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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