Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The Shape Of Things To Come: Wright Amidst Emerging Ecclesiologies(Begbie)

Years ago I downloaded the audio files of papers presented at the Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (2010 Wheaton Theological Conference). I am ashamed to admit that I never had the chance to listen to them. Until now. There they stayed on my iPhone waiting for God's perfect time. Earlier this week, when I was working out, the random shuffle began to play one of the papers. Although I was annoyed and would have preferred mind-relaxing music, I decided to listen. I found it relevant and timely. Worshiping with some of the new worshiping communities (new church plants) in our Presbytery of Los Ranchos  has been, over the last year, my joy and privilege. The paper on emerging churches by Jeremy Begbie, a Biblical scholar and systematic theologian at Duke University, describes "The Shape of Things To Come" and it is something I am watching unfold in real life. Although it is a 2010 conference paper - five years old - I thought it most pertinent for all that is happening now in our life together as the people of God too and so I share it. I must also admit that only the Holy Spirit can do something like this. Recently, I was asked "Why is church unity so important?" When I answer with Scripture (e.g. Jesus Unity prayer for his followers through the ages, Paul's Ephesians writings on the church as God's new society) and our Ordination vows (where unity comes before purity) I get shrugged off. Well, Begbie, also an ecclesiolgist (ecclesiology is the theological study of the Christian Church) touches on church unity as well. Unity is a Gospel-matter, he says along with Wright. Thus, his insight is valuable for all disciples of Jesus as when he notes "radical orthodoxy tends to resolve the identity and agency of Christ into the identity and agency of the Church..."

Begbie starts by sharing that N.T. Wright most strangely has become one of the top resources for emerging churches. The conference was held to honor the ministry of Wright. Begbie frames his comments around Tom Wright's (N.T. Wright) works defining the Church as one people of God brought into being by the Messiah and the Spirit. The people of God include the local church, emerging church, Visible & Invisible Church.

Begbie's comments are given below verbatim (not the entire paper though, just a part of it).

"Tom never tires of underscoring 'The Church can't be captive to divisions of race, gender and socio-economic standing. When Christ died and rose again,' he claims, 'he transformed the covenant people of God into a single world-wide family whose only defining badge is faith.  The very specific faith that Jesus is risen from the dead as Messiah and Lord of the world.' In and through the humanity of the new Adam then, a mode of relating has been made possible, free of the alienating boundaries that determine our current social life. In our own day perhaps it speaks mostly to the ideology of consumerism, allied to forces of social segmentation where the Church is reduced to a lifestyle enclave. With each local church an homogenous affinity group catering for a particular set of preferences, or more likely grievances.  Here lurks a critical danger for emerging church initiatives virtually all of which are culture group specific. Many such churches find it hard to mature to that further stage when the Word of the Cross and the Power of the Spirit forges a unique oneness that can only come from Christ crucified and risen.

I was taking a weekend in the church not so long ago. I was asked to take a music group of instrumentalists they'd gathered together and it was a group of about 50 instrumentalists. There were 2 synthesizers, there was a harp, 4 out of tune clarinets, a 13 year-old flutist, and a euphonium. Euphonium is like a tuba that hasn't been fed for a long time. ... And I thought nowhere else in western civilization would you ever, ever gather an orchestra like this. Which is the point. Only in the church, can that happen. And we ought to be proud of that.  We ought to be proud of that Who wants a symphony orchestra in the church? This is the challenge. You getting the point? That's ecclesiology.
...critique has been sharp of emerging churches ... I don't they think go to the Christological heart of the matter like Wright does pushing us to the awkward texts in the New Testament that refuse to talk of unity except in the context of the once for all-ness of the Cross and in the wider context of election and covenant. Only this can subvert the tendency to allow consumer choice to become the de facto foundation of Church unity. Relate to this the comment about the so called relational doctrines of the Church allied to highly social doctrines of the Trinity. Communion ecclesiology, as it is sometimes called... Emerging church writers very quickly gravitate to this outlook where the Church's relationality - its relatedness, members relating to each other - is seen as iconic of God's relationality. The Church as iconic of the Trinity. This pattern of thought is not absent in Tom's work but it is not prominent. Whatever the reasons his work highlights the hazards of such doctrines of the Church for all their strengths. Above all else the danger of interweaving divine and human communion without any mention of the Cross and without the sheer unspeakable horror of what God's reconciliation in Christ exposes and heals, I can enjoy being warmly relational with those I have chosen to be relational with and it is gratifying to think that I might be enjoying the Trinity in the process. But when I am thrown alongside someone I would never choose to spend any Sunday morning with let alone a week day simply by virtue of our common baptism, well at that point what Robert Bellarmine calls 'the narcissim of similarity needs to be cracked apart by cruciform realism.' And this is where Tom's vision bites and becomes very reminiscent of the late and great Leslie Newbigin who would be a hundred this year. I can almost hear Lesslie intoning, 'If the church is built on any profounder unity than that achieved at the Cross we are declaring that the principalities and powers still rule the world and the Church is powerless against them.' Sadly, this is a seam in Wright and Newbigin that is very largely ignored by emerging bloggers, anyhow, that I have found. And, I would prefer to ignore it as well. I stand accused of this as well.

One commentator recently observed that 'Although the emerging church movement in the UK may use the rhetoric of extensity, outreach, engaging the culture and all the rest of it, often it finds itself composed largely of groups of the "like-minded" relatively disengaged from local communities.' This is a constant danger and most of the leaders of the movement are well aware of this danger... Tom offers us a way forward.

That is qualitative catholicity. Now, extensive catholicity, the extension of the Church.

Here the specter of institutionalism emerges. For in order to embody and ensure some degree of church unity on a large scale institutional arrangements will be necessary. And two extremes seem to me me to lie in wait. On the one hand, seeing visible unity as exclusively an institutional matter and on the other, a naive anti-institutionalism. Both have theological roots and Tom can help us with both...

Visible Unity ...the Thirty-Nine articles of the Anglican faith don't mention the Invisible Church ... giving the impression that the visibility of the church has been reduced to its institution. Catholicity which includes all the saints, those who had died in the faith is not taken into account... As with many modern Protestants, institutional expansion tends to be seen as the enemy. Oversized ecclesiastical officialdom. Swollen theologies of the ordained ministry. Smothering denominational structures. And so on. And there's huge suspicion of the ecumenical movement. Pursuing church unity on the large scale quickly gets tarnished by oppressive interests leading to a deadening central control and a numbing uniformity. God save us from an ecclesiastical Microsoft. ... But the resistance to institutions can be a wonderful way of avoiding the painful challenge of unity. Put bluntly visible unity is not just an institutional matter, it is a Gospel matter, something Tom repeatedly declares. To be baptized into Christ is to be intrinsically linked to all baptized persons who at the most fundamental level have been pulled together by virtue of the Cross, Resurrection and Spirit. This should generate a sense of not only all we can receive from others we may never have met and might never want to meet, but also a sense of costly obligation of the sort we find Paul urging in connection with the Jerusalem connection, you remember, which Tom describes, I quote, 'a major element in Paul's practical strategy for creating and sustaining the one family of God redefined around the Messiah and the Spirit' unquote. What's more a Gospel-driven unity will always work against homogeneity for it is energized by a reconciliation of the unlike and a Spirit driven flourishing of difference within the body. Now, without this sense of extensive catholicity, we're left with a church made up of a constellation of homogenous grouping whose relatedness to each other is seen as an entirely institutional matter best left to middle-aged clerics who like committee meetings. Gently, I suggest that the emerging church movement has not seen this danger sufficiently. And Tom offers them a way to head it off effectively. As we say in England, kick it into touch. That's a rugby metaphor ...

And so to the other extreme, naive anti-institutionalism. Wright is clearly not one who shirks institutional involvement...  Leslie Newbigin's claim that the 'local church is the hermeneutic of the Gospel' may be applauded by the emerging church but Newbigin's decades long work for unity sometimes in the most constipated of settings is quietly forgotten. It is one thing to asset that the Church Catholic is not institutionally founded. Quiet another to say that the Church can somehow be exempt from ordinary and mundane patterns of human association and thus, from stable structures of social interaction."


2010 Wheaton Theology Conference. URL:

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