On the Necessity of the Church

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In his Foundations of Christian Faith, Karl Rahner has an interesting section in which he argues that church should not be seen as simply a secondary help in the Christian life (I can’t tell you how many Christians I’ve talked to who make church out to be a sort of “advice column” to their relationship with Christ). Instead, Rahner says, God acts toward his people through the church. The church is God’s action; His objective, concrete, act of grace. For this reason, Rahner says explains that the church is necessary, and not optional. It is primary, not secondary.

Rahner explains,

Christianity is essentially ecclesial, and not just a secondary way or from the viewpoint of the social or pedagogical aspects of religion. The church as such belongs to Christianity, at least when Christianity really becomes conscious of itself and when it intends to maintain continuity of a real history of salvation and has to prolong this continuity. Church is more than merely a practical and humanely unavoidable organization for fulfilling and satisfying religious needs. Christianity as the event of salvation, as God’s act upon us and as man’s response to God’s ultimate self-communication, is ecclesial

Christianity is essentially more than an affair of [man’s] own subjective and pious dispositions and his own religious consciousness, and is more than the objectification of this. From this perspective church means the church which makes a claim on me, the church which is the concreteness of God’s demands upon me. Basically this concreteness is to be expected precisely if Christianity is not a religion which I create, but rather is the event of salvation which God bestows upon me by his own incalculable initiative. And if this salvific event as an act of God is not merely to come to me in the ultimate depths of conscience, but rather in the concreteness of my existence, then the concreteness of this God, who makes demands upon me and who is not my discovery or creation, is Jesus Christ and his concrete church makes demands upon me in the same way. (pg 347)

Rahner makes an astute observation that if Christianity is more than “pious dispositions and… religious consciousness”, which is certainly is (though not less), then there must be something concrete about the way God interacts and disposes himself to his people. And how does God act concretely toward his people? Through the church. Through the church, God condescends and acts savingly, graciously, toward us.

Karl Adams agrees with Rahner. And he goes a step further. He says,

Christ the Lord is the real self of the Church. The Church is the body permeated through and through by the redemptive might of Jesus.

Meaning, it is through the church that we necessarily encounter God in Christ. Why? Because it is in the church, through the church, that Christ communicates his grace

Adams goes so far to say that we should see the church and Christ as indistinguishable:

Christ and the Church: the two are one, one body, one flesh, one and the same person, one Christ, the whole Christ.

So then, it is through the church that we encounter Christ, because the church is Christ. Augustine himself articulated that in the church we encounter not a (only) mass of individuals, but we encounter the whole Christ. Augustine says that “Christ is not simply in the head and not in the body, but Christ whole is in the head and the body”. What he means here is that the church is totus Christus, the “whole Christ”.

So then, through the sacraments, preaching, body life, church discipline, et al, we not only encounter random spiritual disciplines; we encounter the whole Christ. As Rahner says, God acts by way of this objective reality, this thing we call the church. And so, the church herself is the whole Christ, God’s saving activity.

Because of this, church should be something more than just a social club. It should be something more than just a weekly sermon. It should be something more than just consumerism. If Christianity is ecclesial, then we must expect to encounter Christ in his body. We must expect to submit to Christ himself through the local church. Local ecclesiology is therefore no mere option. If we wish to do the will of God in Christ, it is necessary that we be in his body, under his authority, in the local church.

Karl Adams says,

Is not all human exercise of authority tantamount to a usurpation? Yes, if it be merely human, it is. For every merely human governance necessarily rests on might, whether it be the tyranny of an individual or the despotism of a community. Only in theocracy is a man free from men, for he serves not men but God. Therein lies the secret of that child-like obedience, so incomprehensible to the outsider, which the… [believer in Jesus] gives to his Church, an obedience whereby he freely and cheerfully submits his own little notions and wishes to the will of Christ expressed in the action of authority; an obedience whereby his own small and limited self is enlarged to the measure of the great self of the Church. That is no corpse-like obedience or slave mentality, but a profoundly religious act, an absolute devotion to the Will of Christ which rules the Church, a service of God. And so this obedience is not cowardly and weak, but strong and ready for sacrifice, manly and brave even in the presence of kings. It is faithful even to the surrender of earthly possessions, yes, even to the sacrifice of life itself, offering itself to the Christ who lives in the Church.

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The Mission of the Church? Transforming the Culture

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What is the mission of the church? Hans Urs von Balthasar has a fascinating excerpt from his Theo-Drama IV, in which he tries to explain.

Essentially, his answer is that the church’s mission is meant to redeem and transform the culture. von Balthasar says,

The whole notion of “Church”, in radical contrast to the Synagogue, is centrifugal; not only is the Church open to the world, which in principle already belongs to Christ: she is also jointly responsible for it. It is not enough to preach the message of salvation to the world from outside: this message must permeate it like leaven, becoming disseminated throughout it. What we are speaking of is—in the modern expression —“inculturation”. The cultural materials that exist in the world must be taken up and adapted, albeit critically. Again, this must not be done by the forced imposition of Christianity onto a reluctant substratum; conquests of this sort continue to take their revenge centuries later. Rather, there must be a loving appreciation of the existing values; it must calmly be shown that they are genuinely fulfilled only in the message of Christ.

However, this is difficult, from both sides. It is difficult on the part of the culture that is to be transformed: particularly in its most highly developed form, its Gestalt exhibits an earthly perfection, like a work of art; in its own order, it seems incapable of improvement. The Christian reality, however, lives entirely in relationships of continual transcendence and in principle (not accidentally) breaks open the complacent, earthly forms, putting them in touch with a Catholic universality: thus they must open up to the world around them but also to the world above them. It is even more difficult on the part of the Church; the gospel message is embedded in the structures of the “missionized” culture, a fact that threatens to bring the movement of the missionary Church to a full stop. Inculturation threatens to adapt Christianity to the existing culture; the salt of the gospel is in danger of losing its savor. Amalgams are formed between Christianity and secular culture; at times this produces marvelous cathedrals of art, of philosophy and of piety, yet it is not clear whether these are a pure expression of the gospel.

The Church can only effectively pursue her task, therefore, if she herself alternates between two impossible poles: preaching to the world purely from without and transforming it purely from within. As Church, she must penetrate without becoming “establishment” and advance without leaving unfinished business behind. Paul represents a kind of ideal: he founds communities, moves on, then returns to his foundations, but without finally settling down there. The profile he presents should be that of every community and of each individual: the Church must put down roots where she is, yet without coming under the spell of the place. Here again we find that this paradox, which is baffling at an earthly level, reflects the discipleship of Christ, who comes into the world and leaves it (Jn 16:28) and yet stays with it until the end (Mt 28:20); for it is in his exodos (Lk 9:31)—which is his Eucharist—that he is killed and so remains with us. (Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action, section IV, C, 3)

So then, the church is given the mission of fulfilling, redeeming, deifying the culture. And so the church must go into the culture, and adapt and fulfill it in Christ.

Balthasar is certainly right in saying that in doing this, the church must ride the line between simply evangelizing “from the outside” only (ie, never entering into the culture, but only being a culture in and of itself) and being “institutionalized” or adapted by the culture.

Rather, the church must go into the culture, appreciate it, and then elevate it in the gospel. In other words, Christianity wants to take culture and take it up into God’s own life so that it can participate in his own glory.

This reminds me of a line by Robert Barron, that God is not “a competitor with his creation”. Rather, God’s intention in the gospel is to elevate, redeem, deify creation — and culture, and art, and music, and family et al — through Christ’s death and resurrection. And in this way, as Barron says so aptly, the gospel makes Christianity “the greatest humanism that has ever appeared”. This is the church’s mission.

Roger Olson, James White, and the Problem of Old Testament Ethics

So a couple days ago I posted a critique of a recent debate over Calvinism vs Arminianism: Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism.

I ended my critique by pointing out that one of the debaters from the Arminian side, Brian Zahnd, clearly denied the inerrancy of the Bible, and therefore read his view of Christ into the scriptures. He denies the inerrancy especially of the Old Testament, because of it’s violent history. And of course, a violent God is in no way congruent with his idea of a peaceful Jesus. 

Recently, James White brought up this same problem with another theologian named Roger Olson. While I like much of Olson’s books, especially on church history, I think White hit the nail on the head. Olson denies inerrancy, and therefore denies much of the Old Testament’s “terror texts” (as he calls them, referring to violent texts he perceives God would never condone). It is the same issue I saw in Brian Zahnd, to a tee. White calls it a new form of Marcionism (which he will define).

Listen to White’s commentary below from 40:30 on (keep in mind, White can be colorful!)…

 

Old Debate, New Day: Calvinism – My Thoughts

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So recently, there was a debate between two Calvinists and two Arminians about the subject of predestination and God’s role in salvation.

The Calvinist debaters were Daniel Montgomery, pastor a Sojourn Church in KY, and Timothy Paul Jones, a professor at Southern Seminary. They recently published a book together called PROOF, which was a rehashing of the TULIP acronym. I read the book, and would encourage anyone to read it.

The Arminian debaters were Austin Fischer, recent author of Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed. His partner was an odd fellow I had never heard of named Brian Zahnd. I have followed Fischer for quite some time, and have been fascinated by his very quick transition from Calvinism into a liberal type of Arminianism, following the likes of Roger Olson et al.

You can watch the debate here:

I will give a commentary about the debates below the video links

Strengths on each side?

I want to start by commenting on the strengths of each side, then the weaknesses. First, the Calvinist side clearly used much more biblical texts to back up their claims than their opponents. I mean, it was ridiculous how much scripture Daniel Montgomery brought into his arguments. Timothy Paul Jones did entire expositions of texts. This encouraged me, being a Calvinist myself. It was encouraging to see each of them not only mentioning texts, but also explaining and interpreting them for us.

However, the Arminian side had some strengths too; though they had less scripture, the Arminians had better rhetoric and responses. What I mean is that both Fischer and Zahnd were able to respond to and critique the Calvinist side in a very persuasive manner (of course, persuasion doesn’t make you right — but it helps!). Contrastly, the Calvinist side didn’t really respond much. Instead, they mainly posited their positions. And for a debate, you have to be able to critique, pick apart, and see the arguments behind the arguments.

Weaknesses on each side?

As I said above, I thought the Calvinist side should have responded and critiqued the Arminian side much more than they did. There were several times when Fischer would contradict himself, or say something wrong, which the Calvinists never picked up on. For instance, Fischer asserted that none of the early church fathers were Calvinistic. This is a sore overstatement. The theological nuance of the early church fathers is still debated today. However, neither Montgomery nor Jones critiqued Fischer for that. Also, Fischer asserted that the only way Calvinists can believe that God is both good and completely sovereign is to ascribe mystery to the doctrines instead of explaining how they work. However, when Fischer described his doctrine of synergism, he repeatedly said it was a mystery, and never completely explained it! This, to me, was a sore misstep for Fischer. But, the Calvinist side never picked up on that either. I think Montgomery and Jones should have been much more critical of both Zahnd and Fischer.

The biggest weakness I saw on the Arminian side was the lack of scripture used in their arguments. What I mean is that they never really explained any biblical texts in depth. They may have spouted out a few texts here and there, but they never really considered the meaning or the context. For instance, Fischer started the first video by denying pretty harshly that God decreed or predestined anything. But for all the time he argued against predestination, he rarely brought in scripture. Also, when Zahnd began critiquing the idea of predestination, he insisted that the doctrine was inconsistent with “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. To him, Jesus’ teaching, life and death, (all those red letters … getting it?) was a more sure word then the Bible (in fact, he pitted the Bible against Jesus, which Jesus himself never did). Soon into the debate, it became obvious that Zahnd either questioned or denied the infallibility of the scriptures. Of course, I do want to recognize, Fischer did quote some texts here and there, especially during his synergism explanation. But he never really got deep into the texts. It’s easy enough to spout out a few verses that sound like they support your position. It’s altogether different to do an exposition of those verses, which the Calvinist side did a few times.

The bottom line: who won?

Here’s the issue with a debate like this. At the end of the day, the Calvinists (with whom I agree) held to the biblical inerrancy of scripture. And because of this, they argued not only from the red letters, but also in the rest of the Bible. And so they brought in a myriad of texts which supported the idea that predestination was in fact true. They brought in texts from the Old Testament, New Testament, epistles, and so on. They brought the whole gambit. And for that, they had a doctrine that really was supported by all of scripture. In the end, the Bible was their primary source.

However, from the Arminian side, it became more and more apparent that the Bible was a secondary source for them. For them, the true and trustworthy source was “the revelation of God in Jesus Christ”. Over and over, you would hear, “The God of Calvinism is incongruent with God as revealed in Jesus Christ”. However, and here’s my rub with the Arminians, they never really dug into the texts to support this idea. They never in-depth scriptural support, especially from the Old Testament, that the God as revealed in Jesus Christ was Arminian. Instead, they imported their own understanding of Christ into the Bible. They never considered texts like John 6, 8, 10, 17, and others, in which Jesus himself teaches predestination. They never considered the fact that Jesus came to do the will of his Father in heaven (Jn 6:38), which presupposes that Jesus came to accomplish a predestined redemption. The Arminians never brought these texts up. They couldn’t. Instead, they continued to repeat, “the God as revealed in Jesus Christ is incongruent with Calvinism”. To me, that really weakened their arguments. And it’s because their understanding of Jesus came first, and the Bible second.

Brian Zahnd says this much in a very eye-opening post, in which he says outright,

“The Old Testament is the inspired telling of the story of Israel coming to know their God. Along the way assumptions were made and they didn’t get everything right. Keep reading the Bible until you come to Jesus and then center your reading of all Scripture in the light of Christ”.

Do you see what he’s saying? It’s subtle, but here’s what he’s saying: If the Old Testament disagrees with your understanding of Jesus, reject it; it’s not reliable. Because after all, Israel made some bad “assumptions” along the way that we now know are wrong. Zahnd rejects the infallibility of the scriptures, and that affects his theology, including his theology of Christ and salvation. He imports an understanding of Jesus into the scriptures, picks and chooses what he likes from the Bible, and forms a theology from that. This is not healthy exegesis. Just in case you don’t believe me, here’s another post by Zahnd where he allows his understanding of Christ to lead to an utter denial of substitutionary atonement.

It’s pretty obvious to me that the Calvinist side won, no problem. If you don’t use the Bible to form your doctrine, your doctrine will always inform the way you read your Bible. What’s at stake in this entire debate is the Bible, not simply Calvinism or Arminianism. And I’ll side with the Bible all day long.

Revival vs. Revivalism

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Doug Wilson contrasts the difference between what a revival is, and what revivalism is. He says,

Revival, which is a gift of God, has been turned into a work of man through theological confusion. The result is revivalism, not revival…

In a true revival, doctrine is the emphasis, and the doctrine is God-centered. In revivalism,… man is [at] the center, [and] feelings are emphasized. In [true] revival, truth overwhelms the mind, resulting in an emotional response — inexpressible joy. In revivalism, the emotions are excited directly, and any number of teachings, true or false, can do that…

In a true revival, the change in the moral behavior of those blessed is significant and lasting. With revivalism, very little is done to teach the people to restrain their passions. In fact, because the “revival” encourages a lack of restraint in the church, it is not long before a lack of restraint is evident elsewhere, usually in the area of sexual immorality (1)

I couldn’t agree more with Wilson. Revivalism is about emotions, the show, the lights and the smoke. But it is all mustered up. It is all planned, without any consideration that God’s Spirit is the One who brings about real revival.

But, in true revival, God is at the center, with healthy teaching, and a biblical emphasis. And true revival is brought about through the Word and prayer by God’s Spirit, bringing about conviction, salvation, and passionate repentance. 

For more consideration of this, here is a great conversation between Keller and Carson on revival. Some great thoughts here:

(1) Easy Chairs, Hard WordsDoug Wilson

Gluten-free Intolerant?

Here’s a fun little video to start the discussion found below…

This video is hilarious. And it really does represent a growing trend among people trying to eat healthier. There’s this thought that going gluten-free will somehow make you healthier. Gluten does not make you fat (although pastries with gluten can!). It’s a myth.

But this does not mean that all people who eat gluten-free are just ignorant foodies who’ve been duped by yet another diet trend. I want to be very clear: some people cannot eat gluten. And it’s not that they don’t like gluten. It’s not that they are just trying to be healthier. It’s that their body simply cannot digest it.

But as a result of these two types of people, there’s been this mixed community of people that eat gluten-free. Some are fad-foodies that don’t even know what gluten is (much like the other food trends: low-fat, no-carb, etc). But others have been diagnosed by real doctors, have a legitimate issue, and / or need to eat gluten free.

And what I’ve noticed is that non-gluten-free people have begun to bash the entire gluten-free community because of the “food-fad” group. And while the aim of this “bashing” is toward the fakers, I’ve also noticed that people with real dietary issues have come under fire too. Some people legitimately cannot process / digest it, and it causes all sorts of problems with their bodies. And now they have to, because of no fault of their own, eat gluten free. Why must gluten-intolerant / celiac people come under fire because some within the group are fakers?

Here’s my point: if you have been bashing the gluten-free trend, you are not only accusing the fakers; you are also being intolerant toward those who are legitimately gluten-intolerant.

For instance, my wife is highly gluten-intolerant. When we were first engaged, if she ever ate gluten, she would turn pale-white, have flu-like symptoms, and be restricted to her bed for a day or two. She spent months going to doctors, trying to figure why in the world her body would react this way. Finally, after a myriad of tests, the doctors told her to take gluten out of her diet. There was a 100% difference in just a few weeks. As a result, it’s pretty clear she has real issues with gluten. And when you make accusations that gluten-free is just a fad, you are inadvertently being insensitive to her (and others like her) real struggles. This is why I’m so passionate about this. My wife is so much better simply because she stopped eating gluten. It turns out her body just cannot and will not process gluten. Why? We really don’t know. But I know that her strength is back, her symptoms are gone, and she has a normal life (apart from being gluten-free of course) because of it.

And here’s another thing. I simply do not understand why Christians are getting all up into arms about the gluten-free stuff. What does it matter? For instance, there’s this incredibly strange article telling all gluten-free dieters that they worship a false god. And while I can appreciate that the article is aiming to expose companies looking to make a pretty penny off of the gluten-free fad, it is still lumping gluten-intolerant people into the discussion. And to make it worse, the author downplays those who legitimately suffer from gluten-intolerance: “Celiac disease affects about one percent of Americans. Even the more murky ‘gluten sensitivity’ applies, at best, to six percent of the population”. This article ends saying, “we’re just being sold products…In truth, all we’re getting is something that looks like a bagel but tastes like false hope”. Wow — gluten-free false hope (well, except for 1% of the population). Or, just maybe, there are legitimate issues that people have with this protein called gluten? I think so. 

And as a Christian, here’s my rub. There are several instances where dietary issues and the like are addressed by Paul. And in none of these instances does Paul denounce any type of diet. While Paul does admit that all food is made by God and profitable for eating (1 Cor 10:26), he also tells Christians that some won’t want to eat certain foods for various reasons, and that it’s ok for them not to (Rom 14:6)! And this means that if someone wants to eat gluten-free, let them! Just because you realize that eating gluten-free is pointless for some doesn’t mean you should dictate their diet. In fact, Paul tells us that when it comes to dietary issues like this, Christians should neither judge nor despise their brother (Rom 14:10). Besides this, does it really matter if eating gluten-free really only benefits a small percent of the population? Aren’t we all free in the Lord with regard to conscience issues? What point are we really trying to make here?

Another passage that comes to mind with this whole thing is Matthew 13:24-30. This is a passage where Christ reveals that within the church there will inevitably be fakers; some professed Christians will simply be pretending. In the passage, Christ tells a parable, comparing the church to a field of wheat mingled with weeds. What makes it more complicated is that the weeds look all too similar to the wheat. In the parable, the farmers ask each other, “should we try to pick out the weeds amongst the wheat?”. To this question, another farmer says, “No, lest in gathering the weeds you root up the wheat along with them” (Mt 13:24-30). I find so much wisdom in this parable. If we aim for the fakers, we will do harm to genuine. This is what I find happening so much in whole gluten-free debate. I know my wife (and others) has often been offended by people’s insensitivity to her real issue, simply because they are after the foodies.

I’m all for constructive critique of food fads. I myself get annoyed at all the low-fat foods I see all over the place. But I really want us, especially as Christians, to be sensitive to the real needs of gluten-intolerant people. If we aren’t sensitive to their needs, we easily compound the entire issue, and become gluten-free intolerant.