Ecological Folly and Ecclesiastical Disasters

PCA pastor Jason Stellman recently made an interesting distinction in his ongoing interaction with Roman Catholicism, specifically its claims about apostolic succession:

There’s a difference between an historical phenomenon and its theological significance…

…Now I’ll probably take some heat for this concession, but I will come out and admit that I think apostolic succession is more plausible than not. I mean, whether or not the early church invested the practice with as much significance as Catholics today do, my guess is that the church in Rome was at one time led by Peter, and it has had a leader from then to now, which means that the historical claim is actually true (think about it: this is far more likely than that every bishop simultaneously died at some point in history, and then after a bit of time passed, some random group of people decided to restart Christianity by ordaining themselves).

But again, if the historical phenomenon is one thing but its theological significance is another, then we don’t have to put ourselves in the unenviable position of having to disprove something that everyone in the church supposedly believed for the first 1,500 years of her history. Rather, we can simply say, “Yeah, and…?” In other words, the fact that apostolic succession may have taken place is not enough to prove that it is therefore normative. “Is” does not imply “ought.”

And recently, Outhouse interlocutor Paul Manata made an appearance on the radio broadcast Ordinary Means. It should be admitted that Manata does a satisfactory job basically laying out some useful categories for how different outlooks understand the relation between Christ and culture, or perhaps better, the believer and his relation to the wider world. Even if he took tortured issue with my trying to distinguish between “participation” and “transformation,” it appears those were at least good enough categories to use on the show. But toward the end of the interview Manata is asked about his favorable take on Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. Quoth he:

It shows that the early church was a lot more transformationalist than maybe two kingdom people would want to admit. The early church was involved and tried to make positive changes and was noted for making positive changes to society when everyone else was backing away, the pagans were backing away. You know, there were calls for non-Christians to try to keep up with what the Christians were doing, because the Christians were putting everyone to shame in terms of when plagues would come through and how they would care for people, their treatment of women, their views on abortion and a lot of cultural questions of the day that they took a specific stand on and they tried to change things…they thought that certain cultural views on women should be changed…just because you see these examples nothing follows straight away from that to any transformationalist conclusion, but what it shows is that non-transformationalist view wasn’t obvious from the Bible…Stark shows that Christians were a lot more engaged in transforming and changing culture rather than just being participators.

To his credit, Manata is careful to point out that certain historical phenomenon don’t make the decisive case for what could be deemed transformationalism. Despite such caveats, the tone still seems to be more decisively anti-spirituality of the church. But even if Manata is leaving transformationalism to fend for itself he still helps point out what is involved in typical worldviewism. The gist is, “Look, see the church making culture back there? That’s what we should be doing here.”  It seems based on the presumption that whatever happened in history is somehow more or less normative for the present day. This isn’t at all to diminish the necessity of historical argument of course, rather it is question the idea that just because the church stepped in to make culture at some point in history it means that it is what the church ought to do in every place and in every time. Or, as Stellman asks the Catholic claims of apostolic succession, does “did” imply “ought”?

It is dubious the claim that somehow the world stopped making culture, since that is what man is naturally hard-wired to do, as in the cultural mandate. But let’s suppose it is true that, just like bees one day stopped making honey and ants decided to take up that worthy task, the world stopped making culture and the church stepped in. What about the Great Commission? What part of teach, baptize and discipline includes multiply, fill the earth and subdue it? Sure, it can be admitted that history bears out that the church chimed in culturally, but if it’s true that there is a difference between an historical phenomenon and its theological significance then, just as we ask our Roman Catholic friends in their claims to apostolic succession, we may ask our worldview friends, “Yeah, and…?”

The parallels between Protestant assumptions of worldviewism and Roman Catholic claims about apostolic succession continue. The suggestion that the church is called to at least as much cultural mandate as Great Commission seems to be the ecclesiological version of the soteriological claim that faith is great but justification also includes works. If, as confessional Protestantism claims contra Roman Catholicism, the individual person is called to faith alone apart from works then it isn’t clear why the corporate church is called to both the Great Commission and the cultural mandate. To the extent that the cultural mandate falls into the category of law and the Great Commission into that of gospel, this seems to be a variant of the confusion of law and gospel. Proverbs tells us to learn from the wisdom of ant. At least one the things ants don’t do is make honey. To suggest that the church has some burden on her to make culture not only seems like conflating faith and works (which is bad enough), but to make it a little more accessible and down-to-earth, it’s a bit like expecting ants to get busy making honey. That might be a neat idea in the drawing boards of a child’s mind, but those more serious about ecological callings and functions know that is to entertain folly at best and to invite disaster at worst.

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This entry was posted in Culture, Ecclesiology, History, Law/Gospel Distinction, Protestantism/Catholicism, Spirituality of the Church, Two-kingdoms. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Ecological Folly and Ecclesiastical Disasters

  1. RubeRad says:

    Hey, PM on OM — gotta download that and give it a listen!

  2. RubeRad says:

    If, as confessional Protestantism claims contra Roman Catholicism, the individual person is called to faith alone apart from works

    But the individual person is also called to works (Eph 2:10) — more generally, we are called to sanctification — after, different than, and over and above justification, but certainly we are not called to justification alone.

    What part of teach, baptize and discipline includes multiply, fill the earth and subdue it?

    The transformationalist sez “teach them to obey all I have commanded”

    The early church was involved and tried to make positive changes and was noted for making positive changes to society

    I need to listen to the OM, but what I want to know is whether this involvement happened between call to worship and benediction, or between benediction and call to worship. I realize that question may be liturgically anachronistic, but what I mean is, was it an organic outworking of sanctification and service to neighbor? Or was it driven directly from the pulpit, an activity of the institutional church itself?

  3. Zrim says:

    But the individual person is also called to works (Eph 2:10)…

    Yes, of course, the point being made assumes that while we are called to faith alone we are called to a faith that is not alone. Catholics scoff at this formulation, which seems similar to how worldviewers scoff at the idea that, while the church is called to the Great Commission alone, her members are called to participate in the cultural mandate, not transform the world. As the Catholic wants to collapse faith and works, the worldviewer wants to collapse the GC and the CM without making more careful distinctions between either the categories of law and gospel, but also the institutional church and the individual. And out pops something about how the church made culture in history when maybe it was just individuals participating.

    …what I mean is, was it an organic outworking of sanctification and service to neighbor? Or was it driven directly from the pulpit, an activity of the institutional church itself?

    My guess is that it was probably both. I mean, if we can say that there were proto-Catholic and proto-Protestant construals of justification in history, why not the same thing for eccleisiogical outlooks? Maybe some of what we see in history was the result of a more individual/participatory outlook, and some from an institutional/transformational one. The question isn’t so much, What happened in history but rather, Which is more biblical?

  4. Paul says:

    Rube,

    There were some extenuating circumstances that undercut my performance in that inerview, just so you know. I let Zrim know abou them. Nothing big, but I certainly wasn’t on my A game, if you will.

    Zrim,

    >>Even if he took tortured issue with my trying to distinguish between “participation” and “transformation<<

    I still take issue :-); however, I know you don't and I was trying to give a charitable label.

  5. Paul says:

    >> need to listen to the OM, but what I want to know is whether this involvement happened between call to worship and benediction, or between benediction and call to worship.<<

    Part of the problem is that some of these guys were disciples of THE disciples. At worst, then, John wasn't teaching 2K; at best, his disciplies forgot real quick what he taught them. That's what the hyper-preterists say to account for continued belief in a second coming professed by the early church and THE discinples' disciples. If hyper-preterism were taught, we wouldn't expect to see that. Yeah, there are answers they can give to explain (away) the phenomena, but nevertheless, a way to judge a good theory is that we don’t find things we wouldn’t expect. So, the appeal to 1st century Christians is a tad more troublesome than pointing out, say, medeival transformationalists.

  6. RubeRad says:

    Fine, but that doesn’t address my question. Is your historical evidence made up of sermon texts, “official” pronouncements of the church toward the state, etc.? Or is it a record of how Christians served their neighbors during the week, not as the institution of the Church per se? Maybe both?

  7. Paul says:

    It was definately in the sense of church and also its members during the week. But of course, “churches” were much different then than they are today. There are also “official” pronoundements against the state, esp. in the area of abortion, by early fathers and early apologists. Indeed, there were also official prounoncements by the state to the pagan populace. They were put to shame so badly that they needed to order the pagan people to keep up with the works of the Christians. Moreover, there were “Christian” parts of town. Graffiti was big back then and was the way the local population would advertise business, etc., in an illiterate culture. There was a lot of Christian graffiti that would indicate certain neighborhoods and shops as Christian. Then, other Christians would move into these areas and also frequent the Christian businesses rather than pagan ones.

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