hunting rifles/shotguns, which are mostly restricted to rural areas, possession of firearms is exceptionally rare, and is a serious criminal offence.  Handgun licenses might be (rarely) available to collectors, or on designated shooting ranges, but only under extremely controlled circumstances. Military-style weapons of any type are, of course, strictly forbidden.

5) Military. The military is a) highly professionalized and specialized; and b) segregated from civilian society.  It is (therefore) exceptionally effective, disciplined and respected. It is not commonly visible in the civil sphere. With the exception of defence and security positions in government, there is relatively little personnel “bleed” between the military and government – the military and government are very much separate career tracks.

6) Politics and business. Stringent rules are in place to prevent finances from determining elections. Campaign budgets are strictly capped.  Lobbying is limited and highly transparent. “Pay to play” or “pay for access” are equated with corruption, and are criminal offences. The firewall between business and politics is strictly observed, and morally internalized: a business person would be ashamed of even appearing to try to influence a politician via donations or similar inducements, much less actually attempting it. Likewise, a politician would avoid even the appearance of granting privileged access to the wealthy. The input of business on economic, industrial, and financial policy is critically important, but it happens only through transparent, open and regulated channels. Career moves from politics into the corporate sphere is rare, regulated and difficult – there is no “revolving door” between Wall Street and Washington.

7) Prisons. Incarceration rates are low, and incarceration is mostly used for violent offenders – less as a punitive measure. Prisons are never private. Broadly, in fact, only the government can legitimately restrict a citizen’s rights or inflict sanctions. Sanctions against citizens can never, as a point of principle, be delegated to private companies/agents.

8) Education.  Education is mostly public. Private schools, as a whole, are not substantially different in quality from public schools.  Aside from different specializations and sizes, there is comparatively little difference among institutions of higher learning.  (America’s highly stratified university system is, I think, a much larger problem than is generally acknowledged.)

9) Economy. The free market is a cornerstone of a peaceful, free and prosperous society, but it is recognized that markets are complex and must be prudently regulated. Anti-trust, financial, environmental and labour regulations are robust. The free market is not considered a default model for the administration of education, culture, politics, the military or other parts of civil society. Boards of directors have a fiduciary responsibility to assure that the interests of all stake-holders in a company, including society and the broader public good, are represented; share-holder interests are only one interest among others. Banking regulations are strict, and commercial and investment banking are carefully segregated.

10)  Judiciary.  Access to law is broadly equal for all, and not dependent on wealth. Civil suits are comparatively rare — there is no “culture of lawsuits”. There are numerous alternatives to the formal court system for the resolution of civil matters.

I could go on about race, immigration, refugees, police etc.

For a lot of Americans, I suspect that many of the above standards may seem like pie-in-the-sky.

But they shouldn’t. Most of the above are, to a greater or lesser degree, realities in other developed nations.  (Ok, most countries are still weak on 10, and 2, 3, and 9 have been very much weakened since the ’80s; some countries, like the UK, are also quite weak on 8.)

This means that if the US achieves even most of the above, this will not make America great. This will make America average.

If it excels in the above, this will make America a bit above average.

What would make America great? I don’t think a real proposal is even on the table.

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UTS Takes on Political Theology

About the Author
David Wagschal

Here’s a question that has been nagging me: has Christianity being playing a role in the erosion of liberal democratic values that we’ve been witnessing across many western democracies?

In the last few months I’ve been prepping for a short studies series at my church on “Christianity in the Public Square”.  I took the opportunity to brush up on “political theology”.

Political theology is the (relatively) new discipline of theology that treats the (relatively) old question of the relationship of the church and the public sphere – i.e. the state, civil society, and broadly the entire socio-political realm.  It’s very popular in today’s academy.

I somehow knew that I wasn’t much going to like what I started to uncover in this literature.

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