Doing theology starts with the assumption that the Church is right

As it would be the height of folly, on one’s first arrival in Switzerland, to make it appear that he is the first to investigate the Berner Oberland, since common sense compels him on the contrary to begin his journey by making inquiry among the guides of the country, the same is true here. In its rich and many-sided life, extending across so many ages, the Church tells you at once what fallible interpretations you need no longer try, and what interpretation on the other hand offers you the best chances for success. On this ground the claim must be put, that the investigator of the Holy Scriptures shall take account of what history and the life of the Church teaches concerning the general points of view, from which to start his investigation, and which paths it is useless to further reconnoitre.

…The investigator does not stand outside of the Church, but is himself a member of it. Hence into his own consciousness there is interwoven the historic consciousness of his Church. In this historic consciousness of his Church he finds not merely the tradition of theologians and the data by which to form an estimate of the results of their studies, but also the confessional utterances of the Church. And this implies more. These utterances of his Church do not consist of the interpretation of one or another theologian, but of the ripest fruit of a spiritual and dogmatic strife, battled through by a whole circle of confessors in violent combat, which enlightened their spiritual sense, sharpened their judgment, and stimulated their perception of the truth; which fruit, moreover, has been handed down to him by the Church through its divinely appointed organs. It will not do, therefore, to place these dogmatic utterances on the same plane with the opinions of individual theologians. In a much deeper sense, they provide a guarantee for freedom from error, and he who belongs to such a Church has himself been moulded in part by them. This gives rise to the demand, that every theologian shall, in his investigations, reckon with all those things that are taught him by the history of the churches concerning well and badly chosen paths in this territory to be investigated; and, also, in the second place, that he shall take the dogmas of his Church as his guide, and that he shall not diverge from them until he is compelled to do this by the Word of God. Hence, one should not begin by doubting everything, and by experimenting to see whether on the ground of his own investigation he arrives at the same point where the confession of his Church stands; but, on the contrary, he should start out from the assumption that his Church is right, while at the same time he should investigate it, and only oppose it when he finds himself compelled to do so by the Word of God.

– Abraham Kuyper, Sacred Theology, 252-253.

Bavinck on Jesus and politics

One of the factors that shapes how you understand Jesus’ words in the Gospels is recognising when he is speaking to his disciples, and when he is not. This is particularly significant for how Jesus’ words are employed in the service of politics and economics.

In his essay, ‘Christian Principles and Social Relationships’, in Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, the Dutch theologian, Herman Bavinck, notes quite simply that Jesus doesn’t do politics. He ‘leaves all political and social circumstances and relationships for what they are; he never intervenes in any of this, either by word or action’ (130). Despite what many anticipated the Messiah to be and do, Jesus has no revolutionary inclination, instead demonstrating an acceptance of the established order. Rather, Bavinck writes, Jesus’ purpose was to come ‘into the world to save his people from their sins, to serve and to give his soul as a ransom for many’ (131). This has a significant bearing on how we understand Jesus’ teaching:

In teaching his disciples, Jesus wants to raise their standard of judgement to this level. To understand his teaching, we must note before all else that Jesus never developed a political or social agenda…it is not a lesson in politics or economy, no agenda of principles or of action. Christ’s teaching is totally of a religious-moral nature; it is not intended for the state, for society, but is directed to his disciples and indicates how they are to conduct themselves in their private lives (131-132).

As a case in point, Bavinck points to the Sermon on the Mount, which is regularly employed by those who wish to co-opt Jesus for political causes. Jesus here does not address social concerns; his teaching instead is ‘dominated completely by the contrast between the righteousness that God requires and that which the Pharisees in Jesus’ day demanded’ (132). This is why it is so important to recognise when Jesus’ is specifically teaching his disciples, because he never gives them a ‘direct command to become involved socially or politically’. Rather, in his instruction of his disciples, ‘the so-called passive virtues of self-denial and long-suffering, of humility and love are so prominent’ (132).  And that is because ‘the true following of Christ…is found in the inner conversion of the heart’ (131). Jesus doesn’t teach his disciples how to be better citizens in this world. He teaches them how to live the new life that he brings.

Bavinck’s concern is to avoid conflating any sort of political or societal order with the kingdom of God. This is a temptation when the imposition of a new order is seen as an outworking of the gospel and the teaching and work of Christ. But Jesus is perfectly clear: ‘The only way to enter the kingdom of heaven, which is available to all, is by way of regeneration, an inner change, faith, conversion. No nationality, no gender, no social standing, no class, no wealth or poverty, no freedom or slavery has any preferences here’ (140).

That said, ‘it is a different question…whether one can learn something from [Jesus’] teaching for the organisation of state and society’ (131). And while that is not the concern of his essay, Bavinck is clear that there are certainly things Jesus taught that can be brought to bear on the structures of society. But the point is that the gospel does not give us a new political order; instead, it effects change in a different way:

Although the gospel left everything unchanged in the natural relationships, it nevertheless preached a principle so deep and rich and extraordinarily powerful that is was bound to exert a reforming influence on all earthly circumstances. [But] the gospel has to be understood clearly. It must be accepted the way it presents itself without turning it into a political or social system, and then it will reveal its permeating power (140).

Bavinck certainly expects that the gospel will have an influence on society (that, incidentally, is the focus of a recent book by Nick Spencer, of Theos Think Tank), and the fact that he was a key part of institutions like universities, an academy of arts and sciences, and a member of the Dutch parliament testifies to this. But he is clear that the gospel itself is not about implementing tax laws that favour the poor or creating welfare states or raising standards of living or, indeed, any sort of political revolution. Rather,

The gospel is exclusively directed to the redemption from sin…the gospel shuns every revolution… The gospel, on the other hand, always works reformationally. It creates the greatest reformation by setting people free from guilt, renewing the heart, and thus in principle restoring the right relationship of man to God. And so from this centre it influences all earthly relationships in a reforming and renewing way… Precisely because the gospel only opposes sin, it opposes it always and everywhere in the heart and the head, in the eye and in the hand, in family and society, in science and art, in government and subjects, in rich and poor, for all sin is unrighteousness, trespassing of God’s law, and corruption of nature. But by liberating all social circumstances and relationships from sin, the gospel tries to restore them all according to the will of God and make them fulfil their own nature (142-143).

There is much more to say here, not least about the concept of sphere sovereignty, of which Bavinck is a major proponent. But for now, it is important to note that Bavinck is not advocating the idea that a reformation of society is simply about converting people, as some evangelicals are wont to suggest, in reaction to those who make Jesus to identify with a modern political system. Rather, this is simply about recognising the distinction between the content of the gospel, and the implications of the gospel.

‘The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost,’ Jesus says (Luke 19:10). That is what the gospel is all about. But the implications of that gospel stretch much further, as renewed people set to work renewing all that has been broken by sin in the various places and institutions to which they are called.

John Webster on the Church’s relationship to the triune God

‘How do we move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of the Church?’ John Webster asks in his book, Holiness (54). That the life of God and the life of the Church are intimately connected is without question, but Webster seeks clarity on that relationship, particularly given the way social trinitarianism has been used ‘for our understanding of human common life, both politically and in the Church’ (54). He writes,

The relatedness of Father, Son and Spirit is canvassed as the ground or model for the Church, and the Church is therefore conceived as the realisation in time of the human vocation to society, and so as the social extension of reconciliation through its gracious participation in the triune life of God (54-55).

While acknowledging there is much to say on this, Webster admits to two hesitations with social trinitarian theologies. The first is that it gives ‘insufficient attention to the free majesty of God’ and his perfection and sheer distinction from his creatures (55). But he continues:

A second, related, hesitation concerns the way in which such accounts of the Church’s relation to the triune life of God betray a drift into divine immanence. This can be seen in the way in which such ecclesiologies characteristically stress the continuity between the action of God and the action of the Church, in a manner which can easily jeopardise our sense of the freedom and perfection of God’s work. Such ecclesiologies can place excessive emphasis upon the Church as agent, and, correspondingly, underplay the passivity which is at the heart of the Church as a creature of divine grace. For if the being of the Church is a participation in the life of the triune divine society, then it is in the work of the Church that the work of the triune God finds its realisation, and, in an important sense, its continuation. In effect, this constitutes an orientation in ecclesiology that makes the work of the Church an actualisation of or sharing in the divine presence and action, rather than a testimony to that presence and action (55, emphasis mine).

The concern Webster has here in relation to his subject is that we do not lose sight of that fact that the holy life of the Church is entirely an act of grace, something which the ‘social trinitarian language of participation, [as it] emphasises the continuity, even coinherence, of divine and ecclesial action’, can obscure (56). Suggesting there is wisdom in continuing to speak of the Church’s sanctity as something ‘alien’, Webster concludes,

The Church is holy…not by virtue of some ontological participation in the divine holiness, but by virtue of its calling by God, its reception of the divine benefits, and its obedience in faith. Like its unity, its catholicity and its apostolicity, the Church’s holiness is that which it is by virtue of its sheer contingency upon the mercy of God (57).

John Webster on why God makes us holy

As I noted in a previous post, John Webster, in his book, Holiness, argues that one of the purposes of theology is to lead the Church into the praise of God. Readers will therefore find themselves deeply encouraged in many ways throughout the book by Webster’s theology. This is particularly true of his chapter on the holiness of God, where he speaks of God’s ‘undefeated determination that the creature will flourish and reach its end’ (49).

Webster notes that sin has locked us into ‘the absurd affair in which the creature seeks to be a creature in a way other than that which is purposed by God’ (49). We live in such a way that we seek to destroy ourselves. But, Webster writes, God will not stand for this. He refuses ‘to negotiate away the creature’s good by allowing the creature itself to set the terms on which it will live’ (50). God wills for us to live according to his purposes.

The language of purpose carries throughout the discussion; God is determined that we will fulfil our purpose as his creatures. And for that to happen, we must be made holy. But this is not something God does from afar, as if he just waves a magic wand and purifies us so that we can stand in his presence. Rather, God binds himself to us in covenant faithfulness. The Father wills for himself a people, and through the Son, makes it possible for us not just to come into his presence, but to share in his righteousness, to flourish in the life he always purposed for us. Webster continues:

God’s holiness destroys wickedness for the same reason that we human beings destroy disease: because it attacks the creature’s flourishing and is opposed to our well-being. And as the end of the eradication of disease is health, so the end of the eradication of unholiness is the creature’s consecration, that is, the creature’s wholesome life in righteous fellowship with God (50).

God is jealous for our fellowship with him. He does not reluctantly make us holy, but determinedly does so. The Father longs for his people to be in fellowship with him, and makes that possible through the work of the Son, the benefits of which are then applied to us by the Spirit:

The Holy Spirit…completes this work of making holy, perfecting the creature by binding the creature’s life into that of Christ and so realising in the creature what has been achieved for the creature (52).

God makes us holy because he longs for us to flourish in fellowship with him. Here is a theology that leads to praise.

Benedict XVI on the Church of tomorrow

From the crisis of today the Church of tomorrow will emerge—a Church that has lost much. She will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. She will no longer be able to inhabit many of the edifices she built in prosperity. As the number of her adherents diminishes, so will she lose many of her social privileges. In contrast to an earlier age, she will be seen much more as a voluntary society, entered only by free decision. As a small society, she will make much bigger demands on the initiative of her individual members. Undoubtedly she will discover new forms of ministry and will ordain to the priesthood approved Christians who pursue some profession. In many smaller congregations or in self-contained social groups, pastoral care will normally be provided in this fashion. Alongside this, the full-time ministry of the priesthood will be indispensable as formerly. But in all of the changes at which one might guess, the Church will find her essence afresh and with full conviction in that which was always at her center: faith in the triune God, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God made man, in the presence of the Spirit until the end of the world. In faith and prayer she will again recognize her true center and experience the sacraments again as the worship of God and not as a subject of liturgical scholarship.

The Church will be a more spiritual Church, not presuming upon a political mandate, flirting as little with the Left as with the Right. It will be hard going for the Church, for the process of crystallization and clarification will cost her much valuable energy. It will make her poor and cause her to become the Church of the meek. The process will be all the more arduous, for sectarian narrow-mindedness as well as pompous self-will will have to be shed. One may predict that all of this will take time. The process will be long and wearisome as was the road from the false progressivism on the eve of the French Revolution—when a bishop might be thought smart if he made fun of dogmas and even insinuated that the existence of God was by no means certain—to the renewal of the nineteenth century. But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.

And so it seems certain to me that the Church is facing very hard times. The real crisis has scarcely begun. We will have to count on terrific upheavals. But I am equally certain about what will remain at the end: not the Church of the political cult…but the Church of faith. She may well no longer be the dominant social power to the extent that she was until recently; but she will enjoy a fresh blossoming and be seen as man’s home, where he will find life and hope beyond death.

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Ratzinger), Faith and the Future, 116-118.

John Webster on the task of theology

The late John Webster begins his book, Holiness, with some notes on the task of theology:

What is the task of theology…? When it is not overtaken by arbitrariness or self-confidence or scepticism about its object, theology takes its part in the work of edifying the Church. It does not do this by its own unaided powers, but by bearing witness to the risen Christ who speaks his word… The particular task of theology is to attest the truth of the gospel in the wake of Christ’s own self-attestation. Theology edifies by testifying to the gospel as promise and claim. In the Church’s theological work, the gospel is articulated as the norm of the Church’s praise, confession and action, and the ground of the Church’s understanding of nature and human history. As it seeks to articulate the gospel in the sanctorum communio, theology concentrates on two fundamental tasks, namely exegesis and dogmatics. Exegesis is of supremely critical importance, because the chief instrument through which Christ publishes the gospel is Holy Scripture… Dogmatics is complementary but strictly subordinate to the exegetical task…it seeks simply to produce a set of flexible accounts of the essential content of the gospel as it is found in Holy Scripture, with the aim of informing, guiding and correcting the Church’s reading (3-4).

He adds:

Dogmatics is often caricatured as the unholy science that reduces the practices of piety to lifeless propositions. But far from it: dogmatics is that delightful activity in which the Church praises God by ordering its thinking towards the gospel of Christ (8).

Webster’s constant emphasis on theology being the Church’s work is refreshing, as is the his assertion that the end of theology is our collective praise of God.

A new blog

Borrowing the title from my previous blog, I’ve decided to start a new blog. This blog will be devoted exclusively to notes on things I’m reading, quotes of interest and, very occasionally, a book review.

This comes as a result of making some changes to how I use social media. Having experimented with sharing links on Facebook, I am returning to my previous practice of  linking to them on Twitter, at which point they are automatically archived on Tumblr. From this point forwards, Facebook will be used entirely for personal purposes.

As for this blog, I make no promise of regular posting; it is merely a place to think out loud. Should you wish to, you are, of course, most welcome to follow along.