Monday, December 12, 2005

Party of Christ or Church of Jesus Christ? Part One - How Did We Get Here?

In the last post, I discussed the Holy Father's insight that the Church is something that comes from outside of ourselves. When we forget this simple fact, we run the risk of thinking the Church is something we can mold and create according to our own whims and wishes. Inevitably, we fall into the same trap that plagued the Corinthian Church of St. Paul's day (I Corinthians, 3).

Though I definitely want to get into what truly constitutes being “Church,” from a scriptural and historical viewpoint, in this post I instead want to list some of the Holy Father’s insights on how we got into the situation we’re in now in the modern Church.

The Holy Father begins with a fundamental group of questions:

“... we must premise the fundamental question: What is the Church in the first place? What is the purpose of her existence? What is her origin? Did Christ actually will her, and, if so, how did he intend her to be?”

(Called to Communion, pg. 13)

These questions lie at heart of the issue, no? The question of the nature and origin of the Church is essential in any discussions in Church reform. Without an adequate understanding of where we came from, we’ll never adequately see where we’re going or how we can get there. The Holy Father goes on to list three methods of biblical interpretation that have guided (or, more accurately, misguided) modern man’s understanding of ecclesiology in this century. These three methods include the liberal, the cultic, and the neoliberal/marxist.

As regards the liberal, the Holy Father writes:

“At the beginning of this history stands liberal exegesis, which regards Jesus according to the liberal world picture as the great individualist who liberates religion from cultic institutions and reduces it to ethics, which for its part is founded entirely upon the individual responsibility of conscience. Such a Jesus, who repudiates cultic worship, transforms religion into morality and then defines it as the business of the individual, obviously cannot found a church. He is the foe of all institutions and, therefore, cannot turn around and establish one himself.”

(all emphases added unless otherwise indicated.)

(Called to Communion, pg. 15)

You’re probably thinking, “Wow, that sounds familiar,” and you’d be right. This late 19th/early 20th Century mode of exegesis is very similar to today’s understanding of the Church’s role in society. However, the modern neoliberal understanding has a slight difference which we’ll go over in a minute. For now, what’s important to understand is that there are two forms of exegesis which vie for control in any discussions of ecclesiology: They are the individualistic (“priesthood” of all believers) and the cultic (special role of priest vs. special role of laity). As regards the latter, the Holy Father continues:

“The First World War brought with it the collapse of the liberal world and a resulting aversion to its individualism and moralism. The great political bodies, which had relied entirely on science and technology as carriers of he progress of humanity, had failed as forces of ethical order, So the yearning for communion in the sacred was reawakened. There was rediscovery of the Church, even in the domain of Protestantism. Scandinavian theology witnessed the development of a cultic exegesis, which, in strict antithesis to liberal thought, no longer saw Jesus as a critic of cultic worship but rather understood this worship as the intimate, vital atmosphere of the Bible, in both the Old and New Testament. ... there was a growing awareness that the Messiah is unthinkable without his Church.

(Called to Communion, pgs. 15-16)

This method, the cultic, is, obviously, the Catholic model. The fact that this understanding was reawakened amongst Scandinavian theologians is not too surprising considering the sacramental base that exists within Lutheranism. American Evangelicalism, however, has yet to catch up with this type of exegesis. America’s value of individualism has, I believe, had an impact on Evangelical ecclesiology. Undoubtedly, many Evangelical Christians would object to being labeled as ‘individualistic’ in their ecclesiology, especially considering the community aspect that is fostered in many Evangelical churches. However, it cannot be denied that Evangelicalism’s rejection of the cultic interpretation of scripture inevitably leads to an understanding of church authority in which all believers are ‘priests,’ and any claim to special authority is looked upon with grave suspicion. It is this distaste for authority that leads to our third and final method of exegesis outlined by the Holy Father - the neoliberal/marxist. The Holy Father comments:

“In the neoliberal world of the West, a variant of the former liberal theology of now became operative in a new guise: the eschatological interpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus, it is true, is no longer conceived as pure moralist, yet he is once again construed in opposition to the cult and the historical institutions of the Old Testament. This interpretation was a revamping of the old framework that breaks up the Old Testament into priests and prophets: into cult, institution and law, on the one hand, and prophecy, charism and creative freedom on the other. In this view, priests, cult and institution appear as the negative factor that must be overcome. ... A new variety of individualism thus comes into being: Jesus now proclaims the end of the institutions.”

The marriage of this ideology with Marxism was inevitable:

“But this new version of liberalism was quite susceptible to being converted into a Marxist-oriented interpretation of the Bible. The opposition between priests and prophets becomes a cipher for the class struggle...In accordance with this dialectical model, the “popular Church” is pitted against the institutional or “official Church.” This “popular Church” is ceaselessly born out of the people and in this way carries forward Jesus’ cause: his struggle against institutions and their oppressive power for the sake of a new and free society that will be the “Kingdom.”

(Called to Communion, pgs. 18-19)

So there you have it. Modern man’s distaste for authority and the “unpopular” is ultimately at the root of the liturgical, moral, and theological crisis that faces the Church today. All discussions of Church life are seen through the myopic lens of “popularity.“ Rather than seeing such components as structure and authority as essential marks of ecclesiology, in the "heirarchy vs. me” atmosphere of the modern church these elements are seen as something additional and detrimental to worship of the true God. With the loss of understanding of what the Church is actually here for, we fall into a “party mentality“, in which every group has their own agenda of how the Church should function. Only by returning to the tough questions about the Church’s nature, origin, and mission will we be able to recover any semblance of sanity in our discussions of Church reform. It is to these questions we will go in the following post.

God Bless,