Friday, May 18, 2007

Reformed Catholicism v. Reformed Catholicity, no. 3

This has really been an engaging issue; I'm so glad that several excellent conversation partners have surfaced to talk about this, especially those who are committed to working out of an explicitly Reformed identity. One of those conversation partners is Greg Thompson, senior pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Va., who thoughtfully responded to the previous post. To help us all track along, I'm going to reproduce his comments and then respond.

I especially like your question about the Pentecostals of the global south. For (while this question doesn't disprove the Reformed Catholic instinct) it certainly does show the complexity of the central question we're all wrestling with. And that question, if I read you rightly, is: How can one be biblically ecumenical and yet still have legitimate and necessary boundaries?

If I'm following you, your answer to this question is largely historical: the boundaries are set by the Scriptural habits, conceptual categories, and ecclesial practices inherent in our own historical tradition, and ecumenism comes in maintaining those boundaries while at the same time living charitably and even, as Schaeffer says, co-belligerently, with other traditions. You seem, in other words, to advocate a winsome and charitable way of being what Presbyterians have always been--Presbyterian. To the extent that I have it right this is compelling in that it takes both the facts of history and the law of charity seriously.

I sometimes wonder if another way to address this question would be to think not just in terms of historical development but also in terms of eschatological trajectory. That is, to understand our identity--and the boundaries essential to identity formation--not just in terms of what we were or even are, but also in terms of what we will be when the new world comes. The glimpses of this in the books of Psalms, Isaiah, Acts, and Revelation, and Paul's insistence on the determinative power of the future for how we think of ourselves in the present make me wonder if this eschatological starting point might not be a more fruitful approach than--or at least a supplement to--the historical approach you have suggested.

If this is so, given the breadth of the eschatological church (i.e. that it's not all Presbyterian), this raises some questions for me about the "historical approach ". These questions began to bother me as I considered your use of the term Reformed Catholicity (a term which I very much like, by the way). Reformed Catholicity, as you define it, seems to make "reformed" an identity category and "catholicity" an ethical category. That is, the key thing is to be reformed--whatever that might mean in our time, as you say--and from our reformed identities, to interact charitably with those in other traditions. Now, I much prefer this to what we currently have in our church. Given the history of American Presbyterianism, it is a very lovely vision. But I resist it theoretically for three reasons:

First, it seems to me to lack an appropriate eschatological horizon. This approach seems to me to risk cherishing identity boundaries that the eschaton will, in some sense, relativize.

Secondly, it seems to me to actually underplay the demands of charity. Catholicity, as you describe it, allows us to be what we are, to cherish what we are, and act from what we are in kindness toward others. That seems good to me. But what is lacking is the fact living charitably toward another often requires us to change what we are. The premise of sanctification is that the self is fully revisable in light of the law of love. (Incidentally, this does not involve a logical fallacy as you suggested--the "un-Presbyterian Presbyterian." It simply requires that one have an eschatological--and not merely historical--understanding of one's identity). But your version of charitable catholicity seems to make room for too much sameness. I resist this because charity is more disruptive than this.

Thirdly, "catholicity" becomes a bit anemic. Rather than the identity marker that Nevin longed for, it becomes either a winsome disposition of the heart or teamwork across fixed ecclesial boundaries. But catholicity is neither mere kindness nor mere co-belligerence. It is not merely a winsome disposition. It is the hunger for communion. The question is not how can we, being distinct, encourage one another. The question is how we can BE ONE. And further, how we can reflect that one-ness in concrete ways to the world around us.

...Let me sum up: I understand that there is an already-not yet component to all of ecclesial life. And there are necessary reasons--though many (not all) of them tragic in my view--for the boundaries we live within. So, I'm not arguing for a utopian sameness that ignores the deep trenches of history. Truly. There is a lot in those trenches that will find its way into the new world.I'm simply trying to argue against an essentially preservationist view of reformed identity and an essentially dispositional view of catholicity. Mere preservationism lacks a necessary eschatological imagination. And merely dispositional catholicity lacks both the self-sacrifice and the concrete union that love requires.

This is just a great, great post. And I'm so grateful that Greg cherishes friendship enough to share his thoughts with me and the rest of us. Here is some headway toward a response:

1. I think the conversation we are having (historical v. eschatological) feels very similar to categories that Nevin himself used (actual v. ideal). As I understand Nevin, the point he was making with these terms was that the "ideal" church (the eschatological church) was always a reality beyond us--what we have is the actual, that contains the reality of the ideal and yet has not fully fleshed it out. Utilizing the organic, developmental categories of his day, the actual church is always developing, in the process of becoming, moving toward the ideal, but never reaching it in this side of the eschaton.

That being said, I wonder if perhaps Greg might be underplaying the "not yet" and perhaps I am underplaying the "already." That is to say, I read Greg as saying, "Sean, you are not paying attention to the already-present unity of the body of Christ found in our common union in him. As a result, you are too content remaining within structures that divide that body and are too willing to be satisfied with partnerships and common worship services and good feelings." And I think that is probably fair.

On the other hand, I probably respond by saying, "Greg, I love what you are saying, but my goodness--I would love to have my Presbyterian church work together with the Evangelical Free church in our town and plant a church. That would be a major step forward. We don't even have that; shoot, we hardly work together with the EPC churches in our town. Further, I worry that your passionate desire for visible union can only lead to churches that stress 'historical unity' (namely Roman Catholicism, Anglicanism, and Eastern Orthodoxy)."

2. I don't think that a stress upon Presbyterian identity need be merely preservationist. I've been working with a model of "Christ and culture" that seeks to move beyond Niebuhr's taxonomy to a sixth possibility, "Christ incarnate in culture." That is, as the Gospel and the church is incarnate into particular cultural systems, it will necessarily take on different forms and shapes as it interstices with various economic, racial, gender, educational, and political realities. I would expect that the basic doctrinal and polity contours of Presbyterianism will show up wherever the Gospel is fleshed out (which you'd expect believing that it is biblical); still, these will look different in Sudan as different from Japan as different from Brazil as different from the American South.

3. Further, I think Presbyterianism has within itself the resources necessary to express both the visible unity and particularity of the church. If it is biblical, I would expect this to be the case. It just so happens that belonging to a "grassroots" denomination, our version of Presbyterianism overstresses the particularity of the church (i.e., discrete congregations) over the visible unity.

It is odd thing, really, because if historian Jack Maddex is right, in the initial revision of the Revised Book of Discipline that the southern Presbyterian church started working on at the outset of the Civil War, James Henley Thornwell was actually advocated a strong, centralized General Assembly that would be able to enforce visible unity. That is "Thornwellian" polity was actually different from actually got the name. It is interesting to think what southern Presbyterianism would have looked like if Thornwell had survived the war.

All one needs to do is look at national Reformed churches like the Church of Scotland to see both the benefits (and liabilities) that visible unity can bring. On the one hand, the dynamic of John 17 is played out in a powerful way in a particular context--Christ's command that the church's unity image for the unity of the Triune God is brought to powerful realization. On the other hand, the unwieldy "Constantinian" approach to church-state (which seems necessary in order to have this sort of "visible oneness") has wrought disasters within the church itself. Still, the point here is that Presbyterianism can provide the eschatological unity in the present--again, because it represents a biblical doctrinal and polity stance.

4. What that does all this mean for the larger conversation about "catholicity"? Well, I don't necessarily think it means what the Baptist theologian, E. Y. Mullins, suggested in his Axioms of Religion--namely, everyone is a Baptist in the end (or a Roman Catholic or a Presbyterian or an Anglican or a whatever). Rather, all believers are "Christians"--that is the fundamental identity. By virtue of Spirit-wrought faith, they will one day realize by sight what we confess by faith now--that we believe in "one holy catholic and apostolic church" (we believe this even when our eyes cannot capture it now). And we live in the reality of this confession as we can--so far, so good theologically.

The problem comes--and this is where my own bent comes as a historian--in that we cannot escape history. Or context. Or space and time and location. Which means that we must be situated in a particular history in order to know what kind of Christian we are--what our beliefs are, why those beliefs and not others, what our practices are, why those practices and not others, and what are the stories that make all this make sense. It is not possible to be a "mere" Christian--there are groups that have tried that again and again. Nor is it possible to be a "catholic" Christian--again, that has been tried and history demonstrates that even this attempt leads to boundary-markers.

And so, it strikes me that the best possible solution--in this actual, in this history, in this cultural-systemic moment--is to identify consciously with a particular set of beliefs, practices, and stories--whether Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Lutheran.

This is not merely a "lovely vision," but what is actually true about us as selves (see Charles Taylor, Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity [Cambridge: Harvard, 1989]). Speaking broadly about humanness, in order to converse meaningfully with others, we must be rooted in a sense of self that allows us to engage the other; otherwise, we are schizophrenic or bipolar, double-minded and unable to differentiate appropriately.

In a similar fashion, we must be rooted in a particular religious tradition and identity; otherwise, we are unrooted, shifting, uncertain, and ultimately unstable. And it is out of this particular religious tradition and identity that we are able to dialogue with others and demonstrate a genuine catholicity that prevents either Utopian sameness, undue self-hatred or religious insecurity, or a return to Rome. Rather, this particularity, oddly enough, grants an opportunity to participate meaningfully with others in the "one holy catholic and apostolic" church.


Anonymous said...

It seems that Sean sees 'Catholicity' mainly as a charitable attitude toward other Christians. Greg sees 'Catholicity' as more--as some kind of real participation and practical unity with other Christians. (Anyway that's how I'm hearing you.)

I'd propose that there's a way forward here--its the area of mission, not of creed re-writing or liturgical renewal (which is where a lot of Reformed folks are putting their efforts.) For example, what if a Reformed church helped an Assembly of God church plant an AG church in a community they have trouble reaching ordinarily--sophisticated, well-off professionals. This help would have to be far more than money, but also would include non-paternalistic training and sharing of resources and give-and-take agreement on a ministry strategy, and so on. Then let the AG church help the Reformed church start a Reformed church in a poor, ethnic neighborhood. Go through the same process. It is very likely that both mother churches will change in some significant ways, and the daughter churches will be even more affected by the process. Each church will continue to inhabit its tradition, but the concrete, participatory mission-practice will mean each church actually incorporates some insights and strengths of the other tradition. Thats more than just a charitable attitude toward one another.

-- Tim Keller

Darryl Hart said...

How would a Presbyterian church ever cooperate with a church it regarded to be in liturgical, political and doctrinal error?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for this helpful discussion. I find myself agreeing with much of what you’re written here.

You seem to grant Greg’s point that the nature of the eschatological church should have an impact on our historical ecclesial identities now, but I don’t see how that truth actually functions in your account of Presbyterian identity.

Plus I have some other questions about your understanding of Presbyterian identity.

1. Just as you said there’s no such thing in history as “mere Christianity” or “mere Catholicism,” isn’t it also true that there’s no such thing as “mere Presbyterianism”? If the former position wants to ignore the last 400 years of church history, the latter position seems to ignore the first 1600 years of church history. To be Presbyterian (or any brand of Protestant) automatically means that we’re standing on the historical shoulders of the church catholic; thus, to be just “Presbyterian” doesn’t make any historical sense to me. Greg is arguing that our ecclesial future qualifies our present ecclesial identity; I totally agree. Here I’m arguing that our ecclesial past qualifies our Presbyterian identity too; that the adjective “Presbyterian” can’t stand alone historically or theologically.

2. In Exclusion and Embrace, Miroslav Volf argues that because identity is bound to historical particularity, context, etc., such identities are never completely “pure,” unmixed or self-standing. I think this insight applies to our discussion of historical church identities. The more acquainted with a tradition such as Presbyterianism we become, the more we see the complexities of our ecclesial identity. Further, we see a symbiotic relationship with other traditions, significant overlap, mixing, matching, and learning. An ecclesial identity is hammered out in relationship to other church traditions as well as one’s cultural context. Tim’s example above is a practical illustration of the former; your “incarnational” church-culture model would seem to admit the latter. Finally, I’m sure you’re aware of Alasdaire MacIntyre’s work in which he gives an account of how traditions can grow and change, yet retain their fundamental identity.

My goal here is not to repudiate Presbyterian identity but rather to “put it in its place” historically, ecclesially, eschatologically. When this happens, the result is a greater appreciation for other streams of the orthodox tradition, a greater willingness to pray for and partner with brothers and sisters across denominational boundaries, and (paradoxically) a strengthening of our own tradition as it is enriched by the wider body of Christ.

Jeremy Jones

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Tim:

Well, I want to say a little bit about "catholicity" (or "ecumencity") than it is warm feelings. In fact, in the first point of my reply to Greg, I actually used the example of partnering to plant with a EFree church or EPC church. I would think that would extend to particular Pentecostal churches as well. And so, I agree that part of how Presbyterians can think about catholicity is in terms of mission, as long as that partnership in mission is done self-consciously for Kingdom purposes and from a profound understanding of our own identities.

And on that, as I've read and heard you since my WTS days, I think we are agreed.

Blessings, sml

Sean Michael Lucas said...

Hi, Jeremy:

Thanks for joining the conversation. Let me respond briefly to your two points/questions:

Sure, I agree that there is no such thing as "mere Presbyterianism" per se--that is why I was talking about an incarnational model that takes into account the cultural system in which religious identity plays out. I'm drawing here from my own thinking as a cultural historian (influenced by Clifford Geertz's own work) to recognize all this. Because of this, I also know that there are other factors that simply religious belief that shape our identities and worldviews--gender, class, race, education, social location, etc. All that to say, I understand there is no such thing as "pure" belief or "pure" identity (in fact, I admitted all that already in the major posts).

Having admitted all that, I'm actually in conversation with MacIntyre's Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry for my understanding of tradition. While admitting that a tradition is a living and organic system that can adapt and develop for the purposes of moral inquiry, my basic question still remains: how much tolerance can a tradition bear before it becomes a *different* tradition? I'm not sure that question has been answered by the commentators on my posts.

The problem all comes in how to account for our place in the historical stream. What see certain "emerging" folks advocating is a movement "upstream" (if you will)--but historical development doesn't really work like that. It is not really possible to go behind modernity in order to tap into some "ancient" practice or "medieval" ritual or "reformation" liturgy--because those practices will necessarily be "read" and "transformed" in our place and time by the very process of "incarnation."

And so, yes, I want to say that all these pictures from the church's history are in our family album, if you will--and they all in one way or another shape who we are. In the same way that in pastoral counseling it is important to know family history in order to help someone wrestling with their current problems and struggles, so it is with the church (as a "family" or "cultural" system). And yet, we have to help that man or that woman live authentically in this moment; it is not possible for them to go back historically and reprinstinate the past, nor is it possible for them to go back and merge the practices of their forefathers with their lives today. Rather, they must work out their salvation in this moment, aware of how both the past (with which they share continuity) and future shape this time.

I hope this helps flesh out a little more what I'm thinking here-thanks for being in conversation.

Best, sml

Sam Wheatley said...

I don't want to lose Tim's comment and Darryl's response -- maybe our hang-up with actual expressions of unity are in trying to do too much too fast or not doing anything at all.

Clair Davis at WTS used to quote Luther saying "the church is like a drunk monk on a donkey constantly veering into the ditch, first on the left then on the right." Are we lurching back and forth on unity issues instead of walking the road in front of us?

Walking the road doesn't start with planting a church with Pentecostals, but it does start by taking the Pentacostal pastor in your neighborhood to lunch and asking him his thoughts on what it would look like for our two churches to be better neighbors. Relationship rather than agendas might be a more fruitful approach in a truly catholic vision.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for responding to my questions.

I went back and read through all your posts on this and the responses made by different folks and here’s my fundamental concern: most of the time you seem to define our primary ecclesial identity in the present as “Presbyterian.” However, at one point in your response to Greg you do say that “all believers are Christians – that is the fundamental identity.” This tension is the issue for me: if your latter statement is true (and I agree that it is) then adding the qualifier “catholic” or “orthodox” to “Presbyterian” (or “Reformed”) makes sense because it’s telling more fully who we are; and this fuller description of our ecclesial identity performs at least two very helpful functions.

First, the “Reformed-catholic” designation reminds us that as Presbyterians we’re not “THE church” but are only a part of the church catholic. We’re a room in the great house, a branch of the stream of orthodoxy, or, to use your helpful image, a section of the catholic family album. But just thinking of ourselves only as “Presbyterians” makes forgetting this truth all too tempting and can lead us towards sectarianism.

Second, the “Reformed-catholic” designation of our current religious identity reminds us of what we share with the rest of the church theologically. For the theological framework in which Reformed distinctives take their place consists of the catholic doctrines hammered out prior to the Reformation and embraced by our tradition – Incarnation, Trinity, atonement, creation, etc. Inasmuch as we still embrace these truths today, they constitute part of the common ground we share with all other orthodox believers past and present. (The same point holds for the common practices of the catholic church such as worship, mission, fellowship, service, etc.).

In both of these examples the description “Reformed-catholic” enables us to preserve an understanding of our own distinctiveness as a unique tradition, and helps keep us cognizant of what we share with the broader church of which we are a part.

A couple other things.
Your question about learning from the Pentecostal movement is a good one and I think the influence of Pentecostalism is very evident in Evangelicalism today. Reformed folk do seem less inclined to learn from Pentecostalism in certain areas (like theology, liturgy, polity, etc.) but I doubt many would classify these as areas of strength in that movement, whereas these are areas of strength in ours. Surely, however, there is much for us to learn from our Pentecostal brothers about zeal for worship, sensitivity to the Holy Spirit, boldness of faith and hope, etc. Inasmuch as Reformed types have not sought to learn from this branch of the church, I think you’ve laid down a good challenge for our tradition. (I can think of two more recent broadly Reformed theologians who have wrestled with the Pentecostal movement: Newbigin discusses what the church has to learn from Pentecostalism in his book The Household of God. James K. A. Smith, at Calvin College, calls himself a Reformed charismatic and discusses what he means by this in his essay “Neocalvinism…maybe: A Peek Into My Toolbox” at

Finally, your question about “how much change can a tradition bear before it ceases to be a coherent tradition?” is a great one and something I need to give more thought to. I’d love to keep that conversation going and hear more of your thoughts on it.

Thanks for your kind responses and time!

Anonymous said...

Good night! What an incredible conversation!

I'm about a five year old in the pca, so this dialogue is really encouraging to me. I've learned to(and continue to struggle with) working alongside, learning from, and listening to Pentecostals, Catholics, Baptists, Bible/non-denoms, Lutherans, and even the Salvation Army. There's so much here in this conversation that I feel inadequate to speak on. I may be the Elihu (book of Job) of this post, but hopefully not as angry and brash as he was.

Anyway, I love brother Hart's question about love. We must begin by seeing the growing Pentecostal circles (which are increasingly African, Asian, and Latino) as our brothers. I believe we have both an eschatological and historical motivation for this under the Scriptures. There is something that, if investigated, will emerge as a commonality within the DNA of both Presbyterians and Pentecostals. We have to be able to look our Pentecostal brothers in the eye without secretly wishing they would renounce their ecclesial identity and become like us. Simply put, we each need help from each other. We each have strengths and weaknesses. E.g. Pentecostals may have a weakened soteriology, but the Reformed discussion and practice of pneumatology is pretty anemic.

I'm paraphrasing, but I think Dr. Lucas made the point earlier that in our efforts to pursue Reformed Catholicity, we must not come to the table ready to pound on other Christians. As Sam said, relationships are key; however, as someone else wrote, we must not create the "either/or" fallacy. We need both relationship and agenda because God commands us to pursue both. Our mission is not only to "love one another as I have loved you," but we are also Christ's ambassadors imploring the world to "be reconciled to God." T

The problem is figuring out how to engage in God's narrative (contextualized, eternal and personal) without scrapping His propositional truth. The marriage of these two is done successfully in our Scriptures, even if our preaching most times doesn't reflect it. Maybe what we need is a little plenary inspiration in our mission and identity. Maybe we need to continually be formed by the canon that first made us. Maybe we need the Spirit of Christ.

Let us pray...

darryl hart said...

So no one thinks Pentecostals are in error? I know of some former Pentecostals who think that the followers of Wesley and Parham have a lot to learn from Presbyterians. Whatever happened to the notion, "isn't the Reformed faith grand"?

BTW, I take no credit for the remark about love, neighbor or otherwise.

Anonymous said...

My apologies, Dr. Hart. I misunderstood the tenor of your question.

There are many reasons why I think the Reformed faith is grand. I am a Presbyterian by conviction and not by birth (I have a Baptist/Bible church background). Given that we, as Dr. Lucas seems to be concerned about, will not give up the essentials of our Reformed identity, I thought you were asking the next question. How do communities committed to the Reformed faith engage Pentecostals and Methodists in theology, mission, and fellowship?

What part do intrusion ethics and the progressive sanctification of the church militant have to play in this discussion?


Darryl Hart said...

I'm left wondering how we keep the essentials of the Reformed faith and engage Pentecostals and Methodists in theology, mission and fellowship. The Reformed doctrine of sanctification is not very Wesley friendly and I would imagine it would carry much weight in discussing theology and mission with Pentecostals and Methodists -- as in being a non-starter.

Or have I missed something?