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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Kicking the Gnostic Habit: The Problem of Faith as Knowledge (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order: Part Three

This post is the final instalment in my three-part series on the central doctrinal pillars of the classical, mainstream synthesis of Christian theology as it has developed since approximately the 4th C. (A bit earlier, to be truthful, but this isn’t history class…)

My central contention in this series is that there is a lot more wrong with this core synthesis than most of us recognize. But if we are going to move towards a new synthesis – which I think is now inevitable – we need to start to engage in a much more open and comfortable critique of these older ideas.

The final pillar in my triad is the idea that Christian faith is a kind of knowledge. This is the subtle but pervasive idea that Christianity is a religion of insight, wisdom, and knowledge. It’s the belief that Christianity is the ultimate “philosophy”, even in the broadest, ancient sense of the word as a wise or holy way of life.

It’s hard to get your mind around the idea that Christianity might not be this, at least not at its core — but once you do, the effect is pretty dramatic.

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The Problem with Deification (Essay)

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part Two

 In this series, I’m exploring a few of the fundamental assumptions of what I call the “classical” or “imperial synthesis”.  This is the doctrinal mainstream of Christianity as it has developed since the 4th century or so. It’s most representative forms are perhaps the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or Calvinist churches, but its assumptions have permeated most forms of Christianity.

My contention is that some of the core doctrines of this synthesis are much more problematic than is often acknowledged. Yet we are still so deeply “within” this synthesis that we rarely directly and frankly question its central ideas.

Last week I looked at the common notion that Scripture is the revelation of God – and the problematic idea that Christianity is somehow at core an exercise in biblical exegesis. This week: salvation as divine transformation.

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The Problem with Scripture as Revelation

About the Author
David Wagschal

Three Pillars of the Old Order – Part One

I frequently have conversations with friends who ask me: “why have you abandoned the old patristic / Greco-Roman synthesis?”

By “Greco-Roman synthesis”, depending on the conversation, they might mean Catholicism, Orthodoxy, or, for that matter, traditional forms of Calvinism or even Lutheranism.

In all cases they expect that I will launch into a laundry-list of complaints about the institutional problems or moral stances of contemporary churches. They are surprised when I instead answer: “theology.”

Then follows a few uncomfortable moments when they realize that I seriously think we need to question several central pillars of the Great Church synthesis, that is, of the central trajectory of Christian doctrinal elaboration since at least the 3rd/4th C, whether in its eastern or western forms.

Their first reaction is to think I’ve gone a bit crazy. To be fair, even three or four years ago, my reaction would have been similar.

But abandoning the classical synthesis is easier, simpler and maybe more plausible than you might think. Read More…

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Learning to Let Go: Towards a Church that Doesn’t Need to Control Everyone and Everything

About the Author
David Wagschal

A New Ecclesiology for a New Millennium? Part One

Christians are addicted to control.

It’s an extraordinary phenomenon. Those of us who’ve been in the church our whole lives may not even notice it, but Christians have this idea that we should control not only people’s ideas, beliefs, and religious practices – which, reluctantly, we might expect – but also their bodies, their relationships, and their politics. In its more extreme forms our desire to control can extend to manners, language, diet, emotions, even minute details of clothes and appearances. Look around a bit and you’ll see it everywhere. We’ve somehow gotten it into our heads that, to be Christian, we must control almost everyone and everything around us: society, morality, culture, politics – the list goes on.

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Doctrinal Quiz Time!

About the Author
David Wagschal

(“So wrong for so long?” Part Four)

My final thought on theological traditionalism relates to content – to what we believe. Here I want to make what is perhaps my boldest assertion, which is:

I’m not sure many people actually believe much of the old synthesis anymore.

If there is a definitive blow against the “tradition argument”, this may be it. If people are objecting to homosexuality on the basis of tradition, and yet not themselves adhering to that tradition on pretty fundamental levels, what are we to make of this?

This observation is born out of many conversations I’ve had with Christians in traditional churches where it becomes clear to me that the beliefs espoused by my friends often have only a superficial connection with the traditional Greco-Roman Christian synthesis. Their underlying, foundational beliefs are quite different. Sometimes people don’t seem to realize this disconnect and sometimes they do – they realize that they are actually creating something quite new, yet still wish to maintain a traditional identity.

Am I right?

Well, if you’ve had experience with traditional Christianity, take my “Doctrinal Quiz” and see what you think!

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So Wrong for So Long? (The Problem with Tradition Part One)

About the Author
David Wagschal

“David, can the church really have gotten it wrong for so long? You claim that the church has made some pretty big missteps, not only on the homosexuality issue, but on the nature of scripture, the church, even the Gospel itself. Doesn’t that really strain the limits of credibility? Really, for almost two millennia the church has, well, blown it?”

This is among the most common objections I hear, especially from friends of churches which identify closely with the traditional Greco-Roman or “imperial” synthesis (Catholic, Orthodox, traditional Anglicans, etc). It’s the tradition question: can we not rely, at least to some extent, on received tradition – on the sheer weight of now almost twenty centuries of consensus and usage – as a criterion of truth? Should not this tradition be authoritative for Christians?

A Good Objection

Gotta say that I am very sympathetic to this objection. It was the key reason why, in my late teens, I left a mainstream Protestant church to join a more traditional church. I could never get my head around the sheer historical implausibility of the Reformation view of the world: first there was Jesus, then Paul – then darkness – then the Reformation.

Really?

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Some Common Objections

Maria and I have received several comments on our first few posts (and a few have begun to trickle in on my “A New Catechism“).

We’ve received a few particularly articulate reflections on our theological “drift”. A few common themes have begun to emerge. These include concern about the potential exclusivity of “grace alone”, worries about love’s rather secondary place, concern about the absolute prioritizing of “grace alone” vs. approaches that emphasize the polyvalence and complexity of the tradition (and, more profoundly, an understanding of reality that places a premium on rational balance and moderation), and, perhaps above all, concern about whether “good news” can really be all that good when it seems so down on human capabilities and human participation in salvation.

All of these are critical – and complex – issues that we’re going to address bit by bit, directly and indirectly, in the coming months.

We thought, however, that it might be useful to at least briefly delineate a our position a little further on several of these topics.

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Imitating Christ? Maybe not so much…

Hate it or love it, Luther has a fun habit of up-ending some of the most sacred and treasured notions of the ancient world.

One of these notions, which has become integral to classical Christian theology, is the notion of “imitation” or mimesis.

Mimesis is a conventional Greco-Roman way of understanding how knowledge, education, salvation, philosophical attainment – even the very fabric of being itself – “works”. The basic idea is that you think of reality as a huge set of images, cascading downwards from heavenly archetypes. Things find their being as reflections of higher images, and the way you learn/ascend/develop/advance is by more exactly imitating “higher”, better images. So, for example, in late Greco-Roman political theory, earthly societies are supposed to imitate divine models: people are to imitate the emperor, who is to imitate Christ, who imitates God; or, the empire is to struggle to become an ever better mirror-image of the kingdom of heaven. Likewise, in Christian theology, the Christian is to imitate Christ, and so become ever better conformed to the divine (the “image of God”).

The early church – innocently enough – adopted this whole conceptual framework pretty much wholesale.

But Luther smelled a rat.

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