Friday, September 17, 2010

A very fine Protestant ecclesiology

I am thoroughly enjoying this discussion, and I am thoroughly edified by Peter Escalante's explanations surrounding the Protestant definition of the word "church" here. I believe this goes a long way toward defining a Protestant ecclesiology that makes sense of the Reformation history as well as giving us a way to understand "the Protestant Church" moving forward in our own era.
To get straight to it: the corpus christianum on earth is a multitude, not a single political unity. This is why it can be genuinely transnational without being a multinational corporation or empire, and why it can be the principle of many commonwealths. The visible worship assemblies are actions of the corpus christianum, whereby the heavenly reality of that earthly corpus christianum becomes more iconically focused, so to speak. But as I said, a believer is not “more” in the mystical body on Sunday than on Friday.

As Steven has said, I think the idea you’re getting at is actually the corpus christianum. The important thing to note is that the c.c. as such is temporally a multitude, not a politically or para-politically incorporated institution. It underlies household, State, ministerium and worship assembly, and other civic and social forms.

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Protestantism: of course there many movements in the 16th century, but most historians of the time have little trouble in clearly identifying a Magisterial Reformation, and can do so because it enjoyed a remarkable consensus on the crucial points. “Semper reformanda” does not primarily refer to doctrinal revision- the phrase isn’t doctrina semper reformanda- but rather, means that the Christians can always do more to get their act together. It cannot serve as warrant for ever more speculative theology, or for rejection of classic truths. It’s one thing to say that evangelical doctrine is wrong, but quite another to appeal to the Reformation example as warrant for departing from its principles…

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You say “the institution which we call the Church”. Well, with the Reformers, I would say the Church is primarily the union of believers with Christ, a name for the relation of the Person to the many persons (and as Steven noted, this is straight Luther). The visible assemblies are indispensable, but derivative. The visible worship assembly is not an interposed mediator between a believer and the true Mediator. It is rather birds of a feather flocking together, fixed on the Sun of the Word, and winging on the air of the Spirit. You say you can’t square the Protestant conception with the Biblical metaphors; but you then admit that it probably does square with the evangelical doctrine of the mystical body. What you object to is the evangelical distinction between that one Body, and the many visible assemblies, because, it seems, you wish to entirely conflate them. Such a conflation leads of necessity, by the way, to ecclesiologies such as those of Rome, or Witness Lee. And missing in all your explanations of your position is the classic idea of the corpus christianum…

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On alternatives: I think that there really aren’t that many alternatives, and the clearer one is about principles and the more coherent one’s thought becomes, the more one will find himself tracking with one of the handful of possibilities. I am not speaking of airtight systems; I am speaking of basic configurations of first principle, and there really is a phenomenological typology of these. Anabaptism and Rome really do both conflate the visible assemblies and the mystical body, and thus both, predictably, destroy the corpus christianum; and so on. There is a sort of science of these things.

On conflation: I do know you want to make a distinction. It would be helpful were you to recognize that we do not at all radically separate the visible earthly assemblies and the mystical Body of Christ: they share an identical center, the Word, and they are connected in living persons. The crucial difference, I think, is that we think that the way in the which the mystical Body most basically presents itself in the world is as the corpus christianum, which is a multitude; and that c.c. staffs, as it were, the household, the visible assemblies, and the civic orders and offices. It is not itself a polis; it is rather the principle of many commonwealths.

7 comments:

Steve, Liz, & Kate said...

most historians of the time have little trouble in clearly identifying a Magisterial Reformation, and can do so because it enjoyed a remarkable consensus on the crucial points.

No. Most historians have little trouble in identifying a social/religious movement, and can do so because it enjoyed a consensus on what it was a reaction against (the papacy and the most egregious aspects of Medieval Catholicism)

Leaving aside those teachings that the various reform movements usually had in common with Roman Catholicism (and therefore with each other) there was not a remarkable positive consensus. In particular Lutheranism both in its origins and in its current form differs from Calvinism in fundamental ways such as its Christology, soteriology, and its sacramental theology.

John Bugay said...

Do you know what the term "magisterial reformation" refers to? He is not saying that there were no differences, only that this was a broad, recognizable category.

Tim Enloe said...

“Semper reformanda” does not primarily refer to doctrinal revision- the phrase isn’t doctrina semper reformanda- but rather, means that the Christians can always do more to get their act together. It cannot serve as warrant for ever more speculative theology, or for rejection of classic truths.

Ah but here's the rub. A great many Protestants do take the object of "semper reformanda" to be "doctrina" rather than "ecclesia." More precisely, many identify in a one-to-one correspondence the "ecclesia" with its "doctrina" - particularly its "sana doctrina" (sound doctrine) - and so they are always pressing for a "reform" that means casting away "traditions of men" - a phrase which itself gratuitously means "anything we ourselves, apart from the rest of our brothers, cannot find in the 'plain meaning' of the Bible" and always rebuilding "sana doctrina" from scratch. This is the core difference between the Magisterial and Radical Reformations.

There is a hard truth that we Protestants need to face, especially in terms of apologetics against Catholics. Though the Catholics grossly exaggerate many of our negative tendencies for polemical purposes, they do not simply make them up from scratch. Though it is not true that the NORM of Protestant thought on the ground is to split off into a brand new church over every doctrinal disagreement, there is indeed a very great problem with lack of understanding of the real Reformation positions.

Many of those classical positions have become distorted over time by cultural forces such as the democratizing effects of American culture, which in the 19th century convinced every ordinary Tom, Dick, and Harry that he was himself competent to be his own spiritual authority, and that he should look down darkly on all "educated" ministers and upon all external creeds and hermeneutical authorities.

This is NOT classical Protestantism. It is not the Protestantism of the Reformers. It is, however, the Protestantism of many modern Protestants, and THIS is what the Catholic apologists go to town on, wrongly attributing it to Luther and Calvin.

Truth Unites... and Divides said...

"A very fine Protestant ecclesiology"

I think it nuts down to the "visible church" terminology and meaning of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy versus the "invisible church" terminology of Protestantism.

John Bugay said...

Truth Unites: I think it nuts down to the "visible church" terminology and meaning of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy versus the "invisible church" terminology of Protestantism.

I agree with this in principle, although there are distinctions drawn that our Roman Catholic interlocutors will have a hard time criticizing. For example, what accounts for birds flocking? Do they have a visible head and a teaching magisterium to go in the right direction? Yet does God fail to provide guidance for them?

There are very helpful nuances and metaphors in here.

John Bugay said...

Tim, one of my purposes here is to try and bring some of those elements of "classic Protestantism" back into the purview of folks who may have, somewhere along the way, forgotten what that was all about.

But I do think that some of these principles can become a great unifying factor even after all that the Protestant churches have been through.

Steve, Liz, & Kate said...

What I'm saying is that it was a historically recognizable and identifiable negative category (a reaction against the papacy, purgatory, and the distinctives of roman catholic soteriology) rather than a coherent theological positive category.

I also think what I'm saying is not about 20th century evangelicalism or other fads, nor is it about Luther vs. Calvin. It's about lutheranism vs. calvinism (and vs. other protestantisms) over the last half millenium.

I like your excellent flock of birds analogy but I don't think there's one visible flock (of course we look forward to eschatological unity and deem each true christians but I'm talking about the here and now). For example, though we all intend to have a Chalcedonian christology, the more detailed and specific a calvinist is in explaining what he means by "a human nature" the more I am convinced that what he means by "a human nature" is precisely what I mean by "a human person," and what he means by "a person" is probably what I mean by "psychological personality." I know I'm not telling you anything you haven't heard and talked about before my point is, considering the basic christological implications of that, how could our disagreement be more fundamental than that and we still be fellow Christians? It's as basic and as radical a difference as you can find among Christians. It's not a minor difference or an "inessential" (in terms of being consistent with a mutual flocking together).

Obviously no serious person really thinks there are 30,000 flocks or whatever the Roman Catholic apologists say but there is surely more than one.

What's wrong with "invisible" unity by the way? What's wrong with "humanly incomprehensible" even? We're not supposed to be capable of comprehending all things and a little mystery is OK as long as you don't make it a fetish.